Gladiator Arenas, Wildlife History, and Ancient Desertification.
At its peak, the Roman Empire encompassed most of continental Europe, much of western Asia, northern Africa, and the Mediterranean islands. The long and triumphant reign of its first emperor, Augustus, marked an age of peace, however, the empire’s decline and fall by fifth century A.D. was one of the most dramatic and gruesome implosions in the history of human civilization— an implosion that continues to carry consequences now, even into the 21st century.
Speaking of dramatic and gruesome, here’s a fun factoid: Since the hard-packed ground of the old Roman amphitheaters could not soak up all of the blood spilled on it in during the “Gladiator Games”, the ground was covered with absorbent sand so the contestants would not slip and fall during battles. It was this arena, the Latin word for “sand” that became the general term for shows, and now today’s sports stadiums.
Ancient Romans frequented these arenas for “entertainment”, where they could see the gladiators fighting each other to the death. During the rule of Augustus, the games lasted for sixteen days. By the time of Claudius’ rule (50 A.D.), there were 93 games a year. Then the games increased to 123 days under Trajan, and to 230 under Marcus Aurelius. Arena fights were a national institution, and without the games the national economy might have collapsed. Millions of people were dependent on the events at the arenas for their livelihood—from gladiator trainers, to contractors, promotors, to concessioners, to businesspeople of all kinds.
Each of the amphitheaters staged hundreds of thousands of fights… and not just fights between gladiators. Fights were also staged between wild animals: elephants, rhinos, buffalo, tigers, bears, leopards, wild boar, tigers, and even aurochs— progenitors of the modern cow— taken from the far ends of the Roman Empire, in Northern Africa. For the 100 day show to commemorate the opening of the Flavian Amphitheater, now known as the Colosseum, Emperor Titus killed 9,000 animals. In the same arena, Emperor Trajan held one set of games lasting 122 days where 10,000 wild animals were killed. In one event alone, it was recorded that 5,000 animals were killed in just one day.
In 93 B.C, in the Circus Maximus arena, Dictator Sulla presented 100 lions. Then Julius Caesar presented four hundred lions, then Pompey with 600 lions, and an additional 410 leopards for fighting Gaetulians. Then, after Trajan’s victory over the Dacians, 11 thousand animals were killed in Circus Maximus according to history books.
Now, that’s a lot of wild animals— predator species, no less— to be killed for bloodthirsty sport and celebration. As you can imagine, this caused a bit of ecosystem disruption. After a period of time, entire districts under Roman rule were completely denuded of wild animals to supply the arenas. However, on a good note, the clearing of entire landmasses of predator species made farming possible in those areas!
That was a joke.
Aftermath: The Sahara Desert
More Fun Factoids: Did you know that some of the grain which supported the Roman Empire was grown in the deep and fertile soils of the now Sahara Desert? This statement means two things: 1) The Sahara was fertile for a period of time and 2) They used till agriculture to grow cereal crops.
At the end of the last Ice Age, the Sahara Desert—which spans 3,000 miles across northern Africa—was just as dry and uninviting as it is today. But sandwiched between these two periods of extreme dryness were a few millennia of plentiful rainfall and lush vegetation. The now Sahara desert was once home to thousands of animals that were capured for games in the arenas. Scientists often suggests that dying grasslands were to blame for the re-desertification of the once plentiful Sahara Desert. I think they’re right. Almost. When the Romans selectively extirpated large predators to appear in the arena, some unintended consequences occurred, and grasslands were certainly casualties in the ecosystem equation. To explain this further, I’m going to point to a well-observed ecological disturbance at Yellowstone National Park.
When Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, gray wolf populations were already in decline. Unfortunately, the new national park did not provide protection for predator species like gray wolves, and government-sanctioned predator control programs essentially eradicated the gray wolf from Yellowstone by 1926.
Biologists at Yellowstone had the rare opportunity to document the cascade of effects following the removal of a species, and their reintroduction back into the ecosystem. What biologists did note, was that after the gray wolves were eradicated, the elk population boomed. Over a period of decades, the elk populations grew so large that they began to overgraze new-growth vegetation, and plant species like aspen and cottonwood became critically diminished. When the ecosystem equation changed, the whole ecosystem changed with it. Numbers of coyotes boomed as well, which in turn devastated populations red fox, and pronghorn sheep.
The idea of wolf reintroduction was first brought to Congress in 1966 by biologists who were concerned with the critically high elk populations in Yellowstone and the ecological damages to the land from excessively large herds. By 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed, paving the way for the reintroduction of the gray wolves back into Yellowstone. The reintroduction was not without pushback, or surprises for scientists, government agencies, and park managers alike.
However, after decades of political red tape, wolves were finally reintroduced to Yellowstone Park. As an apex, keystone species, gray wolves exert a disproportionately high ecological function and impact. In fact, the foraging habits of the elk also changed with the wolves’ reintroduction. Out of the fear of being attacked in areas where they could easily be predated, the behavioral change of the elk triggered a cascade of ecological effects on everything from the beavers, the birds, the fish, and even stream systems – and helped lead directly to improving the suffering populations of aspen and other tree species and vegetation. These changes ultimately began to attract more biodiversity within Yellowstone National Park, as other conspicuously missing animals reappeared, like mice, bears, and even American bald eagles.
This beautifully done video details the ecological changes and discoveries made by biologists after the reintroduction of the wolves. It tells a story that words alone cannot, and it never gets old.
Back to the Roman Empire.
Following the harrowing decline of predator species due to the predation of the ancient bloodthirsty Romans, it’s quite possible that the area saw a significant increase in megaherbivores which over time resulted in overgrazed land— similarly to what occurred in Yellowstone National Park. Overgrazing can damage root systems of vegetation, which in turn causes desertification. This could account for the pollen and radiocarbon dating reports which suggest that the redesertification of the Sahara was related to a decline in the grasslands that occurred only within the past 5,000 years.
The Agricultural Empire Strikes Again.
However, I suspect it was a 1-2 punch environmental KO, because during that time, the area also saw the beginnings of agriculture.
For tens of thousands of years, till agriculture has been a disaster for the natural world, with topsoil and biodiversity the most frequent casualties. Productive, and fertile land becomes denuded and processes of desertification occurs. Famine occurs. Loss of biodiversity occurs. The Desert sands which have now interred monuments and pyramids of the once flourishing African civilizations, occurs.
And yet, this pattern of selectively removing apex predators and causing ecological disruption, facilitating till agriculture, and actively seeking to remove animals from lands to allow ‘rest’ occurs. Though overgrazing is detrimental to the lands, over-resting is not without consequence, either. The same processes of desertification occurs on land that has been over-rested, like in the Grand Canyon National Park, where it is policy to kill booming populations of wild burros on sight, after a similar conquest to eradicate coyotes and wolves occurred in the early 1900s. Animals play important ecological roles of fertilization, and are necessary to fortify the soils with nutrients to allow vegetation to thrive. However, a delicate balance must be stricken, a dance between predator and prey must be well-choreographed to ensure the vitality of the lands. Like in Yellowstone National Park, reintroduction of predator species which facilitate herding and bunching, and deter overgrazing, must occur to promote biodiversity.
As a result of poorly choreographed land management, from both agricultural systems and losses of predators, nearly one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion, and in the United States alone we have lost three-quarters of our agricultural biodiversity in the last 100 years. Extinction is currently 10 thousand times that of the background, historical rate. The world is turning into a desert, and we’ve yet to recognize this ages old pattern in human behavior which precipitated it.
Conservationists and environmentalists alike suggest that we rely on more till agriculture to feed the ailing planet, in place of animal agriculture—a plan which is doomed, and was always doomed, to fail. What’s more, the blame of our ailing land has been placed on animals, all animals, without recognizing the historical patterns which would suggest that these conclusions and suggestions for land management are illogical at best, and dangerous at worst.
It beehooves us to take a closer inspection into the events of Yellowstone National Park. It behooves us to look closely at the history of the Sahara Desert which wasn’t always a desert, like so many of us believe today. It behooves us to respect that when the 100 now extinct genera of animals that once roamed the Americas were lost— likely due to selective extermination of predator species like the Saber-toothed Tiger, American lions, and American Cheetahs followed by till agriculture that damaged the prairie grasses of the Midwest—the 1920’s Dust Bowl Era was just another natural progression of a tale as old as human civilization. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, yet surprisingly, it was.
Topsoil is, and always was, the cornerstone of the prosperity of nations. It acts as a buffer against drought, is a carbon sink, and whether we like to admit it or not— the health of the soil, animals, plants, and people are all intertwined. If we degrade it as we are doing, and as we have done, then Nature’s capital will lose its innate resilience. And if it loses its resilience, then it’s only a matter of time before human economic capital and economic systems lose their resilience as well.
We’ve skated by on technological advances, like the use of augmented nutrients from synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides. Unfortunately, these too carry an ecological cost. They are quick-fixes and temporary solutions to a more serious problem. The problem is, as I see it, that we have yet to understand our agricultural issues from a historical perspective. Once we do, we may not suffer from the doom and gloom scenario that prevails in environmentalist circles today. To reverse our course and find a truly sustainable agriculture, we have to take our cues from the history books, not the conjecture of illogical conclusions of environmentalists… The same well-educated environmentalists who saw fit to remove the gray wolf from Yellowstone National Park, the same miseducated environmentalists who sought to obstruct their re-entry. The same environmentalists who, despite the continued degradation of the Grand Canyon National Park continue with current ideologies of allowing the land to “rest” by removing predator species, and indigenous species of herbivores to live on the land and perform their ecological roles.
There is a way out. We aren’t totally screwed yet. We can keep history from repeating itself and we can learn from our mistakes… But that’s for the next post.