Damnatio ad bestias

Panthers devouring a criminal, Roman floor mosaic, 3rd century AD, Archaeological Museum of Tunisia
"Caesar's Joy" by Vasiliy Polenov

Damnatio ad bestias (Latin for "damnation to beasts") was a form of Roman capital punishment in which the condemned person was killed by wild animals. This form of execution, which first came to ancient Rome around the 2nd century BC, was part of the wider class of blood sports called Bestiarii. The act of damnatio ad bestias was considered entertainment for the people of Rome. Killing by wild animals, such as lions, formed part of the inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre in 80 AD. Between the 1st to 3rd centuries AD, this penalty was mainly applied to the worst criminals, slaves, and early 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,[1] especially in the regions where lions existed naturally and were revered by the population, such as Africa and 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.[2][3]

As a punishment, damnatio ad bestias is mentioned by historians of Alexander's campaigns. For example, 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.[4] During the Mercenary War, Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca threw prisoners to the beasts,[5] whereas Hannibal forced Romans captured in the Punic Wars to fight each other, and the survivors had to stand against elephants.[6]

Ancient Rome

Gladiators in the circus arena, Zliten mosaic, 1st century AD

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 bears, leopards, Caspian tigers, and black panthers. 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: objicĕre bestiis (to devour by beasts) where the humans are defenseless, and damnatio ad bestias, where the punished are both expected and prepared to fight.[7] 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.[8] These schools taught not only fighting but also the behavior and taming of animals.[9] 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),[10] 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 hyena, elephant, wild boar, buffalo, bears, lions, tigers, bulls, wolves, and leopards. 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.[11][12] The Colosseum and other circuses still contain underground hallways that were used to lead the animals to the arena.

History and description

Christian Dirce by Henryk Siemiradzki (National Museum, Warsaw) shows the punishment of a Roman woman who had converted to Christianity.[13] At the Emperor Nero's wish, the woman, like mythological Dirce, was tied to a wild bull and dragged around 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 186 BC, and his son Scipio Aemilianus, who conquered the African city of Carthage in 146 BC.[14] It was borrowed from the Carthaginians and was originally applied to such criminals as defectors and deserters in public, its aim being to prevent crime through intimidation. It was rated as extremely useful and soon became a common procedure in Roman criminal law.[1][15] The sentenced were tied to columns or thrown to the animals, practically defenseless (i.e. objicĕre bestiis).

Some documented examples of damnatio ad bestias in Ancient Rome include the following: Strabo witnessed[16] the execution of the rebel slaves' leader Selur.[12] 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.[17][18] 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.[19][20] 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.[21] 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.[6][22][23]

The most popular animals were lions, which were imported to Rome in significant numbers specifically for damnatio ad bestias.[12] Bears, brought from Gaul, Germany and even Northern Africa, were less popular.[24][25] Local municipalities were ordered to provide food for animals in transit and not delay their stay for more than a week.[12][26] Some historians believe that the mass export of animals to Rome damaged wildlife in North Africa.[27]

Execution of Christians

"Faithful Unto Death" by Herbert Schmalz

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 64), people were wrapped in animal skins (called tunica molesta) and thrown to dogs.[28] 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.[29]

There is a widespread view among contemporary specialists[30] that the prominence of Christians among those condemned to death in the Roman arena was greatly exaggerated in earlier times. Almost everyone who commented on the issue between the 4th and 19th centuries did so with the intention of celebrating the presumed moral superiority of early Christians and denigrating the paganism of the classical world, and there was comparatively negligible interest in the suffering of condemned persons of other kinds. There is no evidence for Christians being executed at the Colosseum in Rome.[31]

According to Roman laws, Christians were:[32]

  1. Guilty of high treason (majestatis rei)
    1. For their worship Christians gathered in secret and at night, making unlawful assembly, and participation in such collegium illicitum or coetus nocturni was equated with a riot.
    2. For their refusal to honor images of the emperor by libations and incense
  2. Dissenters from the state gods (άθεοι, sacrilegi)
  3. Followers of magic prohibited by law (magi, malefici)
  4. Confessors of a religion unauthorized by the law (religio nova, peregrina et illicita), according to the Twelve Tables).

The spread of the practice of throwing Christians to beasts was reflected by the Christian writer Tertullian (2nd century). 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 theaters and circuses, which were associated with the place of their torture.[33] "The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions", a text which purports to be an eyewitness account of a group of Christians condemned to damnatio ad bestias at Carthage in 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 and were shown to the crowd as such. The men and women were brought back out in separate groups and first the men, then the women, exposed to a variety of wild beasts. The victims were chained to poles or elevated platforms. 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.[34]

The persecution of Christians ceased by the 4th century. The Edict of Milan (313) gave them freedom of religion.

Penalty for other crimes

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:

Beast fighters and criminals being executed, the Zliten leopard, mosaic from c. 200 AD

The sentenced was deprived of civil rights; he could not write a will, and his property was confiscated.[43][44] Exception from damnatio ad bestias was given to military servants and their children.[35] Also, the law of Petronius (Lex Petronia) of 61 AD 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.[45]

The practice of damnatio ad bestias was abolished in Rome only in 681 AD.[7] 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.[46] Also, a bishop of Saare-Lääne was sentencing criminals to damnatio ad bestias at the Bishop's Castle in modern Estonia in the Middle Ages.[47]

Notable victims, according to various Christian traditions

The Martyrdom of St. Euphemia

Survived, according to various legends

Saint Thecla and the Wild Beasts, probably from Egypt, 5th century AD, Nelson-Atkins Museum
Androcles pulling a thorn from the lion's paw




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

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Damnatio ad bestias.


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Further reading

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