If you had been around in Rome circa 50 BC, the diktats of the proverb “do as the Romans do" would have meant witnessing atrocities against animals. All in the name of entertainment.

Brutal spectacle: The 2-hour documentary features some unsettling reconstructions of actual gladiatorial fights.

Animal Planet’s special 120-minute documentary Animal Gladiators chronicles the story of animals caged, captured, tamed and forced to fight in ancient Rome. Tracing the history of atrocities against animals from the 6th century BC to the gladiatorial spectacles of Julius Caesar’s time and beyond, the show explains how Roman leaders wished to exercise control over wildlife in the same way they ruled over human beings.

The show, of course, is quick to point out that modern day ramifications of such man-animal conflicts are reflected in widespread hunting and poaching. The world today has destroyed nature far beyond what the Romans could ever manage.

The use of animals in Roman mass public entertainment is said to have began around the time the “Circus Maximus", a large chariot-racing stadium in Rome, was built. Around 50 BC, Julius Caesar expanded this stadium and it began to draw crowds of up to 250,000. Crashes in these races were common, and often inevitable, and thousands of horses were said to have been killed or maimed.

Crowd favourite: The gladiator-animal fights were hugely popular.

By 50 AD, during the reign of emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus (known simply as Titus), the famous Roman Coliseum was built. Here, men were pitted against men, even beasts. Records of killings became a matter of pride. The documentary mentions one man in particular—Carpophorus. A huge crowd-puller and possibly a peasant or captive, he was very well respected in the arena. His greatest feat? He killed 20 animals in one day.

Experts say the animals—lions, tigers, rhinos, leopards and later elephants—were brought from all over the world by road and sea. Many of these did not survive the journey. The ones that did would be caged for days, isolated into being aggressive, starved and then brought to fighting arenas. If the animals were weakened, they would be nursed back to health, till they became fit to challenge the gladiators.

Most animal lovers will feel a pang of helplessness while watching the documentary’s brutal reconstructions of the fights. Possibly 9,000 exotic beasts were murdered at the time, but the overall count, historians say, could be in the millions. A particularly compelling segment features an animal trainer, who explains what it might have been like for the animals to be forced into the arena.

The film then goes on to show the fanciful excesses of the Roman Empire, both at its peak and during its decline. Emperor Commodus, for example, who reigned from 161-192 AD, considered himself no less than Hercules, and shot animals with his bow and arrow just to be admired by his people.

The Romans also used caged animals to execute prisoners. These arena executions became very popular, attracting huge crowds.

As the Empire started to crumble, a certain sense of sympathy between animals and humans started to emerge. There was a realization, according to the documentary, that animals could become potential friends. Stories such as those of runaway slave Androcles, who befriended a lion that was eventually pitted against him in an arena, gained credence.

The show is a must-watch for history enthusiasts. The graphics and the reconstructions are well timed and suitably explanatory. Subtle animation is used throughout to elucidate some of the barbaric rituals. This makes the content graphic, and unsuitable for younger audiences.

Some of the English voiceovers are a little jarring and confusing, but otherwise, the show rarely slags in pace. Power packed with intelligent inputs from historians and authors in the field and with an extremely engrossing narrative, Animal Gladiators is highly recommended.

Animal Gladiators premieres on 27 September at 9pm on Animal Planet.