According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In addition to gladiatorial contests, the amphitheater provided the venue for venationes, spectacles involving the slaughter of animals by trained hunters called venatores or bestiarii. Venationes were expensive to mount and hence served to advertise the wealth and generosity of the officials who sponsored them. The inclusion of exotic species (lions, panthers, rhinoceri, elephants, etc.) also demonstrated the vast reach of Roman dominion. [Source: Laura S. Klar, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2006, \^/]

“The resources that went into sustaining such an entertainment industry were colossal. For example, during the games held to celebrate the inauguration of the Colosseum in Rome, the Flavian emperor Titus (r. 79–81 A.D.) arranged to have 9,000 tame and wild animals of various kinds slaughtered in the arena. The spectacle went on for 100 days. Trajan (r. 98–117 A.D.) surpassed this record when, in order to celebrate his victory over the Dacians, he held games lasting 120 days, during which time some 11,000 animals were killed in the arena. [Source: Jacob Coley, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 2010, \^/]

“To the modern world, such wholesale slaughter of animals seems both cruel and unacceptable. However, this was merely part of life in a society where animals were regularly slaughtered in public. Not only were they sacrificed in large numbers during rituals and ceremonies to the gods, but their entrails were also openly inspected for signs and omens. Animals were also killed to provide meat in a way that was very different from the hygienic methods practiced today. \^/

How accurate were the numbers?. Nigel Spivey wrote The Guardian, “The inauguration of the Colosseum was allegedly celebrated by hunting shows involving the deaths of 9,000 exotic animals. But how feasible was it to capture elephants and rhinoceroses without sedative darts, transport them long distances, and finally cajole them to ferocity in front of a large crowd? Documentary evidence of the laborious zoological kidnap of a single hippotamus from the Upper Nile to Regent's Park in 1850 suggests that supplying the Colosseum with large quantities of interesting animals was a logistical challenge beyond even the Romans. [Source: Nigel Spivey, The Guardian, March 12, 2005 ^^]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

History of Roman Animals Spectacles

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“During the Republic (5th–1st century B.C.), animals were typically used for annual parades held in honor of the dead. Magistrates and wealthy individuals would stock the elaborate shows with native creatures. From birds to beasts, the animals would often be put on display, trained to perform tricks, and at times killed in staged hunts called venationes. [Source: Jacob Coley, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 2010, \^/]

“According to Pliny the Elder, the first venatio was held in 252 B.C., with elephants that had been captured in Sicily during the First Punic War. It was, however, during the intense political rivalries of the late Republic, focused around the extremely powerful and wealthy figures of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar, that Romans witnessed for the first time many foreign and exotic animals, especially crocodiles, hippopotami, tigers, lions, leopards, and other large quadrupeds from Africa. Over time, the sight of these creatures became less of a curiosity and more of a spectacle and was an expected component of every show. The demand generated an empire-wide industry with a large workforce that included hunters and captors, trainers and handlers, shippers and suppliers. \^/

“The prosperity and relative peace that the Roman world enjoyed under the Antonine (138–193 A.D.) and the Severan dynasties (193–235 A.D.) allowed the trade in animals for the games to flourish. Animals never before seen in the arena, such as the hyena, two-horned rhinoceros, and zebra, were introduced to the Roman public. In addition, emperors began using a variety of unique and innovative techniques to "present" the animals. For example, the emperor Commodus (r. 180–192 A.D.), known for his participation in the arena as a gladiator, was also an amateur venator and devised new methods for killing animals. According to the historian Herodian, the emperor invented crescent-shaped arrows to decapitate ostriches, thereby creating the spectacle of the birds running around headless. Likewise, to celebrate the tenth year of his reign, Septimius Severus (193–211 A.D.) had a model ship constructed inside the arena, which was made to look as if it had become shipwrecked and out of which 400 animals then emerged. These included lions, leopards, bears, and other wild animals, all of which were then done to death. \^/

“Finally, another literary source tells of a lavish two-day festival held in Rome by the emperor Probus (r. 276–282 A.D.). On the first day, the Circus Maximus was planted with trees and bushes made to resemble a forest, into which were released several thousand ostriches, stags, boars, gazelles, ibexes, wild sheep, and other herbivores. After their release, the spectators themselves were admitted to the race track and encouraged to hunt the animals. If true, it must have made for a very bizarre spectacle, especially as they were allowed to take their kills home as food. On the second day, the festivities moved to the Colosseum, where a further 400 lions and 300 bears were exhibited and killed. \^/

“During the fourth century A.D., the staging of gladiatorial and animal fights declined. This was in part because of changing social attitudes and the influence of the Christian church, but it was also a result of military and financial crises that affected the empire. Rome could no longer sustain the system that had in the past provided men and animals on a vast scale. Nevertheless, the popularity of animal hunts persisted; venatio shows may have been held until the end of the seventh century and scenes of hunting continued to be a favorite subject for artistic expression, especially on mosaic floors. Their depiction on wall paintings, mosaics, ceramics, silverware , glass, and other objects discovered at Rome and throughout the provinces vividly illustrates that animals used for both show and pleasure were an integral part of Roman life.” [Source: Jacob Coley, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 2010, \^/]

Bestiari: Men Who Fought Wild Animals

Bestiari were men tasked who fought dangerous wild animals such as bears, lions and wild boar in Ancient Rome to entertain the arena crowds. Karl Smallwood wrote in Listverse: “Because the majority of bestiari were prisoners of war or other such undesirables, they were almost always ill-equipped for the task of slaughtering a rampaging wild animal. In the highly unlikely event a bestiari actually managed to kill the animal he was forced to fight, another would almost certainly be let loose before he’d even finished celebrating. [Source: Karl Smallwood, Listverse, January 15, 2014 ]

“The ancient Greek philosopher Strabo once described the plight of a particularly unlucky bestiari who was first sentenced to be killed by a boar. When the boar accidentally fatally gored its handler, leaving the guards no choice but to kill it, a wild bear was brought in to the arena instead to kill the prisoner. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, the bear then refused to leave its cage, once again leaving the prisoner alive and the guards with the frustrating task of killing the bear. Not ones to be deterred, the Romans finally brought into the arena a caged leopard, which happily tore out the bestiari’s throat.

“Some people who fought against animals in the Colosseum were well-trained men and thought of it as a career.” But most “were unarmed criminals or prisoners of war who were thrown to the animals with virtually nothing to defend themselves. As you can imagine, such a fate was terrifying for even the most hardened of men. Many prisoners killed themselves with whatever they had on hand rather than risk being killed by whichever strange beasts lined up for the morning show.

“For example, one German prisoner killed himself by forcing a sponge down his own throat. And not just any sponge—this was a lavatory sponge that inmates used to wipe their anuses. Other stories involve prisoners making murder suicide pacts with each other, like the 29 Saxon prisoners who all fatally strangled one other to avoid death in the arena. How the last one alive managed to kill himself isn’t recorded, but considering “choking on a sponge of human excrement” was an option, we’re guessing it wasn’t pretty.”

Public Hunts in Ancient Rome

Karl Smallwood wrote in Listverse: “The killing of animals was usually left to trained professionals or unarmed prisoners. But on rare occasions, the general public got the chance to kill rare and exotic animals for their own enjoyment. [Source: Karl Smallwood, Listverse, January 15, 2014 ]

“Emperor Probus turned one of the most famous chariot racetracks in Rome, the Circus Maximus, into an actual forest around 280 AD. Into this forest, he released hundreds, if not thousands, of ibexes, sheep, ostriches, and other beasts.

“After the forest had been suitably filled with hapless herbivores, the public was then permitted to enter and hunt animals for fun. As a bonus, they could keep anything they killed. The following day, Probus had 400 lions and 300 bears stabbed to death, because the public apparently still wasn’t satisfied with all the free ostrich meat they’d received the day before.

Orpheus and The Bears and Rape of the Giraffes

Karl Smallwood wrote in Listverse: “According to legend, the hero Orpheus was a musician of such skill that he could charm all living things with nothing more than a lyre. The Romans loved this legend and tried to recreate it many, many times. They’d dress a condemned criminal up like Orpheus, give him a lyre, and then throw him into an arena full of angry bears, normally ones that had been starved or beaten. [Source: Karl Smallwood, Listverse, January 15, 2014 ]

“Sometimes, though, the Romans would put a further twist on the myth and crucify the man playing Orpheus before exposing him to the bear. Mostly, however, the Romans were a little more sporting and the criminal was free to defend himself with the lyre he’d been given. This went about as well as you’d expect. Then again, it could have been worse . . .

“Besides the bestiari, arena competitors included better-trained, voluntary fighters called “venatores.” Carpophorus is likely the most famous of them all. He once killed 20 wild beasts in a single day, straight-up strangling some of them to death. However, Carpophorus had another talent that we want to discuss today. Along with being an expert killer of animals, he was also a rather skilled trainer of them. Carpophorus trained multiple animals, including giraffes, to rape women. To accomplish this, Carpophorus would wait for female animals to be in heat so he could collect samples from them to arouse the male of the species. Carpophorus would then rub these samples against slaves or homeless women he’d tempted to the arena. According to one account, “Carpophorus used up several women before he got the animals properly trained.”

“The reasoning behind such madness was, like with the sad case of prisoners forced to dress as Orpheus, to reenact Greek or Roman myths. In particular, these involved Zeus, who liked to take the form of various animals before having his way with women. One story involves a woman accused of poisoning five being raped by a jackass, before Carpophorus ended the ordeal by releasing wild animals into the arena to ease her suffering.

Damnatio ad Bestias (Being Killed by Wild Animals)

Damnatio ad bestias (Latin for "condemnation to beasts") was a form of Roman capital punishment in which the condemned person was killed by wild animals in the arena. Unlike the betiarii, who were able to defend themselves to some degree, those condemned via damnatio ad bestias were either defenseless, tethered to one spot, or armed with only a wooden weapon. This form of execution, which first came to ancient Rome around the 2nd century B.C., was considered a type of blood sports called Bestiarii and regarded as entertainment for the lower classes of Rome. Killing by wild animals, such as lions, formed part of the inaugural games of the Colosseum in A.D. 80. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, this penalty was also applied to the worst criminals, runaway slaves, and Christians. [Source: Wikipedia +]

“The exact purpose of the early damnatio ad bestias is not known and might have been a religious sacrifice rather than a legal punishment, especially in the regions where lions existed naturally and were revered by the population, such as Africa and parts of Asia. As a punishment, damnatio ad bestias is mentioned by historians of Alexander's campaigns. For example, in Central Asia, a Macedonian named Lysimachus, who spoke before Alexander for a person condemned to death, was himself thrown to a lion, but overcame the beast with his bare hands and became one of Alexander's favorites. During the Mercenary War, Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca threw prisoners to the beasts, whereas Hannibal forced Romans captured in the Punic Wars to fight each other, and the survivors had to stand against elephants. +

Lions were rare in Ancient Rome, and human sacrifice was banned there by Numa Pompilius in the 7th century B.C., according to legend. Damnatio ad bestias appeared there not as a spiritual practice but rather a spectacle. In addition to lions, other animals were used for this purpose, including bears, leopards, Caspian tigers, and black panthers. It was combined with gladiatorial combat and was first featured at the Roman Forum and then transferred to the amphitheaters. +

The practice of damnatio ad bestias was abolished in Rome in A.D. 681. It was used once after that in the Byzantine Empire: in 1022, when several disgraced generals were arrested for plotting a conspiracy against emperor Basil II, they were imprisoned and their property seized, but the royal eunuch who assisted them was thrown to lions. Also, a bishop of Saare-Lääne was sentencing criminals to damnatio ad bestias at the Bishop's Castle in modern Estonia in the Middle Ages. +

Types of Damnatio ad Bestias

Whereas the term damnatio ad bestias is usually used in a broad sense, historians distinguish two subtypes: objicere bestiis (to devour by beasts) where the humans are defenseless, and damnatio ad bestias, where the punished are both expected and prepared to fight. In addition, there were professional beast fighters trained in special schools, such as the Roman Morning School, which received its name by the timing of the games. These schools taught not only fighting but also the behavior and taming of animals. The fighters were released into the arena dressed in a tunic and armed only with a spear (occasionally with a sword). They were sometimes assisted by venators (hunters), who used bows, spears and whips. Such group fights were not human executions but rather staged animal fighting and hunting. Various animals were used, such as hyena, elephant, wild boar, buffalo, bears, lions, tigers, bulls, wolves, and leopards. The first such staged hunting (Latin: venatio) featured lions and panthers, and was arranged by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 186 B.C. at the Circus Maximus. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The custom of submitting criminals to lions was brought to ancient Rome by two commanders, Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, who defeated the Macedonians in 186 B.C., and his son Scipio Aemilianus, who conquered the African city of Carthage in 146 B.C. It was borrowed from the Carthaginians and was originally applied to such criminals as defectors and deserters in public, its aim being to prevent crime through intimidation. It was rated as extremely useful and soon became a common procedure in Roman criminal law. The sentenced were tied to columns or thrown to the animals, practically defenseless (i.e. objicere bestiis). +

Some documented examples of damnatio ad bestias in Ancient Rome include the following: Strabo witnessed the execution of the rebel slaves' leader Selur. The bandit Laureolus was crucified and then devoured by an eagle and a bear, as described by the poet Martial in his Book of Spectacles. Such executions were also documented by Seneca the Younger (On anger, III 3), Apuleius (The Golden Ass, IV, 13), Titus Lucretius Carus (On the Nature of things) and Petronius Arbiter (Satyricon, XLV). Cicero was indignant that a man was thrown to the beasts to amuse the crowd just because he was considered ugly. Suetonius wrote that when the price of meat was too high, Caligula ordered prisoners, with no discrimination as to their crimes, to be fed to circus animals. Pompey used damnatio ad bestias for showcasing battles and, during his second consulate, staged a fight between heavily armed gladiators and 18 elephants. +

The most popular animals were lions, which were imported to Rome in significant numbers specifically for damnatio ad bestias. Bears, brought from Gaul, Germany and even Northern Africa, were less popular.Local municipalities were ordered to provide food for animals in transit and not delay their stay for more than a week. Some historians believe that the mass export of animals to Rome damaged wildlife in North Africa. +

Victims of Damnatio ad Bestias

Christians: The use of damnatio ad bestias against Christians began in the 1st century AD. Tacitus states that during the first persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero (after the Fire of Rome in 64), people were wrapped in animal skins (called tunica molesta) and thrown to dogs. This practice was followed by other emperors who moved it into the arena and used larger animals. Application of damnatio ad bestias to Christians was intended to equate them with the worst criminals, who were usually punished this way. There is a widespread view among contemporary specialists that the prominence of Christians among those condemned to death in the Roman arena was greatly exaggerated in earlier times. There is no evidence for Christians being executed at the Colosseum in Rome. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The spread of the practice of throwing Christians to beasts was reflected by the Christian writer Tertullian (2nd century). He states that the general public blamed Christians for any general misfortune and after natural disasters would cry "Away with them to the lions!" This is the only reference from contemporaries mentioning Christians being thrown specifically to lions. Tertullian also wrote that Christians started avoiding theaters and circuses, which were associated with the place of their torture. "The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions", a text which purports to be an eyewitness account of a group of Christians condemned to damnatio ad bestias at Carthage in 203, states that the men were required to dress in the robes of a priest of the Roman god Saturn, the women as priestesses of Ceres and were shown to the crowd as such. The men and women were brought back out in separate groups and first the men, then the women, exposed to a variety of wild beasts. The victims were chained to poles or elevated platforms. Those who survived the first animal attacks were either brought +

Political Criminals: 1) “Deserters from the army. 2) Those who employed sorcerers to harm others, during the reign of Caracalla. This law was re-established in 357 A.D. by Constantius II. Political criminals. For example, after the overthrow and assassination of Commodus, the new emperor threw to lions both the servants of Commodus and Narcissus who strangled him – even though Narcissus brought the new emperor to power, he committed a crime of murdering the previous one. The same punishment was applied to Mnesteus who organized the assassination of Emperor Aurelian. Instigators of uprisings, who were either crucified, thrown to beasts or exiled, depending on their social status. +

Criminals: 1) Poisoners; by the law of Cornelius, patricians were beheaded, plebeians thrown to lions and slaves crucified. 2) Counterfeiters, who could also be burned alive. 3) Patricides, who were normally drowned in a leather bag filled with snakes (poena cullei), but could be thrown to beasts if a suitable body of water was not available. 4) Those who kidnapped children for ransom, according to the law of 315 by the Emperor Constantine the Great,were either thrown to beasts or beheaded. +

Karl Smallwood wrote in Listverse: “The very first case of damnatio ad bestias in Roman history occurred when Aemilius Paullus sentenced a group of army deserters to death in 167 BC. To make it interesting, he ordered them crushed to death by a horde of elephants. The spectacle proved so popular that death by animals became a part of everyday life for the Romans—literally. Every morning, a Roman citizen could go to the arena to watch such executions take place before an afternoon of actual gladiatorial combat.” [Source: Karl Smallwood, Listverse, January 15, 2014]

Capture, Shipment, and Training of Wild Animals in Roman Society

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Based on the size and frequency of the games, an intricate system must have been in place to coordinate the trapping, transporting, and delivery of so many animals. Literary and epigraphic evidence indicates that soldiers and hunters were used to trap beasts in remote areas throughout the Roman world. During the imperial age, the main supply of animals for the arena appears to have been from the Near East and Egypt. Roman mosaics and other illustrative material show that the two most commonly used methods to capture the animals were the pit and the net. [Source: Jacob Coley, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 2010, \^/]

“The pit, used mainly to confine large cats such as lions and tigers, had for its center a large pillar on which the bait would rest. Typically the bait—a goat, lamb, or kid—only acted as a decoy. An animal would be lured toward a raised fence around the edge of the pit, causing the animal to leap over it and fall into the hole. A cage was then lowered down into the pit to retrieve the trapped animal. \^/

“The second and more popular method was the use of the net, since this could be deployed for the capture of animals in bulk. Horsemen would scare the quarry by banging on their shields and holding blazing torches, thereby driving entire herds, packs, and prides down fenced alleys into netted corrals. Nets were also employed in the capture of birds. \^/

“Whether by land or sea, safely caging and transporting animals from remote provinces to the capital was extremely complex—they were clearly of no use if they arrived sick or dead. Documents, such as the correspondence between Cicero and Marcus Caelius Rufus (51 B.C.) and the letters of the wealthy nobleman Symmachus in the late fourth and early fifth century A.D., repeatedly report on the difficulties and delays that came from acquiring animals for the shows. \^/

“However, not all animals went straight to the arena. Since the acquisition of exotic creatures was very expensive, they would often be sent to menageries or zoological gardens around Rome to be tamed and trained for public entertainment before they reached the games, where death was inevitable. Considerable time and effort went into the training, which was not always done in a humane and painless way. A common practice was to starve the animals in order to make them submissive; failing that, whips and other instruments could be used on unruly beasts. Ancient sources refer to some remarkable early animal acts, including elephants walking the tightrope, lions trained to retrieve hares without harming them, and an animal trainer placing his head in the mouth of a big cat. Moreover, it was not natural for animals such as lions to attack humans, so they had to be trained specially to do so. Presumably, too, they had to be encouraged to perform in the arena, where the noise and sight of the crowd must have created an added distraction.” \^/

Did the Roman Animal Spectacle Create Endangered Species

The sheer number of animals slaughtered by Romans, some argue, caused the number of lions, leopards and tigers in the wild to plummet. Karl Smallwood wrote in Listverse: “ According to some, Roman hunting absolutely “devastated the wildlife of North Africa and the entire Mediterranean region,” wiping some species of animal off the map entirely.For example, after one particularly brutal set of games in which 9,000 animals were slaughtered, the hippo disappeared from the river Nile. Creatures like the North African elephant, which was also commonly used as a war elephant during the time, were wiped of the face of the Earth completely.” [Source: Karl Smallwood, Listverse, January 15, 2014 ]

In addition, “the Romans didn’t exactly take good care of the animals they intended to fight or kill. Most animals, to save on the cost of housing and feeding them, would be killed outright after each games, since, well, replacements were easy to come by. However, exceptions existed. According to the famed Roman philosopher Cicero, one lion in the arena killed an astounding 200 men before it was finally slain. Other notable animals include the group of 18 elephants who stormed the crowd in an escape attempt. The elephants were originally to be killed by a group of men armed with darts, but they smashed through the fence separating them from the crowd. To stop this from ever happening again, the Romans placed a large trench between the arena and the crowd for future events.

“Perhaps the most cruel aspect of all is that the animals brought to the arena never really needed to be killed. We don’t mean that killing animals for sport is wrong—the Romans had little patience for that argument. We mean that the animals proved perfectly capable of entertaining the crowds while staying alive.

“For example, trained elephants who danced, bowed, and did other tricks delighted the crowds. In fact, elephants were noted as being one of the only creatures the crowds didn’t like to see being killed. Writers of the era note that spectators would boo upon seeing elephants killed, thinking them smart and gentle creatures. Other stories tell of the crowd being in awe of just seeing crocodiles sit in a ditch full of water. That’s it—no one stabbed them, and they didn’t fight anything. People were happy just to look at them, as though in a zoo. Another time, a crowd of thousands once sat and laughed their heads off at the sight of a bunch of leopards running in a straight line. The crowd was literally just as happy to see the animals run in a circle or sit and do nothing, but the Romana decided to kill them anyway to spice things up.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, the BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

Gabucci, Ada, ed. The Colosseum. Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2001 .

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