Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum
As for the martyrdom of Christians it has to be remembered that history is often written by the victors and that the persecution of Christians was limited to a number of particular periods and circumstances. 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.
We simply have to consider some of the antics displayed in the Colosseum to imagine the variety of attractions which were dreamt up to keep the plebs distracted whilst at the same time minimising anti-Imperial sentiments amongst 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 other forms such as crucifixion, for example rather than a Gladiatorial fight or “damnatio ad bestia” (thrown to the wild beasts).
The Catholic church of the Middle Ages and Renaissance maintained and strengthened this view of the Colosseum. Various crosses in the middle of the arena and the twelve stages of the Crucifixion were regularly used for religious displays and processions. The Colosseum became closely associated with Christian martyrdom, providing a useful counterpoise and memorial to the Christian religion’s belief in life.
The first Christian martyred in the Coliseum is said to have been St Ignatius who was thrown to the lions and (aparently) 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.”
Although some Christians certainly died in the Colosseum there seems to be little reference to the supposed rivers of (Christian) blood which were supposed to have flowed out of that building in particular during Domitian’s notorious “Second Persecution”.
Nevertheless, we do know that 115 Christians were executed with arrows, shortly after Ignatius. 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 a 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.
As for Nero’s persecution of the Christians, this could not have had any episodes in the Colosseum, given that the Flavian Amphitheatre as it was then known, was not yet constructed. This of course doesn’t mean that Nero didn’t persecute the Christians: he did. Quite awful things too, like dousing them with oil and setting them alight for example or dressing them up in animal skins and setting dogs onto them.
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 authorities and the non Christian population. The 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 |