In 79BC the victorious general Gnaeus Pompeius returned from Africa having defeated a rebellion with remarkable speed and efficiency. On his return to Rome, Pompey was heaped with praise by the dictator Sulla, who gave him the surname ‘ Magnus, meaning ‘The Great’. In celebration of his victory, Pompey announced that he was to put on a series of games.
At first Sulla tried to stop Pompey fearing that the increasingly popular general, although a firm supporter of his, might gain too much favour from the mob and become a rival. Sulla invoked an old law stating that a Roman who did not belong to the Patrician class, as Pompey did not, could not stage games unless he had first held a senior government post. Pompey was 35 years old at the time and had spent his career in the army, not in government. Pompey had a clear sense of the importance of the mob of Roman citizens and appealed to them directly, over the heads of the magistrates and the law. Sulla gave way with grace, though he later cut Pompey from his will, and the great games of Pompey went ahead.
Pompey announced that his games were to be so lavish that they could not be held in the Forum with the crowd watching from temporary wooden stands. Instead Pompey commandeered the Circus Maximus. This vast stadium was built for chariot racing and could seat over 100,000 people at this date. Although the seating was ready made, Pompey put men to work, this time erecting iron gratings and other barriers between the crowd and the floor of the race track. Gladiators were so heavily guarded that there was little likliehood that they would attack the crowd or seek to escape, so the citizens wondered what the barriers were for. Pompey had a surprise.
During his campaign in North Africa, Pompey had been forced to face war elephants. These animals were highly trained and would attack cavalrymen or infantry. They could be ordered to trample any living creature which got in their path, or to use their trunks to hurl victims high into the air, to crash to their deaths. Even the elephants’ tusks were brought into play to spear unfortunate victims or to crush them against the ground. Over a century earlier, Hannibal had brought a handful of elephants to Italy over the Alps, but it was in North Africa that the Romans had had to face war elephants in any great numbers.
Pompey had brought 20 of these formidable animals to Rome to take part in his spectacular games. To face these ferocious beasts, Pompey had two groups of men. The first were a band of unfortunates who were to be little more than victims - they were probably condemned criminals. These men were given weapons and armour before being sent into the Circus Maximus but, without any sort of training, were no match for the war elephants. They were swiftly killed.
The second group Pompey had to hand were highly skilled hunters from the nomadic Getuli tribe of North Africa. These men had been recruited by King Bocchus of Mauretania, a country on the northwestern edge of the Sahara. The Getuli were famed in North Africa for their ability to kill or capture elephants, but this was unknown in Rome. To the tens of thousands of Romans watching Pompey’s games the foreigners appeared to be just another group of men being sent to the slaughter.
As the elephants roamed the bloodstained arena, the Getuli moved in on one individual. As the elephant rushed forwards, the Getuli pretended to flee, but a single man stood his ground. The Romans fully expected him to be reduced to a mangled pulp in seconds. Instead, the hunter threw his heavy hunting spear so that it struck the elephant just below the eye, smashing through the skull bones, which were thin at that spot, and penetrating the brain. The elephant fell dead on the spot. The crowd cheered.
Next the Getuli surrounded a lone elephant and began running around it. As the bewildered animal tried to concentrate on the swiftly moving men, the Getuli hurled spears at its feet, literally nailing it to the arena floor so that it could not move. A hunter then closed in and slit the elephants throat. The crowd cheered again.
The Getuli tried the same trick on the next elephant, but this one tore its feet free, and made a grab for the hunters. It got hold of a shield, which it tore from the hunter’s arm and threw aside. Now the Getuli had to run in fear. The crowd loved it and roared with laughter.
Pompey, prominently seated in the stands, must have beamed. His games were proving a huge success and popularity was bound to follow. Then things went wrong.
After a few more elephants had been killed, the survivors gathered into a herd at the centre of the Circus Maximus. The Getuli hunters tried to separate individuals out from the herd, but the elephants were having none of it. As one, they suddenly charged forwards, straight towards the crowds of Romans citizens. The charging beasts crashed into the iron grills, which buckled and partly collapsed. Quickly the Getuli moved in to hamstring and cut down the leading elephants.
The few surviving beasts retreated to the centre of the Circus Maximus. There they put on a remarkable display, recorded by an ancient writer. “The beasts withdrew from the fight covered with wounds. They walked about with their trunks raised towards heaven, weeping so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did not do so by mere chance but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa and calling on the gods to avenge them. It was recalled that they had refused to board the ships before they received a pledge from their handlers that they would not be harmed at all in Rome.”
The crowd, frightened by the elephants’ charge and by the risk of sudden death if the elephants had got through the barriers, began to curse Pompey. They blamed him for not taking proper precautions, and some demanded that the surviving elephants should be allowed to live and be sent back to Africa.
Somewhat chastened, Pompey the Great went back to the army and postponed his political ambitions for another 8 years. His idea of staging animal hunts was, however, a daring one. It was to be copied by other politicians eager to court publicity and fame, though they took great care to ensure the safety of the crowd.