Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview

6

ARENAS AND EATING: CORPSES AND CARCASSES AS FOOD?

And I like eating what I go after.

(President George Bush, 1990)

The issue of disposal extends beyond pits, fire, and other usual answers. Another possibility to be considered, another way to dispose of human and animal flesh, is consumption or ingestion by humans or animals. Was any significant portion of the tons of human and animal flesh produced by Roman spectacles disposed of by being eaten by men or animals before or after removal from the arenas?

Anthropologically, the acquisition, sharing, and eating of animal (or human) flesh have always been profoundly symbolic. At the basest level, meat is meat, and some societies have practiced cannibalism as a gesture of triumph, a form of vengeance, or a way to absorb the strength of foes. 1 Greeks and Romans, however, made a clear distinction between animal flesh as a highly desired food and human flesh as potentially miasmatic and taboo as food. 2 As noted above, apparently some of the blood of men killed in the arena in certain festivals was sacrificed to Jupiter, and some Romans drank such blood as a potion believed to cure epilepsy. 3 There are pagan rhetorical references to (auto)cannibalism and to an omnivorous ogre, but we need not speculate that Romans intentionally and directly ate human arena flesh. 4 In response to Roman accusations that Christians were cannibalistic, and working within a broader discourse on human sacrifice, Christians charged Romans with indirect cannibalism; but Romans 'consumed' human arena victims only in a metaphorical sense. 5 Yet to what degree did Rome 'feed' Christians and others to beasts?


Ad bestias-consumption or abuse?

The common modern notion that starved carnivores feasted on and wholly ingested human victims in the amphitheater derives from Christian and literary images. As Jonah was swallowed whole by the beastly whale, only to be saved, Christian martyrs were said to be 'swallowed' by devilish beasts,

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