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 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 wore enthusiastically, “Carpophorus would 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 wherever 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.
The boy grew up with few illusions about his job, the Roman mob, or the emperor himself. On one occasion, he carried wine and bread for the arena carpenters while they worked on a magnificent galley so cleverly contrived that by pulling a single dowel the entire ship would fall to pieces.
It was supposed that this galley was for one of the shows—in fact, such a galley had been employed in a spectacle only a few weeks before and the Emperor Nero had been deeply interested in it—but on completion the galley was taken to the port of Baiae. A month later it was learned that the queen mother, Agrippina, had been given a splendid new galley by her devoted son, the emperor, which had unaccountably come to pieces in the middle of the bay.
Some of the stage carpenters who gossiped ended in the arena. Carpophorus kept his mouth shut but this incident confirmed the boy’s belief that the entire world was like the arena—a place without justice or mercy, where only the smart and ruthless could survive.
Later, Carpophorus got a job as helper to some of the bestiarii in the circus and learned their techniques of handling dangerous wild animals. Once when a bes-tiarius was trying to drive a bear from the arena, using a sort of cat-o’-nine-tails with lead balls on the ends of the lashes, the bear had turned on him and grabbed the man by the shoulder.
Young Carpophorus ran into the arena with a twist of blazing straw snatched from the hand of an arena slave and drove the bear off Romors of this feat reached one of the instructors at the School of Bestiarii and he had a talk with the boy. He agreed to send Carpophorus through the school if the boy would agree to serve him as a slave for the next ten years.
Carpophorus accepted this offer and so became an auctorati (bound over). He spent two years at the school, learning bow to handle animals ranging in size from foxes to elephants.
Although everyone at the school admired the tough young man’s uncanny ability with animals, Carpophorus was extremely unpopular and not even the most farsighted of his instructors imagined that the quiet, rather sullen youth would some day be the top bestiarius in Rome.
The boy was short, dark, heavy-set, and if not actually clumsy, at least not graceful. A good bestiarius was supposed to be slender and agile like a modem matador.
The boy was not a good mixer. His early life had made him suspicious of people—one of the reasons why he had turned to animals with such a passionate intensity—and he had cultivated a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude which his fellow students resented.
Carpophorus, on the other hand, regarded them as a lot of amateurs. Most of them had never been in an arena with a wild animal before they came to the school while Carpophorus had been handling wild stock since he was a kid. He didn’t think much of his instructors, either.
They put too much emphasis on book-learning, always quoting Aristotle and Pliny. Neither of these two learned gentlemen, as far as Carpophorus was concerned, knew beans about animals. They thought a mare could conceive if a south wind blew under her tail. Carpophorus knew better than that.
The boy went through the usual course at the school and learned many things which his rough-and-ready, rule-of-thumb education as cageboy in the arena had not taught him.
As with gladiators, there were many types of bestiarii: men who specialized in keeping ahead of the beasts by running, men who learned how to dodge them, bull-fighters, lion-tamers, pole-vaulters, and so on. Carpophorus, because of his great strength and brutal technique, was made a venator—a hunter.
He learned how to fight wild animals barehanded, strangling them or breaking their necks. He learned how to blind a lioness by throwing a cape over her head and then cracking her back by striking the loins with the edge of his hand.
(At least, the Roman writers claim that bestiarii could do this—it must have been quite a trick.) He also fought bears with a veil in one hand to distract the animal and a sword in the other.
To learn how to dodge, the young man was sent out against a leopard tied to a bull by a long rope. As the bull could move as well as the leopard, this was a far tougher job than if the cat were simply tied to a stake but much easier than if the leopard were free. Another bestiarius with a spear stood behind the animals, goading them on.
Carpophorus was also exposed to two wild animals at the same time, such as a lion and a leopard, and had to learn to avoid both. He was sometimes forced to lie on the ground while a wild boar or bull was set on him. Carpophorus had to learn how to leap to his feet at the last instant to escape the rush.
He had to learn how to irritate wild animals by allowing them almost to catch him and then vaulting over a low fence or behind a wooden shield (as in modem bullfights). The purpose of this maneuver was to make the animals so furious that they would willingly attack the condemned criminals afterwards thrown to them.
Naturally, Carpophorus was soon covered with scars, but like all bestiarii he was as proud of his scars as a soldier is of his medals, considering them a hallmark of his profession. You could point to any scar and Carpophorus could tell you when and how he had received it.
The young bestiarius had two serious vices: he was a heavy-drinker and had a berserk temper. Wine was forbidden the students, except during meals, and then mixed with water, but Carpophorus knew his way around and managed to get his own supply.
One of his jobs in the school was to train a leopard to be a man-eater. This was a complicated process as none of the big cats willingly attacks humans. The first part of the training consisted in overcoming the leopard’s instinctive dread of human beings.
For this purpose, a leopard bom in captivity who had never learned to fear people was far preferable to a wild caught animal. A particularly mean, half-grown cub was selected and a bestiarius, heavily padded, approached the animal deliberately pretending to be nervous. As soon as the leopard made a swipe at him, the bestiarius fell on the cage floor, rolling in apparent agony.
The sight of a prostrate victim will generally encourage any aggressive animal to attack and also the man had bits of meat tied to his padding. In this way, the leopard was taught to be a killer. The animal always won in these combats and the trainer was careful never to strike or discipline him in any manner whatever.
The leopard was always fed human meat—there was plenty of that around the arena—and later encouraged to attack slaves. These men had their arms broken and teeth knocked out so they could not injure1 the animal.
A desperate man can kill a leopard with his bare hands (Carl Akeley, the African explorer, accomplished this feat) but even if women or children were used the animal had to be convinced that he could always win without trouble.
Finally, when the animal was completely confident of his powers, he was given uncrippled slaves to kill. If the slave put up too much of a struggle, the watching bestiarius helped the leopard out by a quick spear thrust.
Carpophorus’ man-eater was a perfectly trained animal. He had developed such a perfect “habit pattern” that he never thought of attacking Carpophorus or anyone except a person exposed on the sand of the training arena.
He was used to eating only under these specific conditions and would have starved to death in a butcher shop because he wouldn’t have recognized the meat as edible; (This may seem incredible but it’s true.
A confirmed man-eating lion or tiger will charge through a herd of sheep to get at the shepherd and will not touch a freshly killed cow because he has lost his taste for anything but human flesh.
This was true of the famous man-eaters of Tsavo in Kenya, East Africa, who held up the construction of a railroad for three weeks. These two lions ignored goats, cattle and even zebra—the lions’ favorite food—left out for them.
They finally had to be lured into a double-compart-mented trap with two men in one of the compartments. Even with a fusillade of bullets whining about them, they continued to try to reach the men.)
Carpophorus’ leopard had become so fixed in this “habit pattern” that the young bestiairius could take him for walks past the antelope herds in the big stockyards where animals intended for the arena were kept.
The leopard paid no attention to the antelopes. However, for safety’s sake Carpophorus always took him on a leash until one evening when Carpophorus had a little too much wine and he didn’t bother to leash the leopard while taking the animal down to drink. By bad luck, something panicked the antelopes and they rushed past the leopard.
The sight of the fleeing animals so close to him awoke the big cat’s hunting instinct and he sprang on an oryx. Carpophorus tried to drag him off but the leopard clung to the terrified antelope, hanging to the oryx’s flank with his long dew-claws.
In a blind fury, Carpophorus brought his flail with the lead balls down on the leopard’s head and killed him with a single blow.
The young man had killed an animal far more valuable than himself and the raging instructor of the school, to whom Carpophorus had pledged himself as a slave, ordered him thrown to the wild beasts at the next show. Carpophorus accepted his fate in grim silence.
But the beasts to be used as executioners were all animals from the stockyards and Carpophorus knew them well. When he was driven into the arena by the circus slaves, Carpophorus strode up to the mixed group of lions, tigers, leopards and bears shouting, “You, Cheops! You Lesbia! Down Herod! Good girl Cypros!”
The puzzled animals slunk away and started fighting among themselves. This exhibition so impressed the crowd that they demanded Carpophorus’ release and he was sent back to the school. After that, he never again touched wine when working with an animal and made a serious attempt to control his temper.
When Carpophorus graduated from the school, he became a working bestiarius in the arena. Unlike most of his fellows, Carpophorus never lost sight of the fact that his basic job was to please the crowd, not perform some remarkable feat that could only be appreciated by other bestiarii or a few of the connoisseurs on the podium.
Having grown up “under the stands” he knew that it was the mob who ran the circus, not the highbrows in the front seats and far less was it the old-time bestiarii who used to meet in the evenings at Chile’s wine shop off the Via Appia and talk of their past triumphs while the respectful younger men sat around and listened.
For example, these old-timers considered it a great feat to train stags to pull a chariot. Stags are very nervous animals and only a few bestiarii had ever managed to accomplish this stunt; in Egypt, the animal trainers of Ptolemy had trained stags to pull their royal master, and in Greece, a priestess had appeared in a coach drawn by these dramatic beasts.
It was every bestiarius’ ambition to duplicate this feat—everyone except Carpophorus. He knew that the public cared nothing about such a stunt, difficult though it might be. They’d just as soon see a chariot drawn by zebras or ostriches which was comparatively easy to do.
As a matter of fact, they weren’t particularly interested in seeing a chariot drawn by any sort of freak animal. They wanted stronger fare. Carpophorus determined to give it to them.
Sexual relations between a woman and an animal were often exhibited “under the stands” as they are today in the Place Pigalle in Paris. Such exhibitions were occasionally staged in the arena but the trouble was in finding an animal that would perform on schedule.
A jackass or even a large dog that would voluntarily mount a woman before a screaming mob was a rare animal and, of course, the woman had to cooperate. The fact that the woman was willing destroyed most of the crowd’s fun. Bestiarii had worked hard trying to train animals to rape women, usually covering the woman with the hide of an animal or even building wooden mockups of a cow or a lioness and putting the woman inside.
In a play called “The Minotaur,” Nero had had an actor playing the part of Pasiphae put in a wooden cow while another actor, dressed as a bull, mounted him. These devices had nearly always failed with real animals and so the whole project had been abandoned.
Carpophorus, with his early training “under the stands” and his practical knowledge of wild animals, understood clearly enough what was the matter. Animals are controlled almost altogether by odor, not by sight. The young bestiarius kept careful watch on all the female animals in the stockyard and when they came into season, collected their blood on soft cloths.
These cloths he numbered and put away. Then he got a woman from “under the stands” to help him. Working with extremely tame male animals who didn’t mind noise and confusion, he wrapped the woman in the cloths and induced the animals to mount her.
As with the man-eaters, he established a habit pattern with these animals, never allowing them to come into contact with a female of their own kind. As the animals grew more confident, they also grew more aggressive.
If the woman, following Carpophorus’ orders, struggled, a cheetah would sink his dewclaws into her shoulders and grabbing her by the neck with his jaws, shake her into submission.
Carpophorus used up several women before he got the animals properly trained —with a bull or a giraffe the woman usually didn’t survive the ordeal—but he was always able to get more broken-down old bags from the provinces who didn’t fully realize what their job involved until too late.
Carpophorus produced a sensation with his new technique. No one had ever dreamed of having lions, leopards, wild boars and zebra rape women.
The Romans were especially fond of acting out mythological scenes in the shows and as Zeus, the king of the gods, often raped young girls in the form of various animals, these scenes could be re-enacted in the arena. Under Carpophorus’ direction, a bull raped a young girl representing Europa to great applause.
Apuleius has left us an animated account of one of these scenes. A woman who had poisoned five people in order to get their property was sentenced to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena but first, as an additional punishment and disgrace, she was to be raped by a jackass.
A bed was set up in the middle of the arena, inlaid with tortoise shell and provided with a feather mattress and an embroidered Chinese bedspread.
The woman was tied spread-eagle on the bed. The jackass had been trained to kneel on the bed, otherwise the business could not have been concluded successfully. When the show was over, wild beasts were turned loose in the arena and quickly put an end to the wretched woman’s suffering.
Carpophorus kept his method for training the animals a profound secret, pretending it was all due to a special amulet which he invariably hung around the animal’s neck before letting it go into the arena. Although he was offered fabulous prices for this amulet, he refused to sell it.
At last, he gave it to his master at the school in return for cancelling his remaining years as a slave. Somehow, the amulet never worked for his master.
The old-time bestiarii were very contemptuous of Carpophorus. They claimed that he had degraded his noble profession by putting on filthy exhibitions. They forgot that in their day they had been criticized by the still earlier bestiarii for training man-eaters to devour helpless men and women.
Actually, both groups were right. The shows were growing progressively more and more corrupt. What once had been real exhibitions of courage and skill, even though brutal, were gradually becoming merely excuses for cruelty and perverted sexual exhibitions.
Although Carpophorus boasted that he didn’t give a hoot for what the old-timers said, their contempt bothered him. So he continued to fight in the arena as a venator, once killing twenty wild beasts in one day, presumably with his bare hands. what the beasts were, the accounts don’t say.
At this savage and dangerous work, Carpophorus was unequaled. As a result, he was the only bestiarius whose name has come down to us.