Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 13, Part 1 of 4

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

YOU MAY WONDER where the Romans got all the animals they used in the games. You'll wonder more after reading a few statistics.

Trajan gave one set of games that lasted 122 days during which eleven thousand people and ten thousand animals were killed.

Titus had five thousand wild animals and four thousand domestic animals killed during the one hundred-day show to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum.

In 249 A.D., Philip celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome by giving games in which the following were killed: one thousand pairs of gladiators, thirty-two elephants, ten tigers, sixty lions, thirty leopards, ten hyenas, ten giraffes, twenty wild asses, forty wild horses, ten zebras, six hippos, and one rhino (Rome and the Romans, by Showerman).

Statistics in themselves don't mean too much so let's take some specific examples. The Emperor Commodus killed five hippopotami himself one day in the arena, shooting arrows from the royal box. Hippos were fairly common in the arena as this and other accounts show.

After the Roman Empire fell, the next hippo to reach Europe was in 1850. A whole army division had to be used to capture the animal.

Getting the hippo from the White Nile to Cairo took five months. The hippo spent the winter in Cairo and then went on to England in a tank containing four hundred gallons of water to keep it cool.

Yet the Romans imported hippos wholesale for their games; in fact they actually exterminated the hippos in the Egyptian Nile.

The Romans imported both the African and the Indian rhinoceros, and even the most ignorant members of the crowd could distinguish between the two beasts readily.

Mosaics showing the capture of an Indian rhino have recently been uncovered in Sicily. The next Indian rhino to reach Europe was in 1515. Today, there are only six of them in captivity.

Whole territories were denuded of wild animals to supply the arena. The early Christian fathers could only find one good thing to say about the bloody spectacles—the demand for animals cleared entire districts of dangerous predators and opened them to farming.

Several species were either exterminated or so reduced in numbers that they later became extinct: the European lion, the aurochs, the Libyian elephant, and possibly the African bear. There are no bears in Africa today and most scientists believe that there never were any, but the Romans did get a "bear" from East Africa and Nubia. What was it?

We don't know, but curiously in Kenya today there is a persistent legend of a "Nandi bear," supposedly a very large and ferocious bear which lives in the Aberdare Mountains.

It occasionally attacks natives and has been seen by a few white people although no specimen has ever been brought in. Recently, the site of a Roman "trapping station" has been found in this locality. Perhaps the Romans' "African bear" still exists.

Collecting and shipping these thousands of animals was an enormous industry. Wild animals were the most valuable gift a barbarian monarch could make to his Roman overlords and even Roman governors had to collect animals.

There is an interesting and amusing series of letters between Cicero, a newly appointed governor of a province in Asia Minor, and Caelius Rufus, who was running for the office of aedile in Rome.

Rufus wanted leopards for the games he was giving. Cicero was busy trying to administer his province and wasn't interested in catching leopards.

Even before Poor Cicero got to his province, he got a letter from Rufus: "Dear Cicero: please try to get me some good leopards . . . ten will do for a start. Tell your natives to hurry."

When no leopards arrived, Rufus wrote: "My dear friend Cicero: In nearly all my letters I've mentioned the subject of leopards to you. It would be a terrible disgrace if, after Patiscus [a local Roman businessman in the same area] has sent me ten, you can't send me many more. I have those ten and ten more from Africa. If I don't hear from you, I'll have to make arrangements elsewhere."

Later: "If I hadn't got some African animals from Curio, I wouldn't be able to put on a show at all. If you don't send me some leopards, don't expect any patronage from me."

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

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