Religious Aspects of Roman Games


Finding elements of religion in the Games certainly is not difficult to do. Often, the very existence of a given set of Games was predicated upon religious reasons. Theories abound on the presence of religion, from simple religious dedication of Games to a continuing version of human sacrifice. Through their many facets Games often were a microcosm of Roman life (Plass 42), and as such would not be complete without exposing spectators to some degree of piousness. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the Games, one could look at them as Rome's version of a good old-fashioned revival at which religion was the real reason for all the festivity. We know that two major types of Games existed: annual Games, and votive Games specifically designed to please gods when great danger was facing Rome (Piganiol 76) -- although at almost any kind of game rulers would stand amongst statues of gods as to reinforce the importance of piety to Roman citizens (Piganiol 139). Roman gods could be divided further into fairly simple distinctions of good gods and bad gods. According to the theologian Labeo (who divided the gods into good and bad categories), festivities honoring each kind of god were easy to distinguish. Ludi and joyous festivals were the tributes paid to kind and pleasant deities, while bloody Games and sacrifices were used to call the powers of mean-spirited gods (Piganiol 142). Therefore, while harvest gods were to be pleased via good-natured spectacles at which chariot racing would suffice, cruel gods would be appeased only through death: "Les jeux sont donc celebres princi-palement en l'honneur des dieux infernaux, des dieux agraires, des dieux qui meurent et ressuscitent et aussi -- ce serait le cas de Poseidon et de Neptune -- des dieux cruels qui veulent des victimes humaines" (Piganiol 144). This appears to be a reasonable assertion; good-natured spirits such as Ceres would be well-served by relatively happy-go-lucky Ludi, while gods of war whose violent powers Rome wished to invoke would be pleased by the spillage of blood.

Apollo, 1st century BCE


The religious aspect of Games sometimes was a bit less routine for the Romans than methodically praising Ceres for a good harvest or asking Jupiter for victory, as occurred at Games held during the Second Punic War (Piganiol 79). By modern standards, the spiritual crises of Romans verged on the truly bizarre. The Ludi Taureiquinquennales of 25-26 June were, according to Festus, established to honor the gods of the underworld (Scullard 156). Through these Games Rome showed itself to be a stickler for the rules laid out in the Book of Fate during the reign of Tarquinus Superbus (Scullard 156), but not simply for lack of innovation. Rather, they believed that following traditional rules to the letter would please the gods and thus cure "...pregnant women [who] had been stricken with a plague" (Scullard 156). In a similarly peculiar religious anecdote of Roman Games, Scullard writes of how the Taurian Games of 186 BCE were extended to a total of twenty days. The first ten consisted of the usual fare of actors, athletes, and animal hunts; the next nine were set aside for a special feast; and the final day was reserved by the pontiffs for a day of prayer declared by them because the Temple of Ops on the Capital had been struck by lightning. However, verbal appeals to the gods apparently were not good enough for Romans who wished for absolution for what modern-day people would call an accident: "consuls atoned for this [incident] with full-grown victims and purified the city." (Scullard 156). Clearly Romans had, in comparison to the modern world, a highly unusual view of how a combination of revelry, blood, and religion could ensure greatness and longevity of power.

According to one historian, the Roman penchant for blood sport had at least as much to do with spiritual redemption as with electioneering or satisfying the appetite of a bloodthirsty populace. Piganiol claims that munera were a survival of blatant human sacrifice, a continuing practice with the goal of purifying Rome and binding its citizens together through a ritual (Piganiol 126-127). Gladiators were the thinly-veiled substitutes for outright sacrifice. Their deaths, theorizes Piganiol, could bring salvation to the Roman people as a whole (Piganiol 129). However, one must understand that human sacrifices were not deemed constantly necessary. Rather, following Rome's obsession with death and the underworld, munera through both the Republic and the Empire always were linked to deaths of significant individuals (Piganiol 135). The glorification of important persons through patently religious activities such as sacrifice was the true goal of munera, and this is evidenced by the fact that gladiators rarely were accorded special honors for winning. Rather, it was the spillage of blood and subsequent dying that Rome really cared about, not gladiatorial skill (Piganiol 135-136). An interesting element of classism enters

Pantheon, Imperial Rome

into Roman religious practices at this point. Munera were worth holding only for the deaths of VIPs, in order to please the caretakers of the underworld while respecting the memory of the dearly departed. Therefore, although munera were to honor the dead and not the gods specifically (Piganiol 135), the ancient practice of human sacrifice to please important entities survived to a surprisingly late date.

Games had religious significance not only through solidifying Rome's beliefs in its gods, but by uniting Christians against Rome. Simply put, the Christians thought that Games were devil's work: "la pompe de Satan etait essentiellement, pour les chretiens, la pompe du cirque" (Piganiol 140). Considering that these individuals often served as crispity-crunchety lion snacks during venationes -- a morning prelude to munera which involved unarmed people matched against wild animals (Plass 44) -- it is no wonder that members of the new religion were not exactly in favor of any sort of Games. Nonetheless, despite hating Greco-Roman sport, early Christian writings serve as proof of how ubiquitous Games were in Roman life through use of gaming metaphor (Poliakoff 144). It appears that Christians hoped to win converts through co-opting terminology of extremely popular Roman diversions. For example, in I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul writes: "`I box not like a shadow boxer... I bruise my body and bring it into subjugation'" (Poliakoff 144). In this way, Christians could use the Games they despised to illustrate their strengths of character and belief.
Graffiti of St. Peter in Roman catacombs

While worshipful aspects of the Games would not have been as obvious as gory battle scenes or politicians vying to take credit for well-planned spectacles, religion often was the core reason that Games took place. As time went on religion came to dictate rules, the identity of participants, and when Games would be held. It is not possible to shrug off the importance of religion to the Games, or to claim that it was merely a high-minded foil for bloodthirsty sport. Rather, religion helped originate and maintain the Games. It is even arguable that through the Christian connection, religion brought about their eventual fall from popularity after close to a thousand years.

Elizabeth D. Winslow
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