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 arc 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 Aber-dare 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.”
Cicero wrote to a friend: “Another letter from Rufus … all he talks about is leopards.” Then Rufuse 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 Ful-cinius, 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 up the gangplank wild boars wrapped in nets and suspended from poles.
Fulcinius must have done all these things and many more too. He must have caught elephants by driving them into box canyons and, as he probably didn’t have enough trained elephants to take them out, starved them into submission by giving them only enough bar-Iey water to keep them alive.
He also hired Numidians to crawl among a herd and hamstring the mothers with their spears so the young could be captured. He caught chimpanzees and baboons by putting out bowls of wine and then picking up the animals after they were drunk. To catch pythons, he prepared a long bag made of rushes which he put near the snake.
The snake was then driven toward the bag and, thinking it a hole, would crawl inside. Then the cords closing the mouth of the bag were closed. When a “bear” (whatever the African bear was) was found in its den, nets were hung on the outside and the bear driven out with trumpet peals and yells.
Nooses were set in game trails and animals driven into them. Along the sides of the trails, colored streamers were hung from lines so that the animals, alarmed by the strange objects, would stay on the trails and not bolt off into the bush.
Organizing these hunts must have been a tremendous undertaking. The catchers could demand that legionnaires stationed in their area help with the drives and the commanders had to cooperate, for getting the animals was crucial to the politicians in Rome.
The whole civilian population could be drafted for this work and, as some of Cicero’s angry letters show, this often crippled the local economy for many of these drives lasted for weeks.
As with all animal collectors, Fulcinius’ main trouble was not in getting the animals but in shipping them. The animals had to be taken by ox cart to the coast or floated down rivers on rafts. This journey could take months.
Fulcinius established way stations along the route where the animals could be released in large enclosures for periods of rest and exercise. According to Roman law, the villagers were forced to provide food for the animals, but collecting the food often proved so difficult that Fulcinius had to appeal to the local Roman garrison for help. If there was no garrison, he used his native mercenary spearmen who traveled with the animal caravans.
These men were merciless. On one occasion they dug up corpses in a local cemetery and fed them to the animals. Fulcinius got frequent complaints from Rome but probably his invariable answer was: “Do you want the animals or don’t you?” However, the situation got so bad that an imperial order had to be passed prohibiting animals being kept more than a week in any one resting station.
Even after the animals had been loaded on ships, the voyage to Ostia, the port of Rome, was a long and dangerous affair. “The sailors were afraid of their own cargo,” wrote Claudian. The trip up the Red Sea was particularly treacherous because of the reefs and shoals. To make matters worse, the voyage had to be made at night and the ships tied up during the day to spare the animals from the heat of the sun.
As far as Fulcinius was concerned, a human life meant nothing compared to the successful shipment of the animals. Once when he was unloading cages on the docks at Ostia, a famous sculptor named Pasiteles set up his table on the dock and began making models of the lions. Fuldnius told the man to get out but Pasiteles refused.
A few minutes later, a cage containing a leopard was smashed during the unloading and the animal nearly killed the sculptor. Fulcinius’ only reaction was a blind fury at the sculptor for getting in the way. (This incident did happen although I don’t know the name of the animal collector.)
It’s rather interesting that some two thousand years later another animal collector made a great reputation for himself by capturing and importing animals under much the same conditions as did Fulcinius, supposedly for zoos but actually so fights could be staged between the animals in corrals and pits for Hollywood motion picture cameras.
The pictures of these fights were so popular that they are still appearing in re-run theaters and on TV. If you want to know what the Roman arena must have been like, tune in on one of these programs. I saw one showing a fight between an African lion and an Indian water buffalo supposedly taken “in the heart of the Dark Continent.”
Of course, nobody cares whether the pictures are faked or not. Like the Romans, all they want to see is the fight. I’ve also seen pictures of “native spearmen fighting man-eating lions” which were staged by order of a local governor in Africa as a tourist attraction.
The lions arrived in crates and the natives got their spears and shields through a European supply house. I’ve heard that three men died as a result of the fight. A good, average, arena spectacle.
How did a man like Fulcinius die? Probably of blackwater or malaria fever. Or perhaps he was one of the men who died in the mud-walled Roman fort some 250 miles north of Mombasa, the remains of which still stand. Mombasa was then the main port of East Africa and galleys waited there to be loaded with rice, sesame oil, ivory and wild animals for Italy.
The fort may well have been put there as a way station for the animal collectors. If so, the local tribes would have long learned to avoid the place; otherwise they might at any time be pressed into service to haul the cages or their fields stripped to feed the wild cargo. So the fort would have been isolated and the sentinels have no warning of an attack.
Perhaps at dawn, a Masai war party suddenly rushed the walls, giving their terrible yodeling cries as they hurled their spears and then drew their simis (long daggers) for the close work. The fort covers some five acres and the garrison was not strong enough to hold all the walls.
Fulcinius would have fought to the end, side by side with his native troops and his big Molossian hounds which he used to drive animals aboard ship and to bring quarry to bay. Probably his wrappers fought with their hunting spears, while the legionnaires used their swords and shields. At the end, they were overrun.
Now only a few coins, some from the time of Nero, some of the time of Antonius Pius, and one from the time of Trajan remain to show their fate. The victorious Masai left the coins on the ground but took the valuable weapons and armor from the dead men.