What Animals Did Gladiators Fight?

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The gladiators that fought animals, known as bestiarii, fought a variety of vicious mammals, including bears, lions, leopards, panthers and bulls. Contrary to popular belief, the bestiarii were distinct from gladiators. There were two types: those who were criminals or prisoners condemned to death by fighting animals, known as damnatio ad bestias, and those who volunteered to combat animals for pay or glory, known as venatio.

The animals fought by these bestiarii were mainly vicious predators. The most popular animal to fight was the lion, and there are many accounts of both prisoners and fighters being devoured. According to Roman orator Cicero, there was once a single lion that devoured more than 200 prisoners. More often than not, a single lion in combat with multiple men would emerge victorious.

Depending on the particular event, the animal could change. The most popular animals used for punishment were bears, leopards, Caspian tigers, black panthers and bulls. In some events, where the combatants were in it for sport rather than punishment, the animals could include crocodiles, hyenas, elephants, wild boars, buffalo, lynxes, giraffes, ostriches, deer, hares, antelopes and zebra. The latter animals were used to watch the hunt rather than to see an actual fight between men and beasts. Rather than purely being for sport, when prisoners were forced into combat with wild animals, it was often as a form of execution. Some prisoners were forced into the arenas naked and defenseless, and even if they defeated an animal, others would be sent in.