In what might be the world’s oldest recorded awkward situation, the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero spent much of his term as Cilicia’s governor trying to ignore a very specific request from his former legal client Marcus Caelius Rufus. In several letters sent over the better part of a year, Caelius repeatedly begged Cicero to capture and send him a group of local leopards. He needed the animals, he explained, because he was trying to launch his political career—and nothing won over voters’ hearts better than live exotic animal hunts in the arena. Caelius’s opponent Curio had no trouble collecting exotic animals from his governor friends—why couldn’t Cicero spare a few of his local beasts?
As Cicero explained in a letter to another friend, Atticus, he simply wasn’t comfortable taking advantage of his position in this way: “I have said that it is inconsistent with my character that the people of Cibyra should hunt at the public expense while I am governor.”
Caelius wasn’t dissuaded, and his letters grew increasingly desperate. In one, he wrote, “It will be a disgrace to you if I have no Greek panthers.” In another, “In nearly every letter I have mentioned the subject of the panthers to you. It will be a disgrace to you that Patiscus has sent ten panthers to Curio, and that you should not send many times more.” These vague threats to his reputation clearly got under Cicero’s skin. His final response is cuttingly sarcastic.
About the leopards, the professional hunters are busy, acting on my orders. But there is an extraordinary scarcity of the beasts, and it is said that those leopards who are here complain bitterly that they are the only living creatures in my province against whom any harm is meditated.
Reluctant as Cicero was to round up wild beasts for Caelius’s benefit, bloody public spectacles featuring animals were already an important part of Roman culture. One type of wild animal show, known as damnatio ad bestias or execution by beasts, eventually became a trope of Christian martyr stories like that of Daniel and the lions.