Criminals being thrown to the beasts on the Zliten mosaic
Criminals being thrown to the beasts on the Zliten mosaic

One form of entertainment in the arena was the execution of criminals. These took place at noon, and were the lunchtime show. They were not, however, all that popular, unless the criminal was particularly notorious: there was no skill on show and those about to be executed were not about to be given a means to protect themselves and the Romans, contrary to their popular image, were not always that eager to see people murdered by animals nonstop. As a result some criminals were killed in elaborately stage-managed re-enactments of mythical spectacles, though most were just thrown to the animals, in a form of punishment known as damnatio ad bestias. One such execution can be seen on the Zliten mosaic from modern Libya.

The philosopher Seneca the Younger wrote of a visit to the arena while executions were in progress:

I visited the games once at midday, hoping to find some touch of wit and humor there – I was bitterly disappointed. It was really nothing but butchery and what occurred in the morning section was merciful compared to it – at this stage they put aside all trifling and what goes on is nothing but murder. They have no armour to defend them and are open everywhere to blows and no blow occurs without a wound. Many people prefer this part of the games to the normal pairs [of gladiators] and the bouts at request. No wonder! For they have no helmets or shields to deflect weapons – for what is the point of armour or weapons? They do nothing but delay death. In the morning men were thrown to lions and to bears, at midday to the spectators. There was no escape for them: the audience demands that some who kills is kept fighting until he can be killed. Every bout ends in death by the sword or fire. And all of this goes on while the stands are empty! You may reply, “But he was a bandit! He killed someone!” So what? Fine: he killed someone and deserved to die; but you, poor man, what have you done that you deserve to watch this?

“Kill him! Whip him! Burn him alive,” is the cry: “Why does he rush on the blade so timidly? Why is he so reluctant to kill? Why won’t he die willingly? Drive him with whips to take wounds! Let them both get blow for blow, with their bare chests exposed for the wounds!” There is an interval: “While we’re waiting let’s have some throatcutting so that nothing is left undone.”

Seneca the Younger, Letters to Lucilius 7


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