“The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer” by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904).
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is a New York Times best-selling nonfiction writer and poet, and the author of “Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine” (Avery, 2014), which made seven national “Best Books of 2014” lists, including those from Amazon, The Onion’s AV Club, NPR’s Science Friday and The Guardian, among others. Aptowicz contributed this exclusive article to Live Science’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
The enormous arena was empty, save for the seesaws and the dozens of condemned criminals who sat naked upon them, hands tied behind their backs. Unfamiliar with the recently invented contraptions known as petaurua, the men tested the seesaws uneasily. One criminal would push off the ground and suddenly find himself 15 feet in the air while his partner on the other side of the seesaw descended swiftly to the ground. How strange.
In the stands, tens of thousands of Roman citizens waited with half-bored curiosity to see what would happen next and whether it would be interesting enough to keep them in their seats until the next part of the “big show” began.
With a flourish, trapdoors in the floor of the arena were opened, and lions, bears, wild boars and leopards rushed into the arena. The starved animals bounded toward the terrified criminals, who attempted to leap away from the beasts’ snapping jaws. But as one helpless man flung himself upward and out of harm’s way, his partner on the other side of the seesaw was sent crashing down into the seething mass of claws, teeth and fur.
The crowd of Romans began to laugh at the dark antics before them. Soon, they were clapping and yelling, placing bets on which criminal would die first, which one would last longest and which one would ultimately be chosen by the largest lion, who was still prowling the outskirts of the arena’s pure white sand. [See Photos of the Combat Sports Played in Ancient Rome]
And with that, another “halftime show” of damnatio ad bestias succeeded in serving its purpose: to keep the jaded Roman population glued to their seats, to the delight of the event’s scheming organizer.
“The Story of Our Christianity” by Frederic Mayer Bird (1838-1908) and Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) (Image credit: The Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons)
Welcome to the show
The Roman Games were the Super Bowl Sundays of their time. They gave their ever-changing sponsors and organizers (known as editors) an enormously powerful platform to promote their views and philosophies to the widest spectrum of Romans. All of Rome came to the Games: rich and poor, men and women, children and the noble elite alike. They were all eager to witness the unique spectacles each new game promised its audience.
To the editors, the Games represented power, money and opportunity. Politicians and aspiring noblemen spent unthinkable sums on the Games they sponsored in the hopes of swaying public opinion in their favor, courting votes, and/or disposing of any person or warring faction they wanted out of the way.
The more extreme and fantastic the spectacles, the more popular the Games with the general public, and the more popular the Games, the more influence the editor could have. Because the Games could make or break the reputation of their organizers, editors planned every last detail meticulously.
Thanks to films like “Ben-Hur” and “Gladiator,” the two most popular elements of the Roman Games are well known even to this day: the chariot races and the gladiator fights. Other elements of the Roman Games have also translated into modern times without much change: theatrical plays put on by costumed actors, concerts with trained musicians, and parades of much-cared-for exotic animals from the city’s private zoos.
But much less discussed, and indeed largely forgotten, is the spectacle that kept the Roman audiences in their seats through the sweltering midafternoon heat: the blood-spattered halftime show known as damnatio ad bestias — literally “condemnation by beasts” — orchestrated by men known as the bestiarii.
Super Bowl 242 B.C: How the Games Became So Brutal
The cultural juggernaut known as the Roman Games began in 242 B.C., when two sons decided to celebrate their father’s life by ordering slaves to battle each other to the death at his funeral. This new variation of ancient munera (a tribute to the dead) struck a chord within the developing republic. Soon, other members of the wealthy classes began to incorporate this type of slave fighting into their own munera. The practice evolved over time — with new formats, rules, specialized weapons, etc. — until the Roman Games as we now know them were born.
In 189 B.C., a consul named M. Fulvius Nobilior decided to do something different. In addition to the gladiator duels that had become common, he introduced an animal act that would see humans fight both lions and panthers to the death. Big-game hunting was not a part of Roman culture; Romans only attacked large animals to protect themselves, their families or their crops. Nobilior realized that the spectacle of animals fighting humans would add a cheap and unique flourish to this fantastic new pastime. Nobilior aimed to make an impression, and he succeeded. [Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire]
With the birth of the first “animal program,” an uneasy milestone was achieved in the evolution of the Roman Games: the point at which a human being faced a snarling pack of starved beasts, and every laughing spectator in the crowd chanted for the big cats to win, the point at which the republic’s obligation to make a man’s death a fair or honorable one began to be outweighed by the entertainment value of watching him die.
Twenty-two years later, in 167 B.C., Aemlilus Paullus would give Rome its first damnatio ad bestias when he rounded up army deserters and had them crushed, one by one, under the heavy feet of elephants. “The act was done publicly,” historian Alison Futrell noted in her book “Blood in the Arena,” “a harsh object lesson for those challenging Roman authority.”
The “satisfaction and relief” Romans would feel watching someone considered lower than themselves be thrown to the beasts would become, as historian Garrett G. Fagan noted in his book “The Lure of the Arena,” a “central … facet of the experience [of the Roman Games. … a feeling of shared empowerment and validation … ” In those moments, Rome began the transition into the self-indulgent decadence that would come to define all that we associate with the great society’s demise.
“Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World” by John Foxe (1516-1587) (Image credit: The Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons)
The Role of Julius Caesar
General Julius Caesar proved to be the first true maestro of the Games. He understood how these events could be manipulated to inspire fear, loyalty and patriotism, and began to stage the Games in new and ingenious ways. For example, Caesar was the first to arrange fights between recently captured armies, gaining firsthand knowledge of the fighting techniques used by these conquered people and providing him with powerful insights to aid future Roman conquests, all the while demonstrating the republic’s own superiority to the roaring crowd of Romans. After all, what other city was powerful enough to command foreign armies to fight each other to the death, solely for their viewing pleasure?
Caesar used exotic animals from newly conquered territories to educate Romans about the empire’s expansion. In one of his games, “Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome” author George Jennison notes that Caesar orchestrated “a hunt of four hundred lions, fights between elephants and infantry … [and] bull fighting by mounted Thessalians.” Later, the first-ever giraffes seen in Rome arrived — a gift to Caesar himself from a love-struck Cleopatra.
To execute his very specific visions, Caesar relied heavily on the bestiarii — men who were paid to house, manage, breed, train and sometimes fight the bizarre menagerie of animals collected for the Games.
Managing and training this ever-changing influx of beasts was not an easy task for the bestiarii. Wild animals are born with a natural hesitancy, and without training, they would usually cower and hide when forced into the arena’s center. For example, it is not a natural instinct for a lion to attack and eat a human being, let alone to do so in front of a crowd of 100,000 screaming Roman men, women and children! And yet, in Rome’s ever-more-violent culture, disappointing an editor would spell certain death for the low-ranking bestiarii.
To avoid being executed themselves, bestiarii met the challenge. They developed detailed training regimens to ensure their animals would act as requested, feeding arena-born animals a diet compromised solely of human flesh, breeding their best animals, and allowing their weaker and smaller stock to be killed in the arena. Bestiarii even went so far as to instruct condemned men and women on how to behave in the ring to guarantee a quick death for themselves — and a better show. The bestiarii could leave nothing to chance.
As their reputations grew, bestiarii were given the power to independently devise new and even more audacious spectacles for the ludi meridiani (midday executions). And by the time the Roman Games had grown popular enough to fill 250,000-seat arenas, the work of the bestiarii had become a twisted art form.
As the Roman Empire grew, so did the ambition and arrogance of its leaders. And the more arrogant, egotistic and unhinged the leader in power, the more spectacular the Games would become. Who better than the bestiarii to aid these despots in taking their version of the Roman Games to new, ever-more grotesque heights?
Caligula Amplified the Cruelty
Animal spectacles became bigger, more elaborate, and more flamboyantly cruel. Damnatio ad bestias became the preferred method of executing criminals and enemies alike. So important where the bestiarii’s contribution, that when butcher meat became prohibitively expensive, Emperor Caligula ordered that all of Rome’s prisoners “be devoured” by the bestiarii’s packs of starving animals. In his masterwork De Vita Caesarum, Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (b. 69 A.D.) tells of how Caligula sentenced the men to death “without examining the charges” to see if death was a fitting punishment, but rather by “merely taking his place in the middle of a colonnade, he bade them be led away ‘from baldhead to baldhead,'”(It should also be noted that Caligula used the funds originally earmarked for feeding the animals and the prisoners to construct temples he was building in his own honor!)
To meet this ever-growing pressure to keep the Roman crowds happy and engaged by bloodshed, bestiarii were forced to consistently invent new ways to kill. They devised elaborate contraptions and platforms to give prisoners the illusion they could save themselves — only to have the structures collapse at the worst possible moments, dropping the condemned into a waiting pack of starved animals. Prisoners were tied to boxes, lashed to stakes, wheeled out on dollies and nailed to crosses, and then, prior to the animals’ release, the action was paused so that bets could be made in the crowd about which of the helpless men would be devoured first.
Perhaps most popular — as well as the most difficult to pull off — were the re-creations of death scenes from famous myths and legends. A single bestiarius might spend months training an eagle in the art of removing a thrashing man’s organs (a la the myth of Prometheus).
The halftime show of damnatio ad bestias became so notorious that it was common for prisoners to attempt suicide to avoid facing the horrors they knew awaited them. Roman philosopher and statesmen Seneca recorded a story of a German prisoner who, rather than be killed in a bestiarius’ show, killed himself by forcing a communally used prison lavatory sponge down his throat. One prisoner who refused to walk into the arena was placed on a cart and wheeled in; the prisoner thrust his own head between the spokes of its wheels, preferring to break his own neck than to face whatever horrors the bestiarius had planned for him.
It is in this era that Rome saw the rise of its most famous bestiarius, Carpophorus, “The King of the Beasts.”
“Christian Martyrs in Colosseum” by Konstantin Flavitsky (1830-1866) (Image credit: Art-Catalog.ru, Wikimedia Commons)
The Rise of a Beast Master
Carpophorus was celebrated not only for training the animals that were set upon the enemies, criminals and Christians of Rome, but also for famously taking to the center of the arena to battle the most fearsome creatures himself.
He triumphed in one match that pitted him against a bear, a lion and a leopard, all of which were released to attack him at once. Another time, he killed 20 separate animals in one battle, using only his bare hands as weapons. His power over animals was so unmatched that the poet Martial wrote odes to Carpophorus.
“If the ages of old, Caesar, in which a barbarous earth brought forth wild monsters, had produced Carpophorus,” he wrote in his best known work, Epigrams. “Marathon would not have feared her bull, nor leafy Nemea her lion, nor Arcadians the boar of Maenalus. When he armed his hands, the Hydra would have met a single death; one stroke of his would have sufficed for the entire Chimaera. He could yoke the fire-bearing bulls without the Colchian; he could conquer both the beasts of Pasiphae. If the ancient tale of the sea monster were recalled, he would release Hesione and Andromeda single-handed. Let the glory of Hercules’ achievement be numbered: it is more to have subdued twice ten wild beasts at one time.”
To have his work compared so fawningly to battles with some of Rome’s most notorious mythological beast sheds some light on the astounding work Carpophorus was doing within the arena, but he gained fame as well for his animal work behind the scenes. Perhaps most shockingly, it was said that he was among the few bestiarii who could command animals to rape human beings, including bulls, zebras, stallions, wild boars and giraffes, among others. This crowd-pleasing trick allowed his editors to create ludi meridiani that could not only combine sex and death but also claim to be honoring the god Jupiter. After all, in Roman mythology, Jupiter took many animal forms to have his way with human women.
Historians still debate how common of an occurrence public bestiality was at the Roman Games — and especially whether forced bestiality was used as a form of execution — but poets and artists of the time wrote and painted about the spectacle with a shocked awe.
“Believe that Pasiphae coupled with the Dictaean bull!” Martial wrote. “We’ve seen it! The Ancient Myth has been confirmed! Hoary antiquity, Caesar, should not marvel at itself: whatever Fame sings of, the arena presents to you.”
The ‘Gladiator’ Commodus
The Roman Games and the work of the bestiarii may have reached their apex during the reign of Emperor Commodus, which began in 180 AD. By that time, the relationship between the emperors and the Senate had disintegrated to a point of near-complete dysfunction. The wealthy, powerful and spoiled emperors began acting out in such debauched and deluded ways that even the working class “plebs” of Rome were unnerved. But even in this heightened environment, Commodus served as an extreme.
Having little interest in running the empire, he left most of the day-to-day decisions to a prefect, while Commodus himself indulged in living a very public life of debauchery. His harem contained 300 girls and 300 boys (some of whom it was said had so bewitched the emperor as he passed them on the street that he felt compelled to order their kidnapping). But if there was one thing that commanded Commodus’ obsession above all else, it was the Roman Games. He didn’t just want to put on the greatest Games in the history of Rome; he wanted to be the star of them, too.
Commodus began to fight as a gladiator. Sometimes, he arrived dressed in lion pelts, to evoke Roman hero Hercules; other times, he entered the ring absolutely naked to fight his opponents. To ensure a victory, Commodus only fought amputees and wounded soldiers (all of whom were given only flimsy wooden weapons to defend themselves). In one dramatic case recorded in Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Commodus ordered that all people missing their feet be gathered from the Roman streets and be brought to the arena, where he commanded that they be tethered together in the rough shape of a human body. Commodus then entered the arena’s center ring, and clubbed the entire group to death, before announcing proudly that he had killed a giant.
But being a gladiator wasn’t enough for him. Commodus wanted to rule the halftime show as well, so he set about creating a spectacle that would feature him as a great bestiarius. He not only killed numerous animals — including lions, elephants, ostriches and giraffes, among others, all of which had to be tethered or injured to ensure the emperor’s success — but also killed bestiarii whom he felt were rivals (including Julius Alexander, a bestiarius who had grown beloved in Rome for his ability to kill an untethered lion with a javelin from horseback). Commodus once made all of Rome sit and watch in the blazing midday sun as he killed 100 bears in a row — and then made the city pay him 1 millions esterces (ancient Roman coins) for the (unsolicited) favor.
By the time Commodus demanded the city of Rome be renamed Colonia Commodiana (“City of Commodus”) — Scriptores Historiae Augustae, noted that not only did the Senate “pass this resolution, but … at the same time [gave] Commodus the name Hercules, and [called] him a god” — a conspiracy was already afoot to kill the mad leader. A motley crew of assassins — including his court chamberlain, Commodus’ favorite concubine, and “an athlete called Narcissus, who was employed as Commodus’ wrestling partner” — joined forces to kill him and end his unhinged reign. His death was supposed to restore balance and rationality to Rome — but it didn’t. By then, Rome was broken — bloody, chaotic and unable to stop its death spiral.
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In an ultimate irony, reformers who stood up to oppose the culture’s violent and debauched disorder were often punished by death at the hands of the bestiarii, their deaths cheered on by the very same Romans whom they were trying to protect and save from destruction.
The Death of the Games and the Rise of Christianity
As the Roman Empire declined, so did the size, scope and brutality of its Games. However, it seems fitting that one of the most powerful seeds of the empire’s downfall could be found within its ultimate sign of contempt and power — the halftime show of damnatio ad bestias.
Early Christians were among the most popular victims in ludi meridiani. The emperors who condemned these men, women and children to public death by beasts did so with the obvious hope that the spectacle would be so horrifying and humiliating that it would discourage any other Romans from converting to Christianity.
Little did they realize that the tales of brave Christians facing certain death with grace, power and humility made them some of the earliest martyr stories. Nor could they have imagined that these oft-repeated narratives would then serve as invaluable tools to drive more people toward the Christian faith for centuries to come.
In the end, who could have ever imagined that these near-forgotten “halftime shows” might prove to have a more lasting impact on the world than the gladiators and chariot races that had overshadowed the bestiarii for their entire existence?
Read more from Aptowicz in her Expert Voices essay, “Surgery in a Time Before Anesthesia.”
Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.