Damnatio ad Bestias

The readings in this section deal with those condemned to be killed by being thrown to a range of wild animals. In 146 BCE Scipio Africanus the Younger had deserters killed by this means; Lucius Aemilius Paulus had some deserters trampled by elephants in 167 BCE; but these were foreigners  – Roman soldiers were not normally executed publicly in this fashion, as it was a particularly humiliating form of punishment. The executions were not actually all that popular, not necessarily because people were compassionate and hated people being executed this way (although some surely did), but because they were boring and not edifying. Notice in the passage, below the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger is not disturbed by public executions per se, but by the evil effect he felt they had on those watching.

I visited the games once at midday, hoping to find some touch of wit and humor there – I was bitterly disappointed. It was really nothing but butchery and what occurred in the morning section was merciful compared to it – at this stage they put aside all trifling and what goes on is nothing but murder. They have no armour to defend them and are open everywhere to blows and no blow occurs without a wound. Many people prefer this part of the games to the normal pairs [of gladiators] and the bouts at request. No wonder! For they have no helmets or shields to deflect weapons – for what is the point of armour or weapons? They do nothing but delay death. In the morning men were thrown to lions and to bears, at midday to the spectators. There was no escape for them: the audience demands that some who kills is kept fighting until he can be killed. Every bout ends in death by the sword or fire. And all of this goes on while the stands are empty! You may reply, “But he was a bandit! He killed someone!” So what? Fine: he killed someone and deserved to die; but you, poor man, what have you done that you deserve to watch this?

“Kill him! Whip him! Burn him alive,” is the cry: “Why does he rush on the blade so timidly? Why is he so reluctant to kill? Why won’t he die willingly? Drive him with whips to take wounds! Let them both get blow for blow, with their bare chests exposed for the wounds!” There is an interval: “While we’re waiting let’s have some throatcutting so that nothing is left undone.”

Seneca the Younger, Letters to Lucilius 7

Tertullian similarly criticises these executions, not because he thought it was wrong to kill people but because he could not be sure that those killed in this way were guilty and because of the effect it had on the viewers:

We shall now see how the Scriptures condemn the amphitheatre. If we can maintain that it is right to indulge in the cruel, and the impious, and the fierce, let us go there. If we are what we are said to be, let us glut ourselves there with human blood. It is good, no doubt, to have the guilty punished. Who but the criminal himself will deny that? And yet the innocent can find no pleasure in another’s sufferings: he rather mourns that a brother has sinned so heinously as to need a punishment so dreadful. But who is my guarantee that it is always the guilty who are condemned to the wild beasts, or to some other destiny, and that the guiltless never suffer from the revenge of the judge, or the weakness of the defence, or the pressure of the rack? How much better, then, is it for me to remain ignorant of the punishment inflicted on the wicked, in case, I am obliged to know also of the good coming to untimely ends–if I may speak of goodness in the case at all! At any rate, gladiators not chargeable with crime are offered in sale for the games, that they may become the victims of the public pleasure. Even in the case of those who are judicially condemned to the amphitheatre, what a monstrous thing it is, that, in undergoing their punishment, they, from some less serious delinquency, advance to the criminality of mankillers!

But I mean these remarks for the pagans. As to Christians, I shall not insult them by adding another word as to the aversion with which they should regard this sort of exhibition; though no one is more able than myself to set forth fully the whole subject, unless it be one who is still in the habit of going to the shows. I would rather this be incomplete than set people’s memory working again.

Tertullian On Spectacles 19

Although public executions were felt by nearly everyone to serve an important social function and few pitied those in the arena, as far as we can tell, it was thought disturbing to take too much pleasure in the executions, as the Emperor Claudius did.

A plate from North Africa shows damnatio ad bestias, with a woman tied to a stake as a bear prepares to attack.

Claudius was constantly giving gladiatorial munera, for he took great pleasure in them, and he even aroused criticism because of this. Very few wild beasts perished, but a great many human beings did, some of them fighting with each other and others being devoured by the animals. For the emperor cordially detested the slaves and freedmen who in the reigns of Tiberius and Gaius [Caligula] had conspired against their masters, as well as those who had laid information against others without cause or had borne false witness against them, and he accordingly got rid of most of them in the manner related, though he punished some in another way, and handed many over to their masters themselves for punishment. So great, indeed, was the number becoming of those who were publicly executed, that the statue of Augustus which stood on the spot was taken elsewhere, so that it should not either seem to be witnessing the bloodshed or else be always covered up. By this action Claudius brought ridicule upon himself, as he was gorging himself upon the very sights that he did not think it fitting for even the inanimate bronze to seem to behold. He used to delight especially in watching those who were cut down during the intermission in the spectacle at lunch time; and yet he had put to death a lion that had been trained to eat men and therefore greatly pleased the crowd, claiming that it was not fitting for Romans to gaze on such a sight. But for certain acts he was loudly praised — for mingling freely with the people at the spectacles, for providing them with all they wanted, and also because he made very little use of heralds but instead announced most events by means of notices written on boards.

Cassius Dio Roman History 60

There were few happy endings for those thrown to the animals: those who entered the arena died. One exception is the (almost certainly false) story of the slave Androclus and the lion he had once rescued.

Apion Plistonices was a man who knew a great deal about literature and had an extensive and varied knowledge of things Greek. In his works, which are recognized as of great repute, is contained an account of almost all the remarkable things which are to be seen and heard in Egypt. Now, in his account of what he professes either to have heard or read he is perhaps too verbose through a reprehensible love of display—for he is a great self-advertiser in parading his learning; but this incident, which he describes in the fifth book of his Wonders of Egypt, he declares that he neither heard nor read, but saw himself with his own eyes in the city of Rome.

“In the Circus Maximus,” he says, “a battle with wild beasts on a grand scale was being exhibited to the people. Of that spectacle, since I chanced to be in Rome, I was,” he says, “an eye-witness. There were there many savage wild beasts, brutes remarkable for their huge size, and all of uncommon appearance or unusual ferocity. But beyond all others,” says he, “did the vast size of the lions excite wonder, and one of these in particular surpassed all the rest. This one lion had drawn to himself the attention and eyes of all because of the activity and huge size of his body, his terrific and deep roar, the development of his muscles, and the mane streaming over his shoulders. There was brought in, among many others who had been condemned to fight with the wild beasts, the slave of an ex-consul; the slave’s name was Androclus. When that lion saw him from a distance,” says Apion, “he stopped short as if in amazement, and then approached the man slowly and quietly, as if he recognized him. Then, wagging his tail in a mild and caressing way, after the manner and fashion of fawning dogs, he came close to the man, who was now half dead from fright, and gently licked his feet and hands. The man Androclus, while submitting to the caresses of so fierce a beast, regained his lost courage and gradually turned his eyes to look at the lion. Then,” says Apion, “you might have seen man and lion exchange joyful greetings, as if they had recognized each other.”

He says that at this sight, so truly astonishing, the people broke out into great shouts; and Gaius Caesar[1] called Androclus to him and inquired why that fiercest of lions had spared him alone. Then Androclus told a strange and marvellous story. “My master,” he said, “was governor of Africa. While there, I was forced by his undeserved, daily whippings to run away, and that my hiding-places might be safer from my master, who ruled that region, I took refuge in lonely plains and deserts, intending, if food should fail me, to seek death in some form. Then,” said he, “when the midday sun was fierce and scorching, finding a remote and secluded cavern, I entered it, and hid myself. Not long afterwards this lion came to the same cave with one paw lame and bleeding, making known by groans and moans the torturing pain of his wound.” And then, at the first sight of the approaching lion, Androclus said that his mind was overwhelmed with fear and dread. “But when the lion,” said he, “had entered what was evidently his own lair, and saw me cowering at a distance, he approached me mildly and gently, and lifting up his foot, was evidently showing it to me and holding it out as if to ask for help. Then,” said he, “I drew out a huge splinter that was embedded in the sole of the foot, squeezed out the pus that had formed in the interior of the wound, wiped away the blood, and dried it thoroughly, being now free from any great feeling of fear. Then, relieved by that attention and treatment of mine, the lion, putting his paw in my hand, lay down and went to sleep, and for three whole years from that day the lion and I lived in the same cave, and on the same food as well. For he used to bring for me to the cave the choicest parts of the game which he took in hunting, which I, having no means of making a fire, dried in the noonday sun and ate. But,” said he, “after I had finally grown tired of that wild life, I left the cave when the lion had gone off to hunt, and after travelling nearly three days, I was seen and caught by some soldiers and taken from Africa to Rome to my master. He at once had me condemned to death by being thrown to the wild beasts. But,” said he, “I see that this lion was also captured, after I left him, and that he is now paying me back for my kindness and my cure of him.”

Apion records that Androclus told this story, and that when it had been made known to the people by being written out in full on a tablet and carried about the Circus, at the request of all Androclus was freed, acquitted and presented with the lion by vote of the people. “Afterwards,” said he, “we used to see Androclus with the lion, attached to a slender leash, making the rounds of the shops throughout the city; Androclus was given money, the lion was sprinkled with flowers, and everyone who met them anywhere exclaimed: ‘This is the lion that was a man’s friend, this is the man who was physician to a lion.’”

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 5.14


  1. Caligula


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