‘Beast-Hunts’ in Roman Amphitheaters: The Impact of the Venationes on Animal Populations in the Ancient Roman World
By Elliott Kidd
The Eagle Feather (2012)
Abstract: The brutality of the Ancient Roman culture is as much a part of its appeal as its obvious horror. Often, the Romans would entertain themselves with spectacles both benevolent and malevolent. One of many blood-filled sources of entertainment for the Romans was the venationes, or wild beast hunts, that took place in amphitheaters for hundreds of years around the Roman Empire. These games started out as relatively innocent festivals, but by the time of emperors such as Titus or Domitian, the venationes had escalated in large cities like Rome. Over time the small local shows and the grand venationes of the cities began to endanger populations of animals from all corners of Roman influence. Lions, elephants, tigers, bears, panthers, and other animals disappeared from their habitats. The impact of the Roman triumph over the wild is assessed and the extent of the loss of exotic animals that followed is estimated.
The brutality of the Ancient Roman culture is as much a part of its appeal as its obvious horror. When it came to the gladiatorial arena, only the strongest (or in some cases, the cleverest or luckiest) would survive, and that produced a certain heroic quality about the games for those who witnessed the high pressure, life-and-death situations. Seneca said, “[W]e are stirred at times with pleasure if a youth of steady courage meets with his spear an onrushing wild beast, if unterrified he sustains the charge of a lion; and the more honorable the youth that does it, the more pleasing this spectacle becomes,” yet for all of those nameless heroes of the arena there are hundreds more that died violently without glory.
Among those lost were those unfortunate souls that were fed to the beasts; lions, tigers, and bears joined panthers, wolves, and dozens of other animals that were to be showcased in the splendor of the amphitheaters. Like their gladiator counterparts, these captured animals seldom survived the harshness of the spectacles performed in the arena. As a result, thousands of animals died, sometimes on a daily basis. Eventually, some animal species slowly started to vanish from parts of the Empire while others migrated away; entire populations were wiped out or left with so few numbers that they went extinct. Between the beast hunts held in Rome and its provinces, the impact on the animal populations throughout its empire was severe.