24 January AD 119 – Hadrian celebrates his 43rd birthday in Rome with gladiatorial games (#Hadrian1900)

Central panel of the Gladiator mosaic floor, 3rd century AD, Römerhalle, Bad Kreuznach, Germany

On 24 January AD 119, Hadrian celebrated his 43rd birthday in Rome, the first he spent in the capital as emperor. The emperor put on a gladiatorial show that lasted six successive days to mark the occasion. Dio Cassius and the Historia Augusta reported that many wild animals were slaughtered, including one hundred lions and one hundred lionesses. In addition to the bloody spectacles, a large number of little balls of wood with various gifts written on them were thrown into the crowd.

On his birthday he gave the usual spectacle free to the people and slew many wild beasts, so that one hundred lions, for example, and a like number of lionesses fell on this single occasion. He also distributed gifts by means of little balls which he threw broadcast both in the theatres and in the Circus, for the men and for the women separately. Dio, LXIX.8.2

Hunter (venator) with lioness, painting that adorned the balustrade of the podium of the amphitheatre of Emerita Augusta, late 1st century AD. National Museum of Roman Art, Mérida (Spain).

He gave gladiatorial combats for six days in succession, and on his birthday he put into the arena a thousand wild beasts. HA Hadr. 7.12

In the Circus he had many wild beasts killed and often a whole hundred of lions. HA Hadr. 19.7

Since his arrival in the capital in July 118 (see here), Hadrian had already displayed generosity. He implemented the first part of Juvenal’s panem et circenses (bread and circuses) by distributing free grain to all (adult male) citizens in Rome. Then came the games.

The staging of gladiatorial fights (munera gladiatoria) and wild-beast hunts (venationes) in the amphitheatre and the circus was a frequent form of imperial benefaction. From the time of Augustus, it became the custom for Roman emperors to provide spectacular games and entertainment on important occasions and as a supplement to the regular ludi.

Venatio was a favourite entertainment of many emperors and became larger and more violent over time. In his Res Gestae, Augustus proudly claimed that 26 venationes were held throughout his reign, which cost the lives of around 3,500 wild animals (including 460 lions), setting a high bar for those emperors that followed. The beasts were made to fight either with one another or with men.

Panel depicting two Bestiarii trying to drive the animal off by lashes from their whips. The gladiator mosaic at the Roman villa in Nennig (Germany).

Hadrian was only four years old when the great Amphitheatrum Flavium, which we know as the Colosseum, was inaugurated by Titus in AD 80. Dio says that throughout the inaugural games that went on for 100 days, 9,000 tame and wild animals were slain (Dio. 68.25), while Suetonius affirms that 5,000 wild beasts were presented to the audience in one single day. An even larger number of animal fatalities is recounted when Trajan celebrated his Dacian triumph in AD 107 with 123 days of spectacles. During this time, 5,000 pairs of gladiators fought, and 11,000 animals were killed in the arena (Dio. 68.15).

Epitaph of M. Antonius Exochus (CIL VI 10194).

Even if these figures are exaggerated, the Dacian Games were an extravaganza, the like of which Rome had not seen before, and that would remain forever unmatched. An inscription from Rome preserves the names of three men who participated in the events. The epigraph of a certain Marcus Antonius Exochus states that he came to Rome from Alexandria for the triumph of Trajan and that on the second day of the triumph, he fought (and drew) with Araxes, and that on the ninth day, he defeated Fimbria.

As for Hadrian, the Historia Augusta asserts that he was an avid enthusiast of such events (HA Hadr. 19.8) and knew how to use gladiatorial weapons (HA Hadr. 14.10). Even before he became emperor, Hadrian was ascribed two million sesterces by Trajan to stage games to celebrate his election as praetor (HA Hadr. 3.8). This must have given Hadrian food for reflection.

Skilled venatores and bestiarii were highly trained to hunt and fight savage beasts from all over the empire.
Mosaic of the Gladiator, early 4th-century AD (Borghese Gallery, Rome).
Photo by Sebastià Giralt (Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Although Hadrian is said to have refused circus games in his honour, the emperor made an exception to celebrate his birthday. The games he held 1,900 years ago on his 43rd birthday lasted six consecutive days, with a thousand wild beasts slaughtered. He also threw balls redeemable for gifts (sportulae) into the audience. Anybody who caught one could hand over the ball to an official who would provide the named gift in return. The gifts could have been food, clothing, horses, or gold or silver vessels. This was not unusual. Dio mentions that Titus threw wooden balls into the crowd at the inaugural games of the Colosseum (Dio 66.25.5), while Suetonius says that Nero gave 1,000 birds daily, as well as food parcels and vouchers for various kinds of gifts (precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms).

All circus-games decreed in his honour he refused, except those held to celebrate his birthday. HA Hadr. 8.2

The venationes usually took place in the morning as a kind of introduction and complement to the main attraction, the gladiatorial munus that started in the afternoon. All sorts of wild beasts – elephants, bears, crocodiles, bulls, lions, tigers, leopards – were captured in North Africa and the Near East, transported to different locations and kept in cages in underground cubicles beneath the arena. Even if the number of beasts slaughtered may have been slightly exaggerated, lions and elephants disappeared and were hunted for centuries to provide for the games in North Africa.

The Roman mosaic from Veii depicts an African elephant being loaded onto a ship – 3rd-4th century AD.
Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe, Germany.

An intricate system must have been in place to coordinate the capture, transport, and delivery of so many animals. It was a difficult task. The beasts had to be trapped, put into cages, sometimes embarked on ships, fed all the way to their destination and kept in reasonable condition (they were clearly of no use if they arrived sick or dead). The fierce struggles to capture and secure wild beasts have been immortalised on many mosaics which illustrate hunting expeditions.

The Great Hunt Mosaic, Apamea (Syria), 1st third of the 6th century AD.
Cinquantenaire Museum, Bruxelles.

Hadrian was to give venatio more international coverage in games shown in various towns across the empire. The HA mentions that “in almost every city he gave public games” and that in Athens, during one of his visits to the city, “he exhibited in the stadium a hunt of a thousand wild beasts.” The Greeks were not accustomed to such entertainment, but with the Romanization of the Greek East and the introduction of the imperial cult, Roman spectacles became popular throughout Hellenistic cities in the Roman Empire. The recent discovery of a gladiator graveyard in Ephesus with tombstones depicting gladiatorial combat emphasises this. The graveyard, containing the remains of 67 gladiators, most aged between 20 and 30 years, dates back to the 2nd century AD and has provided the world with a unique insight into the life of gladiators. It is believed that gladiator contests first came to Ephesus in 69 BC, became increasingly important over time, and peaked in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD when Ephesus was the capital of the province of Asia. The city’s Hellenistic stadium was then converted to an elliptical arena to accommodate the contests better. The same secondary use is found in other Greek towns like Aphrodisias.

Gladiator reliefs from Ephesus.

One important measure passed by Hadrian regarding the games was a law that prohibited selling slaves or servants to gladiatorial schools without giving good reasons for such a sale.

He forbade anyone to sell a slave or a maid-servant to a procurer or trainer of gladiators without giving a reason therefor. HA Hadr. 18.8

At the time of Hadrian’s 43rd birthday, his friend Titus Haterius Nepos, an equestrian officer, was the procurator of the ludus magnus (CIL XI 5213) and was in charge of training gladiators and organising public games for imperial occasions.

Inscription commemorating Titus Haterius Nepos, CIL XI 5213. Palazzo Trinci, Foligno, Italy.
[To Haterius], prefect of the cohort, military tribune, prefect of the Anavionensian Britons, procurator of Augustus for Armenia Major, of the Great Training-School, and legacies; and in charge of the census, in charge of petitions of Augustus, prefect of the Watch, prefect of Egypt, M Taminius Ce…

The ludus magnus was built adjacent to the Colosseum, to which an underground passageway connected it to allow gladiators to make their way to the arena without being seen. It was constructed under the reign of emperor Domitian but underwent various reconstructions under Trajan, later completed by Hadrian.

The ludus magnus in Rome is seen from the Colosseum. On the right is the oval of the arena.

Hadrian was to give more gladiatorial games in the year 119 on the occasion of special honours given to his “most beloved” mother-in-law following her death on 23 December of the same year (CIL VI 02080) after a “long widowhood” (as Hadrian himself noted in his funerary address for her (CIL XIV 3579). Salonia Matidia, whom Hadrian regarded as his mother, was to be deified and honoured with a temple and an altar in the Campus Martius, close to the Pantheon. She would thus become the first divinised Roman woman to be dedicated to a full-scale temple of her own (read more here).

On his mother-in‑law he bestowed especial honour by means of gladiatorial games and other ceremonies. HA Hadr. 9.9

Hadrian and his mother-in-law Matidia reunited in the British Museum.

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