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§ 95. The Church and Public Amusements.


Tertullian: De Spectaculis. On the Roman Spectacles see the abundant references in Friedlaender, II. 255–580 (5th ed.)


Christianity is anything but sanctimonious gloominess and misanthropic austerity. It is the fountain of true joy, and of that peace which "passeth all understanding." But this joy wells up from the consciousness of pardon and of fellowship with God, is inseparable from holy earnestness, and has no concord with worldly frivolity and sensual amusement, which carry the sting of a bad conscience, and beget only disgust and bitter remorse. "What is more blessed," asks Tertullian, "than reconciliation with God our Father and Lord; than the revelation of the truth, the knowledge of error; than the forgiveness of so great past misdeeds? Is there a greater joy than the disgust with earthly pleasure, than contempt for the whole world, than true freedom, than an unstained conscience, than contentment in life and fearlessness in death?"

Contrast with this the popular amusements of the heathen: the theatre, the circus, and the arena. They were originally connected with the festivals of the gods, but had long lost their religious character and degenerated into nurseries of vice. The theatre, once a school of public morals in the best days of Greece, when Aeschylos and Sophocles furnished the plays, had since the time of Augustus room only for low comedies and unnatural tragedies, with splendid pageantry, frivolous music, and licentious dances.606606    Friedlaender, II. 391: "Neben den gewaltigen Aufregungen, die Circus und Arena boten, konnte die Bühne ihre Anziehungskraft, für die Massen nur durch unedle Mittel behaupten durch rohe Belustigung und raffinirten Sinnenkitzel: und so hat sie, statt dem verderblichen Einfluss jener anderen Schauspiele die Wage zu halten, zur Corruption und Verwilderung Roms nicht am wenigsten beigetragcn."06 Tertullian represents it as the temple of Venus and Bacchus, who are close allies as patrons of lust and drunkenness.607607    De Spectac. c. 10. Comp. Minut. Felix, Octav. c. 37.07 The circus was devoted to horse and chariot races, hunts of wild beasts, military displays and athletic games, and attracted immense multitudes. "The impatient crowd," says the historian of declining Rome608608    Gibbon, ch. XXXI. (vol. III. 384, ed. Smith).08 "rushed at the dawn of day to secure their places, and there were many who passed a sleepless and anxious night in the adjacent porticos. From the morning to the evening careless of the sun or of the rain, the spectators, who sometimes amounted to the number of four hundred thousand, remained in eager attention; their eyes fixed on the horses and charioteers, their minds agitated with hope and fear for the success of the colors which they espoused; and the happiness of Rome appeared to hang on the event of a race. The same immoderate ardor inspired their clamors and their applause as often as they were entertained with the hunting of wild beasts and the various modes of theatrical representation."

The most popular, and at the same time the most inhuman and brutalizing of these public spectacles were the gladiatorial fights in the arena. There murder was practised as an art, from sunrise to sunset, and myriads of men and beasts were sacrificed to satisfy a savage curiosity and thirst for blood. At the inauguration of the Flavian amphitheatre from five to nine thousand wild beasts (according to different accounts) were slain in one day. No less than ten thousand gladiators fought in the feasts which Trajan gave to the Romans after the conquest of Dacia, and which lasted four months (a.d. 107). Under Probus (a.d. 281) as many as a hundred lions, a hundred lionesses, two hundred leopards, three hundred bears, and a thousand wild boars were massacred in a single day.609609    Gibbon, ch. XII. (I. 646).09 The spectacles of the worthless Carinus (284) who selected his favorites and even his ministers from the dregs of the populace, are said to have surpassed those of all his predecessors. The gladiators were condemned criminals, captives of war, slaves, and professional fighters; in times of persecution innocent Christians were not spared, but thrown before lions and tigers. Painted savages from Britain, blonde Germans from the Rhine and Danube, negroes from Africa, and wild beasts, then much more numerous than now, from all parts of the world, were brought to the arena. Domitian arranged fights of dwarfs and women.

The emperors patronized these various spectacles as the surest means of securing the favor of the people, which clamored for "Panem et Circenses." Enormous sums were wasted on them from the public treasury and private purses. Augustus set the example. Nero was so extravagantly liberal in this direction that the populace forgave his horrible vices, and even wished his return from death. The parsimonious Vespasian built the most costly and colossal amphitheatre the world has ever seen, incrusted with marble, decorated with statues, and furnished with gold, silver, and amber. Titus presented thousands of Jewish captives after the capture of Jerusalem to the provinces of the East for slaughter in the arena. Even Trajan and Marcus Aurelius made bountiful provision for spectacles, and the latter, Stoic as he was, charged the richest senators to gratify the public taste during his absence from Rome. Some emperors as Nero, Commodus, and Caracalla, were so lost to all sense of dignity and decency that they delighted and gloried in histrionic and gladiatorial performances. Nero died by his own hand, with the explanation: "What an artist perishes in me." Commodus appeared no less than seven hundred and thirty-five times on the stage in the character of Hercules, with club and lion’s skin, and from a secure position killed countless beasts and men.

The theatrical passion was not confined to Rome, it spread throughout the provinces. Every considerable city had an amphitheatre, and that was the most imposing building, as may be seen to this day in the ruins at Pompeii, Capua, Puteoli, Verona, Nismes, Autun (Augustodunum), and other places.610610    See the long list of amphitheatres in Friedlaender, II. 502-566.10

Public opinion favored these demoralizing amusements almost without a dissenting voice.611611    Friedlaender, II. 370: "In der ganzen römischen Literatur begegnen wir kaum einer Aeusserung des Abscheus, den die heutige Welt gegen diese unmenschlichen Lustbarkeiten empfindet. In der Regel werden die Fechterspiele mit der grössten Gleichgiltigkeit erwähnt. Die Kinder spielen Gladiatoren wie jetzt in Andalusien Stier und Matador."11 Even such a noble heathen as Cicero commended them as excellent schools of courage and contempt of death. Epictetus alludes to them with indifference. Seneca is the only Roman author who, in one of his latest writings, condemned the bloody spectacles from the standpoint of humanity, but without effect. Paganism had no proper conception of the sanctity of human life; and even the Stoic philosophy, while it might disapprove of bloody games as brutal and inhuman, did not condemn them as the sin of murder.

To this gigantic evil the Christian church opposed an inexorable Puritanic rigor in the interest of virtue and humanity. No compromise was possible with such shocking public immorality. Nothing would do but to flee from it and to warn against it. The theatrical spectacles were included in "the pomp of the devil," which Christians renounced at their baptism. They were forbidden, on pain of excommunication, to attend them. It sometimes happened that converts, who were overpowered by their old habits and visited the theatre, either relapsed into heathenism, or fell for a long time into a state of deep dejection. Tatianus calls the spectacles terrible feasts, in which the soul feeds on human flesh and blood. Tertullian attacked them without mercy, even before he joined the rigorous Montanists. He reminds the catechumens, who were about to consecrate themselves to the service of God, that "the condition of faith and the laws of Christian discipline forbid, among other sins of the world, the pleasures of the public shows." They excite, he says, all sorts of wild and impure passions, anger, fury, and lust; while the spirit of Christianity is a spirit of meekness, peace, and purity." What a man should not say he should not hear. All licentious speech, nay, every idle word is condemned by God. The things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, defile him also when they go in at his eyes and ears. The true wrestlings of the Christian are to overcome unchastity by chastity, perfidy by faithfulness, cruelty by compassion and charity." Tertullian refutes the arguments with which loose Christians would plead for those fascinating amusements; their appeals to the silence of the Scriptures, or even to the dancing of David before the ark, and to Paul’s comparison of the Christian life with the Grecian games. He winds up with a picture of the fast approaching day of judgment, to which we should look forward. He inclined strongly to the extreme view, that all art is a species of fiction and falsehood, and inconsistent with Christian truthfulness. In two other treatises612612    De Habitu Muliebri, and De Cultu Feminarum.12 he warned the Christian women against all display of dress, in which the heathen women shone in temples, theatres, and public places. Visit not such places, says he to them, and appear in public only for earnest reasons. The handmaids of God must distinguish themselves even outwardly from the handmaids of Satan, and set the latter a good example of simplicity, decorum, and chastity.

The opposition of the Church had, of course, at first only a moral effect, but in the fourth century it began to affect legislation, and succeeded at last in banishing at least the bloody gladiatorial games from the civilized world (with the single exception of Spain and the South American countries, which still disgrace themselves by bull-fights). Constantine, even as late as 313, committed a great multitude of defeated barbarians to the wild beasts for the amusement of the people, and was highly applauded for this generous act by a heathen orator; but after the Council of Nicaea, in 325, he issued the first prohibition of those bloody spectacles in times of peace, and kept them out of Constantinople.613613    On the action of his successors, see vol. III. 122 sq.13 "There is scarcely," says a liberal historian of moral progress, "any other single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church. When we remember how extremely few of the best and greatest men of the Roman world had absolutely condemned the games of the amphitheatre, it is impossible to regard, without the deepest admiration, the unwavering and uncompromising consistency of the patristic denunciations."614614    Lecky, Hist. of Europ. Morals, II. 36 sq.14



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