Archaeology News





by Doug Ward

Imperial Rome was known for its excesses in public entertainment, and in particular, for the brutality of its sporting events. Much blood was shed in Roman amphitheaters as men and beasts engaged in fierce battles. According to Philip Schaff,


"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 Dacia, and which lasted four months (A.D. 107). Under Probus (A.D. 281) as many as a hundred lions, a hundred lionesses, two hundred leopards, three hundred bears, and a thousand wild boars were massacred in a single day" ([2], § 95).


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. 5:38-42), 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 Roman Empire during the heyday of these brutal contests, along with additional thousands of animals.


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 [1]. 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 Africa that eventually certain types became more expensive and difficult to locate. (The Romans used up all the lions in Libya, for example, a fact for which the Libyans were grateful.) In addition, a rise in the amount of cultivated land in northern Africa drove wild animals further south. By the third century A.D., the scarcity of some animals and an economic recession led organizers of animal shows to substitute grazing animals for the more expensive carnivorous varieties ([1], pp. 122-125).


One scientist who is especially interested in finding out more about the use of animals in the games is archaeologist Michael MacKinnon of the University of Winnipeg. Dr. MacKinnon's specialty is zooarchaeology, which involves the study of ancient animal bones. Over the past several years he has traveled to digs all over the Mediterranean region, gathering and analyzing data from animal bones in order to add to our knowledge of the ancient Roman diet, economy, and culture.


In a lecture delivered at Miami University on April 10, 2006, MacKinnon explained that there is not yet much archaeological data available on the wild animals that were brought to Roman cities for the games. So far, bones of wild animals with a probable link to the amphitheaters have been discovered in just two places. One of them is Bir el Jebbana, the site of an old Roman bath located near the Carthage amphitheater. After the site ceased to be used as a bath, it became a garbage dump, and bones of bears from the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. have been found in the refuse there. Given the proximity of Bir el Jebbana to the amphitheater, it is reasonable to suppose that these bears were involved in some kind of public performance there.


The other site is the Meta Sudans in Rome, located about fifty meters from the Colosseum. Bones found there, believed to date from the fifth century A.D., include some from bears, leopards, ostriches, deer, boars, and horses, all animals that could have been on display at the Colosseum.


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 ([1], 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 Mediterranean. The trip to Rome from Carthage required four to six days, while the voyage from Alexandria or Antioch took more like a month. Along the way, many animals died from fright, illness caused by unfamiliar food, or mistreatment. Since the animals were being taken to cities for the purpose of being killed, little attempt was made to replicate familiar surroundings or otherwise make the trip less traumatic for them. The fact that a substantial percentage of the animals would not survive the trip was factored into the cost of the shows.


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 Dunne Books, New York, 2005.

2.  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity, Scribner's, New York, 1889.


Issue 21


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
28 Apr 2006, 17:07.