In Apuleius’ ancient novella, the Metamorphoses, we glimpse a misbegotten plan to stage an animal hunt that could go terribly wrong. As the narrator recounts, a short-sighted publicity stunt could be ruined by environmental factors and disease:
The bears, wearied by their long captivity, emaciated by the summer heat, and enervated by idle inactivity, succumbed to a sudden epidemic, so that scarcely one remained. You could see the hulks of half-dead beasts cast up like wrecks in street after street. (Apuleius, Metam. 4.14)
This scene, demonstrating a futile effort by the ambitious to display their wealth, should nevertheless be taken seriously. It testifies to pervasive and senseless destruction of wild animals in the ancient Roman world.
Wild animal hunts in the arena—called venationes—were an integral part of Roman games. All manner of beasts were destroyed in these games, and the more exotic the better: lions, tigers, elephants, leopards, hippos, bears, and even crocodiles. Most often animals faced other animals, but human gladiators could be involved as well. These games entertained the people and buttressed Rome’s claims to control the universe. At the same time, they were intended to bring honor to those who staged them, exemplifying wealth and power. In my book, Apocalyptic Ecology, I utilize venationes as part of the Roman world against which John of Patmos reacted in writing the New Testament book of Revelation.
Venationes destroyed a mind-boggling number of animals. For example, our sources claim that at the festival opening of the Colosseum in Rome some 9,000 animals were killed. A few decades later in 108 CE, the emperor Trajan held contests that killed approximately 11,000 animals. A letter from the Republican politician and orator Cicero to his friend Marcus Caelius Rufus suggest how these games might devastate animal populations in the ancient world. Rufus wanted to hold spectacular games in Rome, so he wrote to Cicero (then the governor in Cilicia), to ask for some panthers. Cicero wrote back to say that he sent out his best hunters but they came back empty handed:
About the panthers, the usual hunters are doing their best on my instructions. But the creatures are in remarkably short supply, and those we have are said to be complaining bitterly because they are the only beings in my province who have to fear designs against their safety . . . Whatever comes to hand will be yours, but what that amounts to I simply do not know." (Cicero, Letters to Friends, 90)
Similarly, the geographer Strabo records the impact Roman trapping incursions into North had on the Numidians. He says that these people had always lived a nomadic lifestyle, but Roman domination and the destruction of the region’s wildlife made their traditional way of life unsustainable. They became instead farmers and citizens (Strabo, Geogr. 17.3.15). Further evidence comes from Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, in which he tells a story about Pompey and his defeat of the Numidians in Africa. After defeating the enemy, Pompey wanted to make the people and the animals feel a healthy fear and respect of the Romans:
He marched through the country for many days, conquered all who came in his way, and made potent and terrible again the Barbarians’ fear of the Romans, which had reached a low ebb. Nay, he declared that even the wild beasts in African lairs must not be left without experience of the courage and strength of the Romans, and therefore spent a few days in hunting lions and elephants (Plutarch, Pompey, 12).
Suffice it to say, Rome’s treatments of wild animals entertained the populace and also served their propagandistic desires. A lion or hippo at the center of the arena demonstrated concretely the power of the emperor and the wealth of those who supported such games.
What does all of this have to do with the book of Revelation? First, there is no doubt that John (the presumed author of the Apocalypse) would have been aware of the venationes. They were pervasive. In the west, they were held in newly built arenas. In the east where John lived, we often find evidence that older Greek theaters were retrofitted with walls and netting to protect the spectators. John’s Apocalypse has long been coordinated with Roman propaganda. His Apocalypse offers a contest of imaginations with Rome over who controls the universe. If venationes were a noticeable part of that world, we might find some hints of it in Revelation.
Therefore, I find it no accident that animals dominate John’s first extended vision of the heavens (4:1-11). With faces like a lion, ox, eagle, and human, these four represent all living creatures. Furthermore, the creatures take the lead in praising God; the elders follow. There is no special place given to the humans here at all. These details may not seem significant, but in a context in which tens of thousands of animals were being destroyed, devastating their natural populations, John’s claims that his God controls the universe become a powerful counter-ideology.
John’s response is more specific in Revelation 6:1-8, which unleashes the four horsemen of the Apocalypse:
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!.” I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword . . . When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!” I looked and there was a pale green horse! It’s rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth (Rev 6:1-4, 7-8 NRSV).
These horses and their riders, through a series of divine passives, devastate the earth, in line with Ezekiel 14:21:
For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four deadly acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild animals, and pestilence, to cut off humans and animals from it (Ezek 14:21 NRSV).
In addition to resonance with Israelite prophecy, the trappings of destruction in Revelation 6 come from a Roman context that would have likely been familiar to the book’s audience. The pax romana is taken away (6:3); a bow and crown represent earthly authority (6:2); a sword recalls a form of Roman capital punishment, the ius gladii (6:4); and the scales (6:5-6) take us into the realm of economic dominance. The final horse, the pale green one (followed by Death and Hades), kills “with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth” (6:8).The wild animals here perhaps invert John’s experience of the venationes, suggesting that those things which the empire destroys will be turned loose on the earth and its inhabitants. This would be revenge for all of God’s creatures who are currently suffering.
When we read the book of Revelation in the midst of our modern ecological crisis, it might be easy to think that it contributes to the problem. A text that depicts the earth and the entire cosmos awash in divine violence can hardly be seen as ecologically helpful or insightful. John’s visions of the heavens may lead people to create hell for the earth. Our opinion might change, however, if we stop to consider “what this text was going through,” (a suggestion from Beverly Roberts Gaventa in her recent SBL presidential address). Roman propaganda that claimed control of the universe and pervasive entertainment that destroyed God’s creation shaped John’s worldview. At just this point, I find Steven Friesen instructive:
John’s Apocalypse is not the main source of the problems facing humanity. It is one of the texts that has been useful in the creation of these problems, but it is also a text from within the western tradition that challenges the very foundations of modernity (Reading Revelation in the Ruins, 215).
The book of Revelation comes to us from a distant time and place and it challenges its readers to think about the ways in which unthinking patterns of behavior, unwitting participation in empire, will have drastic consequences for those most vulnerable. Seeing the venationes as part of Revelation’s context allows us to comprehend how John extends his critique even to the treatment of animals.
I titled my book “Apocalyptic Ecology” because John gives his apocalyptic response to his Roman context partly because of environmental devastation. John envisions a complete break from the ways that empire tramples the natural world. Something wholly new must be mustered. Since this position resembles what many leaders in ecology and sustainability advocate today, it is my hope that Revelation’s bizarre visions and contemplation of an alternate future can stimulate fresh thinking about ourselves and our world.
Micah Kiel is a professor in the theology department at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. He is the author of Apocalyptic Ecology: The Book of Revelation, the Earth, and the Future, published by Liturgical Press.