The trade in wild beasts for Roman spectacles: a green perspective


en Anthropozoologica 16 - Pages 161-166

Published on 01 October 1992

This article is a part of the thematic issue Animals and their products in trade and exchange. Proceedings of the 3rd international meeting of HASRI, Oxford, 8-11 November 1990

The trade in wild beasts from North Africa has usually been examined from the point of view of the destination: accounts of venationes held in the ampitheatres and circuses of Italy. The purpose of this paper is to examine this trade in terms of the impact upon North Africa and specifically to examine the relationship between it and the large scale agricultural production of North Africa. Ample testimony exists to document roughly the scale of export of animals from North Africa from the late Republic through the Early Empire. By the end of the fourth century AD, if not earlier, such animals were becoming difficult to obtain. The large scale production in North Africa of corn and oil for export was arguably the primary aim of Roman policy there. With the extension and liberalisation of the lex Manciana under Hadrian, marginal land was encouraged to be occupied and brought under cultivation, particularly in olive plantations. The large-scale export of oil and the growth of prosperity of regions too dry for cereal cultivation (notably the Sahel of Tunisia) during the second/third centuries, attest the success of this policy. It is argued that the combined pressures of both the hunting of species for aristocratie recreation and for use in venationes coupled with the destruction of habitat to maximise agricultural productivity caused a dramatic decrease in numbers of wild animals in large tracts of North Africa. This scarcity is probably reflected in changes in the way in which wild beasts were treated in the arenas of the late Empire. Animals were no longer slaughtered wholesale, but were kept alive for return performances - humans now ran the risk of injury or death in the arena as they tried to elude the jaws and claws of the baited animals or else the animals performed clever tricks, sometimes mimicking human behaviour. Out of these trends came the lineal descendants of the modem European travelling circus.


Amphithéâtre, Venationes, Wild Beast Trade, Agriculture.

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