Relief with a scene from a venatio (hunting of wild animals)

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A fragment of a figurative wall relief carved from semi-coarse-grained marble in high relief. Given the state of conservation of the piece, it is not possible to know where it was from. It could have been decoration on a building, private or public, or from one of the walls of a sarcophagus, carved from a complete block of marble and decorated with iconography relating to circus themes.

The Romans were great fans of public spectacles. Without doubt, large mass activities of this type were the most popular sort of entertainment during the Imperial period. They had their origin in Roman cult and had their place in the calendar of festivities. They took place three or four times a year and were in honour of some god, generally Mars or Consus and consisted of horse or chariot races. The big public games (ludi publici) are emblematic of the classical Roman vision of entertainment as an activity which must satisfy the need of the people for evasion and for amusement, while at the same time securing the correct social order. These games were further developed during the Republic, but it was the emperors, particularly Augustus, who turned them into an obligation of the state, that is, a political measure of a populist nature and of imperial aggrandizement.

These mass spectacles took place in two characteristic enclaves, the amphitheatre and the circus. These became forums where indirectly and in a controlled manner the right of public participation could be exercised. The amphitheatre is a strictly Roman structure in origin. It was a space above all for gladiator fights, hunting of wild animals and naumachias. The building was elliptical in form and was made up of terraces separated by walls which went round a central area, the arena.

The circus was the biggest installation of all of those designed for Rome for public entertainment. Its origin goes back to the hippodrome and Greek stadiums. It was an extended enclosure in a rectangular form. The longer sides were joined at one of their ends by a semi-circular section and the other end was a less pronounced curve. The track was made up of an arena divided in two by a median strip called the spina, where the judges were seated. Chariot and horse races took place in this venue.

Another entertainment which took place in the amphitheatres was the naumachia. This was a naval battle which could be staged when the arena was transformed into a basin with water. The most violent entertainment, however, was perhaps the exhibitions of exotic animals like giraffes or elephants, the killing of Christians by lions and the hunting of animals. The name for the spectacle of hunting wild animals was venation.

Exotic wild beasts were brought to Rome from the far reaches of the Empire. The hunts were held in the morning prior to the principal event, the fighting of gladiators. The hunts were held in the Roman Forum, the Saepta, and in the Circus Maximus, though none of these venues offered protection to the crowd from the wild animals on display. Special precautions were taken to prevent the animals from escaping, such as the erection of barriers and the digging of ditches. Very few animals survived these hunts, although they did sometimes kill the hunters, who may have been slaves, prisoners or expert “bestiaries”. Thousands of wild animals could be slaughtered in one day. During the inauguration of the Colosseum over 9,000 animals were killed.

The most common animals that took part in the venation were lions, bears, deer, boars and wild goats. The hunters sometimes were backed up by horses and dogs. On occasion they exhibited exotic animals such as elephants, tigers, leopards, crocodiles or hippopotamuses.

The fragment in question illustrates one of these moments. On the left of the scene is a male figure, of which only the bust remains. He is moving towards the animals with his arms raised, as a signal of attack or straining forward, helped by a whip or cord. In the upper right section, the boar can be seen clearly with its mouth downward, indicating that the animal is dead. Right below, a second animal of unsure type, is confronting the hunter and behind, a third animal with its head turned, seems to be climbing a rock. This animal could be a bear.

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