Many Movies about Gladiators like to show men who get torn apart by wild animals. Most of the time these men are either called Gladiators or shown while fighting wild animals at the same time the gladiator fights take place.
Both depictions are wrong!
During the time of the Roman empire Gladiators only fought against other Gladiators, not wild animals!
But let`s find out more about why many movie-makers get confused over the different types of men who fought wild animals in the colosseum.
- 1 How were animals used in the roman arenas?
- 2 Did men fight against wild animals in the colosseum?
- 3 What animals fought in the roman arenas?
- 4 When would the animal fights happen?
- 5 Did Animals fight each other in the Colosseum?
- 6 How many animals were killed in the gladiatorial games?
- 7 Sources
How were animals used in the roman arenas?
There are two ways that animals were used in the arena.
1. Execution of convicted Criminals
2. men vs animal or animal vs animal
Click here to read more about at what point of time during a gladiatorial event the executions and the animal fights took place.
Execution of convicted Criminals
The Punishments roman law had to offer were quite harsh. Here, I will focus on the damnatio ad bestias (the Condemnation to animals).
If you like to find out more about other possible punishments for Convicts (including the damnatio ad ludos and damnatio ad gladios) you might want to check out my article here.
The execution by wild animals was pretty close to how movies portray it. The convict would be lead inside the arena and tied to a pale.
After the servants would have returned to the security of the catacombs of the arena one or multiple animals were released into the arena.
It is quite easy to imagine that these wild animals, which after a long journey (more on that later) were held in cages, usually weren`t in the best mood. And to further incite these animals they would usually be starved for a few days before the event.
That made them hungry and even more dangerous and it usually didn`t take a lot of time until they realized the tied-up convict.
Just imagine the horror that a convict must have had when he was tied to the pale and a lion slowly emerged from the catacombs of the arena and approached him.
I think I can leave the following events to your imagination…
It is important to emphasize that these convicts didn`t have any chance of leaving the arena alive. It was an execution.
And that is the main difference to the venatores.
Did men fight against wild animals in the colosseum?
Since hunting was quite popular in Rome the fights between men and wild animals were (together with the fights between Gladiators) the highlight of every gladiatorial event.
The men who fought wild animals in the colosseum were called venatores. Venatores were well-trained professionals and must not be confused with the convicts that were sentenced to be killed by wild animals.
Check out my article here to find out more about the order events like the animal hunts and the gladiator fights took place and why the term gladiatorial game might not be precise to describe the entire event.
Facing a wild animal while only wearing minimal armor and light weapons embodied several soldierly virtues like courage and a certain contempt for death to the Romans.
The men who would fight these animals were called venatores. From the word venatio which means hunt. As already mentioned, they differed drastically from the criminals that were sentenced to be killed wild animals.
The Venatores were trained in the best ways to kill the animals without getting killed themselves. Many of their trainers were actually also „imported“ from the regions where the specific animals were native to teach the venatores all the knowledge they had.
The social status and the reasons why men ended up as venatores are quite similar to the reasons how men ended up as Gladiators. Click here to check out my article where I describe the different ways to become a gladiator (or venator).
Venatores were usually only lightly armed with a spear or a sword. They sometimes also had light armor to protect themselves. Now one might think that facing a wild lion with a spear is a suicide mission. But actually, it wasn`t!
Venatores had about the same mortality rate as Gladiators. Click here for the surprising truth on how many (or better how few) gladiators died in the arena.
The tradition of organizing animal fights for political purposes goes back as early as 186 BC. Click here to read my article for more information on why these animal hunts & gladiator fights were held in the first place.
And animal hunts in the Colosseum would only end in the year 523 AD (long after gladiator fights had disappeared) showing how popular they were.
More information on why gladiator fights disapperared here in my article.
Before the Colosseum was finished in 80 AD, click here to read my article for more information, animal hunts would be held in the Circus Maximus or even on the Forum.
To protect the viewer from the animals, temporary structures like nets or lattices were installed between the fighting ground and the spectators.
There was a variety of local and alien animals that would be used in the arenas all over the roman empire. Click here to learn more about the different structures in which the Games were held in the different parts of the roman empire.
Did Gladiators fight wild animals during the roman republic?
It seems like during the time of the roman republic Gladiators would on extremely rare occasions fight against wild animals.
At least there is one depiction from Milano where a Thraex, click here for more information of the different types of Gladiators, fought against a bear.
These rare occasions completely disappeared with the gladiatorial reforms of the first Roman emperor Augustus and the beginning of the roman empire.
What animals fought in the roman arenas?
It is interesting to see that wolves were not shown during these animal fights in the Colosseum or other arenas.
That and the fact that Romans generally tried to avoid harming wolves is probably a direct result of the founding myth of Rome.
If you are interested in the founding myth of Rome (and the actual scientific origin of Rome) I would like to recommend you my article here.
When would the animal fights happen?
Animal fights would usually be held in the morning before the public executions during lunchtime and the fights between Gladiators in the afternoon.
Check out my article here for more context on the order of the events from the weeks before to the day of the gladiatorial games.
Did Animals fight each other in the Colosseum?
Apart from men fighting animals Romans would also force animals to fight each other in the Colosseum.
A popular combination was the fight between a bull and a bear. To get them to fight each other one leg of each animal would be connected with a short-chain. Additionally, the animals would be provoked by servants with torches, whips and even lances with glowing tips.
These fights happened in arenas and other buildings all over the roman empire.
How many animals were killed in the gladiatorial games?
It is impossible to know how many animals were killed. All we know is that the number must have been enormous.
Just a few examples:
Julius Caesar managed to send 400 lions into the arena. And he did that on only one day. His rival, then allied, then again rival Gnaeus Pompejus needed 5 days to use the same amount of lions.
It is estimated that the games that were held by the first Roman emperor Augustus did cost the lives of 3.500 Elephants during the 41 years of his rule. Giving an actual number of the animals that died during the gladiatorial games is impossible.
Keep in mind, importing elephants from Africa to Rome by ship was way harder than importing smaller animals like lions.
So the number of animals that lost their lives in the different arenas of the Roman empire must have been jaw-dropping!
And here you can find my top 10 reasons why Gladiator fights were so popular.
I hope you enjoyed our short trip into the world of the gladiators.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
K. Nossov; Gladiator: The complete Guide to Ancient Rome`s Bloody fighters (2011).
F. Meijer; Gladiatoren. Das Spiel um Leben und Tod (Amsterdam 2003).
M. Junkelmann, Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren (Mainz am Rhein 2000).