Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Calling Off the Hunt

In the news today, we learn that Catalonia has brought an end to the long tradition of bull fighting. The article cites that the government of this region of Spain has come to realize that this popular and iconic form of entertainment exhibits cruelty to animals.

Now let's travel back in time about 2,000 years and take another look. The games in any Roman arena would typically begin the day with a venatio, or a beast hunt. Specially-trained fighters called bestiarii would fight all sorts of wild animals - lions, tigers, bears, boars, and, oh, yes, bulls - for the purpose of warming up the crowd for more violence to come. Several sources say that, in some events, thousands of animals would die. According to Pliny the Elder, Julius Caesar was the first to bring the hunting of bulls to Rome:

Thessalorum gentis inventum est equo iuxta quadripedante cornu intorta cervice tauros necare; primus id spectaculum dedit Romae Caesar dictator. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History VIII.70)

If it was good enough for the Greeks, it must be good enough for the Romans, but around the same time, Cicero writes that he does not share the appeal of seeing animals die for entertainment and that others shared in his sentiments. In his Ad Familiares VII.1.1-3, he writes:

Reliquae sunt venationes binae per dies quinque, magnificae—nemo negat—, sed quae potest homini esse polito delectatio, cum aut homo imbecillus a valentissima bestia laniatur aut praeclara bestia venabulo transverberatur? quae tamen, si videnda sunt, saepe vidisti, neque nos, qui haec spectavimus, quidquam novi vidimus. Extremus elephantorum dies fuit: in quo admiratio magna vulgi atque turbae, delectatio nulla exstitit; quin etiam misericordia quaedam consecuta est atque opinio eiusmodi, esse quandam illi beluae cum genere humano societatem.

"The rest are hunts twice a day for five days, magnificent -- no one denies it --, but what pleasure is there able to be for a refined man, when either a feeble man is torn to pieces by a very strong beast or a beautiful beast is pierced through by a hunting spear? However you have seen these things often, if they must be seen, and what new have we seen, we who have watched these things. The last day was for the elephants: on which day the crowd and mob had great wonder, but no delight came forth; on the contrary a certain pity and impression of this type followed, that there was a certain relationship for that beast with the human race." (The translation is my own.)

To be sure, the popularity of beast hunts in the arena did not suffer with the comments of Cicero. It is comforting to think, though, that there are some people who have always thought that there was something inherently wrong about watching animals die for entertainment.

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