Beast hunts and fights were a favorite entertainment at Rome from the middle of the 2d century b.c. and subsequently throughout the cities of the Roman world. Gladiators—who were slaves—and criminals were required to fight various kinds of ferocious wild animals in the amphitheater. The gladiators often survived, but criminals, who were under the formal sentence, datio or damnatio ad bestias, were doomed to die in the arena. This criminal sentence was imposed on men guilty of tampering with coinage, of parricide, murder, or treason, and to some extent also on prisoners of war. In the age of the persecutions, Christians, who were accused of treason for not worshiping the emperor, were often condemned ad bestias, as is evident from numerous references to this form of punishment in the passions of the martyrs and in the works of early Christian writers. As the Christians were unpopular, the cry, Christiani ad leones, was often raised by spectators. Contrary, however, to the modern widespread view, the majority of the early Christian martyrs did not perish in the arena, but were executed by the sword.
Bibliography: h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol h. leclerq and h. i. marrou (Paris 1907–53) 1:449–462, with full presentation of the literary, epigraphical, and archeological evidence. a. pillet, Étude sur la "damnatio ad bestias" (Lille 1902).
[m. r. p. mcguire]