Leisure in the Ancient World

By Tim Lambert

Egyptian Games

For entertainment the Egyptians loved parties. If a rich person invited you to a feast, singers, musicians, dancers, jugglers, wrestlers, and jesters would entertain you. Musicians played wooden flutes, harps, lutes, drums, and clappers. At a rich person’s banquet, guests were given a cone of perfumed fat to put on their heads. It slowly melted leaving the wearer smelling nice.

Egyptians also loved hunting and fishing. (For the rich hunting was for pleasure. For the poor it was for food). Men caught birds with nets or by throwing curved sticks. Fish were caught with hooks or harpoons. Men and women went swimming. Men also enjoyed boxing, wrestling, and archery. They also played a game that involved standing on a boat and trying to knock the opposing team into the water with a stick. Egyptians also played a board game called senet. The board was divided into squares with counters. You threw sticks rather than dice.

Egyptian children played similar games to the ones children play today. They also played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, balls, marbles, spinning tops, and knucklebones (which were thrown like dice).

Greek Games

The Olympic Games

Athletic competitions were held during religious festivals in every Greek city. However, the Olympic Games began in Olympia in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, the chief god and people came from all over Greece and the Greek colonies to take part in them. Wars stopped to allow everyone to take part. Athletes competed in boxing, wrestling, running, horse racing, chariot racing, and the pentathlon (five athletic events). Winners were not given medals. Instead, they were given a crown of leaves.

Women were not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. However, women had their own games dedicated to the goddess Hera (wife of Zeus). The Heraean games were held once every 4 years.

Greek Theater

The Greeks are famous for drama. Theater probably began with a group of people called a chorus singing and dancing in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. Then about 534 BC, a man named Thespis added a single actor to the chorus. A second actor was added then a third. Eventually, the three actors stood on a stage while the chorus stood in the foreground and commented on the action. All actors were male and they wore masks. The audience sat in tiers of seats in a semi-circle. (Our word theater is derived from the Greek word theatron, which means the place where people listen).

The Greeks invented tragedy in which some great person is destroyed not by wickedness but through error. They also wrote comedies. (Our word comedy comes from the Greek word for merrymaking, Komoidia).

A Greek Ampitheater

Roman Games

In Roman towns, an important building was the public baths. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. Roman Baths consisted of a frigidarium or cold room, a Tepidarium or warm room, and a caldarium or hot room. You usually finished with a dip in a cold pool.

To clean themselves Romans rubbed their skin with oil and scraped it off with a tool called a strigil. Larger towns also had an amphitheater where ‘sports’ such as cockfighting were held and sometimes gladiators fought to the death. Some Roman towns also had theaters. In Rome, there was a great amphitheater called the Coliseum. It was built in 80 AD and could hold as many as 55,000 people. A sunshade or velarium could be unfurled over the heads of the spectators.

The people of Rome were also very fond of chariot racing. There were four teams, greens, blues, reds, and whites. Their supporters who often gambled on the outcomes of races treated the charioteers as heroes. However, being a charioteer was dangerous and often ended in early death.

The Romans gambled with dice. They also played board games. Roman children played games with wooden or clay dolls and hoops. They also played ball games and board games. They also played with toy carts and with animal knucklebones.