Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 12, Part 3 of 4

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

The Romans also exhibited unicorns. These animals were really oryx antelopes from Africa but the bestiarii would take a young oryx and bind his horns together as though grafting twigs.

The soft young horns would grow together, producing one straight horn which was a far better weapon against other animals in the arena. The legend of the unicorn probably originated from this custom although some students believe that the original unicorn was the one-horned rhinoceros of India.

Individual fights were often staged between animals, and some of these animals became as well known as the famous gladiators. Statius wrote a beautiful ode to a lion who was killed by a younger opponent in the arena at the time of Domitian: "Poor fellow, what good has it done you to learn to obey a master weaker than yourself, to learn to leave and re-enter your cage on command, to retrieve your quarry for him and even let him put his hand between your jaws? Once you were the terror of the arena and all the other lions shrank back when you marched past. You died fighting, as bravely as any soldier, and even when you knew that you'd received your death wound, you waited with open jaws for the enemy to finish you off."

"Yet know that the people and the senate mourn for you as though you were a famous gladiator and among thousands of other beasts gathered from Scythia to the banks of the Rhine, Caesar's face only fell when you died although it was nothing but another lion lost."

There are accounts of trained lions being used to pull chariots for the editor of the games and also several cases when trained lions saved their bestiarii masters from wild animals.

Then, of course, there's the famous story of Androcles and the lion. Androcles was a Greek slave who escaped from his master and, while wandering around the desert, met a lion with a thorn in his foot. Androcles pulled out the thorn and the lion never forgot the kind deed.

Later, the lion was captured and shipped to the arena and so was Androcles. The starved lion was turned loose in the arena to devour the escaped slave but the lion refused to harm the man who had befriended him. A leopard was turned loose to do the job and the lion killed the leopard to defend his pal. The crowd demanded that both Androcles and the lion be freed.

Afterwards, Androcles made a living by exhibiting the lion in taverns. Gellius and Aelian both swear to the truth of this story (it happened during the reign of Claudius) so I'll believe it. Ordinarily, I'd have my doubts. Anyhow, it's one of the best authenticated legends in history.

What happened to Carpophorus? I don't know so I'll invent an ending suitable for this strange man.

A wealthy noblewoman asked Carpophorus to bring one of his trained jackasses to her room at night promising him a fabulous sum of money. Carpophorus naturally complied.

The lady had made elaborate preparations for the event; four eunuchs had placed a feather bed on the floor, covered with Tyrian purple cloth embroidered in gold, and had arranged soft pillows at one end. The lady instructed Carpophorus to lead the jackass to the bed and get him to lie down, and then with her own hands she rubbed him with oil of balsam.

When the preparations were complete, Carpophorus was ordered to leave the room and return the next morning. This performance is described in great detail by Apuleius in "The Golden Ass."

The lady demanded the jackass's services so often that Carpophorus was afraid that she might kill herself but after a few weeks his only concern was that she might totally exhaust the valuable animal. Still, he made such a fortune from the business that he was able to purchase a genuine unicorn's horn.

Of course, Carpophorus knew all about the orxy-unicorms used in the arena, but this horn was different. It was pure ivory and over seven feet long. There were only a few of these horns in Rome and they were enormously valuable because if poisoned wine were served in a cup made of a unicorn's horn, the poison would bubble and betray its presence.

Carpophorus suspected that these horns were faked in some way, but after carefully examining his purchase he became convinced that it was real ivory and did not come from any known animal. The bestiarius' ambition was to find a unicorn and exhibit it in the arena.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Twelve, Part 4 is next.

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