Ancient Games


There are sports that have been played for centuries, many of them strongly based on violence where the participants were often prisoners or slaves and needed to fight until their death. During the first naumachia games, given by Emperor Caesar, 6000 prisoners of war had to fight to their death. The somewhat less bloody Gladiator games, also from the Roman Empire saw competitors fight not only with other gladiators, but also with convicted criminals and wild animals.

Many ancient sports are still played today at events such as The Olympics and The Highland Games, which includes competitions in caber toss, hammer throwing and sheaf toss.

Highland Games

Highland games are events held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage, especially that of the Scottish Highlands. Certain aspects of the games are so well known as to have become emblematic of Scotland, such as the bagpipes, the kilt, and the heavy events, especially the caber toss. While centred on competitions in piping and drumming, dancing, and Scottish heavy athletics, the games also include entertainment and exhibits related to other aspects of Scottish and Gaelic culture.

It is reported in numerous books and Highland games programs, that King Malcolm III of Scotland, in the 11th century, summoned contestants to a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich. King Malcolm III created this foot race in order to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger. Some see this event to be the origin of today’s modern Highland Games.

Naumachia Games

The first known naumachia was given by Julius Caesar in Romein 46 BC. The naumachia, literally meaning “naval combat”, was an occasion of his quadruple triumph. After having a basin dug near the Tiber, he made 2000 combatants and 4000 rowers, all prisoners of war, fight. The naumachia was a bloodier show than gladiatorial combat, the combatants were frequently those on death row and did not have any specialised combat training.

In 52 AD, Emperor Claudius gave a naumachia on a natural body of water, Lake Fucino, to celebrate the completion of drainage work and tunnelling on the site.

Through the choreography of combat, the naumachia had the ability to represent historical or pseudo-historical themes. Each of the fleets participating represented a maritime power, for Caesar the fleets were of Ancient Greece or the Hellenistic east: Egyptians and the Tyrians.

The Ancient Olympics

According to tradition the Ancient Olympics were first held in 776 B.C and then continued to be held every four years, or olympiad, until 394 AD when they were banned by Emperor Theodosius I who felt the games were unchristian!

To participate in the games you had to be a male citizen of a Greek state. Women weren't allowed even in the audience, but they could sponsor the chariot races and thus become winners. It wasn't the charioteer who was counted as the winner, but rather the owner of the chariot and horses.

The first Olympics featured only one event: the Stadion sprint measuring the length of the racing stadium which was about 180 to 240 metres. Soon other races were added where more laps of the stadium were added. Over the years other events were added like the long jump, racing in armour, wrestling, boxing, javelin and discus.

Unlike the modern Olympics there were no prizes for the runner-ups. The winner took all the glory and received an olive branch as their prize. Winners were often honoured in other ways though - in poetry and art, but also in goods and cash from their governments.

Gladiator Games

A gladiator was an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empirein violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked their legal and social standing and their lives by appearing in the arena. Most were despised as slaves, schooled under harsh conditions, socially marginalised, and segregated even in death.

The origin of gladiatorial combat is open to debate. There is evidence of it in funeral rites during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE. Thereafter it rapidly became an essential feature of politics and of the social life in the Roman world. The popularity of the combat led to its use in more lavish and costly spectacles called “gladiatorial games”.

The games reached their peak between the 1st century BCE and the 2ndcentury CE. Finally, they declined during the early 5th century after the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the 390s, “beast hunts” however, were continued into the 6th century.