Regarding the martyrdom of Christians at the Colosseum it has to be remembered that history is often written by the victors. Without being excessively revisionist, the persecution of Christians was concentrated around a number of particular periods and circumstances. Roman culture had always been inclusive, actively supporting the continuance of the divinities of the people they absorbed or indeed foreign influences. However, monotheistic religion, like Christianity, posed the singular issue of not having space for any divinity other than the one God. This meant betrayal of the Emperor and the Roman divinities which was expected of all subjects.
When we consider Christian martyrs, we often think of Emperor Nero and of the Colosseum. There is little thought given to the fact that the Colosseum hadn’t yet been built and that it is easy to conflate and mix facts which happened long ago and over a lengthy period of time. The other item of discussion would be whether it was a matter of religious intolerance or of civil betrayal of (old) values.
Where and how were martyrs executed?
Clearly this doesn’t mean that atrociously gory persecutions and martyrdoms didn’t happen, they did, but in the midst of a huge number of other gory executions. The Jews were also persecuted for example, in fact for a long time the Christians were simply regarded as a Jewish sect. Their execution would likely have been together with other people condemned to execution for a variety of reasons.
We simply have to consider the variety of antics displayed in the Colosseum to imagine how the authorities would do their utmost to keep the the Roman population amused and distracted whilst at the same time minimising anti-Imperial sentiments among the wider population.
Although historically Christian martyrdom has been closely associated with the Amphitheatre the execution of Christians was more likely to be held in the Circus of chariot races . It was usual for the executions to take on various forms such as crucifixion, for example rather than Gladiatorial fight or “damnatio ad bestia” (thrown to the wild beasts).
For example, Nero was known for having the Christians doused with oil and setting them alight, or dressing them up in animal skins and setting dogs onto them.
St Ignatius of Antioch, the first Christian martyr in the Colosseum
The first Christian martyred in the Colosseum is said to have been St Ignatius Antioch, who was thrown to the lions and (apparently) exclaimed “I am as the grain of the field and must be ground by the teeth of the lions, that I may become fit for His table.”
The story surrounding Ignatius is open to a great deal of debate and in many ways quite emblematic of the story we have today surrounding the Christian martyrs.
115 Christians were executed with arrows, shortly after Ignatius and surely many more for varying reasons particularly during the notorious “Second Persecution” of Emperor Domitian.
Roasted in a metal bull for betrayal of the Pagan gods
At the beginning of the third century a family of Christians, who also happened to be Roman Patricians, were reputedly roasted (in a bull) and that four Christians called Sempronius, Olympius, Theodolus and Exuperia were burned alive in front of Nero’s colossal statue, which had been stood by the Colosseum: Jews and Christians were often given a last chance of respite by paying their respects to the Emperor-Divinity’s image, which of course monotheism doesn’t allow.
This refusal to join in any of the state’s religious practices was the really irreconcilable problem: on one occasion during the reign of the benevolent Emperor Marcus Aurelius the Christians gave rise to a new wave of hate against them as they refused to participate in the religious rites aimed at checking an epidemic of plague which was decimating the population. The Emperor had little choice but to persecute thousands of them to a hideous death in the Amphitheatre and for as much as he hated the gladiator shows he attended out of a sense of duty.
- Christians were martyred in the Colosseum, on various occasions. But the Colosseum wasn’t the first nor the only location.
- The martyrdom was being treated as punishment together with other criminal offenders which had been sentenced with death.
- The persecution they attracted from the authorities as well as broader population was driven by the Christian betrayal of traditional Roman ways and of the Emperor’s authority. Had they bowed to the Emperor and the Capitoline triad they are unlikely to have attracted the same attention to themselves.
The Catholic church of the Middle Ages and Renaissance maintained and strengthened the view of the Colosseum as a symbolic location for Christian martyrdom, providing a useful counterpoise and memorial to the Christian religion’s belief in life. Various crosses in the middle of the arena and the twelve stages of the Crucifixion were regularly used for religious displays and processions.
All this sounds like an excuse for the various Christian persecutions which certainly did happen and often they were quite forceful and brutal, especially since the Christians were increasingly viewed as subversive traitors by both the Roman authorities and the non Christian population. Truth of the matter is they were subversive traitors who were trying to change the system and, true to its nature, the system reacted against them in a brutal way.
Gladiators: |Rise and Fall of the Gladiators | The Gladiatorial shows |Ancient Roman Gladiators | Training | Gladiator fights | After the Gladiatorial fights | Types of Gladiator | More types and Classes of Gladiator | Commodus | Julius Caesar and the Gladiators | Christian martyrs and the Colosseum | Gladiators, Christians and Fish | Christians against the Circus and Colosseum | End of the Gladiators |