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caesar novus

Amphitheater games maybe not so cruel to animals

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I attended a surprising lecture by zooarcheologist Michael MacKinnon on Roman games that I thought should be noted somewhere. He seems to be a lecturer for hire https://www.archaeological.org/lecturer/michaelmackinnon with immense experience digging all round the Mediterranean for animal bones from the Roman era.

 

He finds tons of bones, but almost none of exotic animals! He shoots down most finds by other diggers (the giraffe bone in Pompei dates to recent, the bear and lion paw and tooth in north Africa was likely a skin/trophy). A few ostrich and other bones found in Italy, but not in numbers that begin to support the Roman pictures and descriptions... maybe much exaggerated!

 

He has searched in vain for Hannibal's elephant bones... what Roman would go to the effort to relocate or burn or grind to dust bones of very large animals, especially since they don't do it for domestic animals? He has combed almost undisturbed African amphitheater sites for exotics in vain.

 

His debunking seems all the more believable since he seems eager to prove Romans were cruel to animals. He uses circular logic in saying the Romans probably let many exotic animals die in transit "because the remainder brought a high price anyway". This seems silly to me that they wouldn't value the opportunity of making even more money by reasonable treatment. He calls the Roman trappers more cowardly than depicted in the mosaics because the mosaics show them using animal babies as bait... but that is full disclosure!

 

He speculates the dangerous stuff was done by local Africans, but I think it was plenty dangerous for all. Read the free Amazon kindle book memoirs of someone building the Mombassa railway in 1800's who lost a worker to lions every few days. Even the overseers with (not always reliable) rifles were in terrific danger, especially because they had no reasonable spotlighting technology at night.

 

So he appears to be saying Romans weren't often as cruel or macho as they pretend to be, at least with respect to exotic animals in games. Gladiators never fought animals, but 2 other kinds of specialists sometimes did (including doomed criminals). The lecturer seemed more believable due to his bias against animal cruelty... I am a vegetarian, but found him almost at the witch-hunter extreme.

 

P.S. on the way to this lecture I listened to another debunking lecture recording about holy land archeology. A women with some of the most experience digging or writing up digs in Masada claims Josephus accounts were likely fictionalized. In a 36 lecture series, she says several of the mass suicide accounts of Josephus have no archeo basis,,, that is, the well known evidence is otherwise explainable. Furthermore Josephus had several motivations to depict dramatic suicides, and his readers expected him to selectively fictionalize for dramatic effect. I forget the lecturer's name, but possibly more evidence for my withful thinking that the Romans were nicer folks than commonly depicted!

 

P.P.S this site won't let you log on if you override the 2 tick box defaults.

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...fascinating stuff, thaks for sharing! :)

 

I found a video from him on Youtube regarding rubbish in Pompeii

 

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Gladiators never fought animals, but 2 other kinds of specialists sometimes did (including doomed criminals).

There were two kind of fighters who interacted with animals. Firstly, and higher status, was the venator, the animal hunter, who stalked and killed in the arena to celebrate religious rites and demonstrate power over nature. There were also Bestiarii, who not only had to fight animals as equals (thus the lower status), but were also employed to handle them as well. One man was said to have killed a bear by pushing his arm down its throat and suffocating it. Needless to say, this sort of mano-a-mano combat with animals was risky and difficult.

 

'Doomed criminals' did not generally fight the animals - mostly they were tied to a post and the animal allowed to do whatever. There is one account of a man being attacked by a bear in this fashion, tied to a post on wheels, who was described as no longer being shaped as a man after disfigurement by the bear. There was also an account of a lady of poor repute who was sealed up in a wooden cow, hauled into the arena for a rampant bull to have its way, much to the crowds amusement.

 

Were animals badly treated? Well, yes and no. Firstly the animals were generally imported from distant areas and very expoensive to get hold of. Specialists gathered animals for the arena inlcuding soldiers (there was a legion in Germany that boasted of its bear hunters). The actual death toll of animals en route isn't known but bear in mind that animals were subject to stress and confinement, and there was one case where Augustus was going to show crocodiles to the public but they died before the event. Around Rome there was at least one 'zoo' for holding animals before events. I don't know if the public could wander around - I suspect they could - but provincial towns seem to lack those kind of facilities, and given the distances, provincials would have had much less animals on view than Capua or Rome.

 

The other side to the argument is that the games editor expected animals to perform. Even dangerous carnivores were often frightened witless by the experience of being put into the arena and there's one account of lions retreating back to the gates in fear, whereupon the outraged and embarrased editor had the trainer executed. Some beasts were tasked to perform circus tricks (an elephant was made to walk a tightrope though I don't know if that was a success), others were rated as character fighters in their own right, but most were pretty well doomed. There has been speculation of what happened to the carcasses. current opinion favours meat handouts to the poor though what happened to the bones as you point out remains an interesting anomaly - there were however some large charnel pits around Rome, so some definitely ended up buried. The number of animals slaughtered could be extreme - Trajan was said to have had 11,000 beasts killed during 120 days of games to celebrate the campaign against Dacia (and almost as many men died in fighting too, a handy way of dealing with prisoners of war).

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We can't reasonably equate an absence of physical evidence as evidence that written evidence is falsified. 
Granted that written accounts have many potential flaws, exaggeration and propaganda for example. 
However, if there are numerous written accounts stating that thousands of beasts were slaughtered, then slaughtered they most certainly were. 

The failure to find their bones merely fails to corroborate that, not disprove it.

Romans were not (I suspect) especially cruel by the standards of the times. They just did everything on an almost industrial scale, and wrote more about it. 

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He found plenty of evidence that common animals were killed in games, and only said that the amount of exotic animals seemed to be wildly exaggerated. By "exotic" I took him to mean in the sense of not only foreign origin but strikingly unusual to Europeans. He did not doubt foreign animals were shipped in, just not that rare species were practically wiped out as has been claimed.

 

If so, this could be commonly deemed as less cruel on a basis I don't agree with. Some animals are thought to be meant for killing vs. others which are too cuddly or noble or whatever. There is a TV series following game wardens where I grew up, and I hate their hypocrisy about "harvesting" animals being noble ways of "feeding the family". It used to be a poor area, but now overfed fat hunters with thousand$ worth of equipment go about needlessly maiming and killing. So I as a vegetarian don't absolve the Romans of animal cruelty, but can consider absolving them of mass-exotic-animal cruelty.

 

He eliminated several other explanations for the utter lack of exotic bones yet abundance of non-exotic ones. I would lean toward an explanation that exotic bones might have been specially processed and removed or ground up for their supposed powers. I don't recall if he adequately disproved this other than to say the elephant ones would be unmanageable. Of course he can't really prove such things, but had a lot of experience of the sloppy way Romans disposed of other bones.

 

I may not have followed his arguments that carefully because I don't like the modern fascination with violent Roman games. It seems to me that horse racing was their bigger passion vs. games which were not held for decades at a time.

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Exotic animals were expensive and difficult to obtain. They had to be caught and transported. It was a risk business because many animals died from dehydration, shock, privation, or simply drowned when a ship foundered in bad weather.

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Surely they should only be judged by the standards of the times anyway?

In my book I deliberately compare the (largely unknown) Celtic view of violence and death with that of the (much better documented) Romans. 
(Obviously I have had to create Celtic attitudes from scratch, but I based it on as much evidence as I could gather)

Towards the end of the story, some of the Celts are horrified by the barbarism, and also weakness, of the Romans.
I did that because I believe every culture sees the bad in others but not in themselves. 

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Context s very relevant, but then, the Roman games were something of a shock to the uninitiated. There's an account from the later imperial; period which decribes a young man at the games for the first time, at first horrified by what he sees, but gets caught up in the atmosphere and the exceitement of the crowd.

 

The Romans were often very aware of their own failings. They were however unwilling to change if it meant giving up their chosen way of life.

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