Animal Studies Bibliography

Auguet, Roland. 1972. Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games. New York, New York: Routledge.

The Roman games incorporated non-human animals in various ways. Masses would gather in the amphitheatres to be awed and terrified by the spectacles that awaited them. Chateaubriand described the scene that often awaited the audience when they arrived:

‘in a trench dug around the arena a hippopotamus and some crocodiles were swimming; five hundred lions, forty elephants, tigers, panthers, bulls, bears used to tearing men to pieces, roared in the caves of the amphitheatre. Gladiators, no less ferocious, were scattered here and there, wiping their blood-stained arms' (Auguet 1972: 16).

While animals were often referred to as beasts, the men that were subject to fighting them were not seen as much different. As seen in the above quote they were also described as ferocious.

While there were some gladiator games that only consisted of human-human fighting, there were others that consisted of what was referred to as a ‘hunt' that was supposed to add to the excitement experienced by the audience. When non-human animals were first added to the ‘munus' or the human-human gladiator fights, it was to add a sense of novelty to the games, which were becoming to predictable. The politicians who were in charge of putting on the games and gained recognition for doing so developed the ability to procure fine tigers, often as many as three hundred for one game.

The amphitheatres were set up in a particular way in order to ensure the safety of the audience when animals, or ‘wild beasts,' as they were referred to in the games were to be used. The wall around the arena was built thirteen feet high in order to adequately separate the audience from the spectacle. During the hunts added precautions were taken as well.

The hunt, or venatio, itself was not originally the main event in the amphitheatre; rather it usually preceded a gladiator fight. The hunts were generally considered more vulgar than the human-human fighting. They tended to take place in the morning. However, the popularity of the hunts eventually led to them becoming events in there own right, in the afternoon without a gladiator fight following. They were held in various locations from the Forum, to the Saepta, and often in the Circus (Auguet 1972: 81). They often lasted for hours or even more than a day due to the hundreds of animals that were slain.

The morning hunts that preceded gladiator fights occurred in the Colosseum, which had to be altered slightly in order for the use of animals. Although the wall around the arena was tall enough to ensure the safety of the audience, the animals could not come in through the doors that the human fighters entered through. “It was no easy task to let a hundred or so untamed lions enter at the same time” (Auguet 1972:82). They were kept out of sight in vast cellars until the show began, when the cages by then assembled in the cellars encircling the arena were lifted by a system of pulleys into boxes embedded in the wall of the podium. The cage then shut behind the animals so that they could not retreat back into the cellars. The animals were often overcome with fright at the noise of the audience and would stay as far back in the box as they could and not proceed to the arena. When that occurred employees would drive them out with ‘blazing straw.'

The one characteristic of the hunt, or venatio, that always remained the same was that animals were involved in it, however, how they were involved, which animals were involved, and their fate depended on the role that they would play, of which there were many variations. One variation consisted of ‘wild beasts' fighting each other. Another form consisted of men with offensive weapons that were specially trained for this form of combat, fighting wild beasts. Finally, there were spectacles in which men condemned to death were thrown to beasts without any sort of defense. However, there were some uses of animals in which the animals did not necessarily die, or get harmed. In Rome , there were huge menageries with a variety of trained animals that could perform tricks. Sometimes there animals performed in the arena after one of the other forms of hunts was complete.

The hunts in which animals fought one on one consisted of much variety in and of themselves. The rhinoceros was one of the most popular animals to pair against other species. It was very reluctant to fight, which demonstrated a certain pride, and often required an employee to prod it to induce anger. However, once the rhinoceros was angry, no other animal could compete, “neither the bulls it eviscerated like straw dummies nor the bears it threw into the air like puppies” (Auguet 1972:85). Sometimes animals were paired with another of their same kind, like lion on lion, and other times they were unevenly matched in order to see what would happen, for example between a bear and a tiger. However, even with the uneven matches, the audience would begin to realize that certain animals would always loss to a particular other, such as bulls to elephants. “Other combats were a concession to pure sadism; a pack of hounds or a pride of lions was loosed after deer and there could be no doubt about the outcome” (Auguet 1972: 85).

Variety was very important in the hunts in order to keep the audience continuously amused. Besides the usual lions and bears, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, hyenas, and seals were also used in hunts. Fighting methods were also altered in order to add new excitement for the audience. For example, a bull and a panther would be linked together by a chain, both trying to get free, and in their attempt to get free they eventually ended up fighting each other, with the constraints of the chain on their movement, until they tore each other to pieces. If they were not completely dead after being badly torn apart, armed men, know as confectores, would kill them both.

In one particular hunt in 79 B.C. a large number of African elephants were matched with men in the arena. The men were skilled hunters with javelins and were able to paralyze the elephants by striking them in the eyelids and feet. The elephants, once paralyzed, dragged themselves around the arena, and eventually fell on top of each other in the center. Dio Cassius described the scene as “the elephants had withdrawn from the combat covered with wounds and walked about with their trunks raised towards heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did not do so by mere chance but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Libya and calling upon heaven to avenge them!” (Auguet 1972: 87). There was another particular incident in which around a hundred lions were loosed in the arena to fight, but they just did not co-operate. They allowed themselves to be massacred without putting up any form of resistance. Many of them did not even leave the boxed area to enter the arena, and therefore were killed by archers from a distance.

The fights between men and beasts also provided a large degree of variation. While some men were trained to fight animals with weapons, other men who were being sentenced to death were forced to confront the animals without a weapon and usually without armor, and still some men were able to fight animals with their bare hands. These men could “stun a bear with a blow of the fist and seize it in their arms, or choke a lion by plunging an arm into its throat while gripping its tongue with the other hand” (Auguet 1972: 90). On some occasions, the hunter was mounted on an animal, which was matched against another animal. In other cases, in order to induce laughter from the audience, men would “deceive the animal as it was about to seize its prey by turning cartwheels alongside it” (Auguet 1972: 91). In these spectacles, animals sometimes were also taught to do “tricks” to amuse the audience. For example, tigers would let their tamers kiss them, or lions would catch rabbits that were thrown at them gently without biting into them.

In more brutal cases, criminals were thrown to animals with the intention being that the animals would slaughter them. Sometimes the criminal would be tied up so that he would not even be able to fight back in any manner. Then the animals were released. In some cases it would be a group of lions, which usually meant that the criminal would be killed in one bite or swipe of the paw. However, in other cases, smaller animals were used, which usually led to a more brutal murder in which the criminal was dragged around and torn up before he actually died.

In order to make the hunts more appealing, the amphitheatre was often transformed from an arena into a ‘beautiful forest.' Trees were planted in order to produce this artificial ‘natural' appearance. Within these fake forests, dramas were played out in which criminals that were to be killed by animals became actors in a scene of a play for the amusement of the audience. “From this point of view these dramas seem no more than executions painstakingly ‘romanticized' with the aim of overcoming the monotony of the mass hecatombs” (Auguet 1972: 101).


Visit the Michigan State University Homepage Return to the Animal Studies Homepage