EXOTIC ANIMALS FOR THE ROMAN ARENA
by Doug Ward
"The most popular, and at the
same time the most inhuman and brutalizing of these public spectacles were the gladiatorial
fights in the arena. There murder was practised as an
art, from sunrise to sunset, and myriads of men and beasts were sacrificed to
satisfy a savage curiosity and thirst for blood. At the inauguration of the Flavian amphitheatre from five to nine thousand wild beasts
(according to different accounts) were slain in one day. No less than ten
thousand gladiators fought in the feasts which Trajan
gave to the Romans after the conquest of
The lone consistent voice of protest against such carnage came from Christianity. Christians stayed away from the amphitheaters, and the influence of the Church was instrumental in the eventual disappearance of the gladiatorial games. (As the proportion of Christians in the empire increased, attendance at these events dwindled.) Schaff quotes another nineteenth-century historian, W.E.H. Lecky, on the importance of Christian opposition in bringing an end to these violent spectacles:
"There is scarcely any other single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church. When we remember how extremely few of the best and greatest men of the Roman world had absolutely condemned the games of the amphitheatre, it is impossible to regard, without the deepest admiration, the unwavering and uncompromising consistency of the patristic denunciations."
One of the strongest patristic denunciations came from Tertullian (c. 160 A.D.-c. 230 A.D.), who in De Spectaculis ("The Shows") argued forcefully that Christians should avoid all Roman public entertainment, including the theater and the circus along with gladiatorial games. He pointed out that all these events were dedicated to pagan gods and included many trappings of idolatrous worship, so that attending them was tantamount to consorting with the devil (I Cor. 10:20-21).
Tertullian raised specific objections to the gladiatorial games. Although many of the contestants were convicted criminals who deserved an appropriate punishment, innocent people were also killed in the games. Moreover, those criminals who were forced to fight to the death in the amphitheater had to add a murder to their list of offenses in order to survive. For Christians, who abhorred murder and were committed to Jesus' instruction to "turn the other cheek" (Matt. -42), it would have been hypocritical-as well as immoral-to attend such events and cheer on the contestants.
What About the Animals?
Respect for human life was a major reason for Christian opposition to the gladiatorial games. As was mentioned above, thousands of people were slaughtered in the amphitheaters of the
The hunting of wild animals as public entertainment in the arena began in 186 B.C. Then in 167 B.C., the practice of having these animals execute criminals was introduced. Such events, like the gladiatorial fights, proved to be very popular, and they grew in scale over time. During the course of his reign, the emperor Augustus sponsored games in which a total of 3500 wild animals were killed . The infamous emperor Nero once had four hundred bears and three hundred lions killed in a single day.
So many exotic animals were imported from
One scientist who is especially interested in finding out
more about the use of animals in the games is archaeologist Michael MacKinnon
In a lecture delivered at
The other site is the Meta
The wild animal bones at these sites, which come from an era after gladiatorial games had been phased out and animal shows were held infrequently, have not been found in very large numbers. MacKinnon hopes that archaeologists will be able to find the locations of ancient Roman vivaria (stockyards) where many animals were housed before their day in the arena. Such sites could yield bones of wild animals in much greater quantities.
Lacking bones to analyze, MacKinnon employs other sources of information-e.g,. textual and artistic-to say what he can about the use of wild animals in Roman public entertainment. One thing that we know from ancient texts is that meat from animals killed in the arena was often consumed by the public. Meat was expensive at that time, and wild game was prized. The officials who staged the games could increase their popularity by providing free food for the lower classes. It was also the case that wealthy people liked to impress their friends by serving meat from exotic animals.
Tertullian, in another one of his writings, criticized the practice of consuming meat from the amphitheater. He pointed out that this amounted to cannibalism in the case of animals that had killed some of the people they were battling. In reference to those who have "keen appetites for bear and stag" killed at the arena, he observed,
"That bear in the struggle was bedewed with the blood of the man whom it lacerated: that stag rolled itself in the gladiator's gore. The entrails of the very bears, loaded with as yet undigested human viscera, are in great request" (Apology, Chapter 9).
Another important aspect of the Roman use of exotic animals in the arena was the difficult task of obtaining the animals and transporting them to the cities of the empire. Organizers of the shows worked with provincial governors to assess the availability of animals. Governors then sent out large parties of local hunters or army units trained to capture wild animals. Some animals were caught in traps-e.g., a pit with a pillar of earth in the center, upon which a lamb or goat would be placed as bait. Others were chased on horseback and caught in nets (, p. 129).
The journey with the captured animals from remote provinces to
the urban centers of the empire was long and arduous, with a grueling overland
march often followed by a voyage in cramped quarters across the
The probable details of the capture, transport, and treatment of these animals, as outlined by Professor MacKinnon from our available sources, provide an extra reason to be thankful that the games were phased out under Christian influence. Surely this use of animals did not constitute proper stewardship and dominion over God's precious creation.
1. Fik Meijer, The Gladiators:
History's Most Deadly Sport, translated from Dutch by Liz Waters, Thomas
2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian
Church, Volume 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity, Scribner's,
File translated from