Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 11, Part 1 of 7

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

THE ARENA HAD BEEN FLOODED during the night with salt water carried from the port of Ostia. (And how the Romans even with their unlimited manpower and wealth were able to accomplish this miracle I can't imagine.)

The arena had been transformed into an enormous aquarium full of "sea monsters"—I suppose sharks and giant rays. Sicilian sponge divers with knives between their teeth dove from the podium wall into the artificial lake and fought the monsters.

Afterwards, there was a nautical engagement between two fleets of galleys, one fleet sailing in by way of the Gate of Life and the other through the Gate of Death.

While the arena was being drained, a seal act was put on; the seals barking in response to their names and retrieving fish for their masters. Then a bullfight was staged on the soggy sand.

The bulls were aurochs, a species of wild cattle now extinct, musk ox, and the European bison. The Romans perfectly understood the difference between these animals, having seen them many times in the arena, but as late as the eighteenth century naturalists were still confusing the different species.

The aurochs somewhat resembled the long-homed cattle of the old West except that they were considerably heavier and had short beards.

An old bull's horns might be over six feet long-The European bison is much like his American cousin but rather smaller. The musk ox are the same.

Bullfights were first introduced into the games by the Emperor Claudius because they were comparatively cheap. Probably even semi-wild animals could be driven to Rome by mounted men just as the wild long-horns were herded by cowboys or the modem Spanish fighting bulls can be herded by mounted men with wooden lances.

As long as the animals remain in a herd, they are fairly docile. Only when a single animal is cut off from the group does he become savage.

When the wild cattle first entered the arena, they were thrown dummies to toss. This trick put them in the mood to handle humans. Then the bestiarii dodgers entered the arena.

The inner barricade to keep the animals in the center of the arena had been erected and burladeros (the Romans called them cochleas) such as are used in a modem bullring had been put up at intervals.

The dodgers darted out from behind the shelter of these burladeros and rushed across the arena, encouraging the bulls to pursue them. An experienced dodger could tell without looking back how far the bull was behind him.

If he had a lead, he'd slow down to make it look good. When the bull began to catch up, he'd put on a sudden sprint to reach the burladeros. As the man slipped behind the burladeros, the pursuing bull would often hit the wood with his horn, sometimes knocking off a large splinter two or three feet in length.

One such splinter shot into the stands and killed a spectator.

Often two dodgers would work together, "spinning" a bull by keeping one man at the head and the other at the tail while the animal whirled around trying to reach first one and then the other of his tormentors.

This trick could only be played with an inexperienced animal. A bull who had been in the ring several times before knew the ropes and would concentrate on one man, but the dodgers could recognize such an animal almost immediately by the way he took up a stand and forced the men to come to him instead of charging about blindly.

After a few minutes of this work, the bulltumblers entered. They were both men and women, naked except for a loincloth.

These performers were Cretans and were performing a traditional art which can still be seen in the frescos at Cnossus. I'll admit that most antiquarians doubt if Cretans ever performed in an arena but there are Roman murals of men turning somersaults over a bull's back, and I don't think that there's any question that this was a fairly standard act.

It's still occasionally done in modern rodeos. One man would distract the bull's attention while the other ran forward and grabbed the bull's horns, immediately springing up and putting his feet on the bull's forehead (aficionados will please remember that these were not Spanish fighting bulls but wild cattle).

As the bull tossed his head, the tumbler would shoot into the air, turn a somersault, and land on the bull's back, instantly sliding off while his friends shouted and ran in front of the bull to keep him occupied.

A variation of this stunt was to turn a back somersault and be caught by two waiting friends. A man with impetus of the bull's toss to help him could go nearly fifty feet.

Usually the bull instead of pursuing the man would stop, shake his puzzled head as if to say, "Where did he go?" and charge another tumbler.

In all these stunts, the tumblers were more afraid of the bulls' hooves than their horns. If a man slipped he could often avoid the great horns but he could not keep the bull from trampling him. Then the animal's great weight crushed his lungs and ruptured his liver.

There were frequent fights between the animals. An aurochs bull approached one of the bison who was lying down. The aurochs snorted, pawed the sand, but would not attack.

A dodger ran between the two animals, inciting the aurochs to charge, but instead of the aurochs, the bison was enraged. He sprang to his feet and charged the man with a speed no aurochs could have equaled.

The dodger ran for the burladero as he had never run before but the bison would have had him if the aurochs had not attacked the bison. The bison whirled and tossed the aurochs, lifting him clean off the sand.

When the aurochs landed, the bison gave him a quick, short thrust in the eye, breaking off part of the horn in the aurochs' skull. Then he spun away on his forelegs, not his rear, and trotted off leaving the mortally wounded aurochs dying on the sand.

At this moment a wildly excited patrician lady tore off a valuable brooch and, for no reason except that she was mad with excitement, hurled it into the ring.

Her escort, a young knight, sprang from the podium, ran to the inner barrier, vaulted it and retrieved the broach. But the bison saw him. The animal turned and charged, killing the man almost instantly.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Eleven, Part 2 is next.

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