Roman Mosaic Showing the Transport of an Elephant

Roman Mosaic Showing the Transport of an Elephant

The Beginning Of Venationes In Ancient Rome

Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, Wikimedia Commons Print depicting the venationes held inside the Colosseum, made in the 17th century.

Audiences in ancient Rome had a taste for blood. They had long cheered on chariot races and gladiator matches. So it was no surprise that they were equally enthralled by venatio, which means wild animal hunt or staged hunt.

By some estimates, the venationes started as early as 252 B.C. Pliny the Elder describes a venatio that involved elephants that had been captured during the First Punic War.

However, it seems that Pliny’s elephants were not killed but merely displayed. After all, most Romans hadn’t seen an elephant before. The beasts were sometimes used in war but would have been completely foreign to a civilian.

The Roman historian Livy suggests that the first venatio took place a bit later, in 185 B.C. — after the Second Punic War. Then, the Roman general Marcus Fulvius Nobilior celebrated his victories in Greece by setting up a staged hunt.

“For the first time an athletic contest was on at Rome,” Livy wrote. “And a hunt was staged in which lions and panthers were the quarry, and the games were celebrated with practically all the resources and variety that the entire age could muster.”

The era of the venatio was at hand.


At first sight the Basilica of San Clemente looks like any other church in Rome. However, inside there are numerous and unimaginable treasures. The small temple is beautifully decorated with twelfth-century mosaics.

The entrance to the fourth century church is through the sacristy, in which, despite the cold, darkness and moisture, visitors will be able to see the numerous frescoes on the walls, as well as some fragments of mosaics that used to cover the temple floor.

Not only is the old basilica open, but visitors can also see the ancient Roman villas made of old brick. In one of the rooms water flows through the Cloaca Maxima, the main sewer system of ancient Rome.

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Paintings and mosaics included realistic imagery designed to create the illusion that the figures were actually in the room. Subjects included portraits, mythology, daily life landscapes, still lives, strange animals and swirling plants.

Frank B. Chavez III has been a professional writer since 2006. His articles have appeared on numerous websites including WitchVox and Spectrum Nexus as well as in the e-magazine Gods and Empires. He has his associate degree with an emphasis in theater arts from Chabot College, where he received the theater department's Joeray Madrid Award for Excellence in Dramaturgy.

Roman Achievements& Inventions

The Romans were very good at copying other peoples ideas, but they rarely gave other civilizations credit for these ideas. According to the ancient Romans, everything was invented by Romans. They actually did invent or achieve some important things themselves, things we still use today. We owe them a lot!

Architecture: The ancient Romans are referred to as the great builders, and they were. They developed many new techniques for buildings and construction of all types including the invention of concrete.

Arches : The Romans used arches to keep bridges strong. Modern bridges reflect this invention today. Look at just about any bridge and you'll see an arch supporting it, making it safe and strong for use.

Water Systems: The Romans built incredibly well built aqueducts that ran for miles, bringing fresh water to the cities and towns.

Tunnels: The Romans built tunnels to transport water and to open mountains for travel

Public Health Programs: The Romans were great believers in healthy living. They made sure that all the people of Rome were able to get medical help.

Public Welfare: The Romans also believed that all Romans should have food and shelter. Under the Empire, they developed welfare programs for the poor.

Mail System: Messages were sent by a relay system of messengers

Newspapers! The Romans kept people up to date on what was happening with newspapers! The news was carved on stone tablets and the tables were displayed in town centers for the people to read.

Libraries : The Romans builts libraries to hold scrolls.

Latin: The Romans spread across Europe, Southwest Asia, and North Africa bringing their traditions and their language (Latin), the root of all the romance languages including English, French, and Spanish.

Religion: The Catholic faith, which kept learning alive after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Roman Law and Justice including the law that states a person is innocent until proven guilty (from the Twelve Tables)

Government, the Roman Senate: The Senate was made up of prominent Roman citizens. Before any policy could become law in ancient Rome, it had to be presented to the Senate and debated. After debate, the Senators would make recommendations and the General Assembly would vote whether or not to make this suggestion a law.

Education : Education was very important to the ancient Romans, and even the poor learned reading and writing. The school rooms were often in public buildings, separated by a curtain. Boys went to school. Girls usually did not, although they were taught at home by educated slaves and by their mother.

Propaganda campaigns including coinage with the current emperor's picture on it, to remind everyone who was in charge of the empire.

Satire: The Romans used satire in plays and literature in a loud and rude sort of sarcastic approach, especially in comic theatre

Works of Literature : The Romans wrote many plays including Virgil's Aeneid

Realistic statues : Other cultures, like the Greeks created perfect humans in their statues. If someone had a big nose, the Greeks would soften it in their statue to make the person more attractive. But the Romans created what they saw. If a man had a big nose, so did his statue.

Mosaics - The Romans created beautiful mosaics on floors and walls. Some of this art is still being uncovered today!

Customs: The Romans invented the use of rings to denote friendship, engagements, and weddings, and the use greenery to decorate during winter holidays, exchanging gifts on the first day of the new year , and other holiday customs.

Roman Calendar: Roman Calendar

Clothing : The Romans invented socks (called soccus by the ancient Romans) worn by both women and men. They improved footwear considerably for all kinds of shoes, including the hobnailed shoe that made such a scary racket when worn by the common soldier - along with shoe construction that adjusted for left foot, right foot variance in shape, which made wearing any shoes a lot more comfortable. And a bunch of neat hats.

Games : Many board and ball games including knuckleball (jacks) and hoops. Roman Games

The punishment fits the (Roman) crime

So was anyone ever actually punished with all these creatures? The emperor Constantine’s penalty for parricide only specified that snakes should be added to the sack. Parricides were commonly punished in other ways such as being condemned to the beasts, which was very popular in the Roman world.

One of the four animals that was said to have been placed in the sack was a snake. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Many historians have thought that the practicalities of sewing up a dog, a monkey, a rooster, a snake, and a human in a sack together indicates that the penalty was never actually enforced – for one thing, it would be as much a punishment for the executioners as it would for the condemned.

The Romans themselves believed the poena cullei was an ancestral custom – but as with many customs, it was based on preconceptions about the nature of ancient punishments. The best-known version of the penalty for parricide, with all the ferocious fauna included, was a product of the later Roman empire. It was designed to terrify, rather than to be enforced.

The poena cullei entered the standard accounts of Roman criminal law because it fascinated medieval scholars who tried to identify the symbolism of the animals. Florike Egmond has shown that this inspired the introduction of the sack filled with creatures as a punishment in Germanic law, reflecting the belief that a civilized society should follow Roman judicial practices.

"Ertränken im Fass oder Sack", a 1560 sketch showing ‘punishment of the sack’. ( Public Domain )

To the relief of Germans in the medieval and early modern period, such punishments were rarely carried out. On one occasion, images of the animals were sewn into the sack, as they were considered sufficient substitutes for the real thing.


The interior of the Basilica of St. Paul is magnificent, with enormous marble columns and beautiful gold mosaics. Unfortunately, because of the fire of 1823, few parts of the Medieval basilica remain intact. However, the church still houses some mosaics from the thirteenth century, a large twelfth-century chandelier, or the marble tombstone under which the remains of St. Paul lie.

On the basilica’s walls, visitors will be able to observe the portraits of each of the popes, while a ray of sunlight lights up the portrait of the current Pope, Pope Francis.

The atrium located in the exterior is one of the most noteworthy parts of the church. It is made up of 150 columns, and from here, visitors can see the façade of the Basilica covered by an enormous golden mosaic built between 1854 and 1874, which reflects the rays of sunlight. The centre of the portico houses a colossal statue of St. Paul.

Exploring Britain’s Roman roads with historian Dan Jones

Many Roman roads are still in use by millions of people in Britain as part of the country’s present-day road network. But what were these routes originally used for? How did the Romans build their roads? And why are they so straight? HistoryExtra's digital editorial assistant Rachel Dinning caught up with historian Dan Jones to discover more about Britain’s Roman road network…

This competition is now closed

Published: June 26, 2020 at 12:37 pm

In a new TV series, Walking Britain’s Roman Roads, historian Dan Jones offers a guide to some of the most famous routes constructed by the Romans as they brought Britannia into the empire. We found out more about how the Romans used their transport network to conquer Britain and then import their religions, crafts, trade goods and building techniques…

What were Roman roads used for and why were they built?

They were built as military infrastructure in the first instance. Britain was at the end of the earth for the Romans. It was a colony to be conquered – so the basic function of these roads was to transport troops, material and supplies around what was initially rather hostile territory. Thereafter, the roads become this sort of ‘connective tissue’ of this Roman imperial colony.

Is it fair to say that the Romans couldn’t have conquered Britain without these roads? Were they an integral part of conquering Britain?

That’s probably fair. If you think about what Britain represented at this time – and what Britain was in the Roman empire – it was the Wild West. In order to project the awesome power of the Roman military over this incredibly far-flung territory that was miles away from Rome, and even further away than Constantinople, you needed lasting, embedded military infrastructure. It’s impossible to imagine the Romans invading and holding Britain without bringing the road system with them.

Roman roads are famously straight. Why was this?

They are famously straight, although I wouldn’t say that is totally true 100 per cent of the time they weren’t straight to the point of being pig-headed about it! But they are reasonably straight. It’s basic geometry, isn’t it? The quickest route from point A to point B is a straight line once you’ve considered topography and mountains, etc. For the Romans, it’s all a matter of efficiency.

Learn more about the Romans

How were Roman roads built? What techniques did the Romans use?

It was a lot of backbreaking work that depended on a reliable and well-organised military (by which I don’t necessarily mean people who fight, but actual engineers).

Technologically, the way they built their roads is not particularly revolutionary to us today they are ballast at the bottom and paved stones on top.

If people wanted to explore the UK in terms of visiting Roman roads – or visiting places that have interesting stories associated with the Roman conquest – where should they start?

My favourite Roman spot is down near the south coast, in West Sussex. It’s called Bignor Top and you can see the spire of Chichester Cathedral from it. There’s a Roman villa at Bignor, as well as a National Trust walk. It’s an absolutely stunning bit of the landscape with lots of lovely nature. There is a long, stretch of Roman road that you can walk along that was probably built over an existing Iron Age track way (as the Romans were wont to do, they saw something useful and utilised it). In terms of Roman roads, this is one of my favourite places.

Listen: Miles Russell responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the four centuries of Roman rule in Britain

A lot of other Roman roads today are perhaps less beautiful. The A1, for example! As beautiful as our country is, this is not exactly one of my favourite places. So with a lot of Roman roads, it’s more about the stopping points. I think key places to explore would be Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, and the Roman roads that run laterally from east to west on what was on effectively the most northern frontier of the empire. There are still huge sections of Hadrian’s Wall standing – and there are lots of exciting places dotted along the way. Vindolanda, for example, which is a great Roman auxiliary fort.

I’m also very fond of the towns of the English midlands and north east coast. The stretch between Lincoln and York is one of my favourite parts of the country. It’s visually interesting, and it has these two most incredible Roman settlements at either end. If you told me I could spend a week meandering Lincoln to York, stopping in pubs along the way, I’d be very happy indeed!

What did you learn during the making of your new TV series, Walking Britain’s Roman Roads, that surprised you?

I learned a lot about my own self – and not necessarily in a good way. For example, I made a Roman pot – or at least tried to. It was far worse than anything a child could have produced!

So you can watch me fail at making pottery – and much more. You can watch me fail at enjoying Roman food you can watch me wear a toga and you can watch me strip semi-naked for a Roman massage.

I also do a lot of walking into blinding sleet and rain. We filmed at the beginning of 2020 during a really bad spell weather. It was just awful – so wet and cold – but also felt quite appropriate for the subject. We’re exploring the final frontier of a southern Mediterranean empire in the bleakest weather conditions. It felt right somehow, because that is probably what Roman Britain would have felt like to those legionaries transported hundreds of miles from their nice warm homes.

In all seriousness though, I learnt a lot about the fabric of Roman Britain and how it really is all around us. If you go to the Roman villa at Bignor in Sussex, which I mentioned earlier, you see these incredible mosaics on the floor. Around Britain, there are so many amazing things that are still standing from more than 1,000 years ago. A lot of this is mundane – bits of walls in a city. But it’s all around us you can really feel that Roman presence if you know where to look.

In the series, there’s a moment when we’re in a shopping centre in Gloucester and a nice man from the council lifts a trap door up in the middle of this slightly dated building to unveil the Roman walls of Gloucester, hidden beneath our feet. People are shopping in Superdrug and Claire’s Accessories above – but right below are several metres of vastly thick and incredible imposing Roman walls. So Roman history really is all around us the very fabric of the conquest is there if we just look for it.

Read more from Dan Jones

You’re typically a medieval historian. What was it like filming a show about the Romans?

It was actually one of the most fun TV shows I’ve made. I think historians often feel like they should stay in ‘our lane’ and not venture outside it. But the older I get, the more enthusiastic I am to time travel. I’ve got mad love for the Middle Ages, but it was great fun to be able travel backwards and contextualise this history with another period. I think it’s really important for historians to venture outside of their boxes.

Listen: Dan Jones chats to Rachel Dinning about the secrets of popular history on the HistoryExtra podcast

Dan Jones is a British historian, TV presenter and journalist. He is the presenter of Walking Britain’s Roman Roads, which begins on Wednesday 1 July at 9pm on 5Select.

Jones was speaking to Rachel Dinning, Digital Editorial Assistant at HistoryExtra

Watch the video: From knot theory to quantum topology and beyond