As with elephants, cats — whether they be lions, tigers or some other big feline — were often paraded around in menagerie-like troops for fairs or traveling shows throughout history. In ancient times, however, animals were exhibited for eventual slaughter — they weren't necessarily performing great tricks for audiences. But by the time the circus became popular in the 19th century, big cats were being "tamed" [source: Speaight].
Around 1825 a British menagerie started showing some of the traditional tricks that we still associate with circus big cat acts. A keeper would put his head in a lion's mouth and command a tiger and lion to jump through hoops — the usual stuff [source: Speaight]. But some circuses went for more elaborate role plays, where a keeper acted as Hercules and vanquished a lion.
Although big cats in the ring make us "ooh" and "aah" these days, some very patient souls tried their hand at using house cats in their acts during the 19th century [source: Speaight]. (It didn't last long.) But if herding cats sounds hard, let's try a simpler diversion for our next circus act.