Gladiators: Were any of them Christian?
The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire is no secret. Christians posed a dangerous threat to the security of the Empire by refusing to worship the pagan gods, whose favor was seen as crucial to the success of the Empire. They also were not good citizens in the eyes of the Romans, often refusing to join the military because they didn’t want to kill other people. Christians also frequently objected to civic duties because they saw them as part and parcel of a corrupt, earthly system.
Essentially, Christians turned their noses up at what were probably considered the three most essential parts of Roman society and success: Worship of the gods, duty to the state, and defense of the Empire. As far as the Romans were concerned, the Christians served no useful purpose in their society.
Rome, known for their love for violence and all things militant, rejoiced in the gladiator spectacle, and Christians were the ideal victims. Although this was not the only method of persecution, it was very prevalent according to both Christian and Roman accounts. The preferred method of execution of Christians seemed to be, quite simply, death by lion.
Were the Christians technically considered gladiators, though? Slaves were mostly used for the games, and so it seems likely, therefore, that some Christian slaves would have become gladiators. However, this seems not to have been the case, and there’s a very interesting reason why...
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A retiarius attacks his downed opponent, a secutor, with a dagger in this scene from a mosaic from the Villa Borghese. (Image: Public Domain)
Honor in Death and the Roman Gladiator
To the Romans, the gladiator provided the model for martial ethics and were examples of fighting and/or dying well. They cared about these fights because they concerned something of chief importance in their society: the question of honor. A slave gladiator could earn his freedom if he repeatedly proved himself in the arena.
That said, at the height of the Roman Empire, the preferred hero motif was that of the failed hero, someone who fought well and hard... but still did not succeed. Death is often inescapable for a gladiator, but facing death with strength and without showing fear was considered very honorable in the eyes of the Romans.
In fact, the role of gladiator was so honored, that not only slaves and the reviled ended up in the arena. The more privileged actually volunteered for this ignoble and bloody fate. Some scholars estimate that as many as half of all gladiators were volunteers ( auctorati) by the time the games were at their height (1 st century BC – 1 st century AD).
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The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Source: Public Domain
But what really boggles the mind is that the lure of the games was so great that they even managed to entice aristocrats! Several emperors themselves are known to have stepped onto the sand, thus creating a bizarre paradox of the man at the top of the social ladder publicly engaging in one of the basest activities of his society.
Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Caracalla, Geta and Didius Julianus were all said to have joined the arena during their respective reigns. However, it is almost certain that none of the above competed with any seriousness and were merely making a populist parade of themselves, or indulging a boyhood fantasy.
Nonetheless, one can imagine that if an emperor even pretended to play the role, there is no way the Romans would consider a Christian capable of it.
The stoic suffering (for those expected to die) displayed by a gladiator would be lauded in a pagan and laughed at in a Christian. Not only would the Christian not be allowed to die nobly, but he would not even be able to come close to achieving the honor that, for the Romans, made death palatable.
Pollice Verso ("With a Turned Thumb"), an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Image: Public Domain)
This is because the Christians were not seen as people of integrity while fighting; the self-denial of a Christian was different than the self-denial of a gladiator. The honor of self-sacrifice was not fixed in self-sacrifice itself, but instead, the suffering of their Jesus Christ. Thus, the Romans denied the Christians an honorable death. The death of a Christian gladiator would not be the death of a true gladiator, a man of military honor and excellence.
So the Romans’ persecution of the Christians, while physical, was first and foremost psychological. It wasn’t only a bunch of bloodletting before booing crowds — although there was that.
The Romans, for all their famed bloodlust, were humans too. In order to persecute these people, they had to dehumanize them first. To do that, they convinced themselves that the members of this illicit sect were incapable of living or dying honorably. Having lost respect in the eyes of the people, Christians could be persecuted - and hopefully eliminated - quite easily.
Of course, that’s not exactly how it worked out in the end... the Christians went on to become most powerful religion, replacing the Romans’ once unquestioned position of power in the (then) known world.
Fortunately for the Romans, the Christians did not return the favor once they came into theirs. Instead of throwing their former pagan persecutors into the arena, they banned the games that had lasted for nearly a thousand years.
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Top image: Gladiators after the fight, José Moreno Carbonero (1882) (Image: Public Domain)
By Julie Huse