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p1186 Venatio

Article on pp1186‑1188 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

VENA′TIO, hunting,a was the name given among the Romans to an exhibition of wild beasts, which fought with one another and with men. These exhibitions originally formed part of the games of the Circus. Julius Caesar first built a wooden amphitheatre for the exhibition of wild beasts, which is called by Dion Cassius (XLIII.22) θεάτρον κυνηγετικόν, and the same name is given to the amphitheatre built by Statilius Taurus (id.LI.23), and also to the celebrated one of Titus (id. LXVI.24); but even after the erection of the latter we frequently read of Venationes in the Circus (Spart. Hadr. 19; Vopisc. Prob. 19). The persons who fought with beasts were either condemned criminals or captives, or individuals who did so for the sake of pay and were trained for the purpose [Bestiarii].

The Romans were as passionately fond of this entertainment as of the exhibitions of gladiators, and during the latter days of the republic and under the empire an immense variety of animals was collected from all parts of the Roman world for the gratification of the people, and many thousands were frequently slain at one time. We do not know on what occasion a venatio was first exhibited at Rome; but the first mention we find of any thing of the kind is in the year B.C. 251, when L. Metellus exhibited in the Circus 142 elephants, which he had brought from Sicily after his victory over the Carthaginians, and which were killed in the Circus according to Verres, though other writers do not speak of their slaughter (Plin. H. N. VIII.6). But this can scarcely be regarded as an instance of a venatio, since the elephants are said to have been only killed because the Romans did not know what to do with them, and not for the amusement of the people. There was, however, a venatio in the later sense of the word in B.C. 186, in the games celebrated by M. Fulvius in fulfilment of the vow which he had made in the Aetolian war; in these games lions and panthers were exhibited (Liv. XXXIX.22). It is mentioned as a proof of the growing magnificence of the age that in the Ludi Circenses, exhibited by the curule aediles P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica and P. Lentulus B.C. 168, there were 63 African panthers and 40 bears and elephants (Liv. XLIV.18). From about this time combats with wild beasts probably formed a regular part of the Ludi Circenses, and many of the curule aediles made great efforts to obtain rare and curious animals, and put in requisition the services of their friends (compare Caelius's letter to Cicero, ad Fam. VIII.8).º Elephants are said to have first fought in the Circus in the curule aedileship of Claudius Pulcher, B.C. 99, and twenty years afterwards, in the curule aedileship of the two Luculli, they fought against bulls (Plin. H. N. VIII.7). A hundred lions were exhibited by Sulla in his praetorship, which were destroyed by javelin-men sent by king Bocchus for the purpose. This was the first time that lions were allowed to be loose in the Circus; they were previously always tied up (Senec. de Brev. Vit. 18). The games, however, in the curule aedileship of Scaurus B.C. 58 surpassed anything the Romans had ever seen; among other novelties he first exhibited an hippopotamos and five crocodiles in a temporary canal or trench (euripus, Plin. H. N. VIII.40). At the venatio given by Pompey in his second consulship B.C. 55, upon the dedication of the temple of Venus Victrix, and at which Cicero was present (Cic. ad Fam. VII.1)[image ALT: lien à une page en français.], there was an immense number of animals slaughtered, among which we find mention of 600 lions, and 18 or 20 elephants: the latter fought with Gaetulians, who hurled darts against them, and they attempted to break through the railings (clathri) by which they were separated from the spectators (Senec. l.c.; Plin. VIII. 7.20). To guard against this danger Julius Caesar surrounded the arena of the amphitheatre with trenches (euripi).

In the games exhibited by J. Caesar in his third consulship, B.C. 45, the venatio lasted for five days and was conducted with extraordinary splendour. Camelopards or giraffes were then for the first time seen in Italy (Dion Cass. XLIII.23; Suet. Jul. 39; Plin. H. N. VIII.7; Appian, B. C. II.102; Vell. Pat. II.56). Julius Caesar also introduced bull-fights, in which Thessalian horsemen pursued the bulls round the circus, and when the latter were tired out, seized them by the horns and killed them. This seems to have been a favourite spectacle; it was repeated by Claudius and Nero (Plin. H. N. VIII.70; Suet. Claud. 21[image ALT: lien à une page en français.]; Dion Cass. LXI.9). In the games celebrated by Augustus, B.C. 29, the hippopotamos and the rhinoceros were p1187first exhibited, according to Dion Cassius (LI.22), but the hippopotamos is spoken of by Pliny, as mentioned above, in the games given by Scaurus. Augustus also exhibited a snake 50 cubits in length (Suet. Aug. 43), and thirty-six crocodiles, which are seldom mentioned in spectacles of later times (Dion Cass. LV.10).

The occasions on which Venationes were exhibited have been incidentally mentioned above. They seem to have been first confined to the Ludi Circenses, but during the later times of the republic, and under the empire, they were frequently exhibited on the celebration of triumphs, and on many other occasions, with the view of pleasing the people. The passion for these shows continued to increase under the empire, and the number of beasts sometimes slaughtered seems almost incredible. At the consecration of the great amphitheatre of Titus, 5000 wild beasts and 4000 tame animals were killed (Suet. Tit. 7; Dion Cass. LVI.25), and in the games celebrated by Trajan, after his victories over the Dacians, there are said to have been as many as 11,000 animals slaughtered (Dion Cass. LXVIII.15). Under the emperors we read of a particular kind of Venatio, in which the beasts were not killed by bestiarii, but were given up to the people, who were allowed to rush into the area of the circus and carry away what they pleased. On such occasions a number of large trees, which had been torn up by the roots, was planted in the circus, which thus resembled a forest, and none of the more savage animals were admitted into it. A Venatio of this kind was exhibited by the elder Gordian in his aedileship, and a painting of the forest with the animals in it is described by Julius Capitolinus (Gordian, 3). One of the most extraordinary venationes of this kind was that given by Probus, in which there were 1000 ostriches, 1000 stags, 1000 boars, 1000 deer, and numbers of wild goats, wild sheep, and other animals of the same kind (Vopisc. Prob. 19). The more savage animals were slain by the bestiarii in the amphitheatre, and not in the circus. Thus, in the day succeeding the venatio of Probus just mentioned, there were slain in the amphitheatre 100 lions, and the same number of lionesses, 100 Libyan and 100 Syrian leopards, and 300 bears (Vopisc. l.c.). It is unnecessary to multiply examples, as the above are sufficient to give an idea of the numbers and variety of animals at these spectacles; but the list of beasts which were collected by the younger Gordian for his triumph, and were exhibited by his successor Philip at the Secular Games, deserve mention on account of their variety and the rarity of some of them. Among these we find mention of 32 elephants, 10 elks, 10 tigers (which seem to have been very seldom exhibited), 60 tame lions, 30 tame leopards, 10 hyaenas, an hippopotamos and rhinoceros, 10 archoleontes (it is unknown what they were), 10 camelopards, 20 onagri (wild asses, or perhaps zebras), 40 wild horses, and an immense number of similar animals (Vopisc. Gordian, 33).

How long these spectacles continued is uncertain, but they were exhibited after the abolition of the shows of gladiators. There is a law of Honorius and Theodosius, providing for the safe convoy of beasts intended for the spectacles, and inflicting a penalty of five pounds of gold upon any one who injured them (Cod. 11 tit. 44). They were exhibited at this period at the praetorian games, as we learn from Symmachus (Epist. IX.70, 71, 126, &c.). Wild beasts continued to be exhibited in the games at Constantinople as late as the time of Justinian (Procop. Hist. Arc. c. 9).

Combats of wild beasts are sometimes represented on the coins of Roman families, as on the annexed coin of M. Livineius Regulus, which probably refers to the venatio of Julius Caesar mentioned above.


[image ALT: Obverse and reverse of a coin inscribed L. Regulus. The reverse shows 2 gladiators and 3 animals fighting.]

In the bas-reliefs on the tomb of Scaurus at Pompeii, there are representations of combats with wild beasts, which are copied in the following woodcuts from Mazois (Pomp. I. pl. 32, 33). On the same tomb gladiatorial combats are represented, which are figured on p576 of the present work.

The first represents a man naked and unarmed between a lion and a panther. Persons in this defenceless state had of course only their agility to trust to in order to escape from the beasts.


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In the second cut we see a similar person against whom a wild boar is rushing, and who appears to be preparing for a spring to escape from the animal. In the same relief there is a wolf running at full speed, and also a stag with a rope tied to his horns who has been pulled down by two wolves or dogs.


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The p1188third relief is supposed by Mazois to represent the training of a bestiarius. The latter has a spear in each hand; his left leg is protected by greaves, and he is in the act of attacking a panther, whose movements are hampered by a rope, which fastens him to the bull behind him, and which accordingly places the bestiarius in a less dangerous position, though more caution and activity are required than if the beast were fixed from a single point. Behind the bull another man stands with a spear, who seems to be urging on the animal.


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The fourth woodcut represents a man equipped in the same way as the matador in the Spanish bull-fights in the present day, namely, with a sword in one hand and a veil in the other. The veil was first employed in the arena in the time of the emperor Claudius (Plin. H. N. VIII.21).


[image ALT: An ancient Roman man, wearing a short tunic, standing and waving a large handkerchief at a dog with his left hand, while behind the handkerchief he holds a dagger pointed at the animal. It is a woodcut reproducing a scene from a Roman staged amphitheatre hunt.]

Thayer's Note:

a It should be stressed that the Latin word venatio does mean, first and foremost, hunting: the hunting of animals in the wild. Smith's Dictionary has chosen to focus on a late and specialized meaning of the word, the so‑called "hunting" of captive animals in staged public entertainments.

For the primary meaning of venatio, then, the student will want to read at least one of several works by ancient authors, Greek or Latin, titled Cynegeticon or Cynegetica: especially those, rather thorough, by Xenophon, Arrian, and — onsite — Oppian; to which can be added the shorter poems of Grattius and Nemesianus. If you read French, an excellent, very detailed illustrated modern resource on the subject, which includes a section on the amphitheatre slaughters covered by Smith, is the article Venatio in Daremberg & Saglio's Dictionnaire.


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Page updated: 17 Apr 11