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§ 21. Abolition of Gladiatorial Shows.
6. And finally, one of the greatest and most beautiful victories of Christian humanity over heathen barbarism and cruelty was the abolition of gladiatorial contests, against which the apologists in the second century had already raised the most earnest protest.216216 Comp. vol. i. § 88.
These bloody shows, in which human beings, mostly
criminals, prisoners of war, and barbarians, by hundreds and thousands
killed one another or were killed in fight with wild beasts for the
amusement of the spectators, were still in full favor at the beginning
of the period before us. The pagan civilization here proves itself
impotent. In its eyes the life of a barbarian is of no other use than
to serve the cruel amusement of the Roman people, who wish quietly to
behold with their own eyes and enjoy at home the martial bloodshedding
of their frontiers. Even the humane Symmachus gave an exhibition of
this kind during his consulate (391), and was enraged that twenty-nine
Saxon prisoners of war escaped this public shame by suicide.217217 Symm. l. ii. Ep. 46. Comp. vii.
4. While the Vestal virgins existed,
it was their special prerogative to cheer on the combatants in the
amphitheatre to the bloody work, and to give the signal for the deadly
stroke.218218 Prudentius Adv. Symmach. ii.
Virgo—consurgit ad ictus,
Et quotiens victor ferrum jugulo inserit, illa
Delicias ait esse suas, pectusque jacentis
Virgo modesta jubet, converso pollice, rumpi;
Ni lateat pars ulla animae vitalibus imis,
Altius impresso dum palpitat ense secutor.
The contagion of the thirst for blood, which these spectacles generated, is presented to us in a striking example by Augustine in his Confessions.219219 Lib. vi. c. 8. His friend Alypius, afterward bishop of Tagaste, was induced by some friends in 385 to visit the amphitheatre at Rome, and went resolved to lock himself up against all impressions. “When they reached the spot,” says Augustine, “and took their places on the hired seats, everything already foamed with bloodthirsty delight. But Alypius, with closed eyes, forbade his soul to yield to this sin. O had he but stopped also his ears! For when, on the fall of a gladiator in the contest, the wild shout of the whole multitude fell upon him, overcome by curiosity he opened his eyes, though prepared to despise and resist the sight. But he was smitten with a more grievous wound in the soul than the combatant in the body, and fell more lamentably .... For when he saw the blood, he imbibed at once the love of it, turned not away, fastened his eyes upon it, caught the spirit of rage and vengeance before he knew it, and, fascinated with the murderous game, became drunk with bloodthirsty joy .... He looked, shouted applause, burned, and carried with him thence the frenzy, by which he was drawn to go back, not only with those who had taken him there, but before them, and taking others with him.”
Christianity finally succeeded in closing the amphitheatre. Constantine, who in his earlier reign himself did homage to the popular custom in this matter, and exposed a great multitude of conquered barbarians to death in the amphitheatre at Treves, for which he was highly commended by a heathen orator,220220 Eumenii Panegyr. c. 12. issued in 325, the year of the great council of the church at Nice, the first prohibition of the bloody spectacles, “because they cannot be pleasing in a time of public peace.”221221 Cod. Theod. xv. tit. 12, l. 1, de gladiatoribus: “Cruenta spectacula in otio civili et domestica quiete non placent; quapropter omnino gladiatores esse prohibemus.” Comp. Euseb. Vita Const. iv. 25. But this edict, which is directed to the prefects of Phoenicia, had no permanent effect even in the East, except at Constantinople, which was never stained with the blood of gladiators. In Syria and especially in the West, above all in Rome, the deeply rooted institution continued into the fifth century. Honorius (395–423), who at first considered it indestructible, abolished the gladiatorial shows about 404, and did so at the instance of the heroic self-denial of an eastern monk by the name of Telemachus, who journeyed to Rome expressly to protest against this inhuman barbarity, threw himself into the arena, separated the combatants, and then was torn to pieces by the populace, a martyr to humanity.222222 So relates Theodoret: Hist. eccl. l. v. c. 26. For there is no law of Honorius extant on the subject. Yet after this time there is no mention of a gladiatorial contest between man and man. Yet this put a stop only to the bloody combats of men. Unbloody spectacles of every kind, even on the high festivals of the church and amidst the invasions of the barbarians, as we see by the grievous complaints of a Chrysostom, an Augustine, and a Salvian, were as largely and as passionately attended as ever; and even fights with wild animals, in which human life was generally more or less sacrificed, continued,223223 In a law of Leo, of the year 469 (in the Cod. Justin. iii. tit. 12, l. 11), besides the scena theatralis and the circense theatrum, also ferarum lacrymosa spectacula are mentioned as existing. Salvian likewise, in the fifth century (De gubern. Dei, l. vi. p. 51), censures the delight of his contemporaries in such bloody combats of man with wild beasts. So late as the end of the seventh century a prohibition from the Trullan council was called for in the East, In the West, Theodoric appears to have exchanged the beast fights for military displays, whence proceeded the later tournaments. Yet these shows have never become entirely extinct, but remain in the bull fights of Southern Europe, especially in Spain. and, to the scandal of the Christian name, are tolerated in Spain and South America to this day.
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