When it comes to how different peoples in history have viewed and treated animals, the Romans stand out. Mirroring a profoundly complex society, the treatment of animals in ancient Rome was complex and nuanced. To our eyes savage and perverse, the Roman treatment of animals was also riven with contradictions.
Governed by powerful cultural factors, Romans were happy to slaughter many thousands of beasts in their games, yet paradoxically, they were also fascinated by the exotic creatures they came to see. They could even exhibit a kind of warped sentimentality for the creatures they slaughtered.
The treatment of animals in ancient Rome is a vast topic, so we will focus solely on the Roman games. Let’s have a look at just what is fact, and what is fiction.
Animals in Ancient Rome: Origins
It’s true that the killing of animals in ancient Rome for religious and sporting reasons went way back to Rome’s archaic past.
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The games (ludi) began as rustic festivals in honor of the dead (munera), evolving over Rome’s long history of growth, expansion, and collapse. The use of animals in ancient Rome’s games had a long development and took in complex issues that went far beyond the prevalent modern myth, that the games were just about entertainment. Though they certainly became entertainment, the games had several societal and religious functions.
Originating as religious festivals to honor the deaths of distinguished figures, the games always contained an element of religious ritual. Influenced by some of Rome’s early tribal neighbors, they included ritualized sacrifice and killing. Early precursors to the Roman games can be traced back to the time of the kings.
Becoming an integral part of Roman identity, these spectacles were communal festivals, celebrations, and religious ceremonies. By the 3rd century BCE, the games included combat and the death of men (gladiators). It’s a fact that the Romans abhorred direct “human” sacrifice (i.e., ritual slaughter of men by priests), but they were always happy to let men and animals kill each other as part of their festivals.
It’s a myth that the games were all about gladiators. The killing of animals in ancient Rome’s games was predominant and highly significant in all periods.
By the late Republic, these spectacles were massively popular, growing into a full-scale form of entertainment.
Magistrates, governors, dictators, and emperors all held games in honor of their offices and achievements. These public demonstrations of elite power occupied a lot of time and resources:
“About the panthers, the usual hunters are doing their best on my instructions. But the creatures are in remarkably short supply, … Whatever comes to hand will be yours, but what that amounts to I simply do not know.”
[Cicero, Letters, 90]
Republican power figures like Pompey the Great, attempted to enter Rome in a chariot pulled by elephants, while Mark Antony was said to have yoked a team of lions. Showing exotic animals in ancient Rome brought kudos; a commodity by which Rome’s elite sought to outdo one another in extravagance.
In terms of frequency and scale, the games were highly significant. The Roman calendar was often dominated by shows, many lasting over hundreds of days. Semi-standardized by tradition, different events were governed by different rules, the animal hunts taking place in the mornings:
“In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty.”
[Seneca, Letters, 7.4-5]
The sheer number of source references, as well as archaeological and pictorial evidence (from mosaics and freezes), suggests that the Romans were obsessed with the games. A massive part of which was the killing of animals.
Many “sports” developed, such as chariot racing, wrestling, boxing, hunts, and specialized gladiatorial fights. Human victims included rebels, outlaws, slaves, and military captives. Here the games served as a forum for execution and judicial punishment, with animals in ancient Rome often used to kill the subjects.
In Rome, Italy, and across the empire, killing spectacles operated at various levels of scale and sophistication. Not just the iconic images we have of the grand Colosseum or Circus Maximus at Rome, but in all the provinces, from great arenas to shabby death pits. The scale was enormous, and the impact was to have a major effect on Rome’s politics and economy. The demand for animals in ancient Rome even had a deep ecological impact, affecting the flora and fauna of the Roman world.
It’s true that the games constantly adapted and evolved over many centuries, but they retained many core roots of tradition.
Like connoisseurs of a bloody art, Romans developed many “specialisms” of killing that evolved out of religious and judicial custom. Bestiarii did combat with wild animals. Some were unarmed victims, thrown or fed to wild animals in spectacles of pure brutality, and included criminals, debtors, and others who had been condemned to death:
“And with regard to such as were convicted of any great delinquency, he even exceeded the punishment appointed by law, and condemned them to be exposed to wild beasts.”
[Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 14]
The damnatio ad bestias or condemnation of beasts, made for a bloody spectacle to entertain the crowd and demonstrate the unbending brutality of Roman power. In the later empire, this included sects or groups persecuted by the state, such as early Christians.
Other types of bestiarii had more agency and were trained in the use of hunting weapons to do battle with animals. These show-hunters entertained with their skill, bringing down prey with spears, swords, and even bows. Some were forced to fight, while others were professional showmen. The “venatio” or hunt, often involved the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of animals, and the numbers mentioned are staggering. Killing animals in ancient Rome was hugely popular.
Going into imperial times, good games might include animals in their tens of thousands, slaughtered over many days:
“He [Titus] likewise exhibited a naval fight in the old Naumachia, besides a combat of gladiators; and in one day brought into the theatre five thousand wild beasts of all kinds.”
[Suetonius, Life of Titus, 7]
Romans retained highly stigmatized views concerning the low status of gladiators, but by the imperial period, at least some bestiarii were drawn from the elite classes. This appears to have been permitted by the morally austere Augustus as a good form of training for the youth:
“In the circus he exhibited chariot and foot races, and combats with wild beasts, in which the performers were often youths of the highest rank.”
[Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 43]
Some “disreputable” emperors killed animals in ancient Rome’s arenas and both Nero and the notorious Commodus were said to have practiced hunts in the arena. However, this was not at all the norm, and it drew criticism from moral conservatives.
It’s a myth that the Romans only killed large prey, though large and exotic game retained most fascination.
The killing of animals in ancient Rome even included minor games, like birds and rabbits that were slaughtered in the arena. Of the animals killed, bulls, bears, and exotic species like big cats, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, and ostriches, were all seen, though not equally common. Wild and exotic animals were more popular than the timid or mundane. They came from the wild north, the hot African south, or else were transported via eastern trade routes.
Big cats became a popular feature of the games, with Africa a major (though not sole) contributor. In 186 BCE Marcus Fulvius Nobilior brought the first big cats to Rome:
“… then for the first time [he] made a spectacle for the Romans and a hunt of lions and panthers was given, and the games, in number and variety, were celebrated in a manner almost like that of the present time.”
[Livy, History, 39.22.2]
Bears were popular and were funneled into amphitheaters from Europe and Africa. Some Roman observations — even those that sought to be “scientific” — are distressing:
“The head of the bear is extremely weak, whereas, in the lion, it is remarkable for its strength: on which account it is, that when the bear, impelled by any alarm, is about to precipitate itself from a rock, it covers its head with its paws. In the arena of the Circus, they are often to be seen killed by a blow on the head with the fist.”
[Pliny, Natural History, 8.54.11]
Crocodiles were especially fascinating to the Romans and came via the empire’s exploration and dominance over the Egyptian Nile. In 58 BCE, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus brought back crocodiles and hippopotami to the capital. These animals were shown in a flooded artificial lake created within the Circus.
In 2 BCE, a display of 36 crocodiles was also put on in the Circus Flaminius and included both beasts and their handlers, (men from Tentyra):
“When crocodiles were brought to Rome to be exhibited, they were attended by some of the Tentyritæ. A reservoir was made for them with a sort of stage on one of the sides, to form a basking-place for them on coming out of the water, and these persons went into the water, drew them in a net to the place, where they might sun themselves and be exhibited, and then dragged them back again to the reservoir…”
[Strabo, Geography, 17.1.44]
Elephants were among the most impressive animals in ancient Rome and were prized for their size and majesty. Several known instances of elephant hunts and slaughters are mentioned. The most famous occurred in 55 BCE when Pompey the Great celebrated the opening of his grand theatre in Rome:
“… Pompey opened his theatre and held gymnastic and musical contests at its dedication, and furnished combats of wild beasts in which five hundred lions were killed, and above all, an elephant fight, a most terrifying spectacle.”
[Plutarch, Life of Pompey 52]
Some elephants in Pompey’s games were used in a full-scale battle and some were hunted:
“… in the Circus [there was] a horse-race and the slaughter of many wild beasts of all kinds. Indeed, five hundred lions were used up in five days, and eighteen elephants fought against men in heavy armour. Some of these beasts were killed at the time and others a little later.”
[Cassius Dio, History, 39.38]
Intended to reflect Pompey’s glory as a conqueror of foreign lands, these games also lead us to one of the more curious aspects of the killing of animals in ancient Rome.
The slaughter of animals in ancient Rome is shocking, but it’s a myth to think that the Romans were devoid of morality or sentiment.
They were not, it’s just that their sentiments were very different from our own. As confirmed by several sources, we hear that on the last day of Pompey’s great games, something went badly wrong:
“The last day was that of the elephants, on which there was a great deal of astonishment on the part of the vulgar crowd, but no pleasure whatever. Nay, 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, Letter, 126]
Writing over a century later, Pliny the Elder was still marveling over this tremendous PR disaster:
“When, however, the elephants in the exhibition given by Pompeius had lost all hopes of escaping, they implored the compassion of the multitude by attitudes which surpass all description, and with a kind of lamentation bewailed their unhappy fate. So greatly were the people affected by the scene, that, forgetting the general altogether, and the munificence which had been at such pains to do them honour, the whole assembly rose in tears, and showered curses on Pompeius, ….”
[Pliny, Natural History, 8.7]
This was truly exceptional! Romans did not — almost ever — show compassion for animals that were slaughtered, yet the drivers that governed their bloodlust were complex. Pompey’s elephant slaughter was akin to a bad horror movie that caused moral revulsion. Like shock movies today, it created an outcry, yet it in no way shook faith in the core product of animal slaughter. The killing of animals in ancient Rome’s games was too loved for that.
Yet there was such a thing as “bad taste,” deriving from “weak character”. It was frequently referenced by moral philosophers. They had no problem with killing per se but rather felt that too much bloodlust showed the immoderate weakness of character. To love anything too much, including slaughter, was to be a slave to the passions. The father of Nero — Gnaeus Domitius Ahenaborus — showed early sadistic tendencies:
“He gave hunts of wild beasts, both in the Circus and in all the wards of the city; also, a show of gladiators; but with such barbarity, that Augustus, after privately reprimanding him, to no avail, was obliged to restrain him by a public edict.”
[Suetonius, Life of Nero, 4]
So ran morality. The killing of animals in ancient Rome was no problem at all — it was widely enjoyed — but to kill vulgarly, was truly distasteful. It centrally showed a lack of “class,” and snobbish commentaries abound in the sources, about how the urban poor loved the games in a way that was seen as crass by their elite countrymen.
It’s true that the Romans were obsessed with the notion of a good death. Admired in men and animals, a noble death was deeply lauded in Roman culture, while a poor one (i.e., one that exhibited fear) was disdained.
Romans did not generally feel great compassion for those facing death, but they held huge admiration for those that died well. This shocking attitude applied as much to foreign people, just as it did to foreign animals.
The complexity of such views is evident in how Pliny describes the hunting (in the wild) of lions, a fascination only augmented by the animal’s inherent nobility in extremis:
“The generous disposition of the lion is more especially manifested in time of danger; not only at the moment when, despising all weapons, he long defends himself solely by the terror which he inspires, and protests, as it were, that he is compelled thus to defend himself, but when he rises at last, not as though constrained by danger, but as if enraged by the mad folly of his adversaries. This, however, is a still more noble feature of his courage — however numerous the dogs and hunters may be that press upon him, as he makes his retreat, he comes to a stand every now and then upon the level plain, while he is still in view, and scowls contemptuously upon them …”
[Pliny Natural History, 8.19]
With some sincerity, it can be argued that the Romans loved animals. It’s just that they did not love them in a way that we can relate to. They certainly admired many of the animals they saw in the arena, but they admired them specifically in death and extreme plight. To our view, Roman morality is highly questionable, and yet in many respects, the Romans were not unlike us.
However, some sentimentality did exist, and many prominent Romans and emperors are anecdotally attested as having sincerely loved horses, dogs, birds, and other pets. It’s hard to reconcile this with the callous bloodlust that the Romans exhibited toward the slaughter of animals in ancient Rome, yet it is true.
“Give your little son the gazelle for a plaything, which the crowd in the amphitheatre like to scare by waving their togas.”
[Martial, Epigrams, 13.98]
All classes were fascinated by exotic animals in ancient Rome. Literature reveals there was a genuine, casual, and scientific obsession with the natural world. This often gave rise to all kinds of weird and bizarre zoological observations, many of which we would dismiss in a more scientific age; but it represented an attempt by the Romans to understand the world around them.
Animals in Ancient Rome: In Conclusion
Animals in ancient Rome were a resource to be killed, a commodity to be used, and an object of religious sacrifice. As Rome progressed, animals increasingly became a source of sport and entertainment.
Viewing the world very differently, Romans occupied a brutal and superstitious realm where savage tribes and unpredictable wild nature frequently challenged their sense of order. Fang, hoof, and claw were significant elements of the “wild”. Engrained superstition and religious belief augmented this, and the killing of animals in ancient Rome brought some reassurance, that they might appease — or perhaps even conquer — some of these unpredictable forces.
Violence and martial power were virtues that were deeply cherished within Roman culture. The killing of animals for sport was no different from how Romans treated the people they subdued. Sentimentally for animals in ancient Rome was a low priority for a culture that ruthlessly killed and enslaved its human enemies.
Roman society was underpinned by violence and brutality and when we tie that to their distinct fetishization of death, we see the treatment of animals in the games come into focus. That does not make it any more palatable, but it does aid our understanding.
However, let’s make no bones about it, the Romans enjoyed killing. They made a deliberate spectacle of death. The slaughter of animals may have fulfilled a range of roles — taking in religion, power, punishment, and identity — but the games also became popular mass entertainment.
All societies and empires have killed animals (and people) on different scales, and yet as most historians agree, Rome remains exceptional within history for the scale on which it had slaughtered.