Christians and the
Roman games

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The Roman Empire was very skilled at promoting "over the top" public entertainment, especially their games. Though popular, the brutal games caused the death and dismemberment of many a man and beast in pursuit of pleasing Roman citizens. Such brutality reached its peak in the fights between gladiators. According to P. Schaff, countless men and animals were killed all in the name of sport. Trajan held one of the biggest gladitorial games ever.

"No less than ten thousand gladiators fought in the feasts which Trajan gave to the Romans . . . " (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity, Scribner's, New York, 1889, page 95.)

Trajan had his reasons for celebrating in such a lavish fashion. In 117 A.D., his conquering of the Dacia region (west of the Black Sea) catapulted the empire to reach the largest territory that would ever be under its control. Under Trajan, the empire controlled 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million square kilometers) of territory.

Due to the generous support of the Roman Emperor or wealthy citizen, a visitor to the Coliseum could watch animals hunted, or the execution of prisoners or even gladiators fighting. The number of men who died while battling was high. Estimates are that in the first century A.D., the loser in a gladiatorial fight lost his life about 25% per cent of the time. By the third century, this figure became almost 50%. (Fik Meijer, The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport, Thomas Dunne Books, page 61)

In 186 Rome initiated wild animal hunts. A few years later it started the gruesome practice of allowing wild animals to kill condemned people. Such events proved popular. Augustus, during his rule, conducted games where 3,500 wild animals died. The notorious Nero, in a single day, once had hundreds of bears and lions killed. The vast quantity of exotic animals from Africa imported for the games was such that some of them were becoming difficult to find and capture.

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Christian opposition to the games

The lone voice of protest against the carnage of the Roman games came from Christians. Believers stayed away from the amphitheaters, a practice promoted by church leaders such as Tertullian (160 - 225 A.D.). The shear brutality to both humans and animals was the primary reason Christians opposed the games. The blatant disregard for suffering and life itself promoted by Rome as sport, especially involving gladiators, ran counter to the teaching of Jesus and the early church. Tertullian even denounced the practice of eating meat killed during the games. He stated that consuming such meat from animals who took the lives of humans was a version of cannibalism.

One Bible passage cited by both Christians and Jews in condemning the games is in Psalm 1.

"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night." (Psalm 1:1-2, NKJV)

If anything qualified as a "seat of the scornful," it was a seat at the Coliseum.

Jews also opposed the games. Jewish oral law stated only two reasons for a Jew to attend the games. The first is that an Israelite could attend to argue the sparing of the life of a fallen gladiator. The second is to testify on behalf of a dead gladiator's widow so that she could remarry. These exceptions came with the stipulation that the attendee does not succumb to the temptation of watching the games as entertainment. This task of avoiding the lure of the games, however, proved difficult.

The end of the games

Eventually, pressure from Christians brought about the end of the gladiatorial games, especially at a time when crowds attending such spectacles were dwindling. Philip Schaff quotes a 19th century historian in regards to the role Christians played in ending the violence of the games.

"There is scarcely any other single reform so important . . . the suppression of the gladiatorial shows . . . (the credit for which should be given entirely) to the Christian church."

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