Roman Colosseum – The Worst Things that Happened

The great amphitheater that we know as the Roman Colosseum  was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian around 70-72 AD. Like any big stadium, it was for the public’s enjoyment, where folks could watch various games. Except the games were quite different at times from the kind of games we watch these days; the worst things that happened in the Roman Colosseum.
Roman Colosseum

Horrors of the Roman Colosseum

The great amphitheater that we know as the Roman Colosseum  was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian around 70-72 AD. Like any big stadium, it was for the public’s enjoyment, where folks could watch various games. Except the games were quite different at times from the kind of games we watch these days. Today the crowd is thrilled when a ball flies through the air, back in the ancient Roman days at times that object might have been someone’s freshly severed head.

This bloody entertainment enthralled the crowds and these games were sometimes said to be the “bread and circuses” that pacified the masses and directed their energy away from life’s difficulties. Today we’ll look at just how far the Romans went in entertaining the often bloodthirsty people, in this episode of the Infographics Show. The worst things that happened in the Roman Colosseum.

What happened in the Roman Colosseum?

As Steven Pinker writes in his book, “The Better Angels of our Nature”, the past was brutal at times. Today we eat pizzas that come in boxes decorated with the Roman Colosseum , says Pinker, hardly thinking about the total depravity that happened there. And so, if tomato sauce drips onto the print of the amphitheater on your pizza box, it’s fitting in a way, as the place was often soaked in human and animal blood. Pinker writes that large audiences would cheer when naked women were tied to a stake, physically violated, and sometimes ripped apart by wild animals that the Romans had acquired.


A man acting the part of Prometheus would be tied to a rock, but the myth got real when a trained bird would actually rip out his liver. The crowd was delighted! People fought to the death, and the fight wasn’t always fair. Pinker reckons about half a million people died horrible deaths inside the Roman Colosseum . But let’s see what others say.

Thrown to the beasts

Live Science tells us that the Romans had a contraption that we call a seesaw in the modern era. This was called a “petaurua” and it was said to raise the people sitting on it about 5 meters (15 ft) into the air. Now, that’s not such an exciting game, but of course the seesaw was only the beginning of the entertainment. What would happen next is wild animals, such as bears, wild boars, leopards and lions, would be let into the arena, sometimes through trap doors so it looked as if they came from nowhere.

The men, both naked and with their hands often tied together, would bounce frantically so as not to be the man on the ground. Oh, what fun. It was easy pickings for the starving animals, who would in the end rip both men apart. But part of the enjoyment was putting a bet on which guy would last the longest. For the spectators this was quite the spectacle, as entertaining as the Superbowl or the World Cup is to people now. Believe it or not, this spectacle known as “damnatio ad bestias” was just the half time entertainment between the other games.


It happened to men condemned to death, a capital punishment, often handed down to runaway slaves, criminals, and enemies of the state. To think people now get Justin Timberlake for the halftime show. When we say we “get thrown to the beasts”, this is taken from something that literally used to happen. Did anyone ever survive this? Well, there are stories, but who knows. One such tale says that a slave called Androcles was thrown to a lion, but the lion didn’t want to eat him, or even nibble.

This wasn’t because the lion was full that day, but because the slave said he had met the lion while in North Africa and pulled a thorn from its paw. What goes around, comes around.

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The terrible Emperor Commodus

This emperor was known as a bit of a megalomaniac and he would often go into the arena to fight in front of the crowds. Except of course the fights were not fair and he always won. You probably know him as being the bad guy in the movie “Gladiator.” As the fights were not fair, the Roman people were not too keen on them, but they had no choice but to cheer lest they die a horrible death themselves. It’s said Commodious slaughtered 100 lions (some say bears) in the colosseum. He decapitated a helpless giraffe, also an ostrich, which can’t be hard seeing as he had a lot to aim for. He killed many other wild animals, too.


As for humans, he would fight them in the arena but always spare their lives. This was seen as him having a better side, but in private it’s said he would finish his competitors off. Possibly his worst feat was to take people in the arena that were missing feet due to accident or illness, and then slay them all. Commodus didn’t much like disabled people or people born differently from how he expected people to look. Another of his spectacles was to scour Rome for dwarfs, arm them with cleavers and let them fight to the death.

The recreation of myths

Steven Pinker wrote that people would be sent into the arena to play the part of mythological characters, such as Prometheus. He was a trickster type of Titan who created man from clay, gave him fire, and pretty much defied the Gods in doing so. His punishment was to be tied to a rock for eternity, except each day would be Groundhog day and an eagle, really Zeus in animal form, would rip out his liver. That liver would come back the next day and the scene would take place ad Infinium.

The Romans would play this out with a trained bird, according to Pinker, while other sources say the man’s stomach would be cut open and any number of wild beasts would come and feast. He didn’t get to do it again the next day like in the myth though. The Smithsonian writes that the myth of Orpheus would also be played out. Orpheus was kind of like one of those people on the cover of Jehovah Witness Watchtower magazines, as he could sit among wild animals and feel only love from them. In fact, it’s said he could charm anything that lived just by playing music with his lyre.


The Romans put a little bit of a dark bent on this story when it was reenacted in the coliseum. Instead of charming the wild animal with his lyre, the man playing Orpheus would be ripped to shreds by a wild bear. We are not sure if this was supposed to be ancient Roman satire.

Just slaughter

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The Smithsonian tells us that at times the entertainment didn’t involve much human blood being spilled, rather the fun was just slaughtering wild animals – the more exotic the better. This was because showing the people what strange animals they had found symbolized just how powerful the Romans were. They could travel to distant lands and bring back prizes that looked like monsters to the public.

These animals didn’t have a chance as they were up against “venatores”, the best Roman hunters dressed in lots of armor and holding long spears. The favorite animals to be killed were anything with big teeth, such as lions, tigers and leopards. But other slaughter included elephants, bears, ostriches, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and giraffes. The Smithsonian writes that emperor Titus had 9,000 animals killed in the arena. Emperor Trajan had 11,000 of these wild beasts killed.


Women Too

One of the great spectacles, for some people at least, was to see women fighting to the death. This didn’t happen anywhere near as often as men were forced to kill each other, but it happened. As the women were usually weaker, they might be pitted against a dwarf, each armed with a club or a knife. Sometimes the women were highly trained gladiators, at other times they were just victims being harshly punished. “And sometimes it chanced that someone had specified in his will that the most beautiful women he had bought must fight among them,” wrote Nicolaus of Damascus. Septimius Severus banned women fighting in 200 AD.


Another form of animal-related capital punishment was being squashed to death by an elephant. Historian Alison Futrell wrote in her book “Blood in the Arena” that army deserters would sometimes be marched into the arena, after which an elephant killed them by sitting on them. It’s written that getting elephants, or other wild animals, to fight or follow orders in front of thousands of screaming people was not easy. Imagine training a bird of prey to rip out a liver!

To do this, they had to be trained by what were called “bestiarii”. The word also meant the people who would be fighting with the animals. There was even a school where people were trained to fight with these beasts, called the bestiariorum.


I’m not going in

As you can imagine, the prisoners that were about to be sent to a horrid and painful death were not keen on dying this way in front of cheering spectators. So, many took their own lives before they were sent in. It’s written that there was a mass suicide of Saxon prisoners. 29 men strangled each other before they could be killed by the beasts. Roman historians wrote that one man thrust his head into a moving cart wheel, breaking his neck, a better way to go than being eaten alive by a lion.

Another man forced a toilet sponge down his throat and choked himself to death. Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote about that, saying, “What a brave fellow! He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded a sword!” If you’ve read this philosopher, you’ll know part of his philosophy is about accepting life’s hardships and looking death straight on. Easy for him to say, he never experienced the prospect of being chewed on by a hungry bear.

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It’s said that this bestiari was one of the best animal fighters ever seen in the arena. The story goes that he fought and killed 20 wild beasts in one day. It’s also said he was a bit of a Dr. Doolittle and was a great animal trainer. Some historians say this might not to be true, but there are sources that tell us he would train wild animals to violate women. He did this by waiting until female animals were in heat and collect that smell which makes them attractive to the male of the species.


He would then rub that on female slaves and the spectacle of an animal, even a giraffe, violating a woman in the arena would be greeted with loud cheers from the crowd. In the book, “Those about to die” it is written, “Carpophorus used up several women before he got the animals properly trained – with a bull or giraffe the women didn’t usually survive the ordeal.” Apparently, such a spectacle was to represent myths, as the God Zeus was said to have done such things when he had taken the form of an animal.

So, do you think you could stomach the Roman Colosseum  and its grotesque attractions? Would you rather kill yourself than be subjected to that in front of jeering crowds? Why do you think people enjoyed this, what kind of mindset did they have? Let us know your thoughts in the comments as well as see more