Say what you will about violence in American football, but the Coliseum of ancient Rome may have been the single most barbaric sporting venue in human history. Some of the showdowns witnessed there were so ferocious that historians still talk about them today.
1. Elephant Blinds Rhino
Everyone associates the Coliseum with gladiators, but animal-on-animal clashes were also popular spectacles. Prior to the reign of emperor Claudius, a few witnesses recalled a particularly gory battle staged between an elephant and an enraged rhinoceros which the former won after picking up a broken spear-point with its trunk and gouging the eyes out of its horned adversary.
2. Carpophorus’ Slaughter
A bestiarius, whose specialty involved fighting wild animals, could expect to have a short career even by gladiator standards. Among the most famous was Carpophorus, a frequent dispatcher of lions, bears, and leopards, whose personal best involved killing 20 beasts in a single battle.
3. Flamma’s Final Bout
Talk about stamina. Flamma’s love for the ring was so strong that he rejected freedom offers made by impressed Roman politicians not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times! The former Syrian soldier fought in 33 clashes before finally meeting his end on the sands of the Coliseum at age 30. By then, his popularity was so extensive that his face was being used on a Roman coin.
4. Heckler Gets Disemboweled
Widely cited as one of Rome’s most ruthless emperors, Domitian’s (51-96 CE) sadism was greatly appeased by the Coliseum, which he endowed with lavish improvements and expanded seating. He approached the games with deadly seriousness, as one unfortunate citizen learned. After the man jeered a favorite gladiator, Domitian had him dragged into the center of the arena and thrown to a gang of ravenous dogs, which swiftly tore him limb from limb.
5. Titus’ Epic Naval Battle
In a marvel of theatrical engineering, the Coliseum was periodically flooded and filled with ships to re-enact oceanic conflicts. Historian Dio Cassius had the following to say of a particularly notorious one arranged by the emperor Titus in 80 CE: “Titus filled the arena with water… He also brought in people on ships, who engaged in a sea fight there [in] a naval battle between three thousand men.”
6. Commodus Plays Giant-Slayer
Commodus is best known for having been portrayed as a psychopathic madman by Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator. While the movie’s historical accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, the emperor’s savagery in real life was nothing to sneeze at. Seeing Hercules as his personal idol, Commodus made several appearances as a gladiator in the Coliseum, winning a series of obviously-rigged confrontations. Perhaps his most brutal display came when he tied a number of injured citizens together before clubbing them to death, pretending they were giants all the while.
7. Priscus versus Verus
Here’s a happy ending for a change. In the first century CE, the poet Martial recorded the most detailed account of a gladiator battle known to modern historians. During a series of games held by Titus, the pair of gladiators battled for hours before simultaneously laying down their weapons and surrendering to each other. Touched by their sportsmanship, Titus granted the pair their freedom as the crowd cheered uproariously. In Martial’s words (aimed at the emperor), “Under no prince but thee, Caesar, has this chanced: while two fought, each was victor.”