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Wild carnivorous animals emerge from a trap door into the Colosseum. ‘The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883.

Complex Elevator and Trap Door System for Raising Wild Animals into the Colosseum Reconstructed

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Many thousands of people suffered violent deaths in the gladiatorial contests of the Colosseum and other arenas of the ancient Roman empire. Innumerable animals killed and were killed in the blood-thirsty games, forced into the arena through an advanced system of tunnels, cages, lifts, and trap-doors. Now archaeologists have reconstructed this complex system in Rome’s Colosseum, bringing to life the ingenious equipment used in the gory games of the Roman Empire.

The slaughter of innocent beasts, including lions, tigers, giraffes, bulls, elephants, hippopotami, bears, wolves and jaguars, was so bad that populations of some animals dropped precipitously in some of their ranges. Experts have estimated that up to 1 million large carnivores and other beasts died in the Roman games at various venues over the years.

The incredible system invented by the Romans to raise animals into the arena was reconstructed for the U.S. Public Broadcasting System program titled Colosseum: Roman Death Trap . The lift is made of wood and is 7 meters (23 feet) high. It can winch up a beast weighing as much as 300 kg (660 pounds). Elephants, hippopotami, and other larger animals were delivered to the arena via another ingress.

Reconstructed elevator once used to raise wild animals into the arena of the Colosseum. Screenshot from ‘Colosseum: Roman Death Trap – Releasing the Wolf’.

Reconstructed elevator once used to raise wild animals into the arena of the Colosseum. Screenshot from ‘Colosseum: Roman Death Trap – Releasing the Wolf’.

Reconstructed platform showing how wild animals were once raised into the arena of the Colosseum. Screenshot from ‘Colosseum: Roman Death Trap – Releasing the Wolf’.

Reconstructed platform showing how wild animals were once raised into the arena of the Colosseum. Screenshot from ‘Colosseum: Roman Death Trap – Releasing the Wolf’.

To inaugurate the elevator in the week of June 5, 2015, the crew released a wolf into the arena via the lift. It took eight people to crank the shaft and lift the elevator. In ancient Rome, slaves would have been used for this labor.

"It was the first time that a wild animal had been released into the Colosseum in 1,500 years," said the director of the PBS documentary, Gary Glassman. "I would love to have used a lion, but there were obvious safety issues involved. In the end we chose a wolf because it is the symbol of Rome. One of the reasons we are attracted to the Colosseum is because of the incredible violence that went on here," said the director, standing in blazing sunshine as the trap door to the device opened up. The question it poses is, how could such an advanced culture have staged such bloody spectacles? The Colosseum is a snapshot in stone, a physical embodiment of the culture of Rome."

There were 28 lifts in the arena in ancient times. Hungry, frightened animals would spring out and be faced with either victims, gladiators or gladiator-victims. If the animals were reluctant to fight, they would be goaded into it by men called bestiari.

“The number of lifts here was more than in any other Roman amphitheater and Roman sources talk of 100 lions appearing together,” Rossela Rea, director of the Colosseum, told International Business Times .

Archaeologists rebuilt the lift from ancient texts and clues from the Colosseum itself. They studied bronze fittings, still-visible rope marks on stone and holes carved for wooden posts to see how the ancients built them.

The Colosseum in Rome once sported 28 lifts for raising animals into the grand arena.

The Colosseum in Rome once sported 28 lifts for raising animals into the grand arena. Source: BigStockPhoto

The Colosseum, the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire, measures 620 by 513 feet (190 by 155 meters). It was a free-standing structure constructed of stone and concrete. All other Roman amphitheaters were built into hillsides for support. The Emperor Vespasian ordered it built on the site of Nero’s burned palace around 70 to 72 A.D. His son, Emperor Titus, was in power when work on the Colosseum was completed in 80 A.D.

Titus dedicated that the Colosseum would have 100 days of games, feasts, public executions and naval battles for which the arena was temporarily flooded.

The morning it opened, the crowd saw more than 10,000 animals, including wolves, crocodiles, giraffes and hippopotami. They were paraded before the crowd, some dressed as famous people.

Rome’s Colosseum.

Rome’s Colosseum. Source: BigStockPhoto

Gladiatorial contests began in the afternoon. The fights started off semi-fake, like modern professional wrestling matches , with blunt swords or wooden training swords. But soon the matches turned brutal, and the fighters often sustained horrendous injuries. Occasionally, sponsors would pay extra to stage a fight to the death. The crowd drank watered down wine and ate lunch during the games. The carnage was so awful prisoners killed themselves before they were scheduled to fight. Some species of animals were nearly wiped out during the spectacles.

Featured image: Wild carnivorous animals emerge from a trap door into the Colosseum. ‘The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883. ( Wikimedia Commons ).

By Mark Miller

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