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 aspetaurua, 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.
And with that, another “halftime show” of damnatio ad bestiassucceeded 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)
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 asdamnatio 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.