The Coliseum in Rome once held extravagant and violent sporting events, playing host to gladiators and other types of warriors. Established in 80 CE, the Coliseum wasn’t the only place that entertained these sorts of competitions. But many of the animals that battled gladiators did so within the archways and stone edifices found throughout the boundaries of Rome.
What sorts of animals did the gladiators fight, and why exactly did they do so in the first place? Were there any sorts of games or events that featured a specific animal over another? In this article, we’ll go over briefly the history of animal and gladiator fights in Rome, particularly in the notorious Coliseum. While bloody and often cruel, animals really did battle gladiators- and often succeeded.
Why Did Gladiators Fight Animals?
In Rome, gladiator battles were extremely popular events. However, while some gladiators chose their fate and worked hard to compete, many more gladiators were in fact convicts or other sorts of prisoners. This meant that they were often forced to fight animals in exchange for the potential of freedom, while some were simply offered up as sacrificial entertainment.
Known as venationes, these battles involved wild animals and warriors. Depending on who was hosting the fight, these battles would sometimes last days, if not months on end. Ever-increasing in their elaborate needs, the rich and powerful in Rome created battles in the Coliseum that showcased their wealth but often for a price.
Whether volunteers or coerced, gladiators were often sent away to train, especially if they were meant to fight apex predators. As battles at the Coliseum progressed and grew ever-popular, many gladiators pursued special schools to help them perform at their best. They learned how to fight with a variety of weapons, including chariots, spears, and metal fists.
Those who chose to volunteer for these types of fights expected glory and reward to come their way, but only if they won of course. Even those who didn’t choose to battle in the Coliseum hoped to survive, with reverence, glory, and a new life awaiting them should they win!
Animals that Battled Gladiators
There are a number of records that show multiple types of animals as opponents to gladiators. As the games within the Coliseum grew more and more elaborate, even more vicious and exotic animals were brought in to assist with these fights. While popular during its time, venationes hosted within the Coliseum are often credited with huge blows to these animal species and populations. The decline of the availability of these animals is one of the most credited reasons why venationes stopped back then.
Here are some of the most common and fearsome animals that battled gladiators, including the games often associated with them.
Capable of reaching over 500 pounds and speeds of over 30 miles per hour, it’s no wonder why lions were chosen as competitors against fearsome gladiatorial fighters. While animals were once chained up during the early days of Coliseum battles, lions were eventually given free rein around the arena. Some stories suggest that one particular Roman emperor had at least 500 lions slaughtered in a single game. While lions hunt best in groups, even a single lion is capable of killing a grown man with ease.
Another popular choice of animal for gladiatorial battles was the tiger. Captured in India and Persia, tigers gave gladiators as much of a run for their money as lions. These sleek big cats are often longer and heavier compared to lions, with some weighing more than 600 pounds. Given the fact that most tigers hunt as solitary creatures, a gladiator battle against a single tiger likely never went well.
Shockingly, giraffes were another animal pursued by gladiators. In fact, Caesar was the first to introduce the giraffe to Rome, much to the surprise of the average Roman citizen. While you may think that giraffes would be spared given their herbivore diets and gentle natures, they were also victims of gladiator battles. Giraffes were also killed in battles with other animals, another popular game found within the Coliseum.
Captured in Scotland and Hungary, bears were another popular animal used in gladiator fights. Given their ferocious nature even in modern times, there’s no telling just how violent bears could be when prepped for a Coliseum battle. Oftentimes, bears captured and brought to Rome were held and neglected for multiple days leading up to the gladiatorial games. This led to some extremely aggressive and hungry competitors.
Alongside crocodiles, rhinos were captured by the Roman Empire and brought over from India. This was a rare but albeit difficult competitor against the average gladiator for many reasons. For one, rhinos can reach speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour. Plus, their hide is difficult to pierce or damage, not to mention their fearsome horns. Finally, rhinos can weigh well over 7,000 pounds, making them a huge and difficult animal to fight!
Similarly to rhinos, elephants were brought to the Coliseum for their huge size and exotic status. They were used in a variety of ways including circus tricks and simple marveling amongst all citizens of Rome. However, given the overpowering size and strength of the average elephant, many gladiators were forced to fight them in one-on-one combat. It’s safe to say that elephants were quite difficult to fight, even for highly trained gladiators!
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