Dusty Phrases

Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.

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Damnatio ad bestias


Condemnation to beasts

This was a type of capital punishment in ancient Rome. You can understand it more clearly, in English, as “thrown to the lions.” From Wiki:

Damnatio ad bestias (Latin for “condemnation to beasts”) was a form of Roman capital punishment where the condemned person was killed by wild animals, usually lions or other big cats. This form of execution, which first appeared during the Roman Republic around the 2nd century BC, had been part of a wider class of blood sports called Bestiarii.

The act of damnatio ad bestias was considered a common form of entertainment for the lower class citizens of Rome (plebeians). Killing by wild animals, such as Barbary lions, formed part of the inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre in AD 80. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, this penalty was also applied to the worst of criminals, runaway slaves, and Christians.

The exact purpose of the early damnatio ad bestias is not known and might have been a religious sacrifice rather than a legal punishment, especially in the regions where lions existed naturally and were revered by the population, such as Africa, India and other parts of Asia. For example, Egyptian mythology had a chimeric Underworld demon, Ammit, who devoured the souls of exceptionally sinful humans, as well as other lion-like deities, such as Sekhmet, who, according to legend, almost devoured all of humanity soon after her birth. There are also accounts of feeding lions and crocodiles with humans, both dead and alive, in Ancient Egypt and Libya.

Similar condemnations are described by historians of Alexander the Great‘s campaigns in Central Asia. A Macedonian named Lysimachus, who spoke before Alexander for a person condemned to death, was himself thrown to a lion, but overcame the beast with his bare hands and became one of Alexander’s favorites. In northern Africa, during the Mercenary War, Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca threw prisoners to the beasts, whereas Hannibal forced Romans captured in the Punic Wars to fight each other, and the survivors had to stand against elephants.

Lions were rare in Ancient Rome and human sacrifice was banned there by Numa Pompilius in the 7th century BC, according to legend. Damnatio ad bestias appeared there not as a spiritual practice but rather a spectacle. In addition to lions, other animals were used for this purpose, including dogs, wolves, bears, leopards, tigers, hyenas, and crocodiles. It was combined with gladiatorial combat and was first featured at the Roman Forum and then transferred to the amphitheaters.

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