Were the animals used for gladiatorial combat in Rome trained?

Were the animals used for gladiatorial combat in Rome trained?

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Were the animals used for gladiatorial combat in Rome 100% wild, or were they trained in any way (either for entertainment purposes like today's circus animals, or for fighting like fighting dogs are trained today).

If it matters, the ones I'm most interested in are big cats.

Inspired by apoorv020's comment on my prior question.


For the main question, "Were the animals used for gladiatorial combat in Rome trained?", the answer is a qualified yes. Big cats and bears were sometimes trained to be more ferocious and to attack humans, but they were mostly used (1) to kill unarmed or poorly-armed condemned people, (2) in hunts where they were killed by venatores (hunters usually armed with a spear, sword or arrows), or (3) in fights against bestiarii, a type of gladiator trained specifically for killing animals. Unfortunately, ancient sources often fail to give details but it appears that most gladiators typically fought other gladiators rather than animals.

For the other question on the use of trained animals other forms of entertainment, the answer is (a more definite) yes. Martial (d. circa. AD 103), Seneca (d. AD 65) and others cite a number of examples, including elephants throwing arrows and tightrope walking and a lion trained not to harm a hare. Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) also notes that Mark Anthony (d. AD 30) had a chariot pulled by lions.

However, not least for financial and practical reasons, ancient sources generally imply that most of the thousands of animals that appeared in the arena were not trained. The examples mentioned in this answer should be considered as exceptional cases for special circumstances or highlights of the games where training was needed to ensure a successful performance.


1. Animals trained to fight and / or kill

One problem with ancient sources is that they often lack specifics on who fought or hunted the animals, and whether those animals were trained or not. For example, Livy (Bk 39, ch 22) wrote:

Then for ten days, with great magnificence, Marcus Fulvius gave the games which he had vowed during the Aetolian war [191 - 189 BC]. 2 Many actors too came from Greece to do him honour. Also a contest of athletes was then for the first time made a spectacle for the Romans and a hunt of lions and panthers was given,…

Cassius Dio related how Pompey (d. 48 BC) had eighteen elephants fight armed men; unfortunately, no details are given on who the armed men were or if the elephants were trained at all - maybe not, because the beasts seemed not to fight back and (very unusually) gained the pity of the audience.

Given (as Mark Olsen points out in a comment) the huge financial outlays and that disappointing the crowd would reflect badly on he who hosted the games, it's highly likely that animals in key performances were trained (i.e. to avoid the mistake that Pompey made). There is no mention, for example, of crowd dissatisfaction at the Flavian games when Cassius Dio reports that

There was a battle between cranes and also between four elephants

As cranes and elephants usually only become aggressive when threatened, it seems likely that they were trained, or at least provoked (but this is animals fighting animals rather than humans). On animal training, more helpful is this from Novatianus:

A wild beast is trained with gentle care so that it will, in turn, serve to punish a man and perform with greater fury before spectators' eyes. A trained animal is given instructions; it would have perhaps been less ferocious, if its yet more cruel master had not trained it to act ferociously.

Source: Novatianus, 'The Spectacles'

There are even cases of lions being trained to eat men. One such incident greatly displeased the emperors Claudius (d. AD 54) (see further below) and Marcus Aurelius (d. AD 180):

Dio 60.13.4, Loeb. Dio, 72.29.3-4, says that M. Aurelius refused to watch a lion trained to eat men and refused spectators' demands that the lion's trainer be freed.

Source: D. G. Kyle, 'Spectacles of death in ancient Rome' (1998)

More generally, Kyle states:

Even ferocious beasts (e.g. lions and leopards) had to be specially trained, and probably starved, to become 'man-eaters'. Dio says that the unsqueamish Claudius enjoyed watching humans killed by humans or torn apart (analoumenoi) by animals, but he put to death a lion 'that had been trained to eat (esthiein) men and therefore greatly pleased the crowd, claiming that it was not fitting for Romans to gaze on such a sight'

However, there is also evidence that this training didn't always work:

Even trained beasts were not always efficient or reliable. Although trainers provoked them with fire and whips, and Christians, as instructed, invited them by gestures, disoriented beasts sometimes might not attack the victims, or they might turn on the staff of the arena.

Source: Kyle

In a footnote, Kyle cites examples (from Martial and Plutarch) of lions turning on their keepers rather than the intended victims. Also,

the record of the last animal show in AD 281 documents that 100 maned lions were slaughtered at the doors of their cages because they refused to leave.

Source: Kyle

There's also this interesting piece on Nero and a trained lion, not a case of actual combat but rather a planned one which Nero seems to have backed out of:

According to Suetonius, Ner. 53, Nero planned to pretend to be Hercules: he had a lion trained so that he could kill it in the arena with a club or by strangling it.

Source: Kyle

2. Those who fought or hunted the animals

On the men who fought animals, the bestiarii were originally simply poorly-armed prisoners sent in to the arena with the expectation that they would be killed by animals such as lions and bears, and these thus cannot be regarded as gladiators. However, some emerged as skilled, specialised animal-fighters and the emperor Domitian (d. AD 96) established the Ludus Matutinus, specifically for training bestiarii to fight animals. One famous bestiarius was Carpophorus, mentioned by Martial in On the Public Shows of Domitian

Also important in Roman entertainment were venatores, sometimes defined as a type of gladiator who specialised in hunting animals. Other venatores specialised in hunting animals in the wild, capturing them in the provinces so that they could be sent to Rome.

"In this mosaic, a venatio is being carried out under the aegis of Diana… and Dionysus, subduer of animals, who carries a staff with a crescent-shaped head… The leopards, themselves, are encircled with garlands. The two divinities indicate the religious character of these games… The venatores, themselves, are a professional troupe of beast hunters, the Telegenii, who had contracted to perform, one of whom is fighting on short stilts." Image and text source

3. Animals trained for 'non-lethal' entertainment

Seneca observed that

bears and lions, by good usage, will be brought to fawn upon their masters


Some people have the skill of reclaiming the fiercest of beasts; they will make a lion embrace his keeper, a tiger kiss him, and an elephant kneel to him.

Source: Seneca, 'Morals'

Another example of a tamed lion comes from Martial:

Martial was impressed that lions in the arena were disciplined enough to snatch up hares, hold them in their jaws and then drop them unharmed.

Source: L. J. Hawtree, 'Wild Animals in Roman Epic' (PhD, 2011)

Pliny seems particularly fond of elephants, relating that

In the exhibition of gladiators which was given by Germanicus, the elephants performed a sort of dance with their uncouth and irregular movements. It was a common thing to see them throw arrows with such strength, that the wind was unable to turn them from their course, to imitate among themselves the combats of the gladiators, and to frolic through the steps of the Pyrrhic dance. After this, too, they walked upon the tight-rope, and four of them would carry a litter in which lay a fifth, which represented a woman lying-in. They afterwards 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.

Source: Pliny the Elder, 'Natural History Bk 8 Ch2'

Pliny also tells of Mark Anthony who

subjected lions to the yoke, and was the first at Rome to harness them to his chariot…

and comments that it

… was a thing that surpassed even the most monstrous spectacles that were to be seen at that calamitous period.

Source: Pliny the Elder, 'Natural History Bk 8 Ch21'

Finally, the Historia Augusta records that the emperor Elagabalus (d. AD 222) had chariots drawn by camels, lions, tigers and stags.

Other sources:

Paul Christesen Donald G Kyle (eds.) 'A companion to sport and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity'

Keith Hopkins & Mary Beard, 'The Colosseum'

Nicholas Lindberg, 'The Emperor and His Animals: the Acquisition of Exotic Beasts for Imperial Venationes'. In Greece & Rome, vol. 66 issue 2

It would depend on what type of animal it was and what type of entertainment it would be providing. A list of animals that took part in events can be found on this page.

Some animals such as zebras and ostriches were trained so that they could pull chariots. Other animals were taught to do tricks. With the massive variety of animals that participated in the many events some were used just for "hunts" or pitched against a gladiator in a fight to the death.

The more exotic animals that were used in "hunts" or pitched against a gladiator in a fight to the death were probally wild animals with no training.

Also, some gladiatorial events involved releasing herds of animals into the arena just so they could be slaughtered. There would have been no point to train these animals.

Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome

Gladiatorial shows turned war into a game, preserved an atmosphere of violence in time of peace, and functioned as a political theatre which allowed confrontation between rulers and ruled.

Rome was a warrior state. After the defeat of Carthage in 201 BC, Rome embarked on two centuries of almost continuous imperial expansion. By the end of this period, Rome controlled the whole of the Mediterranean basin and much of north-western Europe. The population of her empire, at between 50 and 60 million people, constituted perhaps one-fifth or one-sixth of the world's then population. Victorious conquest had been bought at a huge price, measured in human suffering, carnage, and money. The costs were borne by tens of thousands of conquered peoples, who paid taxes to the Roman state, by slaves captured in war and transported to Italy, and by Roman soldiers who served long years fighting overseas.

The discipline of the Roman army was notorious. Decimation is one index of its severity. If an army unit was judged disobedient or cowardly in battle, one soldier in ten was selected by lot and cudgelled to death by his former comrades. It should be stressed that decimation was not just a myth told to terrify fresh recruits it actually happened in the period of imperial expansion, and frequently enough not to arouse particular comment. Roman soldiers killed each other for their common good.

When Romans were so unmerciful to each other, what mercy could prisoners of war expect? Small wonder then that they were sometimes forced to fight in gladiatorial contests, or were thrown to wild beasts for popular entertainment. Public executions helped inculcate valour and fear in the men, women and children left at home. Children learnt the lesson of what happened to soldiers who were defeated. Public executions were rituals which helped maintain an atmosphere of violence, even in times of peace. Bloodshed and slaughter joined military glory and conquest as central elements in Roman culture.

With the accession of the first emperor Augustus (31 BC – AD 14), the Roman state embarked on a period of long-term peace (pax romana). For more than two centuries, thanks to its effective defence by frontier armies, the inner core of the Roman empire was virtually insulated from the direct experience of war. Then in memory of their warrior traditions, the Romans set up artificia1 battlefields in cities and towns for public amusement. The custom spread from Italy to the provinces.

Nowadays, we admire the Colosseum in Rome and other great Roman amphitheatres such as those at Verona, Arles, Nimes and El Djem as architectural monuments. We choose to forget, I suspect, that this was where Romans regularly organised fights to the death between hundreds of gladiators, the mass execution of unarmed criminals, and the indiscriminate slaughter of domestic and wild animals.

The enormous size of the amphitheatres indicates how popular these exhibitions were. The Colosseum was dedicated in AD 80 with 100 days of games. One day 3,000 men fought on another 9,000 animals were killed. It seated 50,000 people. It is still one of Rome's most impressive buildings, a magnificent feat of engineering and design. In ancient times, amphitheatres must have towered over cities, much as cathedrals towered over medieval towns. Public killings of men and animals were a Roman rite, with overtones of religious sacrifice, legitimated by the myth that gladiatorial shows inspired the populace with 'a glory in wounds and a contempt of death'.

Philosophers, and later Christians, disapproved strongly. To little effect gladiatorial games persisted at least until the early fifth century AD, wild-beast killings until the sixth century. St Augustine in his Confessions tells the story of a Christian who was reluctantly forced along to the amphitheatre by a party of friends at first, he kept his eyes shut, but when he heard the crowd roar, he opened them, and became converted by the sight of blood into an eager devotee of gladiatorial shows. Even the biting criticism quoted below reveals a certain excitement beneath its moral outrage.

Seneca, Roman senator and philosopher, tells of a visit he once paid to the arena. He arrived in the middle of the day, during the mass execution of criminals, staged as an entertainment in the interval between the wild-beast show in the morning and the gladiatorial show of the afternoon:

All the previous fighting had been merciful by comparison. Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder. The combatants have no protective covering their entire bodies are exposed to the blows. No blow falls in vain. This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests, and even to those which are put on by popular request. And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armour? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death.

In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At mid-day they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner has a man killed, than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end, every fighter dies. And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.

You may object that the victims committed robbery or were murderers. So what? Even if they deserved to suffer, what's your compulsion to watch their sufferings? 'Kill him', they shout, 'Beat him, burn him'. Why is he too timid to fight? Why is he so frightened to kill? Why so reluctant to die? They have to whip him to make him accept his wounds.

Much of our evidence suggests that gladiatorial contests were, by origin, closely connected with funerals. 'Once upon a time', wrote the Christian critic Tertullian at the end of the second century AD, 'men believed that the souls of the dead were propitiated by human blood, and so at funerals they sacrificed prisoners of war or slaves of poor quality bought for the purpose'. The first recorded gladiatorial show took place in 264 BC: it was presented by two nobles in honour of their dead father only three pairs of gladiators took part. Over the next two centuries, the scale and frequency of gladiatorial shows increased steadily. In 65 BC, for example, Julius Caesar gave elaborate funeral games for his father involving 640 gladiators and condemned criminals who were forced to fight with wild beasts. At his next games in 46 BC, in memory of his dead daughter and, let it be said, in celebration of his recent triumphs in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar presented not only the customary fights between individual gladiators, but also fights between whole detachments of infantry and between squadrons of cavalry, some mounted on horses, others on elephants. Large-scale gladiatorial shows had arrived. Some of the contestants were professional gladiators, others prisoners of war, and others criminals condemned to death.

Up to this time, gladiatorial shows had always been put on by individual aristocrats at their own initiative and expense, in honour of dead relatives. The religious component in gladiatorial ceremonies continued to be important. For example, attendants in the arena were dressed up as gods. Slaves who tested whether fallen gladiators were really dead or just pretending, by applying a red-hot cauterising iron, were dressed as the god Mercury. 'Those who dragged away the dead bodies were dressed as Pluto, the god of the underworld. During the persecutions of Christians, the victims were sometimes led around the arena in a procession dressed up as priests and priestesses of pagan cults, before being stripped naked and thrown to the wild beasts. The welter of blood in gladiatorial and wild-beast shows, the squeals and smell of the human victims and of slaughtered animals are completely alien to us and almost unimaginable. For some Romans they must have been reminiscent of battlefields, and, more immediately for everyone, associated with religious sacrifice. At one remove, Romans, even at the height of their civilisation, performed human sacrifice, purportedly in commemoration of their dead.

By the end of the last century BC, the religious and commemorative elements in gladiatorial shows were eclipsed by the political and the spectacular. Gladiatorial shows were public performances held mostly, before the amphitheatre was built, in the ritual and social centre of the city, the Forum. Public participation, attracted by the splendour of the show and by distributions of meat, and by betting, magnified the respect paid to the dead and the honour of the whole family. Aristocratic funerals in the Republic (before 31 BC) were political acts. And funeral games had political implications, because of their popularity with citizen electors. Indeed, the growth in the splendour of gladiatorial shows was largely fuelled by competition between ambitious aristocrats, who wished to please, excite and increase the number of their supporters.

In 42 BC, for the first time, gladiatorial fights were substituted for chariot-races in official games. After that in the city of Rome, regular gladiatorial shows, like theatrical shows and chariot-races, were given by officers of state, as part of their official careers, as an official obligation and as a tax on status. The Emperor Augustus, as part of a general policy of limiting aristocrats' opportunities to court favour with the Roman populace, severely restricted the number of regular gladiatorial shows to two each year. He also restricted their splendour and size. Each official was forbidden to spend more on them than his colleagues, and an upper limit was fixed at 120 gladiators a show.

These regulations were gradually evaded. The pressure for evasion was simply that, even under the emperors, aristocrats were still competing with each other, in prestige and political success. The splendour of a senator's public exhibition could make or break his social and political reputation. One aristocrat, Symmachus, wrote to a friend: 'I must now outdo the reputation earned by my own shows our family's recent generosity during my consulship and the official games given for my son allow us to present nothing mediocre'. So he set about enlisting the help of various powerful friends in the provinces. In the end, he managed to procure antelopes, gazelles, leopards, lions, bears, bear-cubs, and even some crocodiles, which only just survived to the beginning of the games, because for the previous fifty days they had refused to eat. Moreover, twenty-nine Saxon prisoners of war strangled each other in their cells on the night before their final scheduled appearance. Symmachus was heart-broken. Like every donor of the games, he knew that his political standing was at stake. Every presentation was in Goffman's strikingly apposite phrase 'a status bloodbath'.

The most spectacular gladiatorial shows were given by the emperors themselves at Rome. For example, the Emperor Trajan, to celebrate his conquest of Dacia (roughly modern Roumania), gave games in AD 108-9 lasting 123 days in which 9,138 gladiators fought and eleven thousand animals were slain. The Emperor Claudius in AD 52 presided in full military regalia over a battle on a lake near Rome between two naval squadrons, manned for the occasion by 19,000 forced combatants. The palace guard, stationed behind stout barricades, which also prevented the combatants from escaping, bombarded the ships with missiles from catapaults. After a faltering start, because the men refused to fight, the battle according to Tacitus 'was fought with the spirit of free men, although between criminals. After much bloodshed, those who survived were spared extermination'.

The quality of Roman justice was often tempered by the need to satisfy the demand for the condemned. Christians, burnt to death as scapegoats after the great fire at Rome in AD 64, were not alone in being sacrificed for public entertainment. Slaves and bystanders, even the spectators themselves, ran the risk of becoming victims of emperors' truculent whims. The Emperor Claudius, for example, dissatisfied with how the stage machinery worked, ordered the stage mechanics responsible to fight in the arena. One day when there was a shortage of condemned criminals, the Emperor Caligula commanded that a whole section of the crowd be seized and thrown to the wild beasts instead. Isolated incidents, but enough to intensify the excitement of those who attended. Imperial legitimacy was reinforced by terror.

As for animals, their sheer variety symbolised the extent of Roman power and left vivid traces in Roman art. In 169 BC, sixty-three African lions and leopards, forty bears and several elephants were hunted down in a single show. New species were gradually introduced to Roman spectators (tigers, crocodiles, giraffes, lynxes, rhinoceros, ostriches, hippopotami) and killed for their pleasure. Not for Romans the tame viewing of caged animals in a zoo. Wild beasts were set to tear criminals to pieces as public lesson in pain and death. Sometimes, elaborate sets and theatrical backdrops were prepared in which, as a climax, a criminal was devoured limb by limb. Such spectacular punishments, common enough in pre-industrial states, helped reconstitute sovereign power. The deviant criminal was punished law and order were re-established.

The labour and organisation required to capture so many animals and to deliver them alive to Rome must have been enormous. Even if wild animals were more plentiful then than now, single shows with one hundred, four hundred or six hundred lions, plus other animals, seem amazing. By contrast, after Roman times, no hippopotamus was seen in Europe until one was brought to London by steamship in 1850. It took a whole regiment of Egyptian soldiers to capture it, and involved a five month journey to bring it from the White Nile to Cairo. And yet the Emperor Commodus, a dead-shot with spear and bow, himself killed five hippos, two elephants, a rhinoceros and a giraffe, in one show lasting two days. On another occasion he killed 100 lions and bears in a single morning show, from safe walkways specially constructed across the arena. It was, a contemporary remarked, 'a better demonstration of accuracy than of courage'. The slaughter of exotic animals in the emperor's presence, and exceptionally by the emperor himself or by his palace guards, was a spectacular dramatisation of the emperor's formidable power: immediate, bloody and symbolic.

Gladiatorial shows also provided an arena for popular participation in politics. Cicero explicitly recognised this towards the end of the Republic: 'the judgement and wishes of the Roman people about public affairs can be most clearly expressed in three places: public assemblies, elections, and at plays or gladiatorial shows'. He challenged a political opponent: 'Give yourself to the people. Entrust yourself to the Games. Are you terrified of not being applauded?' His comments underline the fact that the crowd had the important option of giving or of withholding applause, of hissing or of being silent.

Under the emperors, as citizens' rights to engage in politics diminished, gladiatorial shows and games provided repeated opportunities for the dramatic confrontation of rulers and ruled. Rome was unique among large historical empires in allowing, indeed in expecting, these regular meetings between emperors and the massed populace of the capital, collected together in a single crowd. To be sure, emperors could mostly stage-manage their own appearance and reception. They gave extravagant shows. They threw gifts to the crowd – small marked wooden balls (called missilia ) which could be exchanged for various luxuries. They occasionally planted their own claques in the crowd.

Mostly, emperors received standing ovations and ritual acclamations. The Games at Rome provided a stage for the emperor to display his majesty – luxurious ostentation in procession, accessibility to humble petitioners, generosity to the crowd, human involvement in the contests themselves, graciousness or arrogance towards the assembled aristocrats, clemency or cruelty to the vanquished. When a gladiator fell, the crowd would shout for mercy or dispatch. The emperor might be swayed by their shouts or gestures, but he alone, the final arbiter, decided who was to live or die. When the emperor entered the amphitheatre, or decided the fate of a fallen gladiator by the movement of his thumb, at that moment he had 50,000 courtiers. He knew that he was Caesar Imperator , Foremost of Men.

Things did not always go the way the emperor wanted. Sometimes, the crowd objected, for example to the high price of wheat, or demanded the execution of an unpopular official or a reduction in taxes. Caligula once reacted angrily and sent soldiers into the crowd with orders to execute summarily anyone seen shouting. Understandably, the crowd grew silent, though sullen. But the emperor's increased unpopularity encouraged his assassins to act. Dio, senator and historian, was present at another popular demonstration in the Circus in AD 195. He was amazed that the huge crowd (the Circus held up to 200,000 people) strung out along the track, shouted for an end to civil war 'like a well-trained choir'.

Dio also recounted how with his own eyes he saw the Emperor Commodus cut off the head of an ostrich as a sacrifice in the arena then walk towards the congregated senators whom he hated, with the sacrificial knife in one hand and the severed head of the bird in the other, clearly indicating, so Dio thought, that it was the senators' necks which he really wanted. Years later, Dio recalled how he had kept himself from laughing (out of anxiety, presumably) by chewing desperately on a laurel leaf which he plucked from the garland on his head.

Consider how the spectators in the amphitheatre sat: the emperor in his gilded box, surrounded by his family senators and knights each had special seats and came properly dressed in their distinctive purple-bordered togas. Soldiers were separated from civilians. Even ordinary citizens had to wear the heavy white woollen toga, the formal dress of a Roman citizen, and sandals, if they wanted to sit in the bottom two main tiers of seats. Married men sat separately from bachelors, boys sat in a separate block, with their teachers in the next block. Women, and the very poorest men dressed in the drab grey cloth associated with mourning, could sit or stand only in the top tier of the amphitheatre. Priests and Vestal Virgins (honorary men) had reserved seats at the front. The correct dress and segregation of ranks underlined the formal ritual elements in the occasion, just as the steeply banked seats reflected the steep stratification of Roman society. It mattered where you sat, and where you were seen to be sitting.

Gladiatorial shows were political theatre. The dramatic performance took place, not only in the arena, but between different sections of the audience. Their interaction should be included in any thorough account of the Roman constitution. The amphitheatre was the Roman crowd's parliament. Games are usually omitted from political histories, simply because in our own society, mass spectator sports count as leisure. But the Romans themselves realised that metropolitan control involved 'bread and circuses'. 'The Roman people', wrote Marcus Aurelius' tutor Fronto, 'is held together by two forces: wheat doles and public shows'.

Enthusiastic interest in gladiatorial shows occasionally spilled over into a desire to perform in the arena. Two emperors were not content to be spectators-in-chief. They wanted to be prize performers as well. Nero's histrionic ambitions and success as musician and actor were notorious. He also prided himself on his abilities as a charioteer. Commodus performed as a gladiator in the amphitheatre, though admittedly only in preliminary bouts with blunted weapons. He won all his fights and charged the imperial treasury a million sesterces for each appearance (enough to feed a thousand families for a year). Eventually, he was assassinated when he was planning to be inaugurated as consul (in AD 193), dressed as a gladiator.

Commodus' gladiatorial exploits were an idiosyncratic expression of a culture obsessed with fighting, bloodshed, ostentation and competition. But at least seven other emperors practised as gladiators, and fought in gladiatorial contests. And so did Roman senators and knights. Attempts were made to stop them by law but the laws were evaded.

Roman writers tried to explain away these senators' and knights' outrageous behaviour by calling them morally degenerate, forced into the arena by wicked emperors or their own profligacy. This explanation is clearly inadequate, even though it is difficult to find one which is much better. A significant part of the Roman aristocracy, even under the emperors, was still dedicated to military prowess: all generals were senators all senior officers were senators or knights. Combat in the arena gave aristocrats a chance to display their fighting skill and courage. In spite of the opprobrium and at the risk of death, it was their last chance to play soldiers in front of a large audience.

Gladiators were glamour figures, culture heroes. The probable life-span of each gladiator was short. Each successive victory brought further risk of defeat and death. But for the moment, we are more concerned with image than with reality. Modern pop-stars and athletes have only a short exposure to full-glare publicity. Most of them fade rapidly from being household names into obscurity, fossilised in the memory of each generation of adolescent enthusiasts. The transience of the fame of each does not diminish their collective importance.

So too with Roman gladiators. Their portraits were often painted. Whole walls in public porticos were sometimes covered with life-size portraits of all the gladiators in a particular show. The actual events were magnified beforehand by expectation and afterwards by memory. Street advertisements stimulated excitement and anticipation. Hundreds of Roman artefacts – sculptures, figurines, lamps, glasses – picture gladiatorial fights and wild-beast shows. In conversation and in daily life, chariot-races and gladiatorial fights were all the rage. 'When you enter the lecture halls', wrote Tacitus, 'what else do you hear the young men talking about?' Even a baby's nursing bottle, made of clay and found at Pompeii, was stamped with the figure of a gladiator. It symbolised the hope that the baby would imbibe a gladiator's strength and courage.

The victorious gladiator, or at least his image, was sexually attractive. Graffiti from the plastered walls of Pompeii carry the message:

Celadus [a stage name, meaning Crowd's Roar], thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls' heart-throb, and Crescens the Netter of young girls by night.

The ephemera of AD 79 have been preserved by volcanic ash. Even the defeated gladiator had something sexually portentous about him. It was customary, so it is reported, for a new Roman bride to have her hair parted with a spear, at best one which had been dipped in the body of a defeated and killed gladiator.

The Latin word for sword – gladius – was vulgarly used to mean penis. Several artefacts also suggest this association. A small bronze figurine from Pompeii depicts a cruel-looking gladiator fighting off with his sword a dog-like wild-beast which grows out of his erect and elongated penis. Five bells hang down from various parts of his body and a hook is attached to the gladiator's head"so that the whole ensemble could hang as a bell in a doorway. Interpretation must be speculative. But this evidence suggests that there was a close link, in some Roman minds, between gladiatorial fighting and sexuality. And it seems as though gladiatoral bravery for some Roman men represented an attractive yet dangerous, almost threatening, macho masculinity.

Gladiators attracted women, even though most of them were slaves. Even if they were free or noble by origin, they were in some sense contaminated by their close contact with death. Like suicides, gladiators were in some places excluded from normal burial grounds. Perhaps their dangerous ambiguity was part of their sexual attraction. They were, according to the Christian Tertullian, both loved and despised: 'men give them their souls, women their bodies too'. Gladiators were 'both glorified and degraded'.

In a vicious satire, the poet Juvenal ridiculed a senator's wife, Eppia, who had eloped to Egypt with her favourite swordsman:

What was the youthful charm that so fired Eppia? What hooked her? What did she see in him to make her put up with being called 'The Gladiator's Moll'? Her poppet, her Sergius, was no chicken, with a dud arm that prompted hope of early retirement. Besides, his face looked a proper mess, helmet scarred, a great wart on his nose, an unpleasant discharge always trickling from one eye, But he was a Gladiator. That word makes the whole breed seem handsome, and made her prefer him to her children and country, her sister and husband. Steel is what they fall in love with.

Satire certainly, and exaggerated, but pointless unless it was also based to some extent in reality. Modern excavators, working in the armoury of the gladiatorial barracks in Pompeii found eighteen skeletons in two rooms, presumably of gladiators caught there in an ash storm they included only one woman, who was wearing rich gold jewellery, and a necklace set with emeralds. Occasionally, women's attachment to gladiatorial combat went further. They fought in the arena themselves. In the storeroom of the British Museum, for example, there is a small stone relief, depicting two female gladiators, one with breast bare, called Amazon and Achillia. Some of these female gladiators were free women of high status.

Behind the brave facade and the hope of glory, there lurked the fear of death. 'Those about to die salute you, Emperor'. Only one account survives of what it was like from the gladiator's point of view. It is from a rhetorical exercise. The story is told by a rich young man who had been captured by pirates and was then sold on as a slave to a gladiatorial trainer:

And so the day arrived. Already the populace had gathered for the spectacle of our punishment, and the bodies of those about to die had their own death-parade across the arena. The presenter of the shows, who hoped to gain favour with our blood, took his seat. Although no one knew my birth, my fortune, my family, one fact made some people pity me I seemed unfairly matched. I was destined to be a certain victim in the sand. All around I could hear the instruments of death: a sword being sharpened, iron plates being heated in a fire [to stop fighters retreating and to prove that they were not faking death], birch-rods and whips were prepared. One would have imagined that these were the pirates. The trumpets sounded their foreboding notes stretchers for the dead were brought on, a funeral parade before death. Everywhere I could see wounds, groans, blood, danger.

He went on to describe his thoughts, his memories in the moments when he faced death, before he was dramatically and conveniently rescued by a friend. That was fiction. In real life gladiators died.

Why did Romans popularise fights to the death between armed gladiators? Why did they encourage the public slaughter of unarmed criminals? What was it which transformed men who were timid and peaceable enough in private, as Tertullian put it, and made them shout gleefully for the merciless destruction of their fellow men? Part of the answer may lie in the simple development of a tradition, which fed on itself and its own success. Men liked blood and cried out for more. Part of the answer may also lie in the social psychology of the crowd, which relieved individuals of responsibility for their actions, and in the psychological mechanisms by which some spectators identified more easily with the victory of the aggressor than with the sufferings of the vanquished. Slavery and the steep stratification of society must also have contributed. Slaves were at the mercy of their owners. Those who were destroyed for public edification and entertainment were considered worthless, as non-persons or, like Christian martyrs, they were considered social outcasts, and tortured as one Christian martyr put it 'as if we no longer existed'. The brutalisation of the spectators fed on the dehumanisation of the victims.

Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. The state had no legal monopoly of capital punishment until the second century AD. Before then, a master could crucify his slaves publicly if he wished. Seneca recorded from his own observations the various ways in which crucifixions were carried out, in order to increase pain. At private dinner-parties, rich Romans regularly presented two or three pairs of gladiators: 'when they have finished dining and are filled with drink', wrote a critic in the time of Augustus, 'they call in the gladiators. As soon as one has his throat cut, the diners applaud with delight'. It is worth stressing that we are dealing here not with individual sadistic psycho-pathology, but with a deep cultural difference. Roman commitment to cruelty presents us with a cultural gap which it is difficult to cross.

Popular gladiatorial shows were a by-product of war, discipline and death. For centuries, Rome had been devoted to war and to the mass participation of citizens in battle. They won their huge empire by discipline and control. Public executions were a gruesome reminder to non-combatants, citizens, subjects and slaves, that vengeance would be exacted if they rebelled or betrayed their country. The arena provided a living enactment of the hell portrayed by Christian preachers. Public punishment ritually re-established the moral and political order. The power of the state was dramatically reconfirmed.

When long-term peace came to the heartlands of the empire, after 31 BC, militaristic traditions were preserved at Rome in the domesticated battlefield of the amphitheatre. War had been converted into a game, a drama repeatedly replayed, of cruelty, violence, blood and death. But order still needed to be preserved. The fear of death still had to be assuaged by ritual. In a city as large as Rome, with a population of close on a million by the end of the last century BC, without an adequate police force, disorder always threatened.

Gladiatorial shows and public executions reaffirmed the moral order, by the sacrifice of human victims – slaves, gladiators, condemned criminals or impious Christians. Enthusiastic participation, by spectators rich and poor, raised and then released collective tensions, in a society which traditionally idealised impassivity. Gladiatorial shows provided a psychic and political safety valve for the metropolitan population. Politically, emperors risked occasional conflict, but the populace could usually be diverted or fobbed off. The crowd lacked the coherence of a rebellious political ideology. By and large, it found its satisfaction in cheering its support of established order. At the psychological level, gladiatorial shows provided a stage for shared violence and tragedy. Each show reassured spectators that they had yet again survived disaster. Whatever happened in the arena, the spectators were on the winning side. 'They found comfort for death' wrote Tertullian with typical insight, 'in murder'.

Keith Hopkins is Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Brunel University and the author of Conquerors and Slaves (CUP, 1978).

Today, the idea of gladiators fighting to the death, and of an amphitheatre where this could take place watched by an enthusiastic audience, epitomises the depths to which the Roman Empire was capable of sinking. Yet, to the Romans themselves, the institution of the arena was one of the defining features of their civilisation.

Gladiators . were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly.

Hardly any contemporary voices questioned the morality of staging gladiatorial combat. And the gladiators' own epitaphs mention their profession without shame, apology, or resentment. So who were these gladiators, and what was their role in Roman society?

The Romans believed that the first gladiators were slaves who were made to fight to the death at the funeral of a distinguished aristocrat, Junius Brutus Pera, in 264 BC. This spectacle was arranged by the heirs of the deceased to honour his memory.

Gradually gladiatorial spectacle became separated from the funerary context, and was staged by the wealthy as a means of displaying their power and influence within the local community. Advertisements for gladiatorial displays have survived at Pompeii, painted by professional sign-writers on house-fronts, or on the walls of tombs clustered outside the city-gates. The number of gladiators to be displayed was a key attraction: the larger the figure, the more generous the sponsor was perceived to be, and the more glamorous the spectacle.

Most gladiators were slaves. They were subjected to a rigorous training, fed on a high-energy diet, and given expert medical attention. Hence they were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly.

For a gladiator who died in combat the trainer (lanista) might charge the sponsor of the fatal spectacle up to a hundred times the cost of a gladiator who survived. Hence it was very much more costly for sponsors to supply the bloodshed that audiences often demanded, although if they did allow a gladiator to be slain it was seen as an indication of their generosity.

Remarkably, some gladiators were not slaves but free-born volunteers. The chief incentive was probably the down-payment that a volunteer received upon taking the gladiatorial oath. This oath meant that the owner of his troupe had ultimate sanction over the gladiator's life, assimilating him to the status of a slave (ie a chattel).

Some maverick emperors with a perverted sense of humour made upper-class Romans (of both sexes) fight in the arena. But, as long as they did not receive a fee for their participation, such persons would be exempt from the stain of infamia, the legal disability that attached to the practitioners of disreputable professions such as those of gladiators, actors and prostitutes.


Bears appear a few times in the history of warfare, but one bear in particular became famous for his exploits against the Germans during World War II.

Voytek was a Syrian brown bear cub adopted by troops from a Polish supply company who purchased him while they were stationed in Iran. The bear grew up drinking condensed milk from a vodka bottle and drinking beer. When the Polish troops were moved around as the war progressed, Voytek went too: to battle zones in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and then Italy.

Soon, Voytek had grown to weigh more than 880 pounds (400 kg) and stood more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall. In time, he was enlisted as a private soldier in the supply company, with his own paybook, rank and serial number, and eventually rose to the rank of corporal in the Polish Army. In 1944, Voytek was sent with his unit to Monte Casino in Italy, during one of bloodiest series of battles of World War II, where he helped carry crates of ammunition.

In his later years, Voytek lived at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he’d been stationed with his adopted supply company at the end of the war. He became a popular public figure in the United Kingdom, and often appeared on children’s television shows until his death in 1963.

How Did Roman Gladiators Train?

Roman gladiators were put through rigorous physical and psychological training that included instructions on how to behave, how to die and how to perform various war and combat tactics to stay alive during fights. Roman gladiators were thoroughly examined by physicians and trainers before being allowed to join training camps. Once accepted, gladiators learned how to use various tools such as shields and wooden swords, and how to ride horses to give themselves the greatest advantage during combat.

Gladiators were often trained in special training schools. Over 100 training facilities existed in ancient Rome, which looked and operated like prison systems. Gladiators were essentially prisoners, although they were deemed valuable because of their roles as soldiers, which allowed them to receive better treatment than other slaves. Gladiators came in many sizes, and had different sets of skills that made them valuable for different combat situations. Some proved to have exceptionally good equine handling skills and served as horseback-mounted soldiers. Other gladiators, particularly the largest and most athletic men, were trained to engage in hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield. Some gladiators were equipped with minimal amounts of equipment, which allowed them to run quickly and launch rapid attacks, while others were heavily armed.

What Animals Did Gladiators Fight?

The gladiators that fought animals, known as bestiarii, fought a variety of vicious mammals, including bears, lions, leopards, panthers and bulls. Contrary to popular belief, the bestiarii were distinct from gladiators. There were two types: those who were criminals or prisoners condemned to death by fighting animals, known as damnatio ad bestias, and those who volunteered to combat animals for pay or glory, known as venatio.

The animals fought by these bestiarii were mainly vicious predators. The most popular animal to fight was the lion, and there are many accounts of both prisoners and fighters being devoured. According to Roman orator Cicero, there was once a single lion that devoured more than 200 prisoners. More often than not, a single lion in combat with multiple men would emerge victorious.

Depending on the particular event, the animal could change. The most popular animals used for punishment were bears, leopards, Caspian tigers, black panthers and bulls. In some events, where the combatants were in it for sport rather than punishment, the animals could include crocodiles, hyenas, elephants, wild boars, buffalo, lynxes, giraffes, ostriches, deer, hares, antelopes and zebra. The latter animals were used to watch the hunt rather than to see an actual fight between men and beasts. Rather than purely being for sport, when prisoners were forced into combat with wild animals, it was often as a form of execution. Some prisoners were forced into the arenas naked and defenseless, and even if they defeated an animal, others would be sent in.

When did Gladiator Games begin in the Roman Republic?

The first gladiatorial games recorded in Rome took place in 264 BC when the sons of Decimus Junius Brutus organized an event for their recently deceased father. [4] After those games, there are no more records of gladiatorial events in Rome until 216 BC, probably because the Romans were too preoccupied with the increasingly tenuous geopolitical situation with Carthage, which eventually led to the Second Punic War (218-202 BC). Interestingly, the historian Livy wrote that the Carthaginian general Hannibal conducted his own blood sports-type when he invaded Rome in 218 BC. He wrote:

“He formed his troops into a circle and had some prisoners, whom he had captured in the mountains, brought into the middle of it in chains. Gallic weapons were laid on the ground in front of them, and an interpreter was told to ask if any of them would be willing to fight in single combat if he were released from his chains and offered a horse, together with the weapons, as the prize of victory.” [5]

It is unknown how much Hannibal’s “games” had on the Roman blood sports, but it cannot be discounted since the Roman blood sports were quite eclectic in their origins. By the late Republic, gladiatorial games were highly institutionalized – the gladiators were well-trained and valuable prisoners of war who fought in distinct styles. All gladiators were dressed as and fought in the style of one of Rome’s three early enemies: Samnite, Thracian, and Gaul. These three designations were introduced at an early point but were retained as long as gladiators fought in Rome. [6]

The life or death of a gladiator ?

The fight of the gladiators began with a loud trumpet sound. During the gladiator games Roman orchestra consisted of trumpets, horns and water organs or hydraulos. Different types of gladiators tried to use the advantages of their weapons and they trained to defeat their opponents – while the opponent of course tried the same. The winner of a fight, always left the arena alive. He may have succumbed to his injuries afterwards, but he rarely died in front of the audience.

The loser could give up: He can threw his weapon and shield, crouch on his knees and begged for mercy with outstretched forefinger. In a true Titan fight in which no winner could be determined, they ended the fight in a draw when both gladiators at the same time throw their weapons and gave up. The editor(sponsor and organizer of the games) had called for a fight with the finger, while the audience wanted to stop this fight and finally editor and audience could agreed to this compromise. In the arena sometimes several duels took place simultaneously and each coach was a referee at each fight. So the loser had a chance to recover even if he fainted from exhaustion. As it could be seen from the mosaic on the tomb from ancient city Pompeii, there was a referee intervenes when they hold the victorious gladiator from the deathblow. The loser’s life ultimately depended whether he was a good fighter. The final decision was made always by editor during a munus (commemorative duty). When the gladiator had given up, it was important for him to face death as stoically as possible, as the audience wanted to see the death of their intrepid heroes. The audience influenced the editor, with shouts and gestures, which finally decided on the further fate of the inferior.

When the fight ended with the death of a gladiator, an servant dressed as god Mercury (gr. Hermes Psychopomps = “the soul-accompanying Hermes”) entered into arena and tested if gladiator was still alive. If the gladiator was really death, then the underworld god Charon, a masked priest and the goddess of the funerals and burial Libitina, joined in the arena. They claimed the body of the dead gladiator with the stroke of a hammer on the forehead. This method was originated from the ancient Etruscan practice, who were sacrificed animals in honor of Libitina. Mercury dragged the body with a hook through the porta Libitinensis, a small gate in the arena wall. A hook was used to avoid contact with the dead body.

If loser survived the fight but sentenced to death by the editor, there was no mercy. In that case gladiator was killed outside the arena. However, if the audience was in a particularly bloodthirsty mood, they could demand from the editor to execute gladiator looser in front of their eyes. This must be a honorable death for gladiator: he kneels down, clung to his thigh, and bowed his head. The victor gladiator held the helmet or head of the defeated one with one hand, while he severed the cervical vertebrae with his sword on the another hand. Killing the wounded gladiator in the arena was the norm among convicted criminals.

Gladiators Training

The Roman gladiators received training at special schools known as Ludi. There were a large number of such schools established across the Roman Empire. Rome itself had four famous gladiator schools. The largest and the most popular among all was the Ludus Magnus that was linked to the infamous Roman Colosseum through an underground tunnel.

Another popular training center was located at Capua. This gladiatorial school became famous in 73 BC, when the Roman gladiator, Spartacus, sparked a slave rebellion in the area against the might of the Roman Empire.

In the Ludi, the gladiators received training like professional athletes and were taught to use different combat techniques and weapons, such as lasso, war chain, trident, net, and daggers, to defeat their opponent. They were allowed to fight with the equipments and weapons of their own choice and were required to fight 2-3 times a year. Gladiators also received three full meals and proper medical attention during the training period. However, condemned criminals who were sentenced to death for a capital crime received no such training at the ludus.

Gladiators were trained to play the role of Roman enemies during the games. They wore an armor that was different from the Roman military and used non-Roman weaponry for the combats. The various roles that they played included that of a Thracian, a Secutor, a Retiarius, and a Samnite. They were paid handsome sums of money every time they survived a gladiatorial combat. They were awarded their freedom if they managed to survive 3 to 5 years of deadly combats. The one was defeated in the arena begged for life or death, while the winner received awards, like a golden bowl, a golden crown, or a gold coin with a palm leaf, symbolizing victory.

Initially, only slaves and prisoners of war were made to become gladiators and fight in the arena using their traditional weapons and equipments. Slaves were bought by lanistas, owners of the gladiators, for the sole rationale of making them fight in the bloody gladiatorial combats. More..

Could You Stomach the Horrors of 'Halftime' in Ancient Rome?

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz is a New York Times best-selling nonfiction writer and poet, and the author of "Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine" (Avery, 2014), which made seven national "Best Books of 2014" lists, including those from Amazon, The Onion's AV Club, NPR's Science Friday and The Guardian, among others. Aptowicz contributed this exclusive article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The enormous arena was empty, save for the seesaws and the dozens of condemned criminals who sat naked upon them, hands tied behind their backs. Unfamiliar with the recently invented contraptions known as petaurua, the men tested the seesaws uneasily. One criminal would push off the ground and suddenly find himself 15 feet in the air while his partner on the other side of the seesaw descended swiftly to the ground. How strange.

In the stands, tens of thousands of Roman citizens waited with half-bored curiosity to see what would happen next and whether it would be interesting enough to keep them in their seats until the next part of the "big show" began.

With a flourish, trapdoors in the floor of the arena were opened, and lions, bears, wild boars and leopards rushed into the arena. The starved animals bounded toward the terrified criminals, who attempted to leap away from the beasts' snapping jaws. But as one helpless man flung himself upward and out of harm's way, his partner on the other side of the seesaw was sent crashing down into the seething mass of claws, teeth and fur.

The crowd of Romans began to laugh at the dark antics before them. Soon, they were clapping and yelling, placing bets on which criminal would die first, which one would last longest and which one would ultimately be chosen by the largest lion, who was still prowling the outskirts of the arena's pure white sand. [See Photos of the Combat Sports Played in Ancient Rome]

And with that, another "halftime show" of damnatio ad bestias succeeded in serving its purpose: to keep the jaded Roman population glued to their seats, to the delight of the event's scheming organizer.

Welcome to the show

The Roman Games were the Super Bowl Sundays of their time. They gave their ever-changing sponsors and organizers (known as editors) an enormously powerful platform to promote their views and philosophies to the widest spectrum of Romans. All of Rome came to the Games: rich and poor, men and women, children and the noble elite alike. They were all eager to witness the unique spectacles each new game promised its audience.

To the editors, the Games represented power, money and opportunity. Politicians and aspiring noblemen spent unthinkable sums on the Games they sponsored in the hopes of swaying public opinion in their favor, courting votes, and/or disposing of any person or warring faction they wanted out of the way.

The more extreme and fantastic the spectacles, the more popular the Games with the general public, and the more popular the Games, the more influence the editor could have. Because the Games could make or break the reputation of their organizers, editors planned every last detail meticulously.

Thanks to films like "Ben-Hur" and "Gladiator," the two most popular elements of the Roman Games are well known even to this day: the chariot races and the gladiator fights. Other elements of the Roman Games have also translated into modern times without much change: theatrical plays put on by costumed actors, concerts with trained musicians, and parades of much-cared-for exotic animals from the city's private zoos.

But much less discussed, and indeed largely forgotten, is the spectacle that kept the Roman audiences in their seats through the sweltering midafternoon heat: the blood-spattered halftime show known as damnatio ad bestias &mdash literally "condemnation by beasts" &mdash orchestrated by men known as the bestiarii.

Super Bowl 242 B.C: How the Games Became So Brutal

The cultural juggernaut known as the Roman Games began in 242 B.C., when two sons decided to celebrate their father's life by ordering slaves to battle each other to the death at his funeral. This new variation of ancient munera (a tribute to the dead) struck a chord within the developing republic. Soon, other members of the wealthy classes began to incorporate this type of slave fighting into their own munera. The practice evolved over time &mdash with new formats, rules, specialized weapons, etc. &mdash until the Roman Games as we now know them were born.

In 189 B.C., a consul named M. Fulvius Nobilior decided to do something different. In addition to the gladiator duels that had become common, he introduced an animal act that would see humans fight both lions and panthers to the death. Big-game hunting was not a part of Roman culture Romans only attacked large animals to protect themselves, their families or their crops. Nobilior realized that the spectacle of animals fighting humans would add a cheap and unique flourish to this fantastic new pastime. Nobilior aimed to make an impression, and he succeeded. [Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire]

With the birth of the first "animal program," an uneasy milestone was achieved in the evolution of the Roman Games: the point at which a human being faced a snarling pack of starved beasts, and every laughing spectator in the crowd chanted for the big cats to win, the point at which the republic's obligation to make a man's death a fair or honorable one began to be outweighed by the entertainment value of watching him die.

Twenty-two years later, in 167 B.C., Aemlilus Paullus would give Rome its first damnatio ad bestias when he rounded up army deserters and had them crushed, one by one, under the heavy feet of elephants. "The act was done publicly," historian Alison Futrell noted in her book "Blood in the Arena," "a harsh object lesson for those challenging Roman authority."

The "satisfaction and relief" Romans would feel watching someone considered lower than themselves be thrown to the beasts would become, as historian Garrett G. Fagan noted in his book "The Lure of the Arena," a "central … facet of the experience [of the Roman Games. … a feeling of shared empowerment and validation … " In those moments, Rome began the transition into the self-indulgent decadence that would come to define all that we associate with the great society's demise.

The Role of Julius Caesar

General Julius Caesar proved to be the first true maestro of the Games. He understood how these events could be manipulated to inspire fear, loyalty and patriotism, and began to stage the Games in new and ingenious ways. For example, Caesar was the first to arrange fights between recently captured armies, gaining firsthand knowledge of the fighting techniques used by these conquered people and providing him with powerful insights to aid future Roman conquests, all the while demonstrating the republic's own superiority to the roaring crowd of Romans. After all, what other city was powerful enough to command foreign armies to fight each other to the death, solely for their viewing pleasure?

Caesar used exotic animals from newly conquered territories to educate Romans about the empire's expansion. In one of his games, "Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome" author George Jennison notes that Caesar orchestrated "a hunt of four hundred lions, fights between elephants and infantry … [and] bull fighting by mounted Thessalians." Later, the first-ever giraffes seen in Rome arrived &mdash a gift to Caesar himself from a love-struck Cleopatra.

To execute his very specific visions, Caesar relied heavily on the bestiarii &mdash men who were paid to house, manage, breed, train and sometimes fight the bizarre menagerie of animals collected for the Games.

Managing and training this ever-changing influx of beasts was not an easy task for the bestiarii. Wild animals are born with a natural hesitancy, and without training, they would usually cower and hide when forced into the arena's center. For example, it is not a natural instinct for a lion to attack and eat a human being, let alone to do so in front of a crowd of 100,000 screaming Roman men, women and children! And yet, in Rome's ever-more-violent culture, disappointing an editor would spell certain death for the low-ranking bestiarii.

To avoid being executed themselves, bestiarii met the challenge. They developed detailed training regimens to ensure their animals would act as requested, feeding arena-born animals a diet compromised solely of human flesh, breeding their best animals, and allowing their weaker and smaller stock to be killed in the arena. Bestiarii even went so far as to instruct condemned men and women on how to behave in the ring to guarantee a quick death for themselves &mdash and a better show. The bestiarii could leave nothing to chance.

As their reputations grew, bestiarii were given the power to independently devise new and even more audacious spectacles for the ludi meridiani (midday executions). And by the time the Roman Games had grown popular enough to fill 250,000-seat arenas, the work of the bestiarii had become a twisted art form.

As the Roman Empire grew, so did the ambition and arrogance of its leaders. And the more arrogant, egotistic and unhinged the leader in power, the more spectacular the Games would become. Who better than the bestiarii to aid these despots in taking their version of the Roman Games to new, ever-more grotesque heights?

Caligula Amplified the Cruelty

Animal spectacles became bigger, more elaborate, and more flamboyantly cruel. Damnatio ad bestias became the preferred method of executing criminals and enemies alike. So important where the bestiarii's contribution, that when butcher meat became prohibitively expensive, Emperor Caligula ordered that all of Rome's prisoners "be devoured" by the bestiarii's packs of starving animals. In his masterwork De Vita Caesarum, Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (b. 69 A.D.) tells of how Caligula sentenced the men to death "without examining the charges" to see if death was a fitting punishment, but rather by "merely taking his place in the middle of a colonnade, he bade them be led away 'from baldhead to baldhead,'"(It should also be noted that Caligula used the funds originally earmarked for feeding the animals and the prisoners to construct temples he was building in his own honor!)

To meet this ever-growing pressure to keep the Roman crowds happy and engaged by bloodshed, bestiarii were forced to consistently invent new ways to kill. They devised elaborate contraptions and platforms to give prisoners the illusion they could save themselves &mdash only to have the structures collapse at the worst possible moments, dropping the condemned into a waiting pack of starved animals. Prisoners were tied to boxes, lashed to stakes, wheeled out on dollies and nailed to crosses, and then, prior to the animals' release, the action was paused so that bets could be made in the crowd about which of the helpless men would be devoured first.

Perhaps most popular &mdash as well as the most difficult to pull off &mdash were the re-creations of death scenes from famous myths and legends. A single bestiarius might spend months training an eagle in the art of removing a thrashing man's organs (a la the myth of Prometheus).

The halftime show of damnatio ad bestias became so notorious that it was common for prisoners to attempt suicide to avoid facing the horrors they knew awaited them. Roman philosopher and statesmen Seneca recorded a story of a German prisoner who, rather than be killed in a bestiarius' show, killed himself by forcing a communally used prison lavatory sponge down his throat. One prisoner who refused to walk into the arena was placed on a cart and wheeled in the prisoner thrust his own head between the spokes of its wheels, preferring to break his own neck than to face whatever horrors the bestiarius had planned for him.

It is in this era that Rome saw the rise of its most famous bestiarius, Carpophorus, "The King of the Beasts."

The Rise of a Beast Master

Carpophorus was celebrated not only for training the animals that were set upon the enemies, criminals and Christians of Rome, but also for famously taking to the center of the arena to battle the most fearsome creatures himself.

He triumphed in one match that pitted him against a bear, a lion and a leopard, all of which were released to attack him at once. Another time, he killed 20 separate animals in one battle, using only his bare hands as weapons. His power over animals was so unmatched that the poet Martial wrote odes to Carpophorus.

"If the ages of old, Caesar, in which a barbarous earth brought forth wild monsters, had produced Carpophorus," he wrote in his best known work, Epigrams. "Marathon would not have feared her bull, nor leafy Nemea her lion, nor Arcadians the boar of Maenalus. When he armed his hands, the Hydra would have met a single death one stroke of his would have sufficed for the entire Chimaera. He could yoke the fire-bearing bulls without the Colchian he could conquer both the beasts of Pasiphae. If the ancient tale of the sea monster were recalled, he would release Hesione and Andromeda single-handed. Let the glory of Hercules' achievement be numbered: it is more to have subdued twice ten wild beasts at one time."

To have his work compared so fawningly to battles with some of Rome&rsquos most notorious mythological beast sheds some light on the astounding work Carpophorus was doing within the arena, but he gained fame as well for his animal work behind the scenes. Perhaps most shockingly, it was said that he was among the few bestiarii who could command animals to rape human beings, including bulls, zebras, stallions, wild boars and giraffes, among others. This crowd-pleasing trick allowed his editors to create ludi meridiani that could not only combine sex and death but also claim to be honoring the god Jupiter. After all, in Roman mythology, Jupiter took many animal forms to have his way with human women.

Historians still debate how common of an occurrence public bestiality was at the Roman Games &mdash and especially whether forced bestiality was used as a form of execution &mdash but poets and artists of the time wrote and painted about the spectacle with a shocked awe.

"Believe that Pasiphae coupled with the Dictaean bull!" Martial wrote. "We've seen it! The Ancient Myth has been confirmed! Hoary antiquity, Caesar, should not marvel at itself: whatever Fame sings of, the arena presents to you."

The 'Gladiator' Commodus

The Roman Games and the work of the bestiarii may have reached their apex during the reign of Emperor Commodus, which began in 180 AD. By that time, the relationship between the emperors and the Senate had disintegrated to a point of near-complete dysfunction. The wealthy, powerful and spoiled emperors began acting out in such debauched and deluded ways that even the working class "plebs" of Rome were unnerved. But even in this heightened environment, Commodus served as an extreme.

Having little interest in running the empire, he left most of the day-to-day decisions to a prefect, while Commodus himself indulged in living a very public life of debauchery. His harem contained 300 girls and 300 boys (some of whom it was said had so bewitched the emperor as he passed them on the street that he felt compelled to order their kidnapping). But if there was one thing that commanded Commodus' obsession above all else, it was the Roman Games. He didn't just want to put on the greatest Games in the history of Rome he wanted to be the star of them, too.

Commodus began to fight as a gladiator. Sometimes, he arrived dressed in lion pelts, to evoke Roman hero Hercules other times, he entered the ring absolutely naked to fight his opponents. To ensure a victory, Commodus only fought amputees and wounded soldiers (all of whom were given only flimsy wooden weapons to defend themselves). In one dramatic case recorded in Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Commodus ordered that all people missing their feet be gathered from the Roman streets and be brought to the arena, where he commanded that they be tethered together in the rough shape of a human body. Commodus then entered the arena's center ring, and clubbed the entire group to death, before announcing proudly that he had killed a giant.

But being a gladiator wasn't enough for him. Commodus wanted to rule the halftime show as well, so he set about creating a spectacle that would feature him as a great bestiarius. He not only killed numerous animals &mdash including lions, elephants, ostriches and giraffes, among others, all of which had to be tethered or injured to ensure the emperor's success &mdash but also killed bestiarii whom he felt were rivals (including Julius Alexander, a bestiarius who had grown beloved in Rome for his ability to kill an untethered lion with a javelin from horseback). Commodus once made all of Rome sit and watch in the blazing midday sun as he killed 100 bears in a row &mdash and then made the city pay him 1 millions esterces (ancient Roman coins) for the (unsolicited) favor.

By the time Commodus demanded the city of Rome be renamed Colonia Commodiana ("City of Commodus") &mdash Scriptores Historiae Augustae, noted that not only did the Senate "pass this resolution, but … at the same time [gave] Commodus the name Hercules, and [called] him a god" &mdash a conspiracy was already afoot to kill the mad leader. A motley crew of assassins &mdash including his court chamberlain, Commodus' favorite concubine, and "an athlete called Narcissus, who was employed as Commodus' wrestling partner" &mdash joined forces to kill him and end his unhinged reign. His death was supposed to restore balance and rationality to Rome &mdash but it didn't. By then, Rome was broken &mdash bloody, chaotic and unable to stop its death spiral.

In an ultimate irony, reformers who stood up to oppose the culture's violent and debauched disorder were often punished by death at the hands of the bestiarii, their deaths cheered on by the very same Romans whom they were trying to protect and save from destruction.

The Death of the Games and the Rise of Christianity

As the Roman Empire declined, so did the size, scope and brutality of its Games. However, it seems fitting that one of the most powerful seeds of the empire's downfall could be found within its ultimate sign of contempt and power &mdash the halftime show of damnatio ad bestias.

Early Christians were among the most popular victims in ludi meridiani. The emperors who condemned these men, women and children to public death by beasts did so with the obvious hope that the spectacle would be so horrifying and humiliating that it would discourage any other Romans from converting to Christianity.

Little did they realize that the tales of brave Christians facing certain death with grace, power and humility made them some of the earliest martyr stories. Nor could they have imagined that these oft-repeated narratives would then serve as invaluable tools to drive more people toward the Christian faith for centuries to come.

In the end, who could have ever imagined that these near-forgotten "halftime shows" might prove to have a more lasting impact on the world than the gladiators and chariot races that had overshadowed the bestiarii for their entire existence?

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates &mdash and become part of the discussion &mdash on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

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