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"It is the death of a beast-fighter, you say. Is it less, because of that, the blood of a man? Or is it viler blood because it is from the veins of a wicked man? At any rate it is shed in murder."
Tertullian, Apology (IX)
Although bestiarii (beast fighters) and venatores (hunters) both fought wild animals, there were distinctions between the two. The bestiarii often were condemned criminals or prisoners of war, who had little chance against the animals they fought (Seneca, De Beneficiis, II.19). With no real training and often no defense, they were thrown to the beasts as punishment and spectacle. Seneca relates that one German prisoner, rather than participate in such a cruel display, killed himself by forcing a sponge used in the lavatory down his throat (Epistles, LXX.20). Another, being taken to the morning show, nodded as if asleep and, lowering his head, thrust it between the spokes of the cart wheel, breaking his neck (LXX.23). Symmachus writes of twenty-nine Saxon prisoners strangling one another in their cells the night before they were to appear in the arena (Letters, II.46). The conquering Roman at least recognized the human will to free oneself from servitude and degradation. "What a brave fellow!" says Seneca of the German who gagged himself with the filthy sponge, "He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded a sword!"
Bestiarii also was the name given to those assistants who looked after the animals and goaded them into fighting—or attempted to separate them from their victims. In time, they became more trained specialists. In the Satyricon, one character complains about a particularly disappointing gladiatorial show and disparagingly remarks that he has seen bestiarii fight better (XLV). And Martial celebrates Carpophorus, who was renown as a bestiarius, having dispatched a bear, lion, and leopard (Spectacles, XVII, XXVI). Had he been alive at the time, "Marathon would not have feared her bull, nor leafy Nemea her lion, nor Arcadians the boar of Maenalus" (XXXII). Indeed, says Martial, the redoubtable Carpophorus killed twenty wild animals at one time.
To the early Christians, however, such displays, both against man and beast, were scenes of horror.
"Man is slaughtered that man may be gratified, and the skill that is best able to kill is an exercise and an art. Crime is not only committed, but it is taught. What can be said more inhuman, what more repulsive? Training is undergone to acquire the power to murder, and the achievement of murder is its glory. What state of things, I pray you, can that be, and what can it be like, in which men, whom none have condemned, offer themselves to the wild beasts—men of ripe age, of sufficiently beautiful person, clad in costly garments? Living men, they are adorned for a voluntary death; wretched men, they boast of their own miseries. They fight with beasts, not for their crime, but for their madness." (Cyprian, Ad Donatus, VII).
Tertullian speaks of a scholae bestiarum or wild beasts school (Apology, XXXV.6), which presumably was the Ludus Matutinus that Domitian established near the Colosseum for the training of bestiarii, one of four schools that Domitian was said to have established (Chronographus anni 354, 146). The name possibly derives from the fact that beast fights took place in the morning (from matutinus, "of the morning"). Compare, too, Ovid, who speaks of dogs savaging a stag in the arena for an early morning's entertainment (Metamorphoses, XI.21), and Martial's reference to "the beasts in the morning shows" (Epigrams, XIII.95).
This detail is from a mosaic in the Borghese Gallery (Rome) and dates from the late third or early fourth century AD.
References: Seneca: Epistles (1920) translated by Richard M. Gummer (Loeb Classical Library); Seneca: Moral Essays (1935) translated by John W. Basore (Loeb Classical Library); The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (1885-1896) translated and edited by the Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Ovid: Metamorphoses (1916) translated by Frank Justus Miller (Loeb Classical Library); Martial: Epigrams (1993) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library); The Colosseum (2000) edited by Ada Gabucci.
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