Ancient Beasts from the Colosseum - History Key

Ancient Beasts from the Colosseum

We are all familiar with stories of the Colosseum, and even more with Russell Crowe in the role of Maximus, the Roman Legion Commander became an invincible gladiator. We know that the Colosseum was an incredible arena in the heart of Rome, dedicated to what the Romans called “games”. These games, were actually true killing sessions in which were involved both gladiators and wild animals, in last standing confrontations.

Gladiator fighting a lion
Gladiator fighting a lion © Image Source: aroundrometours.com

The gladiators were commonly slaves, which were forced to enter the arena and die for public entertainment. Some of them were regular soldiers, risking losing their life and social status, but also chasing glory and admiration. The Colosseum’s games provided a mixed program: gladiators versus gladiators, gladiators versus condemned criminals (leading to certain death for the condemned, this way they mixed punishment with entertainment) or gladiators versus wild animals. We will focus a bit around this topic, about the wild animals that played an important role in the context of the Colosseum’s games.

Gladiator fighting tigers and lions
Gladiator fighting tigers and lions © Image Source: fromoldbooks.org

We saw several scenes with gladiators fighting tigers, lions, bulls or even panthers, but what was their origin, from where do these exotic animals come from?

Alexander the Great mosaic found in ancient Ancient synagogue
Alexander the Great mosaic found in ancient Ancient synagogue © Image Source: itats.org

So, someone had to provide all these exotic animals, right? Their provenience is virtually unknown. We only that they were imported from Africa or Asia. Dedicated groups of men, formed by local hunters or soldiers, had the mission to gather the animals for the Colosseum. They searched the jungles for the right animals, including tigers, rhinos and even elephants, all it takes in order to offer an ”incredible show”. A complex network of connections was necessary, in order to provide the right conditions for the shipping, also considering the long travel times. The discovered bones belonging to these exotic animals, provides more informations about their past. Roger Wilson, professor of archaeology at the University of Nottingham, concluded that many tigers were imported from Armenia, and not from India, and were shipped across the Aegean Sea.

“Such was the ferocity of these beasts that their capture demanded special skills and the creation of a special post. An inscription in Cologne talks of the capture of 50 bears in a six-month period.” (Roger Wilson – The Guardian)

In fact, the hunting of exotic animals became some kind of alternative sport for Roman soldiers. Many of them were willing to risk their lives, in order to get a special kind of glory and status. Some inscriptions discovered in Cologne, reveals the nickname of  Cessonius Ammausius, a soldier of the 30th Legion. He presents himself as a “ursarius”, which would stand for “bear hunter”. Considering that a wounded animal was not an option, the hunting techniques had to be suited to capture the animal unharmed. One method was formed around horse riders or soldiers dressed in sheepskins. Their role was to confuse the animal and make it crash from exhaustion. Camouflaged pits were used, especially for rhinos and elephants. No need to say how dangerous this situation was. Oppian, a Greek observer from the second-century, stated:

“O greatly daring men. What a feat they achieve, what a deed they do – they bear off that great monster like a tame sheep” (The Guardian)

Once arrived at the Colosseum, the animals were deployed in all sorts of activities: battles between animals or between animals and gladiators. Sometimes, they were used for public executions of criminals or thieves. The ones confronting the animals in the Colosseum, were named “Venatores”.

Venatores with tiger
Venatores with tiger © Image Source:Ourplnt.com

The Venatores were deployed in big scale hunting shows, within the Colosseum’s arena. Tens of animals were released in order to be killed by archers or Venatores on horseback. Even the arena was modified with trees and hills, in order to offer a realistic show.

Here is a list of the animals used in the Colosseum’s arena: lions, tigers, dogs, bulls, giraffes, wild boars, bears, stags, snakes, apes, baboons, jaguars, crocodiles, panthers, elephants, leopards, rhinos, goats, hyena, hippopotamus and stags. No need to say that a good part of the show, beside the killing act, was provided by the uncommon species of animals, which were an attraction by themselves.

In 80 AD, the Colosseum’s inauguration took place. During the opening games of the pompous event, more than 5,000 animals were massacred. Several pits discovered in the amphitheatre of Trier, prove that the remains of the killed animals were buried together with the remains of the humans who fought against them.
(The article was written using references from The Guardian, Tribunesandtriumphs.org and Wikipedia)

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