Feature – The Venatio – Hunting Animals
The Venatio was the warm up event of the gladiatorial arena. It was a hunt or wild beast show conducted during the games in which “Bestiarii” (the animal fighter) would fight wild animals for sport. Often it was condemned criminals that would participate, without weapons to carry out their death sentence.
A trained hunter was called a “Venator”, he was a level below the gladiator on the ladder of public esteem and down at the bottom was the “Bestiarius”. Although bestiarii were recruited from the same source (criminals, prisoners of war) they were despised because they had no training.
Exotic wild beasts would be brought in from far reaches of the Roman Empire and hunts would be held in the mornings before the main event of the gladiatorial duels in the afternoon.
The thought of being confined in a space and certain death from a wild animal was too much for some condemned men. There is a story of one prisoner putting his head through the spokes of a wheel of a cart in which he was being taken to the arena, allowing his neck to be broken, rather than entering the arena.
Special precautions were taken to protect the crowd from the wild beasts. Barriers were put up and ditches were dug to prevent the animals taking to the crowds. The animals would be kept in cages and then raised by ropes and pulleys up through trap doors in the stage and then released into the arena. Very few animals survived these savage hunts though they did sometimes defeat and maul the Bestiarius. Thousands of wild animals would be slaughtered during a week of games.
The animals they used included lions, bears, elephants, dogs, wild goats, deer, camels, elephants, panthers, rhinocerous, ostriches and bulls. They would hunt the most exotic and rare animals to participate. Sometimes trained animals were brought in and performed a type of circus act for the crowd but mostly the animals were wild and intended to be killed.
As ghastly as this all seems in modern times, at the time and in the context of the Roman culture, the Romans were accustomed to the killing of animals in sacrificial ritual. There were numerous religious festivals and sacrifices were common in front of temples in the city. The Roman’s also saw the sport of killing animals as a way to show their civilised domination over wild nature.
Different fights were staged with the animals. Animals of different species were pitted against each other rather than against the bestiarii. Often the animals didn’t want to fight but would be provoked into attacking each other. Wild dogs or panthers might be put in the ring with a number of deer and chase ensued. The picture above shows an elephant being ridden by a man and bull that is tied to the floor through an iron ring.
Certainly this sport of the Roman’s ended the existence of some animals. Animals we have perhaps never heard of. Luckily over time and certainly in more recent years people have come to appreciate the animal kingdom and want to preserve it for generations to come.
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