As might be expected of a lively, sociable people, the Romans enjoyed a great variety of games and entertainments. Activities such as wrestling and ball games were indulged in by adults as much as children. Indeed, playing some form of ball game was one means by which a Roman gentleman might work up an appetite for dinner.
Dinner was itself a social occasion. Meals were eaten reclining on couches (though more modest ladies might prefer to sit on a chair), and often in the company of family and friends. We have an epigram of Martial in which he invites a friend to join him in a plain sort of meal, but in the company of good friends. After the meal, games might be played with dice (Augustus was fond of this diversion), or if it was a larger, more formal dinner, professional entertainers might be brought in. Banquets were popular, for they allowed the ostentatious display of luxury that might encourage allies or clients. In fact, expenditure at banquets was regulated for this reason, and an ancestor of Cornelius Sulla was punished for having more than the permitted maximum of gold plates.
Theatre had a long history in Rome, though the first semi-permanent theatre was built by Pompey only in 55 BC. Before this time theatres were temporary structures, often without seats – Roman sentiment at the time was that taking one's entertainment seated during the day was a sign of decadence.
Plays were performed at the great Roman games at which the Roman playwright Plautus saw his play Stichus performed in 200 BC. Even formal plays were enacted with few props, and writers had a preference for outdoor scenes which meant that they could be staged with any nearby building as a backdrop. Gladiatorial combats feature more in the modern imagination than they did in the entertainments of the Romans of the Republic. Until the very end of the Republic, gladiatorial combats were staged only at private functions, often as a part of the funerary rites of the deceased.
A more popular entertainment was the Circus games, the chariot races, held first at the Field of Mars, and later at the Circus Maximus, the great arena to the South of the Palatine which could hold 150,000 spectators. Admission for spectators to public spectacles was free. There were special seats for senators, and women and slaves probably had separate seats for themselves (at least this was the case in the Imperial period).
On a less formal level board games were popular enough to be etched into city pavements. The rwo favourites were “twelve lines”, which seems to have been a form of backgammon, and “robber”, a game in which pieces were moved and taken, rather as in chess.
Plan of Pompey's theatre, Rome, on an ancient plan of the city of Rome called the Forma Urbis Romae which was once attached to a wall in the Temple of Peace. Sadly only fragments of this amazing map survive.
Mosaic of new comedy characters, first century BC, signed by Dioscurides of Samos and from the "Villa of Cicero", Pompeii. Cicero is indeed known to have owned property in Pompeii, but it is by no means certain that he owned the villa that now bears his name.
A banquet depicted in a wallpainting from Pompeii. In this scene the guests can be seen reclining on couches while being attended to by servant boys. Both men and women took part in banquets which were an important aspect of Roman social life.
Relief showing a chariot race: the Romans supported various teams with passionate enthusiasm. The races were keenly contested and often included some spectacular crashes.