c. 200 B.C.
Materials: Bronze (cast)
This lion statuette is 1 in. (2.5 cm) high, 1.75 in. (4.4 cm) long, and .5 in. (1.3 cm) wide. There are short horizontal lines that start from the head and go down to the front legs and along the lion’s rump. The statuette’s mouth is open with the head angled down. The lion’s nose and eyes are exaggerated. The upper lip has a detail of whiskers. A line around the back of its face indicates the mane. The lion is couchant, or positioned lying down with the head raised, and the tail curved up at the end. The lion has a hollow body and a small hole in the top of its back, possibly for suspension.
Romans imported the majority of their lions from Africa, Arabia, Syria, and Mesopotamia. The first recorded lions came to Rome in 186 B.C. and were put on display by Consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior. Lions and other strange animals were used for public entertainment in grand spectacles. These were held in the amphitheater or circus.
Some of the animals, like lions, were not just displayed, but also used in spectacles. These spectacles could be animal fighting animal or animal fighting humans. At Nobilior’s lion show he put on venationes (animal hunts). The venationes were staged hunts with trained hunters, the venatores, who attacked the animals (with the possibility that the animals could kill the humans). In other cases there was no pretense of a hunt, and animal fights were held against a trained gladiator or an untrained criminal. The trained hunters were the bestiarii gladiators who fought the animals.
Some lions were kept as house pets by the wealthy Romans. These lions were used to shock audiences, as when Mark Antony famously used lions to pull his chariot. At house parties, some wealthy Romans even had tame lions brought in to surprise the guests.
In Roman art, lions are found on several mediums. Ivory diptychs from the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. show detailed depictions of the venationes, illustrating lions in real events and not just as symbols in the piece. Artwork is useful in reconstructing the past, as demonstrated in relief carvings that show lions being transported to Italy. One carving depicts a ship in port with three cages holding lions. Other artwork has a religious nature. The god most associated with lions is the great mother goddess Cybele, who is associated with the strength and power of lions and whose chariot is drawn by lions. Additionally, lions sometimes appear in a funerary context. In the context of a Roman tomb, the lion is supposed to be a symbol of man’s power and victory over death.
It is clear lions were a widespread image in art and spectacle. Lions in art could have several meanings, and sometimes were a depiction of real life. At spectacles, both in the amphitheaters and in homes, lions were a grand sight.
Video: See the major arena for venationes in Rome and the importance of animals and venationes in Roman politics by watching the video found here.