CHAPTER XV. HOLIDAYS AND AMUSEMENTS: THEATRE, CIRCUS, AMPHITHEATRE

These topics bring us naturally to the consideration of the chief amusements and entertainments of Rome and of those parts of the empire which were either fairly romanized or else contained a large number of resident Romans.

Holidays, some of them lasting over several days, were at this date liberally spread throughout the year. Most of them belonged to fixed dates, others were festivals specially proclaimed for victories or other causes of rejoicing. We may estimate their average number at Rome itself at about a hundred. At first sight this might indicate an astonishing waste of time and the prevalence of enormous indolence. But we must remember that the Romans had no such thing as Sunday. Our own Sundays and the weekly half-holidays make together seventy-eight days, and if to these we add the holidays at Christmas, Easter, and other Bank and public "closings," we shall find that our annual breaks in the working year are not very far from the Roman total, however differently they may be distributed. The difference between us and them lies rather in the way in which the holidays were employed. Originally the holidays did not imply any giving of shows and games in the way of chariot-races, gladiatorial combats, and the like. They were simply festivals of deities - of Flora, the goddess of flowers, Ceres, the goddess of crops, Apollo the god of light and healing, and other divinities - honoured by sacrifices, processions, and feasts. The feast of Saturn, for example, was at first held for only one day. Later it was extended over five and then over seven days, exactly as our Christmas celebrations - which are a Christian adaptation of it - tend virtually to spread over longer and longer periods. At this winter festival of the Saturnalia there was an interchange of presents - such as confectionery, game, articles of clothing, writing-tablets - and a general outburst of goodwill and merriment. For one day the slaves were allowed to put on the freeman's cap, the "cap of liberty," and to pretend to be the masters. This is the source of the mediaeval monkish custom of permitting one annual day of "misrule." Meanwhile the citizen threw off the toga and clad himself in colours as he chose. He played at dice publicly and with impunity. The cry of "Hurrah for the Saturnalia!" was heard everywhere. Later it became customary to hold public shows on these days, and the emperors gave gladiatorial games and acrobatic or dramatic entertainments, at which there were scrambled various objects, articles of food, coins or tickets entitling the holder to some gift which might be valuable, valueless, or comical. Similarly there was a holiday on New Year's Day, when presents were again interchanged, regularly including a small piece of money "for good luck." The gifts on this day frequently bore the inscription "a Happy and Prosperous New Year to you." Presents at all times played a prominent part in Roman etiquette and sociality. Not only were they given at holidays but also at all important domestic events. Even at a dinner-party, besides actual articles of food to be carried home, there were frequently gifts of a kind either expressly adapted to the recipient, or else drawn by a humorous lottery. Among numerous other articles of which one might be the recipient in various seasons and circumstances, there are mentioned books, pictures, tablets of ivory, wood, or parchment, cushions, mufflers, hats, hoods, sponges, soap, rings, flasks, baskets, musical instruments, balls, pens, lamps, tooth-picks, dice, money-boxes, satchels, parrots, magpies, and monkeys. On the Ides of March the poorer classes made their way to the Campus Martius beside the river, built themselves arbours or wigwams of boughs, and spent the day and evening in riotous song and jollity.

In general, however, the parts of these festivals to which the people looked forward with liveliest anticipation were those public entertainments, commonly known as "the games" or "sports," which were provided for them free of cost. The expense was theoretically borne by the state - whether from the exchequer of the emperor or from that of the senate and the state did indeed spend as much as six or eight thousand pounds upon a particular celebration. But, both in Rome itself and in the provinces, it was practically obligatory that the public officer who had charge of a given festival for the year should spend liberally of his own upon it. No man either at Rome or in a provincial city could permit himself to be elected to such a public position unless he was prepared to disburse a sum perhaps as large as the subvention given by the state. The more he gave, particularly if he introduced some striking or amusing addition to the ordinary shows, the more popular he became for the time being. In the Roman world you must pay for your ambitions, and this was the most approved way of paying. We might moralise over the enormous frivolity which could waste day after day thousands and thousands of pounds upon such transitory pleasures, instead of conferring lasting benefits in the way of hospitals or schools. But it is not the object of this book to moralise. We may feel confident that the Roman populace, if offered the choice, would have voted for the chariot-races or the gladiators, not for the college or the hospital.