It’s a well-known bit of gladiator lore that wild beasts appeared in the arena. So didn’t gladiators fight lions, tigers, and bears?
Wild beasts certainly did appear in the arena – many thousands of them over the years. But it wasn’t gladiators who fought against them.
The Games, or munus, were a grand affair featuring a variety of entertainment over several days. Part of the program would include a processional parade and solemn offerings to the gods. Part might include clowns and acrobats and boxers. And part would include the showing of exotic beasts from the edges of the Roman World.
Caesar astonished Rome with the presentation of a giraffe.
Sometimes trained animals would perform tricks. Besides lions and bulls, the menagerie on show could include hippos, crocodiles, hyenas, and seals.
And since so much of any munus was centered around a taste for blood, the show often culminated in slaughter. A bear and a bull might be chained together until, in their efforts to get away from each other, they tear each other to pieces. Elephants with riders might be encouraged to charge against bulls. And then there were great “hunts,” in which trained fighters known as venatores took on the wild animals in combat – some venatores armed only with a spear or javelin, others armored like gladiators and equipped with sword and shield.
It must have required some special skill and devotion to perform as a venator, but the training and development of a gladiator was altogether different. The gladiators were the star attraction of the munus, often listed by name on the advertisements about town, and they came out two by two in the afternoon, when the arena was packed to capacity.
The many wild beasts so tragically executed left behind a strange and wonderful legacy. Apparently these animals, transported from all around the known world, inadvertently brought with them a variety of seeds. In the 18th and 19th century, the Colosseum in Rome, still covered with mounds of soil, was a favorite destination for amateur botanists who marveled at the many species of exotic flowers which bloomed there – and nowhere else in Europe.