Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 04, Part 4 of 4

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

The games were worked on a very tight schedule and something had to be going on every minute or the crowd became restless.

Anyone who has ever had any connection with a modern circus knows what a tremendous problem it is to get the various acts, especially the animal acts, on and off on time.

The Romans were working with wild animals and condemned criminals so their problem was incredibly complicated. They were also operating on a gigantic scale—the games often ran for a couple of months and sometimes five thousand animals were in the arena at the same time. Getting such a huge number of animals out of their cages and into the arena must have been a fantastic job.

We have a pretty good idea how the Romans did it from studying the honeycomb of passages under the arena. The Romans used at least four systems. The cages could be dragged up to up to the arena on a series of ramps and then put into niches under the podium wall.

At a given signal, all the doors were opened simultaneously and at the same time slaves dropped burning straw into the backs of the cages through slots in the top specially provided for this purpose.

If there was an inner wall, the animals must have reached it by runways as lions enter the big cage in a modern circus. Or perhaps the cages were only kept in the podium niches so they'd be ready when the time came.

As soon as the previous act—chariot racing, gladiators or whatever— was finished, the cages were quickly pulled from their niches in the podium wall, dragged to openings in the inner barrier, and opened there.

Another method, probably used with less dangerous animals than the big cats, was to turn them loose in a passageway leading to the arena and then force them on with a movable wooden barrier that just fitted across the passage.

There were catches on the sides of the barrier that fitted into holes on the walls so the barrier couldn't be pushed back. These holes can still be seen.

Still another method was to put the animals into an elevator and take them directly up to the floor of the arena. There were a number of these elevators placed at various spots in the arena like trapdoors on a modem stage.

The elevator went down into a deep well, the animals were driven onto it, and then the platform was hoisted to arena level by pulleys.

In some cases, "breakaway" cages were used that would fall to pieces when certain pins were released. These cages were carried out into the arena, the pins jerked clear, and the animals left exposed as the sides of the cages fell to the ground.

The Romans also had cages that operated on the same principle as the chutes used in rodeos; that is, the two sides were hinged so that they could be swung back parallel with the rear leaving the animal completely exposed.

All these devices were necessary as it is almost impossible to induce a frightened animal to leave its cage under normal conditions.

In addition to the problems of handling the animals, the arena might in the course of a day's show be flooded for a sea fight and then planted to represent a forest.

This might be followed by the erection of an artificial mountain complete with streams, bushes and growing flowers, which then had to be cleared for chariot races and immediately afterwards a gigantic fight might be staged representing Hannibal's attack on Rome—including elephants and catapults plus a mock city defended by condemned legionnaires.

Thousands of slaves must have been employed in these great spectacles and every last one of them trained to split-second timing.

The sailors from the fleet were used to raise and lower the great awning as these were the only men with sufficient training to handle vast spreads of cloth. The places where the awning lines chafed the stone walls still show.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Five, Part 1 is next.

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