Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 13, Part 2 of 4

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Cicero wrote to a friend: "Another letter from Rufus ... all he talks about is leopards."

Then Rufus gave his games and got elected to the aedileship. Right away Cicero wrote him: "Dear, dear Rufus: I can't tell you how sorry I am about the leopards. I've put all the professional hunters to work but there seems to be the most remarkable scarcity of wild beasts at this time of year. But don't worry, I have everyone working on it and anything we get will be for you and no one else."

Rufus had a right to be annoyed. Sulla, who became dictator, freely admitted that the people had originally voted him into office only because he had a tie-in with Bocchus, an African monarch, and could get plenty of animals for the games.

In search of annuals, the Roman trappers went to Norway, where they brought back moose and elk; to Burma, for rhino, cobra, and elephants; and to Lake Victoria in the heart of Africa.

As today, Africa was the great trapping ground for wild animals. The Romans even exhibited African porcupines in the arena; naked boys had to catch them with their bare hands.

Plautus, a Roman humorist, wrote: "By the gods, next they'll be giving exhibitions of trained African mice."

From various sources, let's create the character Fulcinius, a professional animal trapper whose territory was Africa. We can suppose that Fulcinius was a half-caste, the son of a Roman legionnaire stationed in Algeria, by a Negro mother.

As today, half-castes were not popular with either race, and Fulcinius grew up a lonely boy, considering himself superior to his mother's people but knowing that he would never be accepted by Romans. Roman writers describe such a man as a "savage among savages, a shy, sullen man who hated Society and was only happy in the jungle."

From his mother's people, Fulcinius learned the tricks of animal catching, which have remained unchanged to the present day. He learned how to dig a pit, surround it with a high wooden fence, and tether a young calf in the pit.

When a lion heard the kid bleating, he would jump over the fence, fall into the pit and be caught. He learned how to direct natives to drive herds of antelope into rivers where they could be lassoed by men in boats, or herded down ravines covered with slippery rawhides so the animals would lose their footing and could be hogtied by waiting men.

He organized hundreds of beaters to move in from all sides through a stretch of jungle, driving the animals into a smaller and smaller space. At last, Numidian spearmen with their great oval shields formed a wall around the captives and held them long enough so men with lassos and nets could complete the capture.

Apparently even lions were caught in this manner. There's a picture of it in the Roman villa at Bona, Algeria.

The recently uncovered villa near the village of Armerina, Sicily, contains frescos—some of them sixty-six yards long—showing in great detail how animals were captured and crated for shipment.

The villa is thought to have been the summer home of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus who ruled about 300 A.D. That the emperor should have devoted so much space to pictures of capturing animals shows how vital this profession was to the Romans.

In one mosaic, mounted men are shown driving stags into a circle of nets, one stag having already been caught by his antlers.

Another shows men loading elephants onto a galley while others drag an unwilling rhino calf toward the gangplank as trained dogs snap at the animal from the rear.

Still others show a Roman animal catcher with a huge shield pointing to a lion who is eating an oryx he has just killed. The animal catcher is directing his Moorish assistants how to surround and net the animal.

One mosaic shows a cart pulled by oxen with native drivers and on the cart is a big wooden shipping crate containing a lion or a leopard. An animal catcher walks beside the crate, steadying it with his hand.

On top of the crate is a funnel-like arrangement which is often shown in these pictures. Unless it was used for pouring water into the cage, I can't imagine its purpose.

A mural shows men carrying cranes onto a ship and two men are wrestling a hartebeest onboard. Others are carrying wild boars up the gangplank wrapped in nets and suspended from poles.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Thirteen, Part 3 is next.

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