At the height of its power, the Roman Empire imported thousands of animals from Europe, Africa, and Asia for use in annual gladiatorial games. More often than not, these hyenas, lions, tigers, elephants, and other forms of fauna would be released in coliseums during mock hunts, where crowds watched as they served as fodder for archers in chariots. Others met their end in fights against sword-and-shield bearing gladiators. Some of the more fortunate animals entertained audiences by killing and consuming unarmed criminals.
Romans also put on one-on-one death matches between different species, often using animals that had never encountered one another in the wild. For example, they 'd tie a bear from northern Europe to an African lion and would use fire to goad the animals into fighting. In other instances, they’d starve two animals, throw them in an arena, and let nature take its course. Usually, these fights were to the death. It 's likely that thousands of these battles occurred over the Roman Empire 's 500-year history.
With such a long, bloody record, it would seem that Rome could answer innumerable 'who would win ' animal fighting debates. Unfortunately, only a few written accounts of interspecies combat have survived into modern times, and these are severely lacking in specifics. However, these accounts in combination with abundant archaeological evidence 'coins, mosaics, and paintings depicting animal-on-animal combat 'provide some detail about these horrific battles. Here are ten interspecies fights from Roman history (original descriptions of the fights included at the end of each entry).
10. Tiger v. Lion
Most of our knowledge of interspecies fights comes from the historian Martial, who wrote about the first gladiatorial games in the Roman Coliseum in 80 A.D. Overseen by the Emperor Titus, these inaugural games lasted over 100 days and included gladiator fights and recreations of famous moments from Roman history. At one point, the Coliseum was flooded and actors staged a naval battle. Titus even imported over 5,000 animals for his games. Although most of these fauna died in mock hunts, some met their end in interspecies fights.
A 600-lb Asian tiger and a 500 lb African lion faced off in one of these matchups. Easily procured from nearby North Africa, lions were a common sight in Roman arenas (some Romans even kept lions as pets, with one Emperor using lions to pull his chariot and another releasing lions on unsuspecting dinner guests). Tigers, on the other hand, were much rarer and, as such, they fascinated the Roman populace. One tiger gained fame for being so gentle that it would lick its trainer 's hand.
When attendants chose this particular tiger for an interspecies fight with a lion, the audience predicted an easy victory for the lion. They were wrong. When a trainer loosed the tiger in the Coliseum, something happened. Whether it was the noise of the audience or the site of the lion, the tiger grew enraged. At the first opportunity, the angry tiger chased down the lion, leapt on it, and flipped it on to its back. Using its weight advantage, the tiger then treated the lion as it would any other prey: it used its teeth and claws to open the animal 's undercarriage. Blood and viscera escaped the lion 's abdomen and spilled on to the arena floor.
Although this is the only recorded victory of a tiger over a lion in Roman history, it seems that this matchup happened on other occasions. Tigers almost always emerging the victor.
A tigress that had been accustomed to lick the hand of her unsuspecting keeper, an animal of rare beauty from the Hyracanian mountains, being enraged, lacerated with maddened tooth a fierce lion; a strange occurrence, such as had never been known in any age. She attempted nothing of the sort while she lived in the depth of the forests; but since she has been amongst us, she has acquired greater ferocity. Martial, The Epigrams of Martial 13
9. Bull v. Elephant
The Titus games also featured a fight between an African elephant and a bull. At 10,000 lbs, elephants are the world 's largest land animal, something that made them popular attractions in Rome 's arenas. Romans also liked to watch elephants fight because of the animal 's high level of intelligence and because Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca had used elephants when he invaded Rome in the Second Punic War. Romans wanted to see something defeat the instrument of their greatest enemy. This combination of size, cunning, and historical malignance made the beast an object of derision to Roman citizens.
Unfortunately, the best opponent Rome had for the elephant at the Titus games was a bull (The Romans had a rhino, but didn 't use it. More below). A mismatch today, it was even more so in ancient times. Whereas two thousand years of selective breeding have made modern cattle as heavy as 3,000 lbs and, in the case of Spanish fighting bulls, unnaturally aggressive, bovines in ancient Rome weighed less than 1,000 lbs and were unwilling to fight unless provoked.
In order to put the bull into a fighting mood, then, attendants in the Coliseum held a flame to the animal 's hindquarters and mocked it by rattling nearby straw dummies. The heat and motion enraged the bull, and it charged the dummies, tossing each into the air. When attendants then brought the elephant into the arena, the bull 'imagined the elephant might easily be thus tossed, ' lowered its head, and charged.
The elephant turned to face the tiny animal coming in his direction, and swung his tusks when the bull came in close. The blow sent the bull reeling, and the animal collapsed. The elephant then finished its downed opponent with a series of stomps and capped off its victory with an impressive display. It sauntered over to the emperor 's podium and knelt. Martial claims that the elephant had not been trained to do so, but was, instead, showing reverence and recognizing the emperor 's divinity.
The bull, which, lately goaded by flames through the whole arena, had caught up and cast aloft the balls, succumbed at length, being struck by a more powerful horn, while he imagined the elephant might easily be thus tossed.
Whereas piously and in suppliant guise the elephant kneels to thee, Caesar, 'that elephant which erewhile was so formidable to the bull his antagonist, 'this he does without command, and with no keeper to teach him: believe me, he too feels our present deity. Martial, The Epigrams of Martial 13
8. Rhinoceros v. Bull
Yet another bull had to face an oversized opponent as the Titus games: a two-horned East Africa black rhinoceros that likely weighed between 2,500-5,000 lbs. In addition being twice the bull 's weight, the rhino 's duel horns were sharp and fully capable of driving entirely through his opponent 's torso. Although the rhino 's thick hide wouldn 't protect against a direct charge from the bull, any glancing blows would likely have little effect.
The bull did have one advantage: the rhinoceros was probably weak from the 1,200-mile land and sea trip from Africa to Rome. Romans had successfully imported rhinoceroses from both India and Africa for prior games 'and some had even been involved in interspecies fights 'but the passage was trying and more than one rhino died in transit (after the fall of the Roman Empire, it would be over a thousand years before a rhino arrived in Europe alive). In addition, the rhino was probably weak from not having eaten its normal diet since leaving Africa.
Likely owing to these factors, the rhino appeared lethargic when it entered the Coliseum. The crowd had looked forward to seeing the massive animal fight, but its lack of energy left them disappointed. The bull, on the other hand, was ready to fight.
It didn 't matter. The only description of the rhino-bull brawl says that the rhino tossed the bull into the air as if it were a straw dummy, and, presumably, the bull died shortly thereafter.
Although victorious, the battle with the bull exhausted the rhinoceros, and it walked to the center of the arena, where it lay down to catch its breath, and then fell asleep. It would awaken to find a new opponent.
The rhinoceros, exhibited for thee, Caesar, in the whole space of the arena, fought battles of which he gave no promise. Oh, into what terrible wrath did he with lowered head blaze forth! How powerful was that tusk to whom a bull was a mere ball! Martial, The Epigrams of Martial 15-16
7. Rhinoceros v. Bear
This time, the rhinoceros had to fight a bear. Although it 's unclear what type of bear was brought into the ring 'there 's evidence that Romans once used a polar bear in their games 'it 's likely the rhino faced a European grizzly. These 600 lb bears make their homes in the northern portions of the Roman Empire and were frequently part of the gladiatorial games.
When the bear was led into the arena, the rhino refused to fight and continued to rest on the arena floor. The animal 's apathy angered the crowd. They grew restless, booed, and complained about the rhino 's inaction until officials dispatched arena attendants to rouse the slumbering beast. Trembling, these men crept into the arena and began poking the rhino with long metal poles until the beast awoke, grew angry, and got to its feet.
Because the attendants had quickly escaped the arena, the poor grizzly would be the target of the rhino 's wrath. When the larger animal saw his bear opponent, he lowered his head and charged. Unable to get out of the way in time, the bear took the full brunt of the rhino 's charge in his belly. As the horns entered the bear 's flesh, the rhino craned his neck and sent his opponent flying. Leaving the bull for dead, the rhino angrily paraded around the arena.
The crowd roared in approval at the rhino 's newfound vigor and called for more challengers.
While the trembling keepers were exciting the rhinoceros, and the wrath of the huge animal had been long arousing itself, the conflicts of the promised engagement were beginning to be despaired of; but at length his fury, well-known of old, returned. For easily as a bull tosses to the skies the balls placed upon his horns, so with his double horn did he burl aloft the heavy bear. Martial, The Epigrams of Martial 15-16
6. Rhinoceros v. Buffalo
5. Rhinoceros v. Panther
(Rhino v. pretty much every other animal the Romans had laying around)
Arena officials obliged. Hoping multiple opponents would make for a better show, attendants released two bulls into the coliseum with the rhino, but the beast promptly 'lifted two steers with his mobile neck ' and tossed them as he had done his earlier challengers.
The Romans also put a European buffalo into the arena with the rhino. Although his heaviest opponent yet, the rhino seems to have 'yielded the fierce buffalo ' with ease. An ox met the same fate. When the Romans put a panther into the arena, it was so frightened by the sight of the massive rhino that it fled to the other side of the arena at full speed and ran directly into a wall of spears. In his writings, Martial mocked the crowds who had booed the rhino at the outset of the fights by saying, 'go now, impatient crowd, and complain. ' He was essentially asking, 'Are you not entertained
The ultimate fate of the rhinoceros is unknown. A gladiator may have dispatched him, or he may have been kept in the coliseum for use in future games. What is known, is that lamps throughout the empire would depict the rhino 's victory over the bull.
He lifted two steers with his mobile neck, to him yielded the fierce buffalo and the bison. A panther fleeing before him ran headlong upon the spears. Martial, The Epigrams of Martial 15-16
4. Bear vs. Bull
It 's likely that the Titus games also featured at least one confrontation between a bear and a bull, as one Roman author stated that 'we often see at a morning performance in the arena a battle between a bull and a bear. ' They occurred so often, probably to warm up crowds for later gladiatorial events, that multiple Roman mosaics and paintings of bear-bull fights survive today.
The regularity of these matches likely owed to the ease in which it took to procure bulls and bears and the fact that the animals were fairly evenly matched. A favorite tactic to incite the two animals to combat was for arena workers to tie a rope from one animal 's foot to the other, thereby causing agitation and preventing either animal from running away. When this failed to anger the animals, attendants would try to poke the bear and bulls in order to make them fight. One excited, the animals fought until one 'has torn the other to pieces. ' Arena attendants would then kill the victor.
Although the only surviving written account of bear-bull combat in Roman arenas lacks detail, most visual depictions of the fights have the bear besting his bovine opponent. This makes sense. Bulls would have a weight advantage over grizzlies, but not the 1,000 lb advantage that today 's heavier bulls would enjoy. In addition, a bull 's strongest asset 'its charge 'would be negated if it were tied to a bear. The bear, therefore, would be free to bite and claw the bull, while the bull, lacking momentum to puncture, could only scrape.
We often see at a morning performance in the arena a battle between a bull and a bear, fastened together, in which the victor, after he has torn the other to pieces, is himself slain. Seneca Of Anger Book III #43
3. Lion v. Bull
Pitting a lion against a bull was also common in the Roman Empire, but there are no written descriptions of such fights. There are, however, tons of coins, murals, and mosaics bearing illustrations of lion-bull combat. If anything is to be learned from these depictions, it 's that lions kicked the hell out of bulls. Pictures show lions ripping into bulls ' necks, jumping on a down bull, and clawing at a bull 's face. Only a handful depict a bull piercing a lion with its horns.
This type of combat seems to have outlasted the Roman Empire, as at least one piece of Byzantine art depicts a lion dispatching a bull in an arena.
2. Lion v. Bear
Lions and bears also fought, but like with the lion-bull fights, only visual depictions remain as evidence that they happened. Unlike the lion-bull fights, there are not enough illustrations to draw conclusions about who got the better in such contests.
1. Rhino v. Elephant
The ultimate in interspecies combat, a fight between the two largest land animals, happened at least two times, and possibly more, in the Roman Coliseum. The first of these battles took place at Emperor Augustus 's gladiatorial games in 8 A.D. Unfortunately, the only person who wrote about the fight noted merely that 'an elephant overcame a rhinoceros. ' Although this version of the fight is lacking in detail, a possibly apocryphal telling of the bout has the elephant picking up a spear used in an earlier event and chunking it through the rhinoceros 's eye. The elephant then stomped its blinded opponent to death. Although the source of this information is uncited, such a scenario is plausible. When gladiators cut the legs of an elephant in a different matchup, the animal dropped to its knees, used its trunk to grab its opponents ' shields, and slung the discs back at their owners.
Although a rhino lost the first recorded battle with an elephant, it appears one of its brethren evened the score. In 55 A.D., at Pompey 's games, Pliny the Elder noted cryptically that a single horned rhino had been trained in Rome to 'fight matches with an elephant. ' Pliny stated that the rhino filed his horn against stones in preparation for battle and once fighting began, the animal would 'aimeth principally at the belly, which he knoweth to be the tenderest part. ' This language seems to indicate that the rhino had been in multiple battles with elephants, which, in turn, would mean that he 'd defeated multiple elephants. After all, if the rhino had died after the first fight with an elephant, Pliny would be unable to have written about the animal 's activities as if they were habits.
Beyond these few words, there are no records of these fights. Although the elephant and rhino at the Titus games dispatched multiple smaller opponents, there 's no record of them fighting each other.
This lasted till the scarcity of grain subsided, when gladiatorial games in honor of Drusus were given by Germanicus Caesar and Tiberius Claudius Nero, his sons. [In the course of them an elephant vanquished a rhinoceros and a knight distinguished for his wealth fought as a gladiator. Dio 's Roman History LV 479
In the same Plays of Pompey, and many Times beside was shewed a Rhinoceros, with a single Horn on his Snout. This is a second begotten Enemy to the Elephant. He fileth this Horn against hard Stones, and so prepareth himself to fight; and in his Conflict he aimeth principally at the Belly, which he knoweth to be the tenderest Part. He is full as long as his enemy; his Legs much shorter; his Colour a palish Yellow. Pliny Natural History Book VIII 36
Other forms of interspecies combat took place in Roman arenas, but we know even less about them than the fights above. A painting shows an ostrich taking on a lion, a gemstone depicts a lion dispatching a crocodile, and a written account implies that a hippopotamus fought a crocodile. Unless more Roman texts turn up, the above descriptions will have to suffice for those wanting to know more about animal-on-animal combat.
Interpretations of primary sources are my own as well as those of the following two sources.
Epplett, William Christopher, 'Animal Spectacula of the Roman Empire, ' Ph.D. Dissertation The University of British Columbia, 2001.
Jennison, George. Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.