Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Roman Games: Playing with Animals

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Public games were a major part of Roman culture, playing an important role in the social and political life of the city and its empire. Although the games had their roots in funeral or religious rites, by the late Republican period (ca. 70–31 B.C.), they had become a hugely popular form of public entertainment. They took several forms but all were essentially either races or fights. Known as ludi and munera, games could be staged in purpose-made arenas, most notably the Colosseum (L.2007.9.46) and Circus Maximus (L.2007.9.68) in Rome, either separately or combined in lengthy festivals.


Unlike Greek boxers, who wore leather thongs around their knuckles for protection and performed for prizes at the prestigious Panhellenic games, Romans used gloves with pieces of metal placed around the knuckles (caestus) to inflict the most damage possible.

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  • Mosaic Floor (detail)

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The oldest games in Rome were the chariot races (59.11.14). Typical chariots used for the races were drawn by a team of four horses (quadriga) (28.57.24). The races required two long tracks and two 180-degree turns. Like gladiatorial shows and boxing, races were extremely dangerous, since chariots often collided or went out of control. If a driver fell out of his chariot, he could easily be dragged along or trampled to death by the horses. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of drivers, as eager young charioteers risked their lives for reward and recognition (17.194.2125).


Roman boxing (2001.219), far different than the boxing developed by the Greeks, was considered more of a gladiatorial show than an athletic contest. While the crowds were smaller than at the amphitheater and circus, boxing was an important part of public entertainment. Unlike Greek boxers, who wore leather thongs around their knuckles for protection and performed for prizes at the prestigious Panhellenic games (59.11.19), Romans used gloves with pieces of metal placed around the knuckles (caestus) to inflict the most damage possible. Moreover, there was no time limit or weight classification. Proclaiming a winner resulted from either a knockout or the conceding of defeat by one of the boxers.


The most famous games were the gladiatorial shows (81.10.245), where armed men fought each other in violent, often mortal, combat for fame, fortune, and even freedom. The gladiators (57.11.7) would first train at a ludus, a professional fighting school, to prepare for their debut in the arena. Originally these schools drew their recruits from among the lowest ranks of society—slaves, convicts, and prisoners of war—but by the first century A.D., contracted free men, retired soldiers (23.160.32a,b), and even, on rare occasions, women participated in the fights.


The games could also be used as a form of public execution for condemned criminals, who were brought to the arena to be crucified (crucifixio), burned alive (crematio or ad flammas), put to the sword (ad gladium), or killed by wild animals (ad bestias). Each penalty was differentiated according to one's station and social class.


The games involved animals on a massive scale. In addition to horses used in the circus and amphitheater, exotic wild animals were paraded before the public not just for the sheer spectacle but also to play an active role in the games as either the hunted or the hunter (22.2.36,.37).


Animals in the Arena
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 (41.160.710).


According to Pliny the Elder, the first venatio (26.199.63) 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 (L.2007.9.3). 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 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.


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.


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 (26.60.70a,b). Animals were also killed to provide meat in a way that was very different from the hygienic methods practiced today.


The Capture, Shipment, and Training of Wild Animals in Roman Society
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 (25.78.62) 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 (38.11.12) and other illustrative material show that the two most commonly used methods to capture the animals were the pit and the net.


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 (L.2007.9.44) 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.


The End of an Era
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 (17.194.2073), silverware (06.1106), glass (17.194.328), and other objects (1994.230.2) discovered at Rome and throughout the provinces vividly illustrates that animals used for both show and pleasure were an integral part of Roman life.

Jacob Coley
Intern, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mosaic Floor (detail). Roman, ca. 300 A.D. Excavated at Lod (Lydda), Israel. Stone tesserae. Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.