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Monday, August 29, 2016

Zoo History: We Who Are About to Die...

If there's been one ongoing theme to the Zoo History section of the blog, it's that our species' relationship with captive wildlife extends far before the birth of the modern zoo.  Humans have kept animals for millennia for endless purposes - curiosity, prestige, adornment, worship.  Perhaps the darkest - certainly one of the bloodiest - chapters of our shared history with captive wildlife comes out of Ancient Rome.

The origins of the Roman gladiatorial games date back to a few centuries before Christ - they started off as religious rites, meant to honor one's ancestors, similar to the practice of human sacrifice.  In time, however, the games took on a life of their own, becoming increasingly popular across the Roman world.  They came to serve as celebrations of Roman military might and colonial power, as captives - human and animal - from across the Republic (and later the Empire) were brought together to die for the amusement of the Roman citizenry.  Being a military culture, Romans were expected to celebrate the slaughter that was played out for their entertainment; it was considered a sign of weakness to be repelled by the carnage.  Gladiatorial expositions served as morbid pep rallies, organized by politicians in order to impress and inspire the crowds.

If fights between gladiators were a substitute for warfare, than fights between gladiators and beasts were meant to represent hunting.  Lions, tigers, leopards, and bears were the stars of these hunts - being dangerous themselves, they posed a more interesting challenge to the Venatores (also called Bestiarii), those gladiators who fought beasts.  That being said, the arenas were also filled with considerably less... showy species, such as deer, gazelle, ostrich, ibex, and even rabbits, turned loose on the sand essentially as cannon fodder for the larger animals.  Bulls and bears were sometimes chained together, with a luckless slave given the task of undoing the chain binding the two enraged combatants. 

Of course, not all of the fights between humans and animals in the Roman arena were really "fights" - there was a fair bit of one-sided slaughter there too.  Animals served as a method of execution for criminals in which no one was even pretending that the accused had a chance.  Christians weren't the only ones thrown to lions. 

As Roman power expanded, with more emperors, more wars, and more triumphs, increasingly fickle crowds demanded more extravagant entertainments.  Thousands of animals would be killed in a single day.  New species would be imported - at tremendous expense and difficulty - simply so they could be killed in the amphitheater.  The Coliseum itself was sometimes flooded, allowing not only small-scale naval battles, but aquatic hunts, as boat-riding gladiators battled hippos and crocodiles.  Sometimes even the Emperor himself would enter the fray - Commodus had crescent-shaped arrows designed specifically for decapitating ostriches. 

The Roman games didn't end suddenly, but petered out slowly over the centuries.  Even if the Coliseum eventually emptied, the blood-sport never completely died.  It was carried on in the Medici palaces and in the Tower of London, and was brought to the New World, were Spanish conquistadors thought it was a hoot to tie a grizzly to a bull and watch the two fight (in Andean South America, condors received a similar ignoble treatment).  Even today, bullfights persist in parts of the Spanish world. 

The consequences of the Roman games extend far beyond the welfare of the animals that were themselves lost in the arena - the effect must have been felt across ecosystems.  Thousands upon thousands of animals were removed from the wild to participate in the games - who can guess how many more died in transit, or were killed to acquire young?  It's entirely possible that species were extirpated from modern-day countries in no small part because of the gladiatorial games.

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