Ludi were a form of free entertainment at the expense of the State. They were divided into three categories:
- ludi scaenici (Dramatic entertainment performed in a theater)
- munera gladiatoria (Gladiatorial exhibitions performed in an amphitheater)
- ludi cirenses (exhibitions in a circus, including chariot races)
Races and gladiatorial shows were more popular than the plays. Shows were regularly put on during the religious holidays. While the republic flourished, there were a total of 66 holidays per year. However, at the time of Marcus Aurelius, there were 135 holidays per year.
There were four kinds of dramatic performances:
The latter two were considered the most popular.
Since Roman theaters had no lighting facilities, plays were given during daytime (originally, after the noon hour, but later, mostly in the morning). The average comedy required around two hours.
Each performance group had a manager, who was in charge of the actors (most often slaves), and the troop's customs. Most managers tried to have the least amount of actors possible; therefore, actors played many different characters within one play. One way to distinguish the characters was by their wigs:
- Gray wigs represented old men
- Black wigs represented young men
- Red wigs represented slaves
A manager usually rewarded his actors with a complementary dinner when a performance was unusually successful.
In early times, the theater was usually built at the bottom of a hill and the stage always represented a street with a few houses and an altar. In these kinds of stages, the comedies of famous writers such as Plautus and Terence were performed.
By the time of Pompey the Great, many temporary theaters were being built instead of the theaters at the bottom of grassy hills. Pompey built the first permanent theater in Campus Martius (55 B.C.). This theater was known as Pompey's Theater. In later years (13 B.C.), two other theaters were built, allowing better seating and more complicated plays.