Social Meeting Places in Ancient Roman Life

The Colosseum housed the gladiator games, a key Roman social event.
... Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images

Ancient Roman society was hierarchical and rigorously class-based, divided according to wealth, legal status, citizenship, age and gender. What united all Romans, though, was the emphasis on social activity. On the streets of Rome, people of all classes intermingled freely. They gathered at public meeting places to conduct business, discuss politics, exercise, bathe, eat, drink and enjoy a variety of entertainments.

1 The Forum

The hub of all commercial, civic and social life in ancient Rome was a public plaza called the Forum. It consisted of a rectangular, open marketplace surrounded by religious sanctuaries, government buildings, shops and aristocratic homes. Initially, the Forum served as a location for everything from buying flowers or shopping for jewelry to hearing a political speech or attending a funeral. Later in the Roman Empire, the Forum became less of an open bazaar and more of a religious and political center.

2 Public Baths

Ancient Romans of every social class visited the baths each afternoon. At the baths, they circulated and interacted with other Romans; they chatted while exercising, washing and soaking. Public baths were important centers of social activity, not merely places to bathe. In the fifth century A.D., Rome had nearly 900 bathhouses. The typical public bath facility was a multipurpose complex, including a swimming pool, sauna, exercise yard, community center, restaurant, bar and entertainment venue featuring musicians and other performers.

3 Roman Theaters

For plays and other scenic entertainment, ancient Romans went to the theater. The earliest Latin theatrical works were adaptations of Greek comedies and tragedies, staged in the second century B.C. Pantomimes, often with salacious subject matter, became popular in later centuries. The main events were the ludi, annual religious festivals organized and funded by the government. Before 55 B.C., Roman theaters were temporary structures, built for specific productions. In that year, Pompey the Great, rival of Julius Caesar, erected the first permanent theater in Rome. Unlike the Forum and baths, where Romans mingled together, theaters observed strict rules of segregation and audience seating was arranged by social status.

4 Amphitheater Spectacles

Spectacles such as gladiatorial combats and exotic animal slaughters were a highlight of social life in ancient Rome. They were prototypically Roman, not borrowed from Greek examples. The amphitheater also presented public executions as entertainment. Gladiators may have originated in Rome as early as the fourth century B.C. As with Roman theatricals, early gladiator games were held in makeshift structures. The first permanent amphitheater in Rome was built in 29 B.C. Destroyed by fire in the first century A.D., it was replaced by the Colosseum, which remains one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. In 325 A.D., the emperor Constantine outlawed gladiatorial combat, declaring that it was too bloodthirsty. Evidence shows, however, that the sport continued for at least another hundred years.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.