'Lion Capturing' was the worst military work detail in history
Work details and additional duties are a part of military life — always have been and likely always will be.
We’ve all been on a terrible detail. Some of us get stuck vacuuming the flightline or doing some other kind of FOD cleanup.
Others have it worse.
In Basic Training, I was on the Day Room Crew, which meant I had to chase dust bunnies for a half hour twice a day. It’s much better than having to chase real bunnies. Or lions. I wouldn’t want to chase real lions, either.
Luckily for me, that is not (usually) a detail that happens in the modern U.S. military.
In the Roman Legions, however, it was a fairly common practice. While many are aware of the Roman propensity for forcing people to fight animals of all kinds for fun and profit, few actually consider the logistics of getting animals to Rome – or who catches those animals.
In 2002, The Guardian newspaper talked to Roger Wilson of Nottingham University about where these animals originated and who set out to take them alive. Archeologists discovered the logistical network through a series of bone fragments, mosaic art, and written records dating back to the days of the Roman Empire.
Interestingly enough, some of these troops weren’t on a special work detail. This was their job.
The troops caught lions in what is today known as Armenia. They captured bears and boars from Northern Europe as well as elephants; giraffes; ostriches; leopards; and hippos from the African frontiers. All of them had to be subdued without spears, knives, or even tranquilizers. The legions could not risk killing the animals.
“Such was the ferocity of these beasts that their capture demanded special skills and the creation of a special post. An inscription in Cologne talks of the capture of 50 bears in a six-month period,” Wilson told The Guardian.
Wilson also said that posting men at the empire’s frontier to capture exotic animals was a good way to keep them occupied. It may have taken the troops quite a bit of time. But like modern forces, they could be very resourceful in completing the mission.
They would beat drums and drive the animals toward legions carrying nets. Sometimes they trapped the animals in deep pits. Other times they wore sheepskins and constantly distracted the animals until they dropped from exhaustion.
The troops would be constantly on the move, as the games required a seemingly unending number of animals. In the year 80 alone — the opening days of the Colosseum in Rome — Romans used more than 5,000 animals in the games.
When the animals were killed, they were likely thrown into mass graves with humans killed in the games.