Sports Through the Ages Sports in the Ancient World

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Sports Through the Ages

Sports in the Ancient World

People, as athletes and as spectators, have enjoyed sports for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, sports were an important part of religious practice. Every New Year, the Greeks put on athletic festivals that celebrated the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one. For the Greeks, the games were a showcase of athletic skill and competition. The athletes were free citizens of the Greek city-states. Some of them were even aristocrats.

The ancient Romans had a very different view of sports. For Rome, the games were about entertaining the empire’s huge numbers of citizens. The most popular sports were chariot racing and gladiator fighting. Over the years, the Romans built huge stadiums and arenas to hold the thousands of spectators who flocked to the sporting events. Spectator sports were so important to the Romans that they built arenas in regions they conquered. Romans thought that sharing sports entertainment united the people they conquered. These public arenas also served as tools for political power. The spectator sports entertained the people so they would not think about rebellion. The results of the brutal sports also showed the people what would happen to them should they decide to rebel.

Races Then and Now

Chariot races were by far the most popular spectator sport for the Romans. People of all classes and incomes enjoyed watching the races. Chariot races were first held in large, grassy fields. The chariots raced in a large oval. As the races grew in popularity, Roman leaders built bigger, more permanent arenas. One of the biggest was the Circus Maximus in Rome. It could hold 170,000 people. The arenas were so huge that 12 chariot teams, with four horses each, could race at one time.

Chariot racing reached its peak in popularity in about 300 BCE. At that time, Romans enjoyed 24 races per day, 66 days per year. Similar to modern-day horse races, Romans loved to bet on the winners of the races. Ancient Romans bet on horses, chariot drivers, and teams of charioteers. The races became an important industry in Rome. Businesses, called factions, owned the different teams. They paid for the horses, charioteers, and stables, similar to the way that individuals and groups today own racehorses and pay for the trainers, stables, and jockeys.

Chariot racing shares some other similarities with sports of today. Many of the actual elements of chariot racing are like modern-day horse and car racing. All involve a person with a means of transportation, as well as winners and losers. Today, thousands of fans gather at famous racetracks around the world to bet on horses and enjoy the races. The Kentucky Derby, for example, is a top story on the news each year. Millions watch the horse race on television, cheering on their favorite horse and jockey. Every year, fans also follow the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR races. Car racing is truly an entertainment sport, created by owners for the enjoyment of mass audiences.

Ancient and Modern-Day Gladiators

A more violent form of sports entertainment in ancient Rome was the battle of the gladiators. The participants in these Roman games were very different from their Greek counterparts. Instead of being citizens, the Roman gladiators were mostly enslaved people, prisoners, or criminals. Roman games emphasized violence, not skill. The people of Rome came to watch competitors fight to the death, against one another and against animals.

Gladiator combat took place in huge arenas called amphitheaters. One of the biggest and most legendary was the Colosseum. Its ruins still stand in Rome. The Colosseum was a huge, elaborate setting for the bloody spectacles that the Romans enjoyed. It seated 50,000 people. The rows of seats were arranged according to class, with the wealthy and upper classes getting the best seats, followed by the middle-class audience. The seats of the poor, lower-class people were at the very top of the stadium, what we might call the “nosebleed” section today. Just as today, money and connections could score front-row seats, while those with less had to settle for being far away from the action.

Gladiators took part in contests that included anywhere from 100 to more than 5,000 combatants. Once in the arena, the gladiators usually fought to the death. If one of the gladiators was injured but not dead, his fate was sometimes decided by the emperor. The emperor would give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to indicate the gladiator’s fate.

The Colosseum and other arenas also hosted wild animal fights, and even staged “hunts.” Wild lions, elephants, and other creatures fought one another to the death. Sometimes, the wild animals were let out of their cages to attack unarmed slaves or criminals who were tied up. Sometimes gladiators hunted the animals. Often, the wild animals were starved to make them even more vicious.

Today’s mixed martial arts events have a few similarities to the mass spectacles of ancient Rome. Both were conducted for the entertainment of the people. The modern sport used to boast that it had no rules, somewhat similar to the fights in the Colosseum. Athletes participating today’s events use a variety of martial arts moves. Because the rules are not strict, fans of the sport often watch opponents engage in brutal and bloody fights. Although the goal is not death, as in ancient gladiator fights, the sport has led to serious injury and death. Mixed martial arts are banned in some states. Some mixed martial arts fights take place in a cage, hinting that there is no escape for the participants, just as most ancient Roman fighters had no choice or means of escape. Today, millions of people pay to watch mixed martial arts fights in person or on pay per view television.

Are We More Like the Ancient Romans Than We Think?

It may be hard for people today to understand why the ancient Romans found mortal combat entertaining. However, the comparisons between certain ancient Roman sports and those of the modern era are clear. Some high school and college football teams are even called the Gladiators. Certainly, there were, and still are, many sports with little or no physical contact. The ancient Greeks competed in many track and field events that we still compete in today as Olympic sports. Given the wide array of sports, it is worth pondering why societies still enjoy sports that involve physical harm.


Questions- After reading the passage, answer the following questions.

Multiple Choice: (2 points each)

1. What sport was watched in the Circus Maximus?

A. wrestling

B. chariot racing

C. running

D. fighting

2. What were the backgrounds of most gladiators?

A. They were military recruits.

B. They were free men.

C. They were members of the upper classes.

D. They were enslaved people, criminals, and prisoners.

Short Answer: (8 points)

Compare ancient Roman sports to modern-day sports. How have they changed? How have they remained the same? Use details from the passage and your own prior knowledge to support your answer.

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