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What is the most disturbing fact you know about the ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations and their culture?

I wrote an answer to a similar question a couple weeks ago:

Garrett Ryan's answer to What are the most disturbing facts about Ancient Rome that most people do not know?

But here’s a new answer, again about ancient Rome:

Bestiality in the Colosseum

A day of games at the Colosseum customarily had three parts: beast hunts in the morning, gladiatorial combats in the afternoon, and executions at midday.

The executions were carried out in various ways. Feeding prisoners to ravenous animals was a popular option:

Occasionally, prisoners were forced to reenact myths, in which they played a character who died at the end. In his Life of Nero, for example, Suetonius mentions (12.2) how a prisoner impersonating Icarus (who famously flew too close to the sun) was dropped from a great height, spattering the emperor with blood.

On at least two occasions, an even more disturbing myth was reenacted in the arena: Pasiphae and the Bull.

According to usual version of this myth, Poseidon sent a beautiful bull to King Minos of Crete, assuming that Minos would sacrifice the bull in his honor. Minos, however, failed to do so. Enraged, Poseidon cursed Minos’ wife Pasiphae to fall madly in love with the bull. Poor Pasiphae was so smitten that she ordered the great inventor Daedalus to make her a wooden cow body, so that she could have intercourse with the bull. Deadalus, who was apparently not paid to ask questions, fashioned a body, which was then wheeled out to the bull’s pasture with Pasiphae inside. The bull did his thing; and nine months later, the Minotaur was born.

Pasiphae (left), Daedalus (center) and the wooden cow (right):

This myth was first reenacted in the arena during the reign of Nero, when (Suetonius tells us) “a bull mounted Pasiphae, who was concealed in a wooden image of a heifer - or at least many of the spectators thought so” (12.2).

Suetonius seems unsure whether there actually was a woman inside the statue. Since Nero is also reported to have lighted his gardens with human torches, however, (Tacitus, Annals 15.44), such cruel and unusual punishment certainly wasn’t beyond him.

The story of Pasiphae was reenacted again in the reign of Domitian, this time (apparently) for real. The poet Martial’s Liber Spectaculorum, a series of epigrams on games held in the recently-opened Colosseum, records (Epigram 6) that a condemned female prisoner was forced to play the part of Pasiphae with a live bull.

Kathleen Coleman’s sober commentary on the Liber Spectaculorum (pp. 64–5) explains how a bull could be induced to mount a wooden cow (the secret, apparently, is cow urine), and concludes that, if a woman actually were to couple with a bull, it would likely be a death sentence, particularly if she was exposed to the bull’s thrashing hooves.

So, it is quite possible that women were crushed or bled to death beneath rutting bulls as thousands of spectators cheered.

It’s hard to get much more disturbing than that.


Those intrigued by Roman entertainment (which wasn’t always this horrifying) might be interested in my page on the Colosseum, which goes into more detail on the gladiatorial combats and beast hunts.

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