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Venationes: Hunts

"...beasts that are the joy of the rich amphitheatre and the glory of the woods. Whatsoever inspires fear with its teeth, wonder with its mane, awe with its horns and bristling coat—all the beauty, all the terror of the forest is taken. Guile protects them not; neither strength nor weight avails them; their speed saves not the fleet of foot."

Claudian, On Stilicho's Consulship (III.283ff)

The Roman venatio (from venor, "to hunt or pursue") was an exhibition of beasts, usually wild, who fought one another or against men, either condemned criminals and captives (bestiarii) or trained professionals (venators). The first of these public spectacles was recorded in 186 BC, when lions and panthers were hunted (Livy, The History of Rome, XXXIX.22). "Such was the increasing munificence of the times" that two decades later sixty-three panthers and forty bears and elephants were put on show (XLIV.18). By then, venationes seem to have become a regular part of the circus games (ludi circenses). Certainly, as Rome's empire continued to expand, so did its introduction to the exotic animals that lived in those newly conquered lands—and which were displayed  readily enough for political advantage at festivals in the Circus Maximus. Pliny records that a "fight with several lions at once was first bestowed on Rome" when Scaevola was aedile in 104 BC. There were subsequent combats between one-hundred maned lions presented by Sulla when he was praetor (93 BC), six hundred (half of which were maned) by Pompey (55 BC), and four hundred by Caesar (46 BC) (Natural History, VIII.xx.53). It was at the dedication of the Theater of Pompey that "the slaughter of many wild beasts of all kinds," including five hundred lions in five days and eighteen elephants against heavily armored men, provoked the sympathy of the crowd, who pitied the wounded  elephants, who raised their trunks in lament that they had trusted their handlers not to suffer harm when crossing over from Africa (Dio, Roman History, XXXIX.38.2–4). Caesar's lions were killed, says Dio, in "a kind of hunting theatre of wood, which was called an amphitheatre {Greek amphi, "on both sides") from the fact that it had seats all around without any stage" (XLIII.22.3).

The most extravagant venationes were part of the inaugural games at the dedication of the Colosseum by Titus in AD 80, when there was a naumachia (naval battle), gladiatorial combat, and the exhibition of "five thousand wild beasts of every kind in a single day" (Suetonius, Life of Titus, VII.3), and in the games celebrated by Trajan in AD 107, after his victories over the Dacians, "in the course of which some eleven thousand animals, both wild and tame, were slain, and ten thousand gladiators fought" (Dio, Roman History, LXVIII.15).

The Historia Augusta records that, at the millennium of Rome's founding (AD 248), Philip I (the Arab) displayed or slew thirty-two elephants, ten elk, ten tigers, sixty tame lions, thirty tame leopards, ten hyenas, six hippopotamuses, one rhinoceros, ten "archoleontes," ten wild lions, ten giraffes, twenty wild asses, forty wild horses"and various other animals of this nature without number" (The Three Gordians, XXXIII.1).

In AD 281, in venationes celebrating the victories of Probus, a thousand ostriches, a thousand stags, a thousand boars, as well as "deer, ibexes, wild sheep, and other grass-eating beasts, as many as could be reared or captured" were released in the Circus, which had been planted to look like a forest. The populace then was admitted and allowed to take whatever they could capture. Another day, in the Colosseum, one hundred male lions, their roars sounding like thunder, were released. "All of these were slaughtered as they came out of the doors of their dens, and being killed in this way they afforded no great spectacle. For there was none of that rush on the part of the beasts which takes place when they are let loose from cages. Besides, many, unwilling to charge, were despatched with arrows" (Life of Probus, XIX.6).

One hundred Libyan and one hundred Syrian leopards, one hundred female lions, and three hundred bears then were killed, "all of which beasts, it is clear, made a spectacle more vast than enjoyable" (Probus, XIX).

"But what pleasure can it possibly be to a man of culture, when either a puny human being is mangled by a most powerful beast, or a splendid beast is transfixed with a hunting-spear?" (Cicero, Letters to Friends, VII.3).

The cost of a gladiatorial show, of course, was even greater, sometimes ruinously so. Polybius relates that "The total expense of such a show amounts to not less than thirty talents [180,000 denarii] if it is done on a generous scale" (XXXI.28.6). Martial remarks that a praetor might expect to spend 25,000 denarii, "even if your show erred on the side of economy" (X.41), and Petronius (XLV) that 400,000 (sesterces) could be spent and one's name would live forever.

This detail showing Crispinus ("Curly") being killed depicts an event that is disturbing to modern sensibilities. That it was meaningful and attractive to the ancient Romans is one measure of the difficulty in presuming to understand different cultural norms. In the mosaic, the audience is not represented; rather, it is replaced by the viewer, who gazes upon a scene of wounded animals, their blood spilling on the sand, at the moment they are dispatched. Such mosaics indicate the interest of the spectator in exotic animals, their variety and number, and ultimately their death in an uncertain contest against a human opponent. The interest of Magerius, himself, as editor of the games is to remind the guests of his beneficence and the implicit honor due him. Presumably over dinner, he would be able to remark on the game, just as Trimalchio, in the Satyricon of Petronius (XXIX), had pictures of himself on the wall of the peristyle, including one of gladiators. In such mosaics, the ferocity of beasts (and the implicit threat of all nature) is subjugated and safely reduced to a dining room decoration.

The mosaic dates from the middle of the third century AD and presumably graced the country villa of Magerius at Smirat, Tunisia. It likely commemorates a venatio at nearby Sousse and is in the museum there.

Reference: Mosaïques de Tunisie (1976) by Georges Fradier and André Martin; Claudian (1922) translated by M. Platnauer (Loeb Classical Library); Suetonius: The Lives of the Caesars (1914) translated by J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Dio Cassius: Roman History (1914) translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster (Loeb Classical Library); The Scriptores Historiae Augustae (1921-) translated by David Magie (Loeb Classical Library); Cicero: Letters to Friends (1929) translated by W. Glynn Williams (Loeb Classical Library); Polybius: The Histories (1922-) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Martial: Epigrams (1993) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library).

See also the Elephant in Rome and the Giraffe in Rome.

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