Animals in the Arena


Most animals ended up as part of stage beast hunts where they were hunted by trained hunters, called venatores (Singular: venator). These hunts (called venationes, singular: venatio) were either held in amphitheatres (if available), or in the Circus Maximus in Rome, if particularly lavish. (For the form of execution which involved being thrown to wild animals see Chapter 23: Damnatio ad Bestias.)

Pliny the Elder talks of the first elephants seen in Rome, who were killed in the Circus Maximus after being made to fight (presumably each other). Although this was not a proper venatio, it sounds a little like one, although the ‘hunters’ were not trained:

Gladiator fighting an elephant.

Elephants were first seen in Italy in 280 BCE during the war with King Pyrrhus;[1] they were called “Lucanian oxen,” because they were first seen in Lucania.[2] Seven years after this period, they appeared at Rome in a triumph. In the year 202 a great number of them which had been captured by Metellus in his victory in Sicily over the Carthaginians were brought to Rome; they were one hundred and forty-two in number, or, as some say, one hundred and forty, and were brought to our shores upon rafts, which were constructed on rows of hogsheads joined together. Verrius informs us that they fought in the Circus, and that they were killed with javelins, for want of some better method of disposing of them as the people neither wanted to keep them nor to give them to the kings. Lucius Piso tells us only that they were brought into the Circus Maximus and to increase the feeling of contempt towards them, they were driven all round the area of that place by workmen, who used only spears blunted at the point. The authors who think that they were not killed do not, however, tell us how they were afterwards disposed of.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8.6

The first recorded venatio is often seen as that held in 186 BCE by Marcus Fulvius, victor of the Aetolian War, as part of his games celebrating his victory:

When this news came from Spain, the Ludi Tauri were celebrated as a special religious observance. These were followed by the ludi which M. Fulvius had vowed in the Aetolian war and were exhibited for ten days. 2 Many actors from Greece came to do him honour, and athletic contests were witnessed for the first time in Rome. The hunting of lions and panthers was a novel feature, and the whole spectacle presented almost as much splendour and variety as those of the present day.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 39.22

Having wild animals in the arena or circus presented many challenges that chariot races and gladiator shows did not. For one, you had to ensure that the big cats did not jump the walls of the amphitheatre and start killing the spectators. (It is worthwhile remembering that as senators sat at the front they’d have been the first to get mauled.) In the following extract from one of his Eclogues the poet Calpurnius Siculus (3rd century CE) describes the reactions of a peasant to a venatio in Rome, and includes a description of the device the Romans came up with to stop animals managing to get out of the arena, a barrel that turned when they landed on it, which meant that their claws could get no purchase.

Bronze medallion depicting the fight between a man and a wild animal.

See the balteus covered in gems and the gilded arcade compete over which is more brilliant, and just where the end of the arena presents the seats closest to the marble wall, wondrous ivory is inlaid on connected beams and unites into a cylinder which, gliding smoothly on its well-turned axle can by suddenly turning give no purchase to any claws which reach it and shake off beasts. The nets of gold wire which hang into the arena from solid and equally sized tusks and – Lycotas, if you ever trusted me at all, believe me now – each tusk was longer than our plough at home. No need to tell of everything as it happened: I saw animals of all sorts. There were snow-white hares, tusked boars, the elk, which is rare even in the forests it calls home; there were bulls, some with heightened nape, with an unsightly hump rising from the shoulder-blades, or others with shaggy mane tossed across the neck, with rugged beard covering the chin, and quivering bristles upon their stiff dewlaps. I did not just see beasts from the forest – there were sea calves also there with bears pitted against them and the ugly herd by the name of horses, bred in that river whose waters with spring-like renewal, irrigate the crops upon its banks.[3] Oh, how we shook, whenever we saw the arena part itself and its soil upturned and beasts plunging out from the chasm cleft in the earth; yet often from those same rifts the golden arbutes sprang amid a sudden fountain spray (of saffron).

 Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogues 7

A part of his ceremonies for the opening of his theatre in Rome in 55 BCE Pompey also offered venationes; Cicero wrote to a friend who was in the country to comfort him for missing them. The repulsion of the Roman people at the killing of the elephants is unparalleled in accounts of the amphitheatre.

There remain the two wild-beast hunts, lasting five days, magnificent—nobody denies it—and yet, what pleasure can it be to a man of refinement, when a weak man is torn apart by an extremely powerful animal, or a splendid animal is transfixed by a hunting spear? Things which, after all, if worth seeing, you have often seen before; nor did I, who was present at the games, see anything at all new. The last day was that of the elephants, on which there was a great deal of astonishment on the part of the mob, but no pleasure at all. No – there was even a certain feeling of compassion aroused by it, and a kind of belief created that that animal has something in common with mankind.

Cicero, Letters to his Friends 7.1

Animals were brought from all over the Roman Empire and beyond to die in the arena, as the 4th century poet describes:

Whatever inspires fear with its teeth, wonder with its mane, awe with its horns and bristling coat — all the beauty, all the terror of the forest is taken. They are not protected by their cunning; neither strength nor weight helps them; their speed does not save the fleet of foot. Some roar enmeshed in snares; some are thrust into wooden cages and carried off. There are not carpenters enough to fashion the wood; leafy prisons are constructed of rough beech and ash. Boats laden with some of the animals cross seas and rivers; the rower’s hand pauses bloodless from terror, for the sailor fears the merchandise he carries. Others are transported over land in wagons that block the roads with the long procession, bearing the spoils of the mountains. The wild beast is carried a captive by those troubled cattle on whom in times past he satisfied his hunger, and each time that the oxen turned and looked at their burden they pulled away in terror from the pole.[4]

Claudian, On Stilicho’s Consulship III


Exotic animal transportation, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy. dated to middle of 4th century CE

The Emperor could order governors and the military to find animals for him; in the Republic, however, people relied on networks of friends. The following sequence of letters written in 51 BCE by Marcus Caelius Rufus to the politician and orator Cicero, who was then governor in Cilicia, show his increasingly frantic attempts to get Cicero to send him some panthers.

However, as soon as you learn of my having been elected,[5] I beg you to be taking measures as to the panthers. I recommend Sittius’ bond to your attention.

Letters to his Friends 8.1

I remind you often about Sittius’ bond, for I am anxious that you should understand that it is of great importance to me: so also about the panthers, that you should send for some natives of Cibyra, and see that they are shipped to me

Letters to his Friends 8.4

In nearly every letter I have mentioned the subject of the panthers to you. It will be a disgrace to you that Patiscus has sent ten panthers to Curio and that you should not send many times more. And these very beasts, as well as ten more from Africa, Curio has presented to me, in case you think that he does not know how to make any presents except landed estates. If you will only not forget, and send for some men of Cibyra, and also transmit a letter to Pamphylia—for it is there that they are said to be mostly captured—you will achieve what you choose. I am all the more earnest about this now, because I think I shall have to supply the exhibition entirely apart from my colleague. Please lay this injunction upon yourself. It is your way to take much trouble willingly, as it is mine for the most part to take none. In this business you have nothing to do but speak—that is, to give an order and a commission. For as soon as the beasts have been captured, you have men to feed and transport them in those whom I have sent over on the affair of Sittius’ bond. I think also that, if you give me any hope in your letters, I shall send some more men across.

Cicero, Letters to his Friends 8.9

This is Cicero’s reply:

Javelin thrower with panther.

The panthers are being energetically attended to by the ordinary hunters in accordance with my orders: but there is a great scarcity of them, and such as there are, I am told, complain loudly that they are the only things for which traps are set in all my province, and they are said in consequence to have resolved to quit our province for Caria. However, the business is being pushed on zealously, and especially by Patiscus. All that turn up shall be at your service, but how many that is I don’t in the least know. I assure you I am much interested in your aedileship: the day itself reminds me of it; for I am writing on the very day of the Megalensia.[6]

Cicero, Letters to his Friends 2.11


  1. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, used war elephants in his campaigns in the South of Italy.
  2. A region in the South of Italy.
  3. Hippopotami; the river is the Nile.
  4. The pole that ran between the two oxen pulling the cages.
  5. He was running for curule aedile.
  6. This was one of the festivals for which the aediles put on games.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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