Entertainment in the Roman world revolved around the bloody spectacles that took place in stadiums like the Colosseum. Festivals would last for days and many different events would take place one after another in an effort to please the crowds and the Emperor. The most famous were the gladiator battles that would pit slaves, convicts, or prisoners against each other in combat to the death. Thousands of gladiators were slain in the Colosseum as a means of entertainment. These battles often took place at the end of a long day which featured other battles and performances in the arena. One of these early events were the venationes or animal hunts.
Roman animal traders scoured the empire for the best and most ferocious animals that they could find. Elephants were taken from North Africa, hippos from the Nile, and ostriches from the Sudan. All of these animals were then shipped over to Rome where they were cared for in anticipation of their big day. The venationes would feature these animals being hunted by prisoners or even professional hunters. Other animals were used in the gladiator fights where the aim was to kill the men or at least put on a spectacle. The venationes were focused on the thrill of the hunt, the death of the hunter would be seen as unfortunate or shameful. The Roman crowds wanted to experience a hunt without having to go to Africa or Asia. These events became so popular that most gladiator festivals started with a venatio.
Famous venatore defeating a leopard (http://www.the-colosseum.net/)
Over the course of a few hundred years these hunting performances exhausted the wildlife across the Roman empire. The North African elephants were so popular, because of their tie to the vile Carthaginians, that they were hunted to extinction. The Nile River delta hippos suffered a similar fate. Over time the venationes evolved and they began to pit the animals against one another. Bears from Scotland were chained to lions from Persia in an attempt to prove which was stronger. Some of the best hunters became famous across the empire and their names were listed with the great gladiators of the time. The venationes enjoyed nearly 400 years of success in Rome before the animals became too scarce to hunt and then the empire collapsed. The spirit of the venationes continued throughout the empire and modern performances, like the bull fights of Spain, can be tied to the Roman spectacles of old.
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