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Gladiator 2: Did The Roman Gladiators Fight Rhinos & Sharks In Real Life?

The full-length trailer for "Gladiator 2" features the sequel's new cast members like Pedro Pascal, Paul Mescal, and Denzel Washington, but it also shows off some exotic creatures, which begs the question: were they a real part of gladiator battles?

They sure were. 

In our first longer look at "Gladiator 2," which hits theaters this Thanksgiving, slave turned gladiator Lucius Verus (Mescal) — the grandson of Marcus Aurelius (the late Richard Harris in the first film) and Lucilla's (Connie Nielsen, who reprises her role in this sequel) son — and a group of his fellow fighters go up against a rhinocerous in the Roman Colosseum, serving as entertainment for General Marcus Acacius (Pascal) and powerful Romans like arms dealer Macrinus (Washington). While it might seem like the rhino is just a creative flourish, exotic animals were actually a pretty huge part of gladiator battles in ancient Rome. 

Though they weren't initially a factor, wild animals — including apex predators like lions — became a part of gladiator fights thanks to some specific Roman emperors; sharks were allegedly let loose in flooded arenas (which can be very briefly spotted in the "Gladiator 2" trailer as well). So what do we need to know about the history of exotic animals fighting gladiators, exactly — and how did the first "Gladiator" film include this aspect of the bloody spectacle?

Wild animals, including rhinos, lions, and sharks, played a part in Roman gladiator battles

Beyond horses — which featured in chariot races in Rome's Colosseum — the famous arena played host to exotic animals all the time, but they weren't initially a part of gladiator battles. At first, animal hunts (which were ... exactly what they sound like) were popular events that were separate from the gladiator battles, and they actually were big draws in their own right before the Colosseum kicked off its official preceedings in 81 A.D. (A lot of elephants were, unfortunately, slaughtered for sport during that time.) As early as 186 B.C., a Roman general named Marcus Fulvius Nobilor brought big cats like lions and panthers into the mix, which went over swimmingly ... so it makes sense that this new tradition escalated from that point on.

It was Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled Rome from 138 to 161 A.D., who seriously diversified the animal offerings in the arena, giving gladiators referred to as "venatores" (who also trained the animals they'd go on to kill) the chance to slay lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) as well as rhinos, giraffes, and elephants. (These animals were pretty expensive, so less-pricey options like dogs, stags, bulls, and wild boar were also a part of these games.) So how did the original "Gladiator" bring animals into the mix?

A tiger appeared in Gladiator, but the sequel might just up the ante

Ridley Scott's first "Gladiator" film, which came out in 2000 and won Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year, doesn't feature quite as many wild creatures as "Gladiator 2" seems to show off in its trailer, but there is a pivotal scene involving tigers. As Maximus (Russell Crowe) keeps winning battle after battle in the arena, the evil Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) pits him against the retired and undefeated gladiator Tigris of Gaul (Sven-Ole Thorsen), who comes with a pack of tigers. Though Maximus ultimately defeats Tigris — and spares his life — Crowe revealed, in a retrospective on "Gladiator" in Variety, that he personally had a close call with a real tiger during filming.

While celebrating the film's 20th anniversary in 2020, Crowe told the outlet, "If you're rolling around on the ground with gigantic sequences with hundreds of moves of choreography, you're dealing with horses and tigers and other things that can go wrong, of course there's gonna be injuries." Scott followed up by revealing that Crowe came up against an eleven-foot-long tiger ... and it was a near-miss. "You've got two guys on a chain with a ring in the floor to control it," Scott explained. "Russell said, 'OK, release them' and when Russell would fall back, the tiger would come out of the hole and Russell would roll out of the way and he said, F*** me, that was close.' And I said, 'We were there as well, Russell. Hey, you were two feet, I was like four feet.'"

Now, "Gladiator 2" is upping the ante with way more wildlife — but hopefully, everyone stayed a little safer this time. Scott's sequel hits theaters on November 22, 2024.