Animals in the Arena

Exhibiting Animals

In this section you will learn

  • the arrival of the first elephants to Rome and their exhibition
  • the exhibition of other rare and unusual animals in Rome by various emperors

Although most exotic (and many non-exotic) animals brought to Rome ended up being slaughtered in the arena in beast hunts, some were brought to perform or simply to be exhibited (and then killed). The emphasis was on exhibiting the unusual, and the novel, animals the Roman either rarely saw or were seeing for the first time. Pliny the Elder’s fascinating and wonderful encyclopaedia records many of the first appearances of various animals in Rome, beginning with elephants.

Triumphal procession with people riding elephants at far left, horse-drawn chariots at centre, passing through an arch at right.

The first elephants seen in harness at Rome were those in the triumph of Pompey the Great over Africa,[1] when they drew his chariot; this is said to have been done long ago at the triumph of Father Liber[2] at his conquest of India. Procilius says that the elephants used at the triumph of Pompey were unable to go in harness through the gate of the city.[3] In the exhibition of gladiators which was given by Germanicus, the elephants performed a sort of dance with rough, irregular movements. It was a common thing to see them throw arrows with such strength that even the wind could not make them change their course, to imitate among themselves gladiatorial fights, and dance the steps of the Pyrrhic dance.[4] After this, too, they walked upon a tightrope and four of them carried a litter in which there was a fifth elephant, which represented a woman giving birth. Afterwards they took their place and so nicely did they manage their steps, that they did not so much as touch any of those who were drinking there.

It is a well-known fact that one of these elephants, who was slower than usual in learning his lessons and had thus been frequently beaten as a punishment, was found studying his lessons during the night. It is also very surprising thing that the elephant is able not only to walk up a tight-rope backwards but to come down it as well, with his head foremost. Mutianus, who was three times consul, informs us that one of these animals had been taught to trace the Greek alphabet and that he used to write in that language the following words: “I have myself written these words and have dedicated the Celtic spoils.” Mutianus states also, that he himself was witness to the fact, that when some elephants were being landed at Puteoli and were forced to disembark, terrified at the length of the platform, which extended from the vessel to the shore, they walked backwards to deceive themselves by forming a false estimate of the distance.

Pliny the ElderNatural History 8.2-3

When he was curule aedile Quintus Scaevola (103 BCE), the son of Publius Scaevola, was the first to exhibit at Rome a combat of a number of lions; and Lucius Sulla, who became dictator later, gave a spectacle of a fight of one hundred lions with manes[5] when he was praetor. After him, Pompey the Great exhibited six hundred lions in the Circus, three hundred and fifteen of which had manes; [Julius] Caesar, the dictator, exhibited four hundred. It was formerly a very difficult matter to catch lions, and it was mostly done by means of pit-falls. In the reign, however, of the Emperor Claudius, accident disclosed a method which appears almost disgraceful to the name of such an animal; a Gaetulian shepherd stopped a lion that was rushing furiously upon him, by merely throwing his cloak over the animal;[6] an event that was then exhibited in the arena of the Circus, when the frantic fury of the animal was paralyzed in a manner almost incredible by a light covering being thrown over its head, so much so, that it was put into chains without the least resistance; we must conclude, therefore, that all its strength lies in its eyes.[7] This fact makes Lysimachus’[8] achievement in strangling a lion, which Alexander had ordered him to be caged with, less wonderful.

Mark Antony subjected lions to the yoke and was the first at Rome to harness them to his chariot; he did this during the civil war, after the battle on the plains of Pharsalia; not, indeed, without a kind of ominous foreshadowing, a prodigy that foretold at the time how that generous spirits were about to be subdued. But to have himself drawn along in this manner, in company with the actress Cytheris,[9] was a thing that surpassed even the most monstrous spectacles that were to be seen at that calamitous period. It is said that Hanno, one of the most famous Carthaginians, was the first who dared to touch a lion with his hand and to exhibit it in a tame state. This was why he was banished: it was believed that a man so talented and so ingenious would have it in his power to persuade the people to anything, and it was looked upon as unsafe to trust the liberties of the country to one who had so eminently triumphed over even ferocity itself. There are some fortuitous occurrences cited also, which have given occasion to these animals to display their natural clemency. Mentor, a native of Syracuse, was met in Syria by a lion, who rolled before him in a begging manner; although terribly afraid and eager to escape, the wild beast on every side stopped him running away and licked his feet with a fawning air. Upon this, Mentor observed on the paw of the lion a swelling and a wound; from which, after extracting a splinter, he relieved the creature’s pain. There is a picture at Syracuse which testifies to the truth of this transaction.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8.20-21

Image of an elephant on a mosaic from Ostia, Rome’s port. Many animals were probably brought to Rome via this port

All big cats were very popular, including panthers and tigers:

There was an ancient decree of the Senate, which prohibited animals being imported from Africa into Italy; but Gnaeus Aufidius, the tribune of the people, got a law repealing this passed and this allowed them to be brought over for the games of the Circus. Scaurus, in his ædileship, was the first who sent over parti-coloured panthers, one hundred and fifty in total; after which, Pompey the Great sent four hundred and ten, and the late Emperor Augustus four hundred and twenty. The same emperor was the first person who exhibited at Rome a tame tiger on the stage. This was in the consulship of Quintus Tubero and Fabius Maximus, at the dedication of the theatre of Marcellus, on the fourth day before the nones of May: the late Emperor Claudius exhibited four at one time.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8.24-25

In the passage above Pliny refers to Augustus exhibiting a tame tiger; he also exhibited many other exotic animals.

Furthermore, if anything rare and worth seeing was ever brought to the city, it was his habit to make a special exhibit of it in any convenient place on days when no shows were being held: a rhinoceros in the Saepta [Julia], a tiger on the stage and a snake of fifty cubits[10] in front of the Comitium and so forth.

Suetonius, Augustus 43.4

Romans had a taste for seeing far more exotic animals than tigers and rhinos, including some it is hard to identify.

There are two other animals, which have some resemblance to the camel. One of these is called, by the Ethiopians, the nabun. It has a neck like that of the horse, feet and legs like those an ox, a head like that a camel, and is covered with white spots upon a red background; because of these peculiarities it has been called the cameleopard.[11] It was first seen at Rome in the Ludi Circenses held by [Julius] Caesar, the Dictator. Since that time too, it has been occasionally seen. It is more remarkable for the singularity of its appearance than for its fierceness; for which reason it has obtained the name of the wild sheep. It was at the games of Pompey the Great that the chama,[12] an animal called rufius by the Gauls, was first exhibited; it has the shape of a wolf, with the spots of the leopard. There were also exhibited some animals from Ethiopia, which they called by the Greek name, chepoi, the back legs of which resembled the human feet and legs, while the fore-feet were like hands. These animals have not been seen at Rome since that time. At the same games the rhinoceros was also exhibited, an animal which has a single horn projecting from the nose; it has been frequently seen since then. This too is another natural-born enemy of the elephant. It prepares itself for combat by sharpening its horn against the rocks; and in fighting aims it mainly at the belly of its adversary, which it knows to be the softest part.[13] The two animals are of equal length, but the legs of the rhinoceros are much the shorter: its skin is the colour of box-wood.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8.27-29

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Harden, Alastair. Animals in the Classical World: Ethical Perspectives from Greek and Roman Texts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  • Jennison, George. Animals for show and pleasure in ancient Rome. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1937.


  1. We know it took place on March 12th, but are not sure if it occurred in 81, 80, or 79 BCE.
  2. Bacchus, the god of wine, was said to have ridden in a chariot drawn by exotic animals as he spread his worship across the world when he made his first trip to Mount Olympus. He was often depicted on mosaics not just driving a chariot pulled by tigers and panthers, but surrounded by other exotic animals.
  3. Presumably the triumphal gate, which was only opened for triumphs. (We are not sure of its location.)
  4. A type of war dance, performed both in Rome and Greece.
  5. I.e. lions, rather than lionesses.
  6. I admit that I am not an expert on the lion, but the success of such a tactic seems unlikely to me .
  7. I said above that Pliny’s encyclopedia was fascinating. I did not say it was right.
  8.   One of Alexander the Great’s generals.
  9. A famous actress in mime, she was also the mistress of Marcus Brutus, the assassin of Caesar.
  10. This was a very large snake: 50 cubits is roughly 23 metres in modern measurements.
  11. This is a giraffe.
  12. Most likely a lynx.
  13. I would place this as a fact in the ‘throwing things on lions stops them attacking’ category of useful information.


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