Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 05, Part 1 of 4

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

By THE TIME the Colosseum was built, wild animal shows were an important part of the games. Wild beasts had always appeared in the shows from the earliest days, either in the form of trained animal acts or for hunts in which deer, wild goats, and antelopes were turned loose in the arena and killed by experienced hunters.

Later dangerous animals such as lions, leopards, wild boars, and dangerous animals; such as, lions, leopards, wild boars, and tigers were introduced and gladiators sent out to kill them.

Augustus had a bandit named Selurus dropped into a cage of wild beasts and this sight made such a hit that the execution of condemned prisoners by wild animals became a regular part of the shows.

So many elaborate and ingenious uses were made of wild animals (which were particularly popular with the mob while the upper classes preferred the gladiatorial contests) that a special class of men called bestiarii were created to handle the animal turns.

These men had their own school as did the gladiators and had their own traditions, professional slang and uniform.

One of these bestiarii was named Carpophorus. We know of him because the poet Martial wrote enthusiastically, "Carpophorus could have handled the hydra, the chimaera, and the fire-eating bulls at the same time."

That's all we know about Carpophorus. Let's describe a top bestiarii during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, shortly after the building of the Colosseum. We'll call our hero Carpophorus for convenience's sake.

Carpophorus, we'll suppose, was a freeman. He was the son of freed slaves who had died, leaving the boy destitute.

As his parents had been freed, the boy was also free, but as the son of former slaves, he was regarded with contempt by the Roman mob.

Because of this prejudice, finding a job was even harder for him than for most people of his time and at an early age the boy took to hanging around the Circus Maximus, the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Neronis, and all the other big and little circuses in Rome of the period, including traveling shows that set up where ever they could find an open spot and featured a few worn-out gladiators and some moth-eaten lions.

Little Carpophorus carried water for the elephants, cleaned the cages, polished the gladiators' armor and ran errands for a few copper pieces and his meals.

At night he slept under the arches of the Circus Maximus. There were hundreds of these arches supporting the tiers of seats above and they formed a maze of interlocking passages, holes, runways, and narrow slits where only a boy could crawl.

Carpophorus learned to know the whole tangle blindfolded. This "under the stands" was a world of its own inhabited by fortunetellers, astrologers, fruit and souvenir sellers, sausage and hamburg vendors, and prostitutes.

All these people formed a close-knit fraternity of their own and made their living out of the crowds going to see the shows.

People in the stands who got bored with the games would leave their seats and stroll down to this underground world where they could buy special dishes at the various stands, get a skin of wine, watch Syrian and Moorish women do obscene dances to the music of drums, cymbals, and castanets, or engage the services of the plump, highly painted little boys who went around with their smocks hitched up above buttocks.

In this world, Carpophorus grew up. Although he had dreamed at one time of being a famous gladiator and at another of being a great charioteer, his real talent was always with animals.

He picked up a couple of stray dogs in the streets and taught them to dance on their hind legs, walk a tightrope, howl dismally when asked, "What do you think of the Red, White, and Blue teams"? and bark enthusiastically when asked, "What do you think of the Greens"?

This, of course, if the onlooker was wearing a green flower or scarf. As the dogs obeyed secret hand signals rather than the words, they could be made to bark or whine on whatever color Carpophorus wished.

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

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