Legionnaires on Leave or Looking for Leisure

Whether a Roman legionnaire during the first century or an American soldier in 2016, people are people—as a species, we’re inclined toward leisure activities. As active military members today are awarded periodic leave from the battlefield, so too were Roman legionnaires. As today’s soldiers devise distractions to pass the time between tours (and undoubtedly indulge in a little debauchery to take the edge off after days of intense training or active combat), Roman legionnaires too sought a little R&R between martial responsibilities.

Gaming, Gambling, and Girls: Vice in Ancient Rome

“So intense was the Roman love for games of hazard,” said Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani, “that whenever I excavate the pavement of a portico, of a basilica, of a bath, or any flat surface of accessible to the public, I have always found gaming tables engraved or scratched on the marble or stone slabs [see figure 1], for the amusement of the idle men, always ready to cheat each other out their money” (98). These gaming tables are found in most excavated Roman barracks—as far away from the empire’s heart as Numidia and Mauritania—and many soldiers appear to have taken these heavy tables with them when units relocated (99).


Fig. 1. Floor tile incised with lines for use as a game board, with various bone game counters, excavated from Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). Reading Museum. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_board_game_from_Silchester.jpg

Paintings from Pompeii depict games of dice and those involving chess piece-like objects. Playing boards often exhibit boastful graffiti (e.g., “If you have a chance in your favor, I will win by skill”), as well as graffiti inviting members to play and others warning against such vice (Lanciani 99; “Romans”). Lanciani states that Roman taverns were frequented more often by gamblers than drinkers, remarking, “Mercury was worshipped in those dens more than Bacchus” (99).
Even Emperor Augustus was an admitted gambler, as were Claudius; Caligula (though, this should come as no surprise); and, above all, Lucius Verus—and, yes, the pastime was illegal in most parts of the empire (102-104). Lanciani mentions that emperors would wager sesterces (quarter denarii) in amounts that would equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in modern American currency.
If the riches won in games of chance didn’t slake a traveling legionnaire’s thirst for pleasure, should he be more interested in that of the carnal variety, prostitution was rampant across Rome—sex cubicles beneath the arches of countless buildings, elegant brothels (see figure 2), even women who conducted their sexual business in cemeteries and in tombs for legionnaire clientele who liked their eroticism a little macabrely charged (Matyszak 93-95).


Fig. 2. Roman work, c. 1st century CE, likely a prostitute with her lover. Glyptothek Munic. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Symplegma_prostitute_Glyptothek_Munich.jpg

When in Rome

Seeing the sights

Legionnaires visiting the Roman capitol would first have to orient themselves to the seven distinct hills that made up the city. The Quirinal Hill, home to Rome’s middle-class citizenry and once hometown of Emperor Vespasian, features the Forum, as well as “…the finest shopping arcades” (Matyszak 26). On the Capitoline Hill, west of the Quirinal, was “…the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus Optimus Maximus—Jupiter of the Capitoline Hill: Best and Greatest,” which was rebuilt time and time again between the reign of the Tarquins and that of Domitian (29).

On the adjacent peak, the Arx, existed both the temple of Juno and the auguraculum, where Rome’s priests and mystics came to divine the will of the gods by observing the patterns of birds in flight or shooting stars (29). Near here existed the Tarpeian Rock, the infamous height from which the city’s “criminals and traitors” would be flung to their deaths—a cheap, thrilling spectacle, albeit a little barbaric (29).

Location, location, location

Finding accommodations while visiting could be accomplished by either staying with a hospes—a friend who had invited lodging at their town house—or by locating vacancies to be rented out by the day, the week, or (if the sordid need arose) by the hour (31). To the east of the Quirinal, along the Esquiline Hill, travelers could find reasonable accommodations at the top of the slope but would have been wise to avoid traveling further downhill, as it was held to be one of Rome’s rougher neighborhoods—a kind of Classical Mediterranean Detroit, if you will (27).

Your Chariot Awaits

For spectacles both gruesome and grand, Legionnaires visiting Rome could find no greater displays than in the Colosseum or the Circus. These mesmerizing blood sports—namely gladiatorial matches and chariot races—were so popular that the Colosseum was constructed to accommodate around 50,000 audience members, the Circus Maximus five times as many (“Prometheus”). But for those less inclined toward the savage delights of the arenas, theater was also alive and well in Rome, though most of the Classical Attic Dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles still performed in their traditional Greek language, so less-schooled visitors would have been better off attending the performances of the more contemporary Latin playwrights, like Terence and Plautus (Matyszak 90-91).

A Long Soak in a Large Tub

Common across the Roman world were both thermae (large-scale, imperial bath complexes) and balneae (small-scale, common bath complexes) (“Thermae”). While serving an obvious utilitarian function, these complexes were also centers of socialization. These complexes were luxurious and multifaceted, the modern equivalent being “…a combination of a library, art gallery, mall, restaurant, gym, and spa” (“Thermae”). Some housed ancient scrolls and masterpieces of sculpture and employed masseurs and masseuses as well; ancient Romans believed wealth was achieved through eating, exercising, and enjoying massages—and bathing (“Thermae”).


Figure 3. The Roman Baths at Bath, England. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_bath,_Bath,_England.jpg

Works Cited

Luciani, Rudolfo. “Gambling and Cheating in Ancient Rome.” The North American Review 155.448 (1892): 97-105. Print.

Matyszak, Phillip. Rome on Five Denarii a Day. London: Thames and Hudson (2008). Print.

“Prometheus Unbound.” Santitaferella.wordpress.com. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Romans: Leisure.” BBC.co.uk. BBC. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.

“Thermae.” Wikipedia.com. Wikipedia. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s