THE ROSE-TINTED MENAGERIE
1. THE BLOOD-RED MENAGERIE
1.1 The Circus in Ancient History
‘The people that once bestowed commands, consulships,
legions and all else, now meddles no more and
eagerly longs for just two things, panem et circenses.’
~ Juvenal (60-130 AD) ~
"From Rome to Ringling!" has long been the rallying cry of the world's most ardent circus fans, proud of the pedigree genealogy which saw the hippodromes and amphitheatres of ancient Rome evolve into the most distinguished of today's circuses. They conveniently forget that the cherished tradition of the performing animal in the circus came into being and was nurtured during the cruellest and most sordid epoch of the Roman Empire. Similarly, as the last failing emperors took on the mantle of Christianity, Imperial Rome's utilitarian attitude towards creation was destined to become our own insidious and enduring legacy, with nature regarded almost as something extraneous to human survival and spiritual well-being. Under Roman law, animals, like slaves, were without rights; they were regarded as having been created solely for human convenience, a belief that persists to this very day. While this may not represent the birth of the tyranny of anthropocentrism as such, it at least marked the age which nourished it most and allowed it to grow rampant. Indeed, it was probably here where civilisation first learned how to drive animals systematically into extinction - and it was the ancestor of today's circus and menagerie which played the fundamental role as master of that lesson.
In her definitive historical study Circus!, dedicated to "the men and women, now and yesterday, who have created that timeless delight, that imperishable fantasy," the American author Marian Murray points to the indisputable link between contemporary animal trainers and those of ancient Rome. "The trained animals," she wrote, "which delighted audiences then as now, form the closest link between the Roman amphitheatre and the modern circus. Trainers of today can do little that was not done at least as well by those in Rome." Yet from the very beginning, the performing arts and the tamed animal show had quite distinct roots. Along the banks of the Nile, as long ago as 2500 BC, rich and poor alike were entertained by jugglers, acrobats, and jesters. Small bands of players even roamed from village to village, like the itinerant show people of the Middle Ages. But the "tradition" of the circus animal does not belong in this more enlightened period of history. Though the Egyptian aristocracy trained animals for hunting and kept them as pets - including such species as hyenas, leopards and lions - and regarded many creatures from the cat to the crocodile as sacred, there were no performing animals as such. It was necessary that a far more mechanistic culture, one almost contemptuous of nature, would invent the idea of the performing wild beast, quite simply because from its very inception, its basis was to ridicule and demean the innate character of the animal.
"It is recorded that Hanno, one of the most distinguished of the Carthaginians, was the first human being who dared to handle a lion and exhibit it as tamed, and that this supplied a reason for his impeachment, because it was felt that a man of such an artful character might persuade the public to anything, and that their liberty was ill entrusted to one whom even ferocity had so completely submitted."
~ Pliny the Elder, 23-79 AD ~
The circus is reputed to have begun its life in ancient Rome in 329 BC, when building began on the Circus Maximus situated in the long narrow valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. According to legend this had been the site of horse racing even from the time that Romulus, the founder of Rome, was suckled by a she-wolf. Resembling an elongated U rather than what was later to become the traditional circle, Circus Maximus comprised a sand-covered course or arena, a platform or podium for more distinguished guests such as senators and knights, the imperial box reserved for the emperor and his immediate entourage, and to the rear of this, the familiar tiers of stadium-like seating and terraces for the rowdy Roman masses. From the arena they were entertained by chariot races and, in another striking parallel to the contemporary circus, daring displays of equestrian and acrobatic skills such as bareback racing, sometimes of two highly trained horses simultaneously by one rider who would leap continually from one to the other. Undoubtedly the most famous of Roman circuses scattered throughout the empire, in 7 BC, following elaborate renovations to Maximus by Julius Caesar and Augustus, Dionysius of Helicarnassus declared it to be one of the "wonders of Rome". Testifying to the enduring popularity of the circus, in its final form under the Christian emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD, the edifice was about 610m long and 183m wide, and could seat 200,000 people.
Large numbers of citizens being entertained by chariot races and other exhibitions of dare-devil horsemanship might seem innocuous enough, but such was the ravenous public demand for sensation that, just to keep the crowds electrified, the spectacles presented in the circus were obliged to become ever more exotic, ever more cruel and ever more fatal. It was thus that all too soon the chariot races were purposely designed to end in death for either man or beast. Collisions and spectacular crashes became so frequent that charioteers were even equipped with knives to cut themselves free from the mangled machines, men and beasts sprawled over the arena, and it is said that the ritual mayhem brought raucous cheers of appreciation from the crowd. A death or maiming was of little consequence - after all, most of these charioteers were slaves and were regarded as non-persons under the Roman law, just like animals. But how did virtually an entire civilisation fall under a collective spell of debilitating illusion, one which could beguile so insidiously, all the while masquerading as hard-headed reality? It was an illusion which feasted upon them, silently, malignantly, gradually devouring not only their empire, but their very souls. It was an illusion which seemed to give reassurance and potency to their society and the foundations of its philosophy while at the same time draining its vitality and life blood. It was an illusion which could soothe and appease the masses, inducing them to trade so gratefully their individuality for the comforting anonymity of the crowd. And as with any crowd syndrome, the illusion offered self-assurance and complacency as the empire unravelled at the seams, and later, stupor and paralysis as Rome burned. In its essence it was a conviction of god-like infallibility, a chosen people whose civilisation had been endowed with divinely-inspired supremacy over the forces of nature. Perhaps it was not the first civilisation to be seduced by this, the most addictive and perfidious of drugs, but it certainly wouldn't be the last.
"Africa captures elephants by means of pitfalls; when an elephant straying from the herd falls into one of these all the rest at once collect branches of trees and roll down rocks and construct ramps, exerting every effort in an attempt to get it out. Previously for the purpose of taming them the kings used to round them up with horsemen into a trench made by hand so as to deceive them by its length, and when they were enclosed within its banks and ditches they were starved into submission."
~ Pliny the Elder ~
This flamboyant display of human power over nature was not only evident within the circus arena of course, but was practised with a vengeance against the wilderness itself. Entire forests were razed to feed Rome's ravenous economy and war machine, turning a green landscape into desert and dust throughout the occupied territories; it pursued a scorched earth policy in battle, leached the earth of its nutrients in careless farming, left little more than maquis scrub or bare rock throughout the Mediterranean basin, butchered wildlife en masse for no other reason than a obsessive need to prove the supremacy and virility of the Empire, and established a massive animal trade to supply the circuses, amphitheatres and menageries, a never-ending demand which brought many species to the brink of extinction. Even a new trend towards mass urbanisation was encouraging human separation from the living Earth. Supreme self-confidence in this domination over nature was epitomised by the orator and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC) who wrote: "We are the absolute masters of what the earth produces… by our hands we endeavour, by our various operations on this world, to make, as it were, another nature." It could just as well have been an ironic inscription on the future headstone of the Empire. Religious beliefs, which were both abstract and utilitarian, bolstered the Romans' mechanistic view of creation. "Roman mythology seems poor when compared with the poetic and spiritual richness of Greek and Oriental mythologies," writes F. Guirand in the Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology. "The Romans were practical people with little imagination and they sought to form a religion which corresponded to their needs. It was important to them to feel sheltered from the perils which threatened the group or the individual; but they experienced no mystic necessity to love and worship the superhuman powers to whom they had recourse. Their gods were protectors for whose services they paid; and in case of failure their wages were withheld. Do ut des: I give to thee so that thou givest to me; such was the cynical profession of faith that one might inscribe above the entrance of the Roman Pantheon."
But perhaps especially symbolic of the Roman psychosis was the fact that military victories and religious festivals would be celebrated by an orgy of killing in the circus arena. Wildcats, bears, elephants, hippopotami, the largest and most exotic species that the animal-catchers could supply were all butchered for the sake of entertainment, with the conquering audience ecstatic, worked-up into a frenzy of blood-lust. While officials at the inauguration of Pompey offered 500 lions, 410 leopards and 17 elephants, when the Colosseum was dedicated, 9,000 wild animals were sacrificed in a spectacle lasting a hundred days. On another occasion, to celebrate a military triumph, 11,000 animals were brutally destroyed. In one great festival, notes Marian Murray, enough animals were killed to stock all the zoos of modern Europe.
Taking into account our own war against wildlife, the reasons for such madness are as pertinent today as ever - and just as elusive. Can it be that Roman society, male-dominated and increasingly aggressive, experienced some entrenched psychological terror of the femininity of the ancient Mother Earth which once used to inspire reverence? Or deeper still, an atavistic terror of the capriciousness of the elements, of evasive, intimidating spirit as opposed to solid dependable matter, even a jealousy of the gods? Perhaps such questions may never be answered and yet they remain as vital as the first time they were ever asked because they reveal one of the few saving graces of this species that has so devastated the Earth that gave it birth - a sign not only that our conscience is still intact but also that our humanity, our part of natural Earth, our authentic human nature has not entirely been obliterated within us. If there is a lesson that can be learnt from the downfall of ancient Rome it is one of deep ecology: how, as landscapes and wildlife were devastated, so too was their reflection within the human identity. As the earth turned to dust, so did the inner soul and so did the will to survive as a civilisation.
For Imperial Rome, the circus, symbolised in later years by the epic entertainment presented in the Colosseum, would become the quintessence of this war against the Earth. A perfect illustration of the Roman psychosis, their terror of nature despite their avowed supremacy over it, was the digging of a huge moat, 3m wide and 3m deep, as protection against the doomed wild beasts of the circus arena. It was as though the superstitious Romans believed that escaping animals might come to take their revenge on their fallen and imprisoned brethren, almost as though the condemned were engaged in some bizarre conspiracy to conquer Rome. It is here that one can perceive traits peculiar to any anthropocentric society, the conceit which induces humans to confuse size with quality and military and economic might with invincibility, as though Gigantism as a guiding principle could even defeat the gods themselves. But despite elevating their emperors to the rank of god, convincing themselves that brawn alone could tame the capricious forces of nature which so intimidated them, ironically it was precisely these natural powers which in the end brought the civilisation to its knees. On a purely material level it was the ecological holocaust that the Romans wreaked which enfeebled the Empire's entire system, rendering it far more susceptible to other threats, including the onslaughts of the barbarians. On a spiritual level, it was nature's subtlety of paradox and its perpetual striving for balance which in the end outfoxed the Romans with all their might and armour. For, the more they prided themselves as cool-headed realists, their society emphasising an avowed supremacy by suppressing the Earth's innate personality within them, its untamed wildness, its femininity - all those qualities that became abhorrent to the Romans in their quest for order and power - the more apparent became their lethal weakness for pastime and fantasy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Roman circus-amphitheatre, the first of which was built to serve the capital in 29 BC. The desperate need to satisfy this craving for entertainment and escapism led to different kinds of extravaganza - gladiatorial contests, animal baiting and the wholesale carnage of both man and beast under the thin guise of "hunting" and "sport". The resulting crowd frenzy only led to insatiable demands for more, demands that even an emperor-god would have been foolhardy to deny. This vicious circle was destined to spin relentlessly, and would not cease until the Empire had crumbled. First however, for more than six hundred years, nature would be ridiculed, condemned, tortured and slaughtered in the arena.
It is recorded that during the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), 3,500 wild animals were put to death at the Circus Maximus alone. All in all, literally hundreds of thousands of animals were destined to be sacrificed to Roman vanity in the Empire's many circuses and amphitheatres. Add to this the systematic destruction of habitat, animals killed during capture and transport, animals killed for sport or from that irrational lust for killing anything wild and the death toll must have soared into the millions. But still the thirst for ever-intensifying sensation could not be slaked. Under Nero in the 1st century AD, even the torture of Christians became a star attraction at the Circus Caligulas. There were few protests against such marketable massacres. Remarks H. H. Scullard with pungent irony in his history of Rome, From The Gracchi To Nero: "An age which was apparently unmoved when 6000 of Spartacus' followers were crucified along the Appian Way, is not likely to have been affected by the sufferings of animals, but it is good to know that at least once some qualms were felt. When at the games which celebrated the dedication of Pompey's gift to Rome of her first stone theatre in 55 BC, 500 lions and 17 elephants were slaughtered, Cicero wrote, 'What pleasure can it give to a cultured man to see weak human beings mangled by a powerful wild-beast or a splendid animal transfixed by a hunting-spear?'" Pliny the Elder records that the spectators were so moved by the pitiful sight of the dying elephants in the arena that they rose as one man and damned Pompey: "But Pompey's elephants when they had lost all hope of escape tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey for which he soon afterwards paid the penalty."
In earlier days, the games had been held in observance with fixed religious festivals or to celebrate military triumphs but such was the public demand that successive emperors were ever more loathe to deny the people the staple, state-supplied doses of their narcotic entertainment. In response to this public clamouring for "bread and circuses", the numbers of official commemoration days set aside for public indulgence in the games became increasingly preposterous. As the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal (60-130 AD) wrote of his fellow countrymen, with acid sarcasm: "The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and eagerly longs for just two things, panem et circenses." By Claudius' reign nearly half of the year was allotted to official holidays, though this benefited only the affluent and idle. There were 159 commemoration days a year, and on 93 of them games were held at public expense. To further placate the demands of the masses, admission to the circus was free of charge, though wine vendors and the Roman equivalent of fast-food merchants, bookmakers, and prostitutes plied a lively trade amongst the crowds. "The cry for Panem et Circenses, for free food and entertainment," writes Scullard, "that rose so loudly during the Empire, was already heard in the late Republic… In addition to the regular festivals, individuals, especially candidates for office, staged gladiatorial combats and won votes by pandering to the cruelty and blood-lust of the mob."
Even as the civilisation became mired in stultifying corruption, threats of incipient revolution in the colonies, the first waves of barbarians massing across the borders, nothing could quench the public's thirst for illusion and pastime. Possibly, to those few who somehow remained immune to the Roman disease, that endless refrain of "bread and circuses!" might well have represented the curse which foreshadowed the civilisation’s inevitable demise. Moreover, such extravaganzas were not only billed in the nerve-centre of Rome, but could be found in the provinces at such influential cities as Milan, Pompei and Verona. Ensuring that the moral cancer would spread throughout the system, they were also scattered through the Empire's far-flung colonies - at Arles, Lyon and Nîmes in France, at Dorchester and Caerleon in Britain, Carthage in North Africa, Tarragona, Sagunto and Mérida in Spain, and Constantinople in Turkey. Only the Greek East, says Scullard, was "less receptive to this barbarous practice," perhaps because of that culture's intimate spiritual relationship with nature.
It was in the Colosseum, dedicated in 80 AD, the largest of the Empire's amphitheatres, that this Roman decadence was most apparent. Indeed, this, the most imposing edifice of all, might also be seen as a monument to the civilisation’s somehow pitiful hubris in striving to so ostentatiously display its presumed supremacy over all creation. Here, a succession of emperors, mad either with incest, paranoia of conspiracy, or lust for their own glory and deification, could indulge their wildest fantasies by playing god and presiding over the fate of both man and animal, incited by the rapturous adoration and blood-lust of the mob. It is recorded that the emperor Commodus even killed elephants, hippos, rhinos, tigers, bears and lions with his own hand in the Colosseum. In the space of just one day he supposedly massacred 100 bears, and on another afternoon's sport finished off, using different weapons, 100 lions that he had ordered be turned loose against him. Although regarded as an architectural masterpiece, the Colosseum also reveals the Roman mania for the grandiose, where rudimentary technology, such as it was, encouraged power over nature. The machine after all, is viewed as yet another testament to human superiority over animals, and in the amphitheatre machines were used specifically to belittle the condemned creatures. One such ingenious device was the cochlea, or revolving door, a Roman invention which prolonged the humiliation of the animal. These, writes Marian Murray, "became the feature of a lively game. Several were set up in the floor of the Colosseum, and the crowds roared with delight to see an athlete adroitly evade a pursuing beast, leaping into the angle between the panels, and whirling to safety just as the animal thought it had cornered his prey." A similar invention, guarantied to evoke uproarious laughter, was a kind of see-saw with two men suspended in baskets from each end of a pole. Just before a taunted lion or tiger pounced on one of the men, he would be launched into the air out of harm's way. The animal would then rush to the basket on the opposite end of the pivot, and so the game continued. Despite more than 1600 years of human development, the same kind of degrading treatment is still very much in evidence in the contemporary circus. Betraying their mania for the grandiose and vulgar were other, more impressive mechanical special effects. "In the time of Septimius Severus," says Murray, "a ship was drawn up from the Colosseum underground, and 'wrecked' in view of the populace, spewing forth lions, leopards, bison, wild asses and ostriches. During the same reign, after a dead whale had been picked up on a beach, a model whale was constructed for the amphitheatre, and became a dramatic container for fifty bears, from which they rushed out to meet swords and javelins." Trap doors in the floor of the arena led to great, high-arched cellars connected by an intricate network of tunnels. Besides housing lifts and winching machinery, scenery and other 'stage-props' were stored here, as well as animals fated for imminent slaughter which would have been transported to the Colosseum the night before from the huge menagerie outside the Praenestine Gate. When their turn came, they would be winched up through the trap doors, suddenly appearing, no doubt bewildered and terrified, before the bellowing and shrieking masses in the grandstands. Otherwise the instinctively cowering animals would be driven out of their cages and through the tunnels to the arena by setting alight straw behind them or goading them with red-hot irons. Under the loges occupied by the ruling elite stood the massive Doors of the Dead, through which the carcasses or the mortally-wounded were removed.
It was here in the Colosseum's massive sand-filled arena that gladiators recruited from prisoners of war and condemned criminals became part of a ritual slaughter which was supervised by magistrates. As this was billed as sport it naturally followed that in at least some of these spectacles there had to be an element of sporting chance involved, and so depending on his classification, a gladiator might be equipped with net, trident or sword to win his battle against the ferocious beasts. Half-starved to make them hungry enough to "perform", some will point out that this is another similarity with today's circus animal.
For consistently good displays, surviving gladiators could expect fame and fortune from an appreciative crowd. But as Scullard remarks, "his hour of fame was likely to be brief and he would have to survive many a further combat before he could hope for his rudis, the wooden sword that symbolised his discharge. Courage and skill might occasionally save a man, but even more pitiful and degrading for the spectators were the munera sine missione, butcheries from which no one might survive, and also the practice of exposing unarmed victims ad bestias, to the mercy of the lions." It is said that 2000 gladiators and about 230 wild animals were billed to die in one celebration alone during the Colosseum's heydays. So popular were these extravaganzas with the crowds that later such bestiarii, men who pitted themselves against wild animals in the arena, were specially trained for the task and, says Scullard, survivors often "prided themselves on their scars and bites." In turn, some of the beasts too, rather than being butchered immediately, would be trained to perform tricks, and it is interesting to note that most of these were specifically designed to ridicule and degrade the animal. It provided relief for the audience from the usual fare of undiluted blood and gore, and they rocked with laughter at seeing elephants that danced, and - to the evident delight of Tiberius who watched from the imperial box of the Circus Maximus - walked the tightrope. Recounts Pliny in Natural History: "It is known that one elephant which was rather slow-witted in understanding instructions given to it and had been punished with repeated beatings, was found at night practising the same." However much they would prefer a more respectable heritage, today's wild animal tamer is the direct descendant of such human mockery of nature. Yet even this gruesome heritage can, for those who perpetually see the circus and its animal acts through rose-tinted glasses, appear relatively innocuous. The Romans gradually became "skilful and ingenious trainers," wrote Marian Murray, as if to somehow soften the indescribable horror of it all. The animals, she added, "fought like gladiators" in the arena, "bears fought or danced on command," elephants "could walk through crowded rooms and sit neatly at table" and "lions, leopards, tigers, even boars and wolves went through the same kind of turns we see in the ring today."
Another spectacular attraction was animal baiting, known as venationes, and in typical Roman fashion this too was done on a grand scale, encouraging elephants and rhinos to attack and maul each other, or even gentle antelopes to butt each other to death. That such stunts were in direct contradiction to the animals' inherent natures is yet another aspect of the animal training legacy bequeathed to the modern circus. Like the peep shows which were later to become an important feature of the modern circus, the Romans also collected human freaks whenever and wherever they could. Objects of unabashed curiosity, dwarfs, giants, hermaphrodites, men and women with three eyes or pointed heads were exhibited under the broad genre of miracula and were sold as slaves in Rome's monstrosity market.
Bringing prestige to this or that emperor which introduced them to the civilised world, were exotic species never seen before, eliciting gasps of wonder from the audience, animals to inspire dread, freaks of species, the larger the better, giant snakes, crocodiles, rhinos and hippopotami. Already in the third century BC, it is recorded that the consul Metellus, wishing to highlight his military victory, displayed 142 elephants that he had captured in Carthage. Following the celebrations and pageantry, the strange, unknown beasts were simply put to death because no one had any idea what to do with them. In much the same way as the circus procession in the twentieth century marched through the town to rouse the people and entice them towards the show ground and big top, so the Roman parade first of all marched around the circus amphitheatre, displaying rare and wonderful animal curiosities, followed by acrobats and tumblers. Species mentioned displayed by various emperors were Indian rhinos, a white elephant from Siam, and even a polar bear under Nero. Traditionally held at dawn for the premier of a venatio advertised throughout the city by criers and posters, often the parade animals would inexplicably be painted in bright colours. "Occasionally," wrote Murray, "a touch of unkind humour was introduced by covering the bears with glue, so that when they rolled in the arena they picked up sand, leaves, feathers, and straw."
It became fashionable for the rich and influential to keep their own menageries of exotic species for the sake of prestige. Octavius Augustus, during his relatively brief fifteen-year reign as emperor, collected 3500 animals, including 420 trained tigers, 260 lions, 600 African leopards and cheetahs, 1 rhinoceros, 1 hippopotamus - the first to be seen in Rome - crocodiles, elephants, bears and Mediterranean monk seals, now one of the most endangered and forgotten species on Earth. It is recorded that Mark Anthony, with the actress Cytheris beside him, drove from Brindisi to Rome in a chariot drawn by lions. Similarly, the infamous Heliogabalus, who owned a menagerie containing several hippopotami and a rhinoceros, liked to show-off around town with lions, tigers or stags drawing his chariot. "He also loved practical jokes," notes Marian Murray. "He would put lions and tigers, whose teeth and claws had been extracted, into the bedrooms of his drunken guests - several of whom, on awakening, died of fright." Says Scullard: "The vast numbers of animals, as elephants, lions, tigers, leopards, panthers and hippopotami, that had to be shipped to Rome to gratify Roman cruelty gave rise to a large-scale trade in wild-beasts." Almost the same could be said today of course, with the proviso that the trade has somehow been sanitised by being "regulated", subject to law. But as we shall see later, this is another similarity which our own civilisation seems to share with the Romans - an entirely inordinate faith that the reality of a situation can somehow be immediately rectified simply through the issuing of an executive order or proclamation, the comforting delusion that a species protected on paper is also protected in reality.
Significantly, it was not any moral enlightenment, nor the impact of Christianity which finally put a stop to the genocide of nature in the circus amphitheatre but simply a chronic shortage of victims. "These ghastly displays, with their degrading influence on spectators lasted for centuries," writes Scullard, and indeed it was virtually inevitable that such moral decadence should have helped bring once mighty Rome to its knees. Even the Christian emperors were reluctant to move against the circus amphitheatre, for fear of inflaming an already restless populace. Only in AD 326 did Constantine repeal the law which decreed that an unarmed man could be condemned to meet wild beasts in the arena, though the "hunting" of wild animals in the Colosseum continued until the sixth century because no emperor, whether Christian or pagan, dared to deprive the public of their favourite pastime. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes remarked acidly: "The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof."*
The Circus of Gaius and Nero, seating about 100,000 avid spectators, was built on land near the Vatican. Nero had had no qualms about seeing the fledgling Christian sect persecuted for entertainment there. Writes Scullard: "their punishment was terrible: some were thrown to the beasts in the amphitheatre, and others were smeared with pitch and used by Nero as living torches to light the games he held by night in the imperial gardens and the Vatican circus; the victims included, according to tradition, Saint Peter and Paul." Destroyed during the latter years of the Empire, the foundations of the Basilica of St. Peter were built upon its ruins. But like the Romans that had come before them, the Christians and their Church were to prove no friend of the animal kingdom. Indeed, they were soon to turn upon what was left of the Roman menageries scattered throughout the Mediterranean lands, the ritual killing eventually falling into myth and legend as the Crusaders and other dragon-slayers hunted down and eliminated the creatures.
Perhaps anthropocentrism, like some kind of species-patriotism or even racism, could be described as a latent human condition, thriving only in environments of greed, materialism and narrow-mindedness. To search for the source of the disease is probably as futile as those intrepid jungle-slashing scientists trying to find the first green monkey to contract simian AIDS, only to discover that the virus, like the jungle path and planetary destiny itself, splits into myriad possibilities. Yet reflecting creation's untamable relativity, perhaps this is the most daunting phenomenon of all for a species which cannot quite decide whether to cherish or to frustrate freedom. Indeed, it is in humanity's war against planetary diversity, its subconscious aversion towards what it myopically perceives as chaos and anarchism, that one can perceive our species' chronic "fear of freedom" as described by Erich Fromm. In essence, this is what humanity so stubbornly rebels against - the capriciousness of creation which we must somehow develop, 'civilise' and destroy to find concrete certainty. In the process, freedom is destroyed - and ultimately perhaps, even life itself. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out: "Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains." One could also add, so almost invariably are animals after coming in contact with homo sapiens. All forms of exploitation - from the menagerie to the modern factory farm - embodies an imprisonment for the animal. Most passionate defenders of the zoo, circus or animal farm excuse all of this on the grounds that the creatures know of nothing else and are actually afraid to leave the cage which has become their entire world. But perhaps it is humanity that is afraid to leave its cage - the prison of our prejudices and intellectual preconceptions, our hectic schedules and appointments, all the things that bind us to our hermetically sealed reality, the security of our 9 to 5 existence, our consumer goods, our insurances and pensions, our television sets, our locked houses…
In any event, what is beyond dispute is that the acute anthropocentrism that afflicted the Romans did not perish as that civilisation finally crumbled. The belief that animals were created solely for human convenience still persists to this very day, whether that exploitation manifests itself in the wild, on the factory farm, in the laboratory, or in the zoo or circus. Indeed, this chronic human disease seems to outlive any generation, any religion, any form of government. Is it then, merely human nature, the innate primordial instincts of species survival and self-preservation? Despite the obvious temptation to pass it off as such with a complacent shrug of the shoulders, it is a conclusion obviously contradicted by the very fact that behaviour of this kind manifests itself in distinctly unnatural ways, from concreting the jungle to constructing cities of monolithic skyscrapers. Moreover, such conduct, as the Earth gradually succumbs to destruction, must be regarded as indisputably suicidal. Whatever the root cause of this human condition, it may be safely surmised that its chronic and self-perpetuating course has been bolstered immeasurably by the character of human society and its inexorable weakness for conformism, regulation and standardisation. Perhaps this factor alone has, over the centuries, managed to boost, magnify and distort the coveted human role as master of creation out of all proportion, a self-imposed exile from Mother Earth and her natural laws inflamed into barely disguised contempt, scorn and condescension. Human religion, human philosophy and human science - perhaps in centuries to come it will be these proud institutions which will be found guilty of reinforcing, if not sometimes inciting the artificial borders between two distinct realities with two increasingly distinct values, that of nature and that of homo sapiens. Just how the innate complimentary paradoxes of the universe have become interpreted as antagonistic dualities should never be underestimated, quite simply because this view of creation has permeated the very fabric of human society, a phenomenon so ubiquitous that it bears more than a passing resemblance to the harrowing disease of schizophrenia. In a sense, the acute disassociation of thoughts, words and actions that characterises schizophrenia might be thought of as the extreme effect of a more general and diluted fragmentation that afflicts the human race as a whole, a condition rooted in our divorce from nature since it was through that separation that we became deprived of the intuitive guidance of natural law. Though it is true that we have belatedly discovered ecology, it must be said that ecology is not a science, nor even a way of life, but merely the inadequate description of universal relativity, an art form perhaps that tries to portray the wonderful myriad inter-relationships of worlds within worlds. More often than not - and revealing just how all-pervasive the disease is - ecology which by implication presupposes wholeness and interdependence, is reduced today to a archetypal museum science of separate, interchangeable building blocks of categorised species and habitats. Indeed, what better example could there be of this kind of fragmentary thinking than a zoo or menagerie that ostensibly imports an endangered species for "conservation", "captive breeding", and ultimately, "re-introduction", while at the same time the animal's natural habitat, the environment that gave it birth, moulded its character and spirit, is being irrevocably destroyed? Such examples are legion in almost every category, division and subsection of human society. In many cases they are the legacy of earlier and more fundamental separations fostered by religion - heaven from earth, god from nature, human from animal, the animate from the inanimate, the spiritual from the material. The chronic bigotry of religion in particular, whose patriarchs typically believe they can fit the consciousness of God into their own narrow minds, has played a leading role in fostering a diametric view of creation.