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Beasts in Roman North African Amphitheater Mosaics
Mosaics of Roman North Africa
From the second to the sixth century C.E. and particularly in the first half of the second century C.E., polychrome mosaics flourished in Roman North Africa.[1] Because of the similar styles, compositions, and subject matters throughout many mosaics, the existence of particular workshops, regional schools, and renowned artists who received many commissions seems highly likely at the beginning of the third century C.E.[2] Vegetal and floral motifs, wildlife, daily life scenes, hunting, scenes from gladiatorial combats, circus scenes, and images of gods and goddesses, particularly Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, serve as some of the most recurring subjects of Roman North African mosaics from the second to the early third centuries C.E. The overall style of many mosaics begins to change from vibrant and realistic depictions to duller color schemes, stiffer and rigid poses of animate figures, and abstract depictions by the end of the third century C.E.[3] By the middle of the fourth century C.E., Christian mosaics begin to appear in two different forms: one portrays a classical and monumental style and the other an indigenous and older style.[4] After the Vandal conquest of North Africa, 435 to 533 C.E., mosaics start to suffer a steep decline, which was further accelerated by the Arab takeover in 697 C.E.[5]
The Roman Amphitheater and Mosaics
Gladiatorial games and beast fights fulfilled a political obligation, publicly aggrandized the individual or individuals who funded them, and entertained the populace at Rome and abroad in its provinces. By the second century C.E., gladiatorial and bestial spectacles spread from Rome throughout the rest of the empire and to North Africa.[6] Venatores and bestiarii were armed men who specifically fought in the beast fights or hunts, venatio, of the amphitheater.[7] The venatores were professional huntsmen, while the bestiarii were less skilled.[8] Sometimes dogs accompanied the venatores in the venatio, and they appear with the venatores in mosaics.[9] Dogs that fight on behalf of their venatores’ command and aid represent men’s civilization and its influence upon them versus the barbarity typical wild beasts, such as lions, bears, and leopards, embody. While the slaughter of wild beasts entertained audiences, some ancient authors denounced the brutality involved in the sport. Tertullian pitied the animals brutally killed in the arena in his De spectaculis 25 when he exclaims, “Then he surely can be stirred by pity, with his eyes fastened on the bear as it bites, on the squeezed nets of the net-fighter!”[10] However, not all beast fights ended with the beasts’ defeat or death.
Prisoners, such as political opponents or Christians, and criminals were often sentenced to the arena to be killed by violent animals, a punishment termed damnati ad bestias.[11] In De spectaculis 19, Tertullian observed the executions of prisoners condemned to the beasts discouraged those watching from committing crimes that required a similar punishment.[12] Tertullian comments: “And yet the innocent cannot take pleasure in the punishment of another, when it better befits the innocent to lament that a man like himself has become so guilty that a punishment so cruel must be awarded him.”[13] Cicero noted the excessive cruelty of damnati ad bestias executions, but he also pitied the slaughter of animals, when he asks Marcus Marius in Letter 24 in his Letters to Friends, “But what pleasure can a cultivated man get out of seeing a weak human being torn to pieces by a powerful animal or a splendid animal transfixed by a hunting spear?”[14]
Mosaics of amphitheater and hunting scenes became popular during the late second century C.E. along with the development of multiple registers, which showed multiple scenes in a narrative progression, within one mosaic’s composition.[15] Most of these mosaics appeared in public rooms, such as peristyles, dining rooms, or corridors, within private homes.[16] Mosaics depicting beast fights in the amphitheater can be classified into four major groups: catalogues of beasts destined for or already within the arena, killed beasts, damnati ad bestias scenes, or mosaics that depict animals inspired by the arena games without including any actual indications of an arena’s setting or an event taking place.
Catalogues of Beasts
Figures 1, 2, and 3 portray many various animals that were captured from the wild for spectacles in the Roman amphitheater. These three mosaics possess loose visual ties to the amphitheater theme, and they primarily document a multitude and variety of exotic animals rather than commemorating the specific event and time in which they appeared. Catalogue mosaics specifically focused upon animals and their function within the arena also implicitly portray the extensive wealth that funded the games and the animals’ presence within them.[17]
Figure 1, from the House of the Trifolium at Thuburbo Majus and dating to the fourth century C.E., contains the loosest ties of the animals to the amphitheater.[18] Laurel wreaths encircle up to fourteen different animals, such as zebus, bears, horses, antelopes, boars, bulls, lions, and ostriches.[19] All of the animals’ upper torsos appear with their front legs outstretched as if they are leaping or running. The laurel wreaths, typical prizes for victory in arena sports, and the plethora and specific types of animals that appear in this mosaic allude to the Roman amphitheater’s animal spectacles.
Figure 2, from the House of the Ostriches at Sousse and dating to the third century C.E., depicts a variety of animals the four venatores at the top of the mosaic intend to hunt. The wild donkeys, antelopes, gazelles, ostriches, and wild horses are non-predatory animals that entertain the masses when the venatores hunt them as if they are in the wild. The interspersed knives and swords imply the venatores eventually kill all the animals, and further suggests the animals’ purpose for the arena.[20]
Figure 3, a mosaic from Le Kef, shows the moment the venatores release their dogs on the antelopes and ostriches they encircled in a large net. This large net can imply the confines of the arena or can depict the sort of equipment used for large-scale hunts. The ostriches make up a middle register in the mosaic, and they stand still forming a barrier between the dogs and the antelopes at the top most register of the mosaic. Antelopes run in a panicked frenzy at the top of the mosaic, anticipating their end. Rose petals dot the white background of the mosaic, which implies this scene takes place in an amphitheater in which excited guests throw rose petals.[21]
Killed Beasts
Figure 4, the Magerius Mosaic from Smirat dating to the third century C.E., and figure 5, a gladiatorial mosaic from Zliten, depict the actual slaughter of animals in the games. Figures 1, 2, and 3 only portray living animals and symbols that suggest their use in the amphitheater and their deaths there. In figure 4, four venatores kill three leopards, and another leopard bleeds to death. All of the leopards in this mosaic have names, which emphasizes their importance and identifies them permanently in this mosaic. Similar to the recurring and underlying implication of wealth in the catalogue mosaics, the Magerius Mosaic commemorates Magerius’ generosity and wealth as he pays double the amount requested for the venatores’ victories.[22]
Figure 5 shows a wholesome and narrative view of gladiatorial spectacles; it shows various gladiatorial combats, wild beast hunts, and criminals damnati ad bestias.[23] Similar to figures 2 and 3, the hunting scenes in figure 5 portray men hunting non-predatory animals such as antelopes. The dangerous beasts, such as lions and leopards, attack condemned men, represented as a man bound to a plank attached to a chariot or a naked man attacked by a lion. Different from many other mosaics, figure 5 portrays a bear and a bull tied together in animal-to-animal combat. The majority of mosaics that depict fights between animals are set in a natural setting as opposed to a public setting.
Damnati ad Bestias Scenes
Mosaic scenes portraying the punishment of criminals or prisoners by beasts often depict a bound person whom an attendant pushes towards a violent animal, such as a lion, leopard, or a bear. Figure 6, from the Sollertiana Domus at Thysdrus dating from the second to the early third century C.E., depicts prisoners of war condemned to leopards and bears.[24] At each of the four corners of a platform, a castata, trophies hang off a pole, which suggests the victims in this scene are captives from war.[25] In the entire mosaic, there are only two human victims, while the other animals search for prey among abandoned spears and javelins on the ground.
Figure 7, a mosaic found in a villa at Silin dating from the mid to second half of the second century C.E., stands apart from typical portrayals of damnati ad bestias scenes through an enormous white bull that serves as the main predator.[26] Three victims are dressed completely in white with stripes going down the sides of their costumes. One attendant, a native who wears a kilt, pushes one victim towards the charging bull. Another attendant, dressed in a white tunic with stripes down the sides, points to two victims, tossed by the bull. The mysterious white bodysuits the three victims wear either identify the types of victims or allude to a certain ritual involved with their execution.[27] In the diary of St. Perpetua, a few young women, including Perpetua, were stripped naked, netted, and were sent before a heifer in the arena.[28] In this mosaic, it is difficult to tell the gender of the victims and the significance of their white costumes.
Other Considerations
Figures 8 and 9 portray animals related to the amphitheater in some way, though they do not fit the catalogue, slaughtered, or slaughtering categories of beasts-and-amphitheater themed mosaics. While the banqueters drink and converse in the top most register, the bulls rest in the lowest register. A slave calls out SILENTIUM DORMIANT TAURI, which translates to “silence, let the bulls sleep,” which is a warning akin to the proverb, “let sleeping dogs lie.”[29] The brands on the bulls’ humps indicate that they are property.[30] Their location underneath the arena, which the curved table indicates through its shape and its columnar supports, suggests their intent to be used for arena combat, and perhaps even against the gladiators who feast above them.[31]
Figure 9 portrays a tiger attacking one of two donkeys, who try to flee. A few scholars believe the landscape is Hellenistic, though, it could also represent a North African landscape.[32] Tigers were not indigenous to the African or Roman landscapes, though the Romans knew about tigers and what they looked like from Eastern influences. The realistic depiction of the tiger in this mosaic suggests the artist’s familiarity with this animal's features.[33] There was a trend found across some mosaics that certain exotic beasts that appeared regularly in amphitheater spectacles were transferred to a natural environment through the artist’s license, though that animal may not have lived in the habitat the artist portrayed it in.[34]
Conclusion
A few recurring themes across many portrayals of beasts in amphitheater games on Roman North African mosaics include wealth, variety, predator versus prey relationships, and power relationships. The catalogue mosaics document the abundance and variety of wild animals that could be taken from the wild to be killed for the populace’s entertainment. Mosaics portray both non-predatory and predatory animals becoming prey to humans, as well as degraded humans, such as criminals or outcasts, as the prey for animals. One power relationship exists in the portrayal of dogs with the venatores: the dogs, domesticated animals, subdue the wild and untamed animals. The frequent and mass killing of wild animals can be taken into an even broader scope, that man showed his control over nature and his strength in the empire by bending nature and its animals under his control.
N. A. Fort
Works Cited
Abed, A.B., ed. 2006. Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia.
---. 2006. Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa. Translated by S. Grevet. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.
Brown, S. 1992. “Death as Decoration: Scenes from the Arena on Roman Domestic Mosaics.” In Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, edited by A. Richlin, 180-211. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cicero. 2001. Letters to his Friends. Edited and Translated by D.R. Shackleton Bailey. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and Loeb Classical Library.
Dunbabin, K.M.D. 1999. Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
---. 1978. The Mosaics of Roman North Africa: Studies in Iconography and Patronage. Oxford: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press.
Ling, Roger. 1998. Ancient Mosaics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969. 1967. Tunisian Mosaics: Carthage in the Roman Era. Washington D. C., Smithsonian Institution.
St. Perpetua. 1972. The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. Translated by Herbert Musurillo. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/perpetua.html (25 June 2010). Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Tertullian. 1977. Apology and De Spectaculis. Translated by T.R. Glover. Minucius Felix. 1977. Octavius. Translated by G.H. Rendall. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and Loeb Classical Library.






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Annotated Bibliography:
Bibliography for Beasts in Roman North African Amphitheater Mosaics
Primary Sources
Cicero. 2001. Letters to his Friends. Edited and Translated by D.R. Shackleton Bailey. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and Loeb Classical Library.
  • Cicero’s letter provides a good example of the general characteristics to be found across all Latin letters by him and others. The letter provides insight into his relationship with his addressee as well as information about Roman gladiatorial games involving beasts and in general.
St. Perpetua. 1972. The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. Translated by Herbert Musurillo. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/perpetua.html (25 June 2010). Oxford, Oxford University Press.

  • This work was published by Frontline, a part of PBS, in April 1998 at the web address listed above. Perpetua’s account gives many details about damnati ad bestias punishments and information about the types of beasts set upon the Christians. The Latin text is appropriate for an intermediate level Latin class – the Bryn Mawr Commentary is especially a good resource.
Tertullian. 1977. Apology and De Spectaculis. Translated by T.R. Glover. Minucius Felix. 1977. Octavius. Translated by G.H. Rendall. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and Loeb Classical Library.

  • The translation from the Loeb is a little difficult to read. Tertullian’s work is filled with rhetorical style as well as irony – it’s an interesting read suitable for intermediate to advanced students.
Web Resources

  • A General Note: Many of the sites you may pull up when looking for images may be tourist sites, and thus, tourist traps (sites with lots of advertisements until you can finally get to the good stuff).
The Bardo Museum. http://bardomuseum.com/home.html (1 July 2010).

  • This site has a few glitches. I was not able to take a good look at most of its pages, especially images of mosaics. A lot of the text is in French.
Roman Mosaics in Tunisia. http://www.tunisiaonline.com/mosaics/index.html (1 July 2010).

  • Good only for specific thumbnails of images. Don’t rely of this site for good images. The list of the images collected at this site is not very large.
Secondary Sources for Students
Abed, A.B., ed. 2006. Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia.


  • This work includes very detailed and very many photographs. Each chapter serves as an article with a narrow focus that may or may not fit students’ or your research needs. The articles in this text can get very technical – this work is appropriate for high school to college students and for teachers.
---. 2006. Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa. Translated by S. Grevet. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.

  • This was a beautiful book – excellent pictures in excellent quality. Almost all of the pictures are in color. This book is especially good for students from higher middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels. The diction is easy to read and understand. The first few chapters are excellent for providing a general view of Carthage’s history, accompanied with a nice timeline, and its mosaics. The work comes in French and English editions.
Ling, Roger. 1998. Ancient Mosaics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  • This is a relatively newer resource. The text is organized by geography – for instance, there is a chapter about Italy, then Greece, then North Africa, etc. The work contains maps, a glossary, and a helpful bibliography.
Secondary Sources for Teachers
--- et Recherches d’Archeologie Africaine Publiees Par L’Institut National du Patrimoine de Tunis. 2001. Trames Geometriques Vegetalisees. Recherches Franco-Tunisiennes sur la Mosaique de l’Afrique Antique. Vol. 2. Rome: Ecole Francaise de Rome.


  • This work is entirely in French. This work is a catalogue of mostly black and white pictures. Towards the back, it also includes colored photos. This work provides basic background information per mosaic.
Ecole Francaise de Rome. 1990. Xenia. Recherches Franco-Tunisiennes sur la Mosaique de l’Afrique Antique. Collection de L’Ecole Francaise de Rome 125. Vol. 1. Palais Farnese: Ecole Francaise de Rome.

  • This work is also entirely in French. If you wish to study still lives in mosaics, this is a good resource, but it included nothing about amphitheaters nor beasts.
Brown, S. 1992. “Death as Decoration: Scenes from the Arena on Roman Domestic Mosaics.” In Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, edited by A. Richlin, 180-211. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Very good article – provides an excellent background to the amphitheater, to primary sources about Roman amphitheaters, and about amphitheater iconography. This article provides an excellent bibliography.
Dunbabin, K.M.D. 1999. Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • This text is excellent for research, and appropriate for advanced high school to undergraduate level students. This work has a handy glossary in the back for art historical terms, especially concerning mosaics. It also includes handy maps, diagrams, and helpful footnotes. All of the photos in this work are black and white, and most mosaics are photographed in their whole form. While the pictures are good, the details per mosaic are very small.
---. 1978. The Mosaics of Roman North Africa: Studies in Iconography and Patronage. Oxford: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press.

  • This was one of the most useful resources for this project – if you have any questions about Roman North African mosaics, they’re in this work. The book is split into chapters by subject matter. For example, there was a whole chapter devoted to amphitheater mosaics. The work includes helpful footnotes and a glossary, as well as maps. All the photographs appear at the end of the text in black and white, and the work includes a very extensive collection of photos. This work appears in many bibliographies about Roman North African mosaics.
Schmelzeisen, K. 1988. Romische Mosaiken der Africa Proconsularis. Vol. 40. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

  • This work is entirely in German. This work is useful for studying the borders of mosaics and their recurrent patterns. It lays many patterns out in simple black and white diagrams. This work was not particularly useful for beasts and amphitheater mosaics, though.
Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969. 1967. Tunisian Mosaics: Carthage in the Roman Era. Washington D. C., Smithsonian Institution.
  • This source is a little out-of-date. Its photographs are in black and white only, and it does not contain accompanying pictures or illustrations for all of its catalogued entries. This work provides good background information to North African mosaics in general, and it includes some mosaics I did not see in any of the other sources I looked at – such as a scene of two Cupids fishing, which is connected to a larger hunt/amphitheater scene. The work serves as an exhibition catalogue first and foremost – not as primarily as a scholarly text from which to conduct thorough research. The work includes other art forms in addition to mosaics, such as stele, wall paintings, ceramics, and a few others.

  1. ^
    [1] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 6.
  2. ^
    [2] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 7.
  3. ^
    [3] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 8.
  4. ^
    [4] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 8.
  5. ^
    [5] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 8
  6. ^ [6] Brown 1992, 180.
  7. ^
    [7] Brown 1992, 184.
  8. ^
    [8] Brown 1992, 184.
  9. ^
    [9] Brown 1992, 185.
  10. ^
    [10] Tertullian 1977, 291.
  11. ^
    [11] Brown 1992, 184 and 185.
  12. ^
    [12] Brown 1992, 184.
  13. ^
    [13] Tertullian 1977, 279.
  14. ^
    [14] Cicero 2001, 175.
  15. ^
    [15] Ling 1998, 86.
  16. ^
    [16] Brown 1992, 188.
  17. ^
    [17] Ling 1998, 89.
  18. ^
    [18] Abed 2006 Tunisian Mosaics, 67.
  19. ^
    [19] Abed 2006 Tunisian Mosaics, 68 and Dunbabin 1978, 65.
  20. ^
    [20] Ling 1998, 89.
  21. ^
    [21] Dunbabin 1978, 69.
  22. ^
    [22] Abed 2006 Tunisian Mosaics, 116.
  23. ^
    [23] Dunbabin 1978, 66.
  24. ^
    [24] Abed 2006 Tunisian Mosaics, 76.
  25. ^
    [25] Dunbabin 1978, 66.
  26. ^
    [26] Dunbabin 1999, 124.
  27. ^
    [27] Dunbabin 1999, 124
  28. ^
    [28] St. Perpetua 1972.
  29. ^
    [29] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 13 and 14.
  30. ^
    [30] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 13.
  31. ^
    [31] Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service 1967-1969 1967, 14.
  32. ^
    [32] Abed 2006 Stories in Stone, 160.
  33. ^
    [33] Dunbabin 1978, 65.
  34. ^
    [34] Dunbabin 1978, 65.