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"...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 coatall 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 most extravagant venationes occurred at the dedication of the Colosseum by Titus, when there was a naumachia, gladiatorial combat, and the exhibition of "five thousand wild beasts of every kind in a single day" (Suetonius, Titus, VII.3), and in the games celebrated by Trajan, 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, LXVIII.15).
The Historia Augusta records that, at the millennium of Rome's founding (AD 248), Philip I (the Arab) displayed thirty-two elephants, ten elk, ten tigers, sixty tame lions, thirty tame leopards, ten hyenas, a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros, ten "archoleontes," ten camelopards (giraffes), twenty onagri (wild asses), forty wild horses, and a variety of other animals (Gordian, XXXIII).
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."
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).
In this mosaic, a venatio is being carried out under the aegis of Diana, goddess of the hunt, who is shown in a short tunic carrying a stalk of millet, and Dionysus, subduer of animals, who carries a staff with a crescent-shaped head (the symbol of the Telegenii, who fought that day). The leopards, themselves, are encircled with garlands. The two divinities indicate the religious character of these games, which had been sponsored by a local dignitary named Magerius, whose damaged image almost is lost. In the center of the mosaic, a herald bears a tray with four bags of money. It is indicated that the cost of the spectacle is five hundred denarii for each of the four leopards, but the crowd exhorts him to pay more, which he does, paying one thousand denarii apiece. The shouts of acclamation, "Magerius," are shown on either side of the panel. The venatores, themselves, are a professional troupe of beast hunters, the Telegenii, who had contracted to perform, one of whom is fighting on short stilts.
The mosaic dates from the middle of the third century AD and presumably graced the villa of Magerius, himself, at Smirat, Tunisia. It likely commemorates a venatio at nearby Sousse and is in the museum there.
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.
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).
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