Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gladiator Games and Early Christians

Gladiator games were a morbid and grotesque aspect of ancient Roman culture. Most of the gladiatorial games were sponsored by rich patrons in honor of a holiday, a victorious tribute, or in honor of a friend or loved one at their funeral. I have been leisurely reading through the letters of the younger Pliny and came across a letter which he had written to a friend who had sponsored games in a city of northern Italy.

"To Valerius Maximus
You did well to put on a show of gladiators for our people of Verona, who have long shown their affection and admiration for you and have voted you many honors. Verona was also the home town of the excellent wife you loved so dearly, whose memory you owe some public building or show, and this kind of spectacle is particularly suitable for a funeral tribute. Moreover, the request came from so many people that a refusal would have been judged churlish rather than strong-minded on your part. You have also done admirably in giving the show so readily and on such a lavish scale, for this indicates a true spirit of generosity.
I am sorry the African panthers you had bought in such quantities did not turn up on the appointed day, but you deserve the credit although the weather prevented their arriving in time; it was not your fault that you could not show them. (Pliny Letters, 6.34; Radice, 183-184)"
Amphitheater in Verona Italy (Wikimedia)
 This letter was written some time around the first decade of the second century (100-110 AD). Pliny gives us a snapshot of an event which occurred over 1,900 years ago. I can almost hear the roar of the crowds as the gladiators fight to the death. The bad weather prevented the panthers from showing up in time for the games. But I am sure they had a magnificent hunt planned in which gladiators would pursue the wild beasts around the arena. The panthers would also have been used to attack condemned prisoners, possibly even Christians. Though there was no empire wide persecution of Christians during the reign of Trajan who was emperor at the time. A beautiful mosaic (shown below right) from around the same time this letter was written depicts games which most likely would have been very similar to the ones Pliny describes in his letter to Maximus. Also, the amphitheater in Verona where these games were sponsored and most likely took place still stands to this day (pictured above left).
Mosaic of Gladiator Games, 2nd century (Wikimedia)

Take special note of the mosaic at right. Notice the prisoners who are being attacked by a panther while tied to posts. And below there is another prisoner being lead by a whip to an awaiting lion. Also, gladiators are depicted as fighting amongst themselves and a hunt is shown in which panthers, lions, bears, deer, antelope and other animals are in pursuit of each other. It is most likely that the panthers which were delayed by bad weather were going to be used in a similar fashion.
Many Christians faced the threat of being tortured to death in an arena such as is depicted by this mosaic and by the description of Pliny. Ignatius, the Bishop of the Roman city of Antioch, faced just such a threat. He stated as much to the Christian community in Rome to which he wrote a letter, right about the same time Pliny wrote his letter above. He composed this while a prisoner on his way to Rome;

"I am writing to all the Churches and am insisting to everyone that I die for God of my own free will—unless you hinder me. I implore you: do not be ”unseasonably kind” to me. Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God's wheat, and am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I might prove to be pure bread. Better yet, coax the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb and leave nothing of my body behind. (Ign. Rom. 4:1-2; Holmes, 171)"
Amphitheater at Ephesus (Wikimedia)
    Ignatius was arrested for being a Christian, and he knew what the consequences were for adhering to the faith, it was death in the arena!
    The apostle Paul revealed to the Corinthians that he himself had fought with wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32). He did this in the city of Ephesus and both the amphitheater and the ancient hippodrome are still standing to this day. Paul most likely would have encountered the beasts during the gladiatorial games and it most likely would have taken place either in the hippodrome, or in the theater (pictured at left).

    There is no doubt that the Gladiatorial games were brutal and violent. Many Christians spoke out against this violent inhumanity, encouraging other Christians to boycott the games so they would not inadvertently support their cruel punishments. Tertullian was a Bishop in the city of Carthage and was a prolific author. Though his comments are nearly one hundred years removed from the time of Pliny the Younger and Ignatius, his condemnation of the games paints a vivid picture of their cruelty and the Christian's abhorrence of this violence.
"We shall now see how the Scriptures condemn the amphitheatre. If we can maintain that it is right to indulge in the cruel, and the impious, and the fierce, let us go there. If we are what we are said to be, let us regale ourselves there with human blood. It is good, no doubt, to have the guilty punished. Who but the criminal himself will deny that? And yet the innocent can find no pleasure in another’s sufferings: he rather mourns that a brother has sinned so heinously as to need a punishment so dreadful. But who is my guarantee that it is always the guilty who are adjudged to the wild beasts, or to some other doom, and that the guiltless never suffer from the revenge of the judge, or the weakness of the defence, or the pressure of the rack? How much better, then, is it for me to remain ignorant of the punishment inflicted on the wicked, lest I am obliged to know also of the good coming to untimely ends—if I may speak of goodness in the case at all! At any rate, gladiators not chargeable with crime are offered in sale for the games, that they may become the victims of the public pleasure. Even in the case of those who are judicially condemned to the amphitheatre, what a monstrous thing it is, that, in undergoing their punishment, they, from some less serious delinquency, advance to the criminality of manslayers! But I mean these remarks for heathen. As to Christians, I shall not insult them by adding another word as to the aversion with which they should regard this sort of exhibition; though no one is more able than myself to set forth fully the whole subject, unless it be one who is still in the habit of going to the shows. I would rather withal be incomplete than set memory a-working. (Tertullian, Spect. IX)"
     From Tertullian's last two sentences above, one can determine that he himself had attended gladiatorial games and in discussing their cruelty he had brought to mind the violence of past events he had witnessed. Keep in mind too that Tertullian was speaking out against these games at a time when it was technically illegal to be a Christian and thus he would have suffered death in the arena himself if the authorities pressed the issue! What courage on the part of these earliest Christians!


The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Holmes, Michael W.. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Updated Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. London, England: Penguin Books, 1969.