Gladiators, The Roman Circus, and Christians

“[Julius] Caesar also put on a gladiatorial show, but had collected so immense a troop of combatants that his terrified political opponents rushed a bill through the House, limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars 1:10, circa A. D. 117)

Much of what we learn today is never looked at with a critical mind. The more we hear it, the more plausible it begins to sound.

The movie, Gladiator, won five Oscars. The film has the viewer emotionally involved with the lead character who suffers an enormous amount of injustice at the hands of his brutal emperor. As the movie portrayed, gladiators were slaves purchased in order to provide the bloody fight-to-the-death entertainment for the crowds who cheered with excitement over the spectacle. Criminals were also sentenced to be gladiators as a means of execution. They would die in the ring. It was just a matter of how long they would last and who would kill them.

The term “gladiator(s)” is mentioned eighty times in the writings of the early Church Fathers. Specifically, the Church condemned the Roman circus and forbade Christians from watching the events. Trainers of gladiators were excluded from the Church.

Athenagoras was a polished Athenian philosopher from the second century who converted to Christianity after reading the writings of Paul. In A. D. 177, he wrote a letter to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (the old emperor portrayed in the film) where gladiators are mentioned. Christians were hated and being accused as murderers. In defense of Christians, Athenagoras wrote . . .

“Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?”

Of further interest is the very next sentence where he mentions the practice of abortion!

“And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.”

The early Christians were brutally treated by their Roman rulers in the circus. Tacitus (A. D. 55-120) was a Roman historian and wrote of Christians’ treatment by the Emperor Nero. Nero was responsible for burning the city of Rome. In order to save himself, he passed the blame on the Christians who were hated by the populace for promoting only one God and not participating in the multitude of pagan events.

Tacitus writes:

“Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he was responsible for burning Rome], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. . . . Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.”

Sometime between A. D. 155-167, the church at Smyrna wrote a letter to the church at Philomelium. Eighty-six year old Polycarp had been taught and appointed by the apostles as the bishop (overseer or pastor) of the church at Smyrna. He had just been executed for being a Christian and the Smyrnans were writing about their eyewitness account of the event.

Polycarp would not deny Jesus and call Caesar, “Lord.” So he was lead into a stadium [circus] filled with people who “cried out with uncontrollable anger and with a loud shout: ‘This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice or worship.'” They then asked the proconsul to loose a lion upon him. However, that part of the circus that day had been closed. So wood was gathered and the crowd watched as Polycarp was burned alive in the stadium.

Indeed history records that the early Christians were very familiar with gladiators and the Roman circus. Many suffered horrible deaths due to Rome’s appetite for carnage and hate for these people who would not bow their knee to another god or approve of those who did. May those Christians who suffered at the circus be examples and an encouragement to today’s Christians who are scorned when they take the same position.