Damnatio ad bestias (Latin for "condemnation to beasts") was a form of Roman capital punishment where the condemned person was killed by wild animals, usually lions or other big cats. This form of execution, which first appeared during the Roman Republic around the 2nd century BC, had been part of a wider class of blood sports called Bestiarii.
The act of damnatio ad bestias was considered a common form of entertainment for the lower class citizens of Rome (plebeians). Killing by wild animals, such as Barbary lions, formed part of the inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre in AD 80. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, this penalty was also applied to the worst of criminals, runaway slaves and Christians.
The exact purpose of the early damnatio ad bestias is not known and might have been a religious sacrifice rather than a legal punishment, especially in the regions where lions existed naturally and were revered by the population, such as Africa, India and other parts of Asia. For example, Egyptian mythology had a chimeric Underworld demon, Ammit, who devoured the souls of exceptionally sinful humans, as well as other lion-like deities, such as Sekhmet, who, according to legend, almost devoured all of humanity soon after her birth. There are also accounts of feeding lions and crocodiles with humans, both dead and alive, in Ancient Egypt and Libya.
Similar condemnations are described by historians of Alexander the Great's campaigns in Central Asia. A Macedonian named Lysimachus, who spoke before Alexander for a person condemned to death, was himself thrown to a lion, but overcame the beast with his bare hands and became one of Alexander's favorites. In northern Africa, during the Mercenary War, Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca threw prisoners to the beasts, whereas Hannibal forced Romans captured in the Punic Wars to fight each other, and the survivors had to stand against elephants.
Lions were rare in Ancient Rome and human sacrifice was banned there by Numa Pompilius in the 7th century BC, according to legend. Damnatio ad bestias appeared there not as a spiritual practice but rather a spectacle. In addition to lions, other animals were used for this purpose, including dogs, wolves, bears, leopards, tigers, hyenas, and crocodiles. It was combined with gladiatorial combat and was first featured at the Roman Forum and then transferred to the amphitheaters.
Whereas the term damnatio ad bestias is usually used in a broad sense, historians distinguish two subtypes: obicĕre bestiis (to throw to beasts) where the humans are defenseless, and damnatio ad bestias, where the punished are both expected and prepared to fight. In addition, there were professional beast fighters trained in special schools, such as the Roman Morning School, which received its name by the timing of the games. These schools taught not only fighting but also the behavior and taming of animals. The fighters were released into the arena dressed in a tunic and armed only with a spear (occasionally with a sword). They were sometimes assisted by venators (hunters), who used bows, spears and whips. Such group fights were not human executions but rather staged animal fighting and hunting. Various animals were used, such as elephants, rhinoceroses, wild boars, buffaloes, hippopotamuses, aurochs, bears, lions, tigers, leopards, hyenas, and wolves. The first such staged hunting (Latin: venatio) featured lions and panthers, and was arranged by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 186 BC at the Circus Maximus on the occasion of the Greek conquest of Aetolia. The Colosseum and other circuses still contain underground hallways that were used to lead the animals to the arena.
The custom of submitting criminals to lions was brought to ancient Rome by two commanders, Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, who defeated the Macedonians in 167 BC, and his son Scipio Aemilianus, who conquered the African city of Carthage in 146 BC. It was originally a military punishment, possibly borrowed from the Carthaginians. Rome reserved its earliest use for non-Roman military allies found guilty of defection or desertion. The sentenced were tied to columns or thrown to the animals, practically defenseless (i.e. obicĕre bestiis).
Some documented examples of damnatio ad bestias in Ancient Rome include the following: Strabo witnessed the execution of the rebel slaves' leader Selurus. The bandit Laureolus was crucified and then devoured by an eagle and a bear, as described by the poet Martial in his Book of Spectacles. Such executions were also documented by Seneca the Younger (On anger, III 3), Apuleius (The Golden Ass, IV, 13), Titus Lucretius Carus (On the Nature of things) and Petronius Arbiter (Satyricon, XLV). Cicero was indignant that a man was thrown to the beasts to amuse the crowd just because he was considered ugly. Suetonius wrote that when the price of meat was too high, Caligula ordered prisoners, with no discrimination as to their crimes, to be fed to circus animals. Pompey used damnatio ad bestias for showcasing battles and, during his second consulate (55 BC), staged a fight between heavily armed gladiators and 18 elephants.
The most popular animals were tigers, which were imported to Rome in significant numbers specifically for damnatio ad bestias. Brown bears, brought from Gaul, Germany and even North Africa, were less popular. Local municipalities were ordered to provide food for animals in transit and not delay their stay for more than a week. Some historians believe that the mass export of animals to Rome damaged wildlife in North Africa.
The use of damnatio ad bestias against Christians began in the 1st century AD. Tacitus states that during the first persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero (after the Fire of Rome in AD 64), people were wrapped in animal skins (called tunica molesta) and thrown to dogs. This practice was followed by other emperors who moved it into the arena and used larger animals. Application of damnatio ad bestias to Christians was intended to equate them with the worst criminals, who were usually punished this way.
There is a widespread view among contemporary specialists that the prominence of Christians among those condemned to death in the Roman arena was greatly exaggerated in earlier times. There is no evidence for Christians being executed at the Colosseum in Rome.
According to Roman laws, Christians were:[better source needed]
The spread of the practice of throwing Christians to beasts was reflected by the Christian writer Tertullian (2nd century AD). He states that the general public blamed Christians for any general misfortune and after natural disasters would cry "Away with them to the lions!" This is the only reference from contemporaries mentioning Christians being thrown specifically to lions. Tertullian also wrote that Christians started avoiding theatres and circuses, which were associated with the place of their torture.
"The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions", a text which purports to be an eyewitness account, as written by Vibia Perpetua, of a group of Christians condemned to damnatio ad bestias at Carthage in AD 203, states that the men were required to dress in the robes of a priest of the Roman god Saturn, the women as priestesses of Ceres. They were brought back out in separate groups and first the men, then the women, exposed to a variety of wild beasts.
At the resistance of Perpetua however the tribune relented and the prisoners were allowed to enter wearing their own clothing. The two young women, Perpetua and a slave girl Felicitas, were reserved as a finale to the executions to face a wild cow. Since it was thought that public nudity would not cast doubt on their fidelity further degradation was added by not only fully exposing them to the beast but using one of their own sex rather than the usual male animal. The implication was that the women were shown as not being women enough to commit adultery. After having all their clothing removed Perpetua and Felicitas were driven into the arena covered only in see-through netting. Proving too much for the crowd they were brought back to be clothed in plain loose garments before being sent in again to face the beast.
This is also not the only instance of such treatment being used on Christian women, many also customarily subjected to other punishments and harsh tortures beforehand. More generally though in contrast to their clothed male counterparts women were tied fully naked to stakes or pillars with their hands behind their backs. Full exposure of a female to a bull after being entirely stripped of all her clothing was one aspect of her shaming, the implication also being that she was not seen as a worthy enough competitor to be attired and allowed to fight any "beast" but should simply relent and offer no resistance. The other being that being denuded in public would be an inference of a charge of adultery on the part of the woman.
Those who survived the first animal attacks were either brought back out for further exposure to the beasts or executed in public by a gladiator.
The persecution of Christians ceased by the 4th century AD. The Edict of Milan (AD 313) gave them freedom of religion.
Roman laws, which are known to us through the Byzantine collections, such as the Code of Theodosius and Code of Justinian, defined which criminals could be thrown to beasts (or condemned by other means). They included:
The sentenced was deprived of civil rights; he could not write a will, and his property was confiscated. Exception from damnatio ad bestias was given to military servants and their children. Also, the law of Petronius (Lex Petronia) of AD 61 forbade employers to send their slaves to be eaten by animals without a judicial verdict. Local governors were required to consult a Roman deputy before staging a fight of skilled gladiators against animals.
The practice of damnatio ad bestias was abolished in Rome in AD 681. It was used once after that in the Byzantine Empire: in 1022, when several disgraced generals were arrested for plotting a conspiracy against Emperor Basil II, they were imprisoned and their property seized, but the royal eunuch who assisted them was thrown to lions.
Martyr in the Circus Arena by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869
Martyrdom of Saint Marcienne, 15th-century miniature
Bear devouring a criminal. Roman mosaic
Ignatius of Antioch torn by lions
Represented by Siemiradzki is the ancient Roman staging of the myth at the Emperor Nero's wish. He ordered that a young fair Christian woman be put to death in the same way as part of the games at the amphitheatre.