As already mentioned, Emperors quickly realised the value of these shows as a political tool to ingratiate the public. As such, a number of valid excuses could be found to celebrate, such as a military triumph after a war, a particular victory, a birth-day or death, the opening of a public building and so on.
The costs of the event would be at the organiser’s own expense.
The Amphitheater offered a variety of shows which ranged from fights with or between wild animals to trained animal acts, capital punishments en masse, Gladiatorial combat including women and dwarfs as well as hardened fighters and even naval battles called naumachiae.
In terms of scenery the naumachiae were an extreme but it was quite usual for the arena to be done up like a stage set representing a desert or forest scene for example.
On the day of Titus’ inauguration of the Colosseum over 10,000 animals of all sorts were presented. Hippopotami, Crocodiles, Wolves, Giraffes and so on were all made to parade, some of them dressed up in caricature of famous persons.
The morning session would come to a stop at about mid day when the sun was at its highest and shining directly through the oval window left by the roof sails. As has already been mentioned everything was free, so the spectators would have their free lunch and wine (mixed with water) at this point, probably entertained by music and other entertainments. Some even brought pass-times along like dice. Music was played on a number of different instruments amongst which we remark a water powered organ. A similar sort of instrument may now be heard at the Tivoli gardens near Rome although this one was designed during the Renaissance and only recently restored.
It was during the “quiet” lunch time session that Seneca is said to have witnessed what he termed the most sordid and meaningless killing of men.
These preliminaries would then be followed by the proper Gladiatorial fights where amidst loud cheering and shouting pairs of fighters would melee to the death. More is said about the form of Gladiatorial fights below. The shows would last well into the evening and possibly into the night.
The length of the games and the number of sessions varied through history but as a general trend tended to get longer and longer as successive emperors attempted to keep the mind of the people occupied and off the gradual downfall of the empire. The number of combatants also tended to increase with time.
What is possibly most amazing is the organisation and sheer flow of men and beasts coming from all over the Empire in order to feed the voracity of such an event. There must have been a real trade in wild animals from across the Empire and not surprisingly various species were reduced to extinction.