Wild animal hunts

A show in the amphitheatre started in the morning with wild animal hunts. These were a kind of warming-up for the gladiatorial combat in the afternoon.

The Romans had their first encounter with exotic animals in 275 BC, when elephants of the army of Pyrrhus were captured and brought to Rome in triumph. From the second century BC onwards, wild animal hunts (venatio) were added as an extra attraction to the state games (ludi), which previously consisted only of horse races and theatre shows. The animals were captured during special expeditions in Africa. At the end of the first century BC, the venationes were combined with the gladiatorial combat (munera) in the amphitheatre.

The morning activities in the amphitheatre usually started with fights between animals. The spectators knew in advance which animals would participate, but not how they were matched up, e.g. a bull versus an elephant, a lion versus a leopard, etc. After these fights, tamed animals performed tricks as intermezzo. Then trained men (venatores or bestiarii) fought wild animals, sometimes one man against one animal, sometimes a group of hunters against a herd of animals. At some occasions, large numbers of wild animals were killed. For the games organised by Pompeius in 55 BC, for example, 600 lions, 410 leopards, many monkeys, a rhinoceros and a lynx were brought to Rome.

After the wild animal hunt, public executions were staged around lunch time. Citizens were normally killed with a sword, slaves and freedman crucified. Most spectacular for the spectators was the death of those condemned 'to the beasts': defenseless prisoners turned over to wild and hungry animals.

Wild animal hunts were still popular and continued in the early Middle Ages, much longer than the gladiatorial combat, because there was no Christian protest against them. Spanish bull fights go back to these early Medieval animal hunts.

© KU Leuven, 2012