Ludi Posted by on Dec 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

Ludi refers to the mass games held to entertain the Roman public. There were many different kinds of ludi. For instance ludi compitalicii (crossroads games) were games held at the intersection of neighborhoods. These games were hosted by neighborhood communities and guilds, which involved members of the plebian class, slaves and freedmen.

Other ludi included venationes, which were hunting games. Exotic animals like lions, tigers, and elephants were imported from Africa and Syria. If the crowd was especially bloodthirsty, the emperor would allow the ritual of Damnatio ad bestias. Damnatio ad bestias was a punishment were a human being would be left in the ring with a savage animal. The person condemned to this punishment was often maimed or eaten to death by the animal. Usually the people who died in this manner were bestiarii (majority being condemned criminals) or humiliores (Roman citizens of low birth). The difference between venationes and the gladiator games were that the gladiators were often armed with weapons when fighting wild beasts. Oftentimes in the venationes, the person was unarmed and ill trained to fight, which often resulted in that person’s death. In between the blood filled acts, trained animals like dogs and birds would perform tricks to make the crowd laugh.

The ludi was not always just about blood and death. There were other entertainments like theatrical performances, chariot and horse races, and athletic contests. Originally the ludi were performed as part of a religious ceremony to appease the gods. However over time the ludi became a social mechanism to control the large populace of Rome. The ludi were often held by emperors and other wealthy and influential men who aspired to obtain the goodwill of the people. The ludi ensured that the public would not revolt, even when conditions (like grain shortage) threatened the harmony of the Empire.

This is where the term panem et circenses (bread and circuses) comes from. Basically panem et circenses refers to the superficial and temporary appeasement of the public to gain widespread approval. The phrase “bread and circuses” is still used today to refer to governments that use measures like tax cuts or social expansion programs that are too costly and are used to obtain votes in the next election.

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