Morning sessions at the Colosseum were devoted to anti-social Darwinism. In venationes, wild game was hunted amid elaborate scenery depicting, say, mountains or glades; in bestiarii, ferocious predators faced off in bizarre combinations: bears against lions, lions against leopards, leopards against crocodiles. The scale of the slaughter could be staggering. A venatio put on by Pompey in 55 B.C. included the slaughter of 20 elephants, 600 lions, 410 leopards, numerous apes and Rome's first rhinoceros. At a hunt held by Augustus, the score was 420 leopards, dozens of elephants, and as many as 400 bears and 300 lions—a total later matched by Nero. Roughly nine thousand animal carcasses were dragged out of the Colosseum during the opening ceremonies in 80 A.D.; 11,000 more over Trajan's four-month shindig. The Romans were so efficient at keeping their arenas stocked that entire animal populations were wiped out: Elephants disappeared from Libya, lions from Mesopotamia and hippos from Nubia. "All sorts of exotic animals were trapped in African deserts and the forests of India," Jones says. "Fans must have sat in the stands thinking, 'Ooh, what's that? I've never seen one of them before.' A lot of ostriches would come out and the hunters would chase them around a bit, and then you'd get some tigers. 'Ooh, tigers! They're interesting!' Then the tigers would be set on the ostriches. It was kind of a zoo in action."
Around noon, in an Empirical version of a halftime show, it was mankind's turn to be massacred. While spectators snacked on fried chickpeas and were misted with perfume to mask the stench of carnage, pairs of meridiani—arsonists, murderers, Christians—were sometimes subjected to what the philosopher Seneca called "sheer murder...a round-robin of death." One prisoner was handed a sword and ordered to kill the other. His job complete, he was disarmed and killed by the next armed captive. This went on until the last prisoner was whacked by an arena guard. Chariots were then wheeled out bearing men and women chained to posts. At a signal, trapdoors opened and leopards sprang out. In Rome, Christians really were fed to the lions. And leopards.
Still, the lowlight of most games was professional gladiatorial combat. The show opened with a procession heralded by trumpets. Dressed in purple and gold cloaks, gladiators circled the arena on foot, shadowed by slaves bearing their weapons. When the combatants reached the royal box, they supposedly thrust their right arms forward and shouted, "Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant!" (Hail, Emperor, those who are about to the salute thee!)
Supposedly, because much of what we think we know about the games is in dispute, or evolved from Hollywood sword 'n' sandal sagas. No one is quite sure if "thumbs down" meant death and "thumbs up" a reprieve. Some scholars believe spectators would turn their thumbs toward their chests as a sign for the winner to stab the loser and that those in favor of mercy turned their thumbs down as a sign for the winner to drop his sword. Which would mean the best review a fallen fighter could hope for was "one enthusiastic thumb down."
After the procession and their salutation to the emperor, weapons were tested for sharpness and combatants paired off by lot. A typical show featured between 10 and 20 bouts, each lasting about 15 minutes. A horn was blown and timid fighters were prodded into the arena with whips and red-hot brands. Each fight was supervised by two referees. Coaches stood nearby, lashing reluctant fighters with leather straps. Just like at the ballpark, the house organist would rally the betting crowd. Cries of "Verbera!" (Strike!), "Iugula!" (Slay!) and "Habet!" (That's got him!) swept the stadium. If a Roman fan yelled "Kill the umpire!" he really meant it. The first gladiator to draw blood or knock his opponent down was the victor. A beaten gladiator could appeal for clemency by casting aside his weapon and raising his left hand. His fate was left to the spectators, those early Roger Eberts. The prevailing notion that most gladiators dueled to the death is no more likely than the idea that most died in the arena. Only about one in 10 bouts were lethal, and many of those fatalities can be blamed on overzealousness. "Gladiators were very, very expensive characters," says Jones. "It cost a great deal to keep them fed and exercised and comfortable. Unless you were Caesar and wanted to impress somebody, you tended not to squander them."
When a gladiator was mortally wounded, an attendant costumed as Charon, the mythical ferryman of the River Styx, finished the job (in a pure Pythonian moment) by smashing his skull with a mallet. After the body was carried off on a stretcher, sand was raked over the bloodstained ground to ready it for the next bout. The festivities ended at sunset, although sometimes, as under Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.), contests were held by torchlight—night games.
Victors became instant heroes. They were crowned with a laurel wreath and given gold. Those who survived their term of service were awarded a rudis, the wooden sword signifying honorable discharge. Some so liked the gladiator life that they signed on for another tour. The Pompeiian fighter Flamma had four rudii in his trophy case.
Gladiator sweat was considered such an aphrodisiac that it was used in the facial creams of Roman women, and top gladiators were folk heroes with nicknames, fan clubs and adoring groupies. "We think they were sex symbols," says Jones. "A piece of ancient graffito was found at the gladiatorial barracks in Rome mat read SO-AND-SO MAKES THE GIRLS PANT." Gladiators were making Roman girls weak-kneed until the early fourth century A.D. Christian emperor Constantine abolished the games in 325, but without much conviction, or success. In 404, the emperor Honorius banned them again after a Christian monk tried to separate two gladiators and was torn limb from limb by the angry crowd. Despite Honorius' decree, the combat may have continued for another 100 years. "The sad truth is that the Christians of Rome became good Romans and staged their own gladiatorial contests," says Jones. "Popes even hired gladiators as bodyguards. The Christians are given far too much credit—they have a lot to answer for, like being responsible for the Dark Ages."
It was the barbarian invaders who shut down the sport for good. "Whenever Goths and Vandals moved into a Roman city, the games stopped," Jones says. "The barbarians disapproved of them and found them too disgusting."
And, we assume, too barbaric.