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Ancient roman games as a killing machine for wild animals

Hunting scene on granite board taken from Roman Amphitheater in Mérida (Spain). Current location of the granite: Nacional Museum of Roman Art in Mérida. Photo by Lorenzo Plana Torres

The games in the Roman arenas were above all a huge killing and extermination machine for wild animals. It was not the gladiatorial fights, not the chariot races or the theatrical performances that topped the popularity charts of the imperial townspeople. Rather, they were the so-called animal hunts, during which over the centuries tens of thousands of animals were slaughtered for the enthusiastic public. It started in 186 BC, when Roman General and consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior organized ten-day’s games for his returning to Rome after the triumph over the Central Greek Alliance of Aetolians. Full details about the triumph were given by roman historian Titus Livius.  For the first time a lot of lions and panthers were hunted in order to gladiators play deathly games against wild animals in the circus. Fulvius Nobilior set standards that his successors sought to outdo both in terms of the amount of animals used in circus and for the different type of performance in games. During the games organized by Fulvius Nobillior, around 170 wild animals were killed in the Roman arena including 63 African animals, 40 bears and elephants.

The dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla gave the Roman public a showcase of about 100 lions. The African hunters were usually captured by the Romans along with wild animals. In 58 BC, 150 leopards and for the first time an Egyptian hippopotamus and five crocodiles were transported to Rome for killing. Always new animal species, always new killing techniques and above all ever larger quantities of animals were brought in and used up for the so-called games. There was hardly found big wild animals that was not used in the Roman games. Tigers from India, seals from the North Sea coast, elephants and rhinos from Africa, deer from Gaul, hippopotamus and crocodiles from Africa or giraffes and ostrich from Ethiopia were victims of the Roman entertainment industry. Not to mention bears, all kinds of big cats, bulls and many more.
Finally, hippopotamus in Lower Egypt were completely eradicated in the 4th century. Likewise, the elephants in Libya and the lions in Thessaly were extinct.

During the reign of Roman Emperor Trajan around 11000 animals were slaughtered in the arena within 123 days in a single game period when he celebrated victory over the Dacians. An army of caretakers, transport workers, guards, veterinarians and trainers organized the preparation of spectacularly staged killing orgies. How many animals have already died in the hunt and on the transport, by accidents, ship sinking or epidemics, it impossible to know.  The number may have been little less than in compare to those animals who have slaughtered as victim of the games eventually. Probably hundreds of thousands or millions, of animals have been subjected to systematic destruction in Roman games. Because the example numbers given above only refer to the games directly in city of Rome. But there were hundreds of venues throughout the Roman Empire, whose games, also including large number of wild animals in arenas.

For the Romans, killing large number of wild animals was no reason to regret. On the contrary, they were proud of these great achievements in their eyes.  Areas in which the wild predators had previously lived, Romans thought they could be used for livestock breeding and agriculture. The liberation of entire regions from wild animals was regarded as a good achievement.
Reverence for creation, responsibility for the environment were not central categories of antiquity, as can be demonstrated in the areas of war, forest management and, in general, natural resources.

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