Ancient History and

Exploring the Ancient Past

Gladiators and Games

By Natasha Sheldon

Gladiatorial games and wild beast hunts were an important part of the cultural life of Pompeii, as graffiti and election posters demonstrates.


Graffiti and election posters on buildings and tombs show the Roman games were as popular in Pompeii as elsewhere in the roman world. Playing on enthusiasm for the games, local politicians used them to win support, paying for lavish spectacles involving gladiators and wild beast. So passionate were the Pompeian’s about the games, they even caused a riot.


The Games and Politics.


Dipinti were electoral posters painted in red and black on the plaster facades of Pompeii’s buildings. They are a common find in Pompeii as the year of Vesuvius’s eruption was also an election year. They show that local politicians tried to win support at elections by paying for and staging games for the town’s citizens. Over 70 posters have been found in Pompeii, giving details of the spectacles, where they would be held and who was paying for them.


Gladiators and animals were not all the patrons of the games paid for. As an added incentive, they would also pay for the spectator’s comfort. Some posters mention how water would be sprinkled on the crowd to cool them or awnings paid for to shade them from the sun.


By drawing attention to the provision of such amenities, the patron was highlighting his generosity to the voters. Obviously, they were not a regular part of the show and came at extra cost.


Popularity of the Games.


The Pompeian’s had an appetite for the blood and violence of the games. An advert for spectacles financed by the Pompeian magistrate Cn. Alleius Nigidus Maius assured the populace that his games would include ‘fights without intervals’.


The frequency of the games also supports the idea of a thirst for violent entertainment in Pompeii. Posters and graffiti in Pompeii from the year of the eruption show demonstrate that September, October and December were the only months when games were not held in the city. There was at least one set of games held in every other month, except for May and November when several sets of games were staged in the town. If there were no games in Pompeii, supporters could travel to other towns.


Venues for the Games.


The games would have originally been held in the forum before the amphitheatre was constructed by Roman colonists in the first century BC. Even after the amphitheatre was constructed, the forum was still used as a venue. Advertisements for games given in 1 BC by Aulus Clodius Flaccus stated that events would be held in the amphitheatre and the forum.


The games did not just consist of gladiatorial combat. Posters show that spectators could also expect to watch bull fights, boxing matches and hunts of wild animals such as boars and bears.


The Riot with Nuceria.


In 59AD the Pompeian’s lost the right to hold games in their town after a riot in the arena with rival fans from the nearby town of Nuceria. Several Nucerians were killed. The senate in Rome was so outraged with the scandal that it imposed a ten year ban on Pompeii. This was repealed in 62AD, possibly in response to the earthquake that decimated the town or possibly because Poppea, wife of the emperor Nero and a native of Pompeii herself, interceded on her home town’s behalf.



 Dobbins, J J and Foss, P W (2007) The World of Pompeii.  Routledge: London and New York.

Pompeii: An Archaeological Guide. Istituto geografico de agostini

Cooley, A E and M G L, (2004), Pompeii: A Sourcebook. Routledge: London and New York

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