Exotic wild beasts from the far reaches of the Roman Empire were brought to Rome and hunts were held in the morning prior to the afternoon main event of gladiatorial duels. The hunts were held in the Roman Forum, the Saepta, and in the Circus Maximus, though none of these venues offered protection to the crowd from the wild animals on display. Special precautions were taken to prevent the animals from escaping these venues, such as the erection of barriers and the digging of ditches. Very few animals survived these hunts though they did sometimes defeat the "bestiarius", or hunters of wild beast. Thousands of wild animals would be slaughtered in one day. During the inauguration of the Colosseum over 9,000 animals were killed.
Not all the animals were ferocious, though most were. Animals that appeared in the venatio included lions, elephants, bears, deer, wild goats, dogs, and rabbits. Reports of tigers being used during such games are false and are attributed to the eventual demonization of beast hunts. Some of these animals were trained, and instead of fighting, performed tricks.
Revered for its ferocity, the lion was extremely popular in venationes and gladiatorial shows. Thus the dictator Caesar used 400 lions (imported primarily from North Africa and Syria) in the Circus, where the inclusion of the foreign animal loaned his shows extra panache. Indeed, obtaining the animals from the far-flung corners of the empire was an ostentatious display of wealth and power by the emperor or other patron to the populace, and was also meant to demonstrate Roman power of the whole human and animal world and to show the plebs of Rome exotic animals they might never see otherwise.
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Following the venatio in the order of daily events were the execution of convicted Roman citizens of lower status, the humiliores. Usual forms of execution included burning at the stake, crucifixion, or ad bestias (when the prisoner is left alone in the ring with one or more wild animals). Ancient writers suggest that during these executions, most respectable men and women went for lunch instead of staying to watch.
Roman emperors often sentenced serious criminals — who then became known as bestiarii — to fatal encounters with the beasts in the Colosseum — an ancient "death sentence". The criminal met his fate in the context of an elaborate play; instead of a happy ending, though, the main character of the production — the convict — was mauled by a bear, whom he fought without weapons or armor. These were the lowest social class of participants in the games. Such gory dramas were common at the program Emperor Titus arranged to dedicate the Colosseum in AD 80. That lavish show lasted 100 days.
- pg 105 of The Gladiator, by Alan Baker, Ebury Press ISBN 0-09-188654-6
- Wainwright, Martin (2010-06-07). "Scars from lion bite suggest headless Romans found in York were gladiators". The Guardian (London).
- The Bestiarius and the Ludus Matutinus
- "Ad Bestias". Retrieved 2009-03-26.