Christians were regularly fed to lions in the arena during the Roman Imperial period.
If one visits the Colosseum, they will see a large plaque above the entrance to the arena, with a prominent cross and an inscription that reads (in Latin:)
The Flavian Amphitheatre, famous for its triumphs and spectacles, dedicated to the gods of the pagans in their impious cult, redeemed by the blood of the martyrs from foul superstition. In order that the memory of their courage is not lost, Pope Benedict XIV, in the jubilee of 1750, the tenth year of his pontificate, had rendered in stone the inscription painted on the walls by Pope Clement X in the jubilee of 1675, but faded through the ravages of time.
Inside, a large metal cross stands above the arena as a memorial to the Christians who died for their faith within. The Vatican has claimed the Colosseum as an icon of the struggle and persecution of Christians under the Romans, and their eventual triumph over paganism.
Being killed by a lion in an arena falls under the method of execution called damnatio ad bestias, or “condemnation by beast”. This was one form of summa supplicia: the severest methods of capital punishment for noxii (condemned criminals).
Other methods included crucifixion (damnatio in crucem),being burnt (vivi crematio; literally “living cremation”), beheading (capitis amputation),hanging (from a fork shaped pole: furcam damnatio),and being put to work in mines or quarries until the backbreaking labour killed the condemned (damnatio ad metalla).
Many of these methods fell in and out of fashion over the centuries and were mostly reserved for slaves and foreigners. Free citizens could also be executed in a similar manner if their crime demanded a severe penalty, but they were usually punished less brutally.
Let’s focus on damnatio ad bestias. Lions fire up our imagination as they did for the Romans: they’re enjoyably large, exotic and best viewed from a safe distance. The Romans spent a fortune importing lions from the furthest corners of the empire to stock their largest and most prestigious amphitheatres, in itself a display of the breadth of Roman dominion and her mastery over nature.
Lions could be used both for hunts with the trained venatores (beast hunters) and for the execution of criminals. But they were far from the only species presented in spectacles. Tigers, bears, leopards, hippos, rhinos, bulls, crocodiles and elephants were all displayed, hunted or used as executioners.
Roman spectators appreciated variety and novelty, so lion after lion would have made for a very dull show. Therefore, if criminals were condemned ad bestias there was no guarantee that a lion would be used. A criminal may be mauled or stomped upon. Some devouring of human flesh may have occurred but was not the ultimate goal, despite Christian texts giving prominence to the idea of being consumed (Kyle 1998, p. 185); rather, mutilation was the aim.
Witnesses such as Strabo and Martial use phrases like lacerated, torn asunder, mauled or mutilated but they do not mention being devoured. Evisceration was entertaining enough for spectators, and once the condemned were dead the action slowed down considerably. Besides, trying to train predators to eat outside of their usual diet is harder than provoking them into aggressive or defensive behaviour, which was achieved by whipping them into a frenzy. Special arena staff called confectores would finish off the condemned by slitting their throats if the animals weren’t sufficiently hostile (Kyle 1998, p. 247).
Lions being trained to eat human flesh is attested only twice. The first was under the reign of Claudius, a fan of watching damnatio ad bestias. Nevertheless, consumption was a step too far for Claudius, who believed it was an inappropriate spectacle for the crowd. He had the lion killed (Cassius Dio 60.13.4). Later, under Marcus Aurelius, another lion was trained to eat humans. Again, Marcus Aurelius disapproved on moral grounds despite the approval of the crowds and refused to emancipate its trainer (Cassius Dio 72.29.3-4). Neither instance specifies that Christians were eaten by the lions.
Some noxii condemned to the beasts were sent into the arena armed with wooden swords and broken swords, others were tied to posts and smeared with blood or covered in animal skins to tempt the predators. Another method was to stand criminals on the roof of an animal cage and release a trapdoor, dropping them inside.
A Christian execution?
So was this method of execution reserved for Christians? Looking at the evidence, no. As well as scarilege, Roman laws and writers mention this as punishment for military deserters, murderers, counterfeiters, runaway slaves and kidnappers.
Whilst the development and frequency of damnatio ad bestias parallels the beginnings and growth of Christianity, this correlation is coincidental. Rather, it matches the development and growing dispersal of permanent spectacle structures capable of holding animals before the spectacles and large enough to provide robust measures of spectator safety. Many people were sent to face the beasts for a myriad of reasons.
There is one early instance of damnatio ad bestias being used for the execution of Christians. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, Nero needed a scapegoat for the catastrophe. The new, small Christian sect living close to where the fire started were an easy target, particularly as they preached that their Christ would rise when Rome was “consumed in flames” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44):
First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.
Subsequent executions of individual Christians were recorded by Christian writers in accounts usually written some time after each death by writers who did not witness them. Naturally, the accounts show considerable bias, but they also show a level of embellishment. For several martyrdoms, the sequence of events changes considerably with subsequent retellings.
As far as historicity goes, these sources should be taken with large pinches of salt. But even if we trust these accounts, few categorically state that lions were the animal chosen to kill specific Christians, if they specify species at all. Jerome, writing about the execution of Ignatius of Antioch, wrote that Ignatius was emboldened when he heard “the roar of the lions” in the arena (Jerome, On Illustrious Men 16). However, Jerome dates this execution to the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE) nearly three centuries before the time of writing (392-393 CE).
Other accounts where species are specified highlight the difficulties of staging damnatio ad bestias. When Perpetua and Felicity were executed, the men were successfully dispatched by “a boar, a bear and a leopard”, whilst the bull who was supposed to gore the women failed to do so, whereupon they were stabbed (Passion of Perpetua and Felicity).
Origin of the trope
So we’ve seen that there were far more animals available in the arsenal of the executioners than simply lions. We’ve also seen that Christians were also killed ad ferrum (by the sword) and by fire. Some were no doubt hanged, crucified, or condemned to hard labour, alongside murderers, thieves and military deserters. In which case, where does the trope of Christians being eaten by lions come from?
Tertullian was a Christian author, prolifically writing in the late second and early third centuries. His influence on the development of Christiantity and the Church is significant. He absolutely hated Roman spectacles, going so far as to write an entire treatise titled On Spectacles about why Christians should never attend plays, chariot racing and gladiatorial displays. In it, he mentions lions four times, three of which in reference to execution.
In one instance, recycled from his Apology, he says that “throw them to the lions!” is the standard chant of Roman spectators wishing harm to Christians. Why specify lions? Why not use africanae, the umbrella term used for big cats (Dodge 2011, p. 52). It could be, as one so averse to the amphitheatre, that Tertullian did not attend frequently enough to witness the diversity of species presented there.
Perhaps he did witness one occasion that featured a lion, one that influenced his beliefs and writings. Or, perhaps he was making a deliberate allusion to the Book of Daniel, in which Daniel is thrown into a lion’s den for worshipping the Hebrew god rather than offering prayers to the Persian king. In Tertullian’s time, Christians were executed for refusing to pay similar lip service to the Imperial Cult and Roman pantheon, whilst staying true to their own rites.
By emphasising lions over the myriad of species the Romans proudly imported for spectacle, Tertullian could accentuate the precedence and religious significance attaching dutiful Christians to damnatio ad bestias, whilst simultaneously condemning the practice as barbaric (Apology 40):
On the other hand the name “faction” may properly be given to those who join to hate the good and honest, who shout for the blood of the innocent, who use as a pretext to defend their hatred the absurdity that they take the Christians to be the cause of every disaster to the State, of every misfortune of the people. If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: “The Christians to the lion!”
Romans, accustomed to a never ending supply of noxii, were not interested enough in individual executions of Christians to record them for posterity, and once they realised that the condemned were actually being elevated and celebrated as martyrs, gradually moved away from executing Christians in public in an effort to deny them notoriety. It should also be noted that Christians did not ban spectacular executions nor religious persecution once they became the primary religious cult in the Empire, despite Tertullian’s disgust.
Many men and women were killed by diverse beasts in Roman arenas for a diverse list of offences. Statistically, at least one of the Christians condemned to damnatio ad bestias was killed by a lion, but the very mundanity of this death from a Roman perspective meant that it has faded into historical obscurity. As for Christian sources, their bias, purpose and dating render them unsatisfactory evidence.
It is for this reason that we have rated this claim as misleading.
- M. Carucci, “The spectacle of justice in the Roman Empire”, in: Olivier Hekster and Koenraad Verboven (eds), The Impact of Justice in the Roman Empire (2017), pp. 212-233.
- H. Dodge, Spectacle in the Roman World (2011).
- M. Humphries, Early Christianity (2006).
- D. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (1998).
- L.L. Thompson, “The martyrdom of Polycarp: death in the Roman games”, Journal of Religion 82.1 (2002), pp. 27-52.