Flavian Amphitheater: Battle Arena for Man Versus Animals Fights

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Fascination for games especially related to exotic animals was so huge that Romans had the Flavian Amphitheater equipped with every possible system in place, from gladiator training school to best seating arrangement to retractable cloth covering. But, why were the Romans inclined toward man versus animal and sadistic beast shows?

Image shows people ready to be prosecuted and the animals standing to get to their prey.
Apart from having access to a variety of entertainment shows, Romans somehow had an obsession for man versus animal and sadistic beast shows. (Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme/Public domain)

Seating Capacity in the Amphitheater

Upon entering one of the 78 ground-level entrances in the amphitheater, each marked by a number, spectators found their way to their seats through an extraordinarily complex network of ramps, stairs, and corridors. Those for the upper levels followed different corridors than those whose seating was in the lower cavea. In all, there were four tiers of seats with an additional standing-room-only gallery at the highest level, making a total capacity of about 55,000 people. Roman spectators were given tokens that listed the number of their gate, the level, the section, and the row to sit. 

Seating Arrangement in the Amphitheater

The seating within the cavea was arranged as a microcosm of Roman society, with the spectators placed according to their status. The emperor or the presiding magistrate, along with his coterie, was seated in a special box, and the prime seats at the lowest level were reserved for other important figures, such as the Vestal Virgins. The lowest rows of seats were reserved for senators, while those immediately above were set aside for equestrians. The poor, women, and slaves were relegated to the highest tier in the gallery.

Gigantic Secret Space in the Amphitheater

Beneath the floor of the arena were two subterranean levels, with 32 cages for wild animals and rooms for gladiators and equipment. That underground maze included an elaborate system of trapdoors and elevators to raise scenery into the arena or to disgorge combatants or wild animals, to spring unexpectedly from the ground itself. The number of those trapdoors and elevators were at least 32. The smaller amphitheater at Capua, featured no fewer than 62 trapdoors and elevators of varying sizes.

Learn more about the gladiators and the beast hunts.

The Velarium

Attached to the top level of amphitheater was a forest of 240 wooden masts, with a suspended retractable cloth covering called the velarium. That cover was deployed or pulled back to provide shade or protection from rain for the spectators.

This feature was included even on earlier versions of amphitheaters, as there was a reference to its abuse by the emperor Caligula, who delighted in locking the exits and pulling back the velarium on especially sunny days, causing audience members to faint from the heat. Some awnings were made of brightly colored silks. Adding to the sensory overload, the sand of the arena was dyed red, blue, or white.

Ludus Magnus- The Training School

To the east of the Flavian Amphitheater was a complex known as the Ludus Magnus, one of four gladiator training schools set up by the emperor Domitian to ensure an adequate supply of gladiators for the amphitheater. It included barracks, training facilities, and a small amphitheater that could hold about 3,000 spectators. The entire compound was connected to the substructure of the Flavian amphitheater by an underground tunnel.

Learn more about the organization of Rome’s fighting forces.

Fascination for Animal Entertainment

The Romans had a fascination for exotic animals. However, a zoo was never established in Rome; instead, they enjoyed watching those animals kill or be killed. As with gladiatorial combat, that form of entertainment grew popular in the late Republic. Pompey started the trend with some games in which several hundred lions and leopards were slain. That type of entertainment expanded quickly as in just a single day during the empire; 32 elephants, 10 elk, 20 mules, 10 tigers, 40 horses, 60 lions, 30 leopards, 10 hyenas, 10 giraffes, 6 hippos, 1 rhino, dozens of gazelles and ostriches were slaughtered in Rome.

Animals as Trick Performers

There were four main ways in which animals were used for entertainment: an armed man versus a wild animal or animals; animals versus other animals; people being fed to animals; and trained animals performing tricks. The last category was the only one, not to focus upon the death of the participants.

The Romans liked watching performing bears and seals do tricks. One group of lions was released to chase rabbits, but rather than eating them, the lions were trained to gently pick them up in their mouth and bring them back to their human handlers. One celebrated dog apparently licked up a bowl of poison, became violent, and flopped over, seemingly dead. That was all an act, and at the end, the dog was revealed to be alive. There was also a troop of trained monkeys dressed as soldiers, some of whom rode goats as if they were horses, and others who drove chariots pulled by teams of goats.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Man Versus Animal Fight

A beast hunt, called a venatione, pitted a man, called a bestiarius, armed with a dagger or spear, against one or several animals. To make those hunts more exciting, natural settings were built in the arena, including forests, hills, caves, and streams. One renowned bestiarius named Carpophorus slew a leopard, a bear, and a lion at the same spectacle. Some emperors, such as Domitian, enjoyed displaying their prowess as hunters before the Roman public.

A creative variant on a beast hunt occurred during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, who had an enormous ship built in the Circus Maximus. It was designed to collapse and release 700 animals of seven different species, including bears, lions, panthers, ostriches, and bison, all hunted down and killed. That was intended as a shipwreck scenario.

Learn more about chariot racing, the most popular sport in the Roman Empire

Sadistic Beast Show

When animals were pitted against each other, to make sure they fought, the Romans bound them together with a chain. Favorite pairings included a bull versus a bear and an elephant versus a rhino.

Image of a mosaic painting shows wild animals attacking a criminal in the arena during the beast show.
The show where criminals were fed to the dangerous and starving beasts was perhaps the most frightening game during ancient Rome. (Image: Copyright Rached Msadek./Attribution/Public domain)

The last form of beast show was the most sadistic. The Romans had special little carts built with a stake projecting up from them. Criminals were tied to the stakes and the wagons wheeled into the arena. Once the handlers left, starving animals were released, proceeding to chew on the helpless victims at their leisure. On one occasion during the reign of Commodus, a leopard leapt upon a bound man and locked its jaws around his head, causing spatters of blood to rain down. The sight provoked crueler members of the audience, taunting the victim with cries of “Enjoy your shower.”

Beast Hunt or Animal Extinction?

The most amazing beast hunt took place during the 123-day-long games of Trajan, featuring 10,000 gladiators, and no less than 11,000 wild animals slaughtered in the arena. The emperor Probus staged a beast hunt featuring 1,000 boars, ostriches, stags, 300 bears, 200 leopards, and 100 lions. 

Catching, transporting, and feeding the large number of wild, dangerous beasts demanded by the Roman games, supported a substantial animal supply industry. The Romans caused most of the large wild animals of North Africa to become extinct.

Common Questions about Ancient Rome and Man Versus Animal Fights

Q: What was the biggest amphitheater in Ancient Rome?

Flavian Amphitheater, also known as the Colosseum, situated in Rome was the biggest amphitheater with two subterranean levels which contained 32 cages for wild animals, as well as rooms for gladiators and equipment.

Q: How many people did the Colosseum hold?

The Colosseum’s total capacity was of about 55,000 people. There were four tiers of seats with an additional standing-room-only gallery at the highest level.

Q: What does Velarium mean?

In the Colosseum, attached to the top level was a forest of 240 wooden masts, with a suspended retractable cloth covering which was called the velarium.

Q: What kind of animals were killed in the Colosseum?

Almost 11,000 wild animals including boars, ostriches, stags, bears, leopards, and lions were killed in the Colosseum.

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