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“Not just lions in the Colosseum”

How the Romans acquired wild animals

The ancient Romans organized games, the venationes, in which wild animals were often an integral component. But where did the Romans find these animals, and how did they get them to Rome?

Written by Mauro Poma on

When one thinks about the animals used in the Colosseum during the hunting games, the first image that comes to mind is a roaring lion wandering around the arena in search of his prey or tearing apart a poor man. In reality, lions were not the only exotic animals to be captured, transported, and used in the Colosseum.

Over the centuries, the Roman audience had the “good fortune” to see a number and wide variety of animals at home without the travel possibilities available to us now. Where did the Romans find all of these animals?

Crocodiles, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and giraffes came from southern Egypt. Gazelles, antelopes, jackals, ostriches, hyenas, lions, cheetahs, panthers, and elephants came from North Africa, and bears were from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Until the first century BC, Middle Eastern countries bordering the Mediterranean provided several species of felines. Tigers travelled extensively before reaching Rome. They were taken from India and seen by the Romans for the first time in the first century BC, even before the construction of the Colosseum that started at the end of AD 70.

Italy and other European countries provided all herbivores, such as hares, roe deer, deer, wild pigs, and donkeys, as well as bears, bison, bulls, wolves, or moose (La Regina 2001).The costs of capture, transportation, and maintenance of wild animals from Africa or Asia were understandably much higher than those of the animals coming from Italy or Europe – it’s therefore no coincidence that the majority of games in the Colosseum were sponsored by the emperor! He was the only one who had sufficient financial resources to organize these expensive slaughters.

The spectacular hunting games

The Colosseum was inaugurated in AD 80, but we have reports of great hunting shows even before that date. For example, in 104 BC, Muzio Scaevola and Licinius Crassus staged a venatio in the Circus Maximus with a hundred lions to celebrate their victory over Jugurtha, King of Numidia. In the middle of that same century, Marcus Scaurus organized a hunt with five crocodiles, one hippo, and 150 leopards.

A few years later, the grandeur of all of this was completely surpassed by the incredible spectacle offered by the rich Pompey. During the games, he organized the slaughter of 400 leopards, 600 elephants, and many monkeys. The special guests at this carnage were a rhino and a lynx, the latter from northern Europe. This was the grandest venatio ever held before the construction of the Colosseum and a show with so many animals was never repeated.

Neither Julius Caesar nor even Augustus, the first Roman emperor, who killed three thousand five hundred animals during his reign, managed, in a single show, to surpass the magnitude of the one organized by Pompey. Nero brought in 300 lions and 400 bears, and during the 100 days of parties and games arranged by Titus for the inauguration of the Colosseum in AD 80 9,000 animals were killed. This number is still small compared with the 11,000 reached by Trajan almost thirty years later to celebrate his victories over the Dacians (the foregoing, see: Hopkins and Beard 2005).

A view inside of the Colosseum in Rome. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

Over time, however, these numbers began to decrease and a very interesting phenomenon occurred in the third century AD. The number of animals procured for the emperor at the Colosseum stayed very high, but the types of animals provided changed significantly. In particular, more herbivores than carnivores were used. This change was not only due to the economic crisis that struck the Roman Empire in the third century and that was caused, among other factors, by the debasement of coinage, but also due to specific environmental factors.

For centuries, the Romans had hunted big cats from North Africa or the Middle East. After centuries of savage hunting, some species simply became extinct in many of these areas, whereas some animals moved further south, since many of these areas were converted into olive groves, vineyards, and wheat fields. This is also one of the reasons why today there are no lions or elephants in North African countries (Guidi 2006). After being hunted for centuries, these animals disappeared from that part of the Roman Empire and found refuge just south of the Sahara desert, where they can be seen still today.

In ancient times, hunting was not considered as negatively as it is today: large predators were a danger to people living in their habitats and hunting these animals was considered necessary for safety reasons. The indigenous people of those areas were extremely grateful to the Romans for their service of “liberation” and “disinfection” from large predators – until their extinction throughout northern Africa, of course.

Initially, the scarcity of animals from certain territories did not worry the emperors. They believed that, if wild animals disappeared from some areas, they just had to venture into areas where they could still be found. However, the difficulty of finding animals, combined with ever higher costs of transport and maintenance, forced the organizers of the shows to gradually change the programs offered.

For every animal arriving in Rome, one had to count many others who died during transport due to penury or different climatic conditions. Rome, compared with Africa or the Middle East, was cold and not all animals could survive the long journey that awaited them before being killed in the Colosseum.

Hunting wild animals

Initially, hunting was not popular among the Romans, but mosaics from the late imperial time period and paintings of catches, shipping, and transport show that, thanks to the hunting games, this became a traditional activity (Lo Giudice 2008).

The capture and transportation of animals was a huge undertaking, since the animals had to stay healthy and travel for thousands of miles. They came from faraway places throughout the empire. What made the hunt even more dangerous was the fact that animals obviously had to be taken alive. Once on the ships, the animals had to be fed and kept in good condition, but many of them would perish during the journey. Animals could die from infections caused by unaccustomed foods, mistreatment by impatient custodians, self-inflicted wounds while in captivity, or climate differences.

In practice, how were animals, especially the most dangerous ones, captured? Which techniques did the Romans use? First of all, the organizer of the games estimated the numbers of animals to be used and then the governors of the provinces where these animals could be captured were contacted to check whether their region could meet the demand. Only then did the mission to capture the requested animals begin.

A tiger attacking a calf. Coloured marble. From Rome, dated to the first half of the fourth century AD. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

The animals were captured by specially trained army units, whose members greatly appreciated this activity because it was seen as a pleasant distraction from daily routine at the edges of the empire. The main tools used were nets and laces – ancestors of the more modern lasso – to pull on the neck of the beasts, which were eventually placed in cages.

Herbivores were caught without particular risks, but required skill, patience, good reflexes, and reliable dogs; harmless traps without spikes were used to capture wild boars, deer, or antelopes without injuring them. In the case of bison or bulls, paddocks were built and the animals were directed towards them with the help of dogs. Alternatively, pits were dug in the ground and they were forced into them.

Felines were hunted with a different technique. Hunters first dug several pits for use as traps; then they placed a securely tied goat or lamb atop a pillar of wood, clay, or stone; and hid the pit with branches and twigs. The lambs or goats would start bleating and attract the attention of a predator. As soon as the big cat jumped on his prey, it would fall down into the pit without any possibility of escape. The hunters would then drop down a cage with some meat inside and, as soon as the beast entered the cage, they would close it and pull it up.

Detail of a mosaic of a leopard from the “House of the Masks” on Delos, dated ca. 100 BC. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

An alternative system was to push the predators towards an enclosure where an open cage was placed. The animals were forced in this direction with the help of horses and torches. A bit of meat was put inside the cage and, as soon as the cat entered, the cage would be closed and transported further. In a very similar way, animals could also be trapped in robust nets and then dragged inside the cage.

To capture elephants, normally the hunter had to hurt its legs with arrows to reduce the possibility of movement and to be able to tie them. Alternatively, the elephants were forced to move towards a fairly deep hole, which was then closed with nets to prevent any possible escape. The elephants were left there for a few days to be trained or to wait until they no longer resisted, so that they could be tied and moved out. Bears were harassed by dogs and captured with nets or pits in the ground.

As we can see, the hunters developed different techniques for each type of animal and in a short time this kind of business began flourishing so much that specialized agencies were opened in northern Africa to hire hunters. For further details and references, refer to Guidi 2006.

The risky business of transporting the animals

Transporting the animals to Rome remained the most complex part of the entire operation. At those times, travelling was not easy and involved a number of risks, the main one of which was death of the animals. The percentage of animals reaching their destination alive was very low, despite all of the precautions taken during the journey.

The journey was mostly by sea, which was the fastest way to travel at that time. The animals would be brought to a collection point and from there to special boats. The fiercest animals were closed in strong cages, whereas herbivores generally had more freedom of movement. Food also had to be arranged and sometimes this meant a few tons of food, especially in the case of large herbivores, such as elephants.

Storms were one of the main risks during the journey: in a storm, the possibility of survival was not very high. Once in Rome, the animals that survived the journey disembarked in Ostia and from there they were transported along the Tiber river to the city. The journey along the river was against the stream. Elephants were an exception, since they probably made the last part of the journey to reach Rome by land.

Eventually, the animals were collected in special vivaria, which were facilities where they were partially trained and fed during the days preceding the shows (Lo Giudice 2008). Contrary to modern zoos, in Rome there was no interest in faithfully reproducing the habitats of the hunted animals. The majority of them would have died quickly and there was no reason to brighten the little life that was left before the first hunting shows.

It is also for this reason that the vivaria were situated far from “sensitive” areas, such as the Senate, the Forum, or the residence of the emperor. For example, we know that one of the vivaria was placed inside the Amphitheatrum Castrense, near the actual basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem.

Usually, the day before the show, the animals were brought to the Colosseum, where they were harnessed and dressed up for presentation to the spectators before the games. After the presentation procession, they were brought back to the basement where they waited for their moment in the arena to fight for their lives in front of thousands of cheering Romans.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • K. Hopkins and M. Beard, The Colosseum (2005).
  • F. Guidi, Morte nell’arena. Storia e leggenda dei gladiatori (2006).
  • A. La Regina (ed.), Sangue e arena (2001).
  • C. Lo Giudice, “L’impiego degli animali negli spettacoli romani: venatio e damnatio ad bestias”, Italies 12 (2008), pp. 361-395.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.