The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome

Thousands of bears, panthers, leopards, lions, and elephants were killed in the Colosseum—but how did they get there in the first place?

Elephants are slain in an Ancient Roman amphitheatre (Stefano Bianchetti / Corbis)

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.

Tearing apart convicts made for quite a show, but it was not the only use Romans had for exotic animals. At least as popular were venationes, or “hunts,” a sport in which it was animals who were sentenced to death, whether at the hands of human hunters or in combat with other animals.

The venatio has survived into our day in the form of its direct descendant, Spanish bullfighting. Like modern bullfighting, the ancient venatio had its share of critics, including—not surprisingly given his reaction to the panther situation—Cicero, who thought the practice appealed to the worst parts of human nature. In a letter, the orator describes one venatio (organized by the famous general Pompey the Great) that was so brutal not even Rome’s typically bloodthirsty rabble could enjoy it.

The last day was that of the elephants, on which there was a great deal of astonishment on the part of the vulgar crowd, but no pleasure whatever. Nay, there was even a certain feeling of compassion aroused by it, and a kind of belief created that that animal has something in common with mankind.

The later writer Pliny the Elder describes the same sad spectacle.

When [the elephants] had lost all hope of escape, they tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey.

Pompey’s elephant-hunt spectacle, which took place close to the end of the Roman Republic, provoked an emotional response from the crowds—but it by no means marked the end of venationes. In fact, over the course of the early Roman Empire, animal shows reached staggering new scales. In his autobiographical Res Gestae, Augustus claims that he had 3500 African animals killed in 26 venationes over the course of his reign. The better part of a century later, the emperor Titus inaugurated the Colosseum with a hundred days of spectacle in which 5000 wild beasts were killed. And in public games held from 108 to 109 C.E., the emperor Trajan arranged for 11,000 animals to fight in the arena.

Many descriptions of Roman animal spectacles list the types of animal killed along with their origins. While plenty of venationes featured local species like bulls and dogs, exotic animals—especially those from Africa and the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire—were far more exciting. What’s more, the Romans seem to have had little interest in breeding exotic animals at home. Animals caught in the wild were considered infinitely more dangerous, more valuable, and more fascinating. In his book Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, the historian Donald Kyle explains,

[E]xotic animals got special treatment with expert handlers and attendants to ensure their health and readiness for their performance. They might also be displayed temporarily or, less likely, kept in menageries before the spectacles for which they were intended.

Capturing and transporting live animals from distant lands was a lucrative cottage industry in the Roman provinces. Several ancient texts describe the methods used by the suppliers of wild beasts. In his Satyricon, the late 1st century C.E. novelist Petronius waxed poetic about the business of procuring exotic animals for sport.

The wild beast is searched out in the woods at a great price, and men trouble [the god] Hammon deep in Africa to supply the beast whose teeth make him precious for slaying men; strange ravening creatures freight the fleets, and the padding tiger is wheeled in a gilded palace to drink the blood of men while the crowd applauds.

Other texts give more technical details. Pliny tells us how African hunters captured live elephants, which continued to be used occasionally in venationes despite the shame felt by the audience of Pompey’s elephant hunt. Men on horseback would chase the elephants into pits, where the animals would be left without food or water until they were physically depleted enough to be transported without too much trouble.

In his book on hunting, the 2nd-century writer Oppian describes how live bears were captured in the region of Armenia. After identifying bear dens with the help of dogs, hunters would drive the animals out with a cacophony of trumpets and cymbals—not unlike the National Park Service’s recommendation to make loud noises if you encounter a bear in the wild. Once the bear was out in the open and disoriented, the hunters would chase it into a hidden net they’d previously set up. This would be a dangerous moment, “for at that moment bears greatly rage with jaws and terrible paws.” The strongest members of the hunting team would spring into action to restrain the bear by tying its limbs to wooden planks. At this point, with the bear safely handicapped and presumably tired out, it could be loaded into a “cage of oak and pine” for transport.

Oppian also shares two different ways to trap lions. In the region of Libya, which in antiquity meant most of North Africa, hunters used a similar method to the one Pliny says was used by elephant-hunters, in which horsemen chased the animals into a purpose-built pit. Once a lion was trapped in the pit, the hunters would lower down a “plaited well-compacted cage” baited with meat. The lion would jump in willingly, the cage would be closed and lifted out of the pit, and the trapped lion would be sent on its way.

Reflecting the cultural power of live wild animals, scenes of hunters capturing and transporting them was a common trope in Roman mosaic art. The most spectacular example comes from the 4th-century C.E. Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily. The Big Game Hunt mosaic, as it’s known, stretches across nearly the entire length of the villa, dominating the luxurious house’s more public areas.

Lying at the entrance to the villa’s grand hall, or basilica, is a vignette that looks a bit like a morbid Noah’s Ark. On the left side of a docked ship, men lead live beasts (including a pair of unhappy-looking ostriches) aboard. From the ship’s right side, other men unload the animals at their destination, still alive—if not for long.

Animal transport scene from the Big Game Hunt Mosaic, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily (Wikimedia)

Other mosaics show the fates of the animals once they reached a major city. One found in the rich city of Leptis Magna, in modern Libya, dates not too long after the emperor Titus celebrated the completion of the Colosseum by condemning thousands of wild animals to death.

The so-called Zliten mosaic, now in Tripoli, Libya (Wikimedia)

In addition to gladiator fights, the mosaic show a full array of animal spectacles, from the execution of prisoners by beast to venationes. In one particularly cruel vignette, a bear and a raging bull are chained together.

Another North African mosaic shows exotic animals losing their lives in the arena in a somewhat more dignified manner. Known as the Magerius Mosaic and dating to around 250 C.E., this one was uncovered in a villa near Hadrumetum, in modern-day Tunisia.

‘Magerius’ Mosaic, now at the Sousse Archaeological Museum in Sousse, Tunisia (Wikimedia)

Each of the four venatores, or hunters, depicted is identified by name. This isn’t unusual: Arena fighters were sometimes labeled in comparable mosaics.

More interesting—and oddly touching—is the way in which the leopards are depicted. Like the humans in the process of killing them, they’re identified by name: Victor, Romanus, Luxurius (meaning, most likely, “Frisky”), and Crispinus (“Curly”). Barely visible around the belly of each dying leopard is a laurel crown. Usually awarded to exceptionally talented gladiators, the crown would have been familiar to all fans of arena bloodsport: It was the symbol of the most courageous and fiercest of fighters.

The herald at the mosaic’s center is surrounded by text emphasizing how much glory the spectacle of the leopard hunt had brought to Magerius, the man who paid for it: “This is what it means to be rich, this is that it means to be powerful, this is the case now!” Though separated in time by three centuries, the praise lavished on Magerius illuminates Caelius’s desperation for some leopards of his own. By refusing to capture the beasts for his friend, Cicero denied Caelius the chance to demonstrate real power.

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