This episode is part 2 of our series considering the impact Christianity has had on history & culture. Today we dig a little deeper into how the Faith impacted the world’s view of the sanctity of life.
In our last podcast, we talked about the ancient world’s widespread practice of infanticide & how Christianity affected a fundamental shift in the way people evaluated life. This elevation of the value of human life came from Christianity’s roots in Biblical Judaism with its revelation that human beings are created in God’s image, then taken further by the Incarnation; that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The cross reveals how highly God values people. Therefore, God’s people must value them as well. So while the pagan world thought little of exposing unwanted infants to the elements & wild beasts, Christians rescued & adopted them, raising them as their own. It was an early & inventive church growth program.
Another way the Christian view of the sanctity of life affected the Roman world was its impact è on the arena.
The Roman writer Ausonius reported that gladiatorial games began in Rome about 264 BC. By the time Christians arrived there, the Romans had watched many thousands of gladiators fight to the death with one other & beasts. Because the whole thing was meant to be a show, more often than not, the battles weren’t quick affairs. They were long, drawn out torments where as soon as one combatant gained a significant advantage on his opponent, he took his time finishing him off to titillate the blood-lust of the spectators. Death by many cuts. As one historian wrote, the 300 year long popularity of the Gladiatorial games “illustrates the pitiless spirit and carelessness of human life lurking behind the pomp, glitter, and cultural pretensions of the great imperial age.”
Like infanticide, the games underscore Rome’s low regard for human life.
Gladiators were usually slaves, prisoners of war, or condemned criminals, all regarded as expendable. Rome’s seeming unstoppable war-machine meant a constant influx of new slaves & prisoners. The games provided a way to reduce the supply to the slave market to keep their price up & keep the legions who sold them supplied with income. So speaking purely pragmatically, the games were a slick arrangement. It helped regulate the slave industry & provided entertainment for the populace. If one poor soul had to die to keep a thousand happy, it was deemed worth it. Social commentators in ancient Rome remarked on how the State kept the ever-ready-to-riot masses pacified by providing free bread & games; giving rise to the phrase – Bread & Circuses.
Though over time a handful of gladiator achieved celebrity status, the main bulk of them were considered by society to be loathsome & doomed, assigned by Fate to a pitiless lot. Only a handful of freemen ever willingly became gladiators and if they did it was for money & fame. They enjoyed the applause of the crowd & were willing to imperil their lives to gain it. There were a few women gladiators.
Before being allowed to fight in the arena, gladiators were trained. BTW, that word arena comes from the place where gladiatorial contests were waged. Harena is Latin for “sand” and refers to the floor of the theater which was covered w/a fine sand to absorb the blood. The whole aim of the games were to entertain so gladiators were taught the rudiments of combat so they could make a good showing & increase the tension of the spectators. A good deal of gambling took place in the stands as people bet on their hoped-for champion. Because the games were a major event, the famous, rich & powerful were nearly always in attendance, including senators, emperors, pagan priests & vestal virgins.
The games weren’t held just in Rome. Amphitheaters for games were erected in most major cities of the empire. >> I want to pause briefly and make a clarification. In modern usage, the word amphitheater is often used to describe a venue that’s a half circle; like the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. But the prefix amphi means round, a full circle. For the Greeks & Romans, an amphitheater was a full circle, like the Colosseum in Rome. A half circle, is just a theater. Amphitheaters were used for the gladiatorial games while theaters were used primarily for political gatherings, speeches, & plays.
Back to the gladiators: In Rome, as combatants entered the arena, they’d file before the emperor’s box, salute & shout, “We who are about to die salute you.” They would then fight either man to man or in small teams. Occasionally masses of men would re-enact famous battles from Roman history. But most of the time it was 2 men battling each other to the death. When it became clear one was the victor & his opponent was close to death, the winner would look to the stands for the audience’s verdict. If the loser had fought well, they might mark their desire that he be allowed to live by extending their arms & giving a thumbs up. Most times, the crowd wanted to see the match finished by slaying the loser, so they gave thumbs down, the women just as much a part of this as men. All eyes then turned to the emperor whose decision decided the loser’s fate. He nearly always went with the crowd’s majority.
Occasionally gladiators fought wild animals that often got the better of their human opponents. During the early 2nd C, the Emperor Trajan celebrated his conquest of the region of Dacia by hosting games lasting 4 months. Ten thousand gladiators participated & 10,000 animals were killed. Half the gladiators died in the arena while many other died later of their wounds. When Titus inaugurated the Colosseum in Rome in 80 AD, 5,000 animals were killed in a single day, along with hundreds of gladiators.
While the average Roman throughout the empire enjoyed the games, Christians were appalled by them. But don’t forget, MOST of those early Christians were first, game-loving pagans. A radical transformation took place when they converted. What had once been entertainment became abhorrent as they realized the foolishness of their previous ways. For Christians, the games were gambling with men’s lives. They were a shocking violation of the Command, “You shall not murder.”
So, Christians refused to attend the games. It wasn’t so much a boycott as it was a simple decision to not attend an event so fundamentally a grotesque violation of their deeply held conviction. What used to be entertainment became a deplorable & degrading vice.
Pagan critics of the Faith noticed the Christian absence at the games & complained; calling Christians anti-social! One critic accused, “You do not go to our shows; you take no part in our processions . . . you shrink in horror from our sacred games.” Interesting that the games were called sacred by this pagan critic. He saw participation in what the majority did civilly as a kind of civil religion everyone needed to be a willing part of or they presented a threat & danger to society. As we consider that attitude of the ancient Roman Empire toward Christianity, it speaks volumes to us today about how Christians are once again marginalized for our moral stand on same-sex marriage & intellectual position on theism & creation.
Church leaders called upon their members to not attend the games or other pagan celebrations where debauchery was on display. In AD 220 Tertullian wrote a book called “Concerning Shows” & devoted an entire chapter admonishing Christians to not attend the games.
Evidence of the profound impact Christianity has had on history & the valuation of human life is that today, as we read this chapter of the history of the Roman Empire, we shudder at the barbarity & butchery of the gladiatorial games. It’s appalling imagining people in the stands screaming for blood, cheering as a gladius is drawn slowly across the neck of some poor hapless slave.
Christianity’s high regard for all human life eventually moved Christian emperors to ban the games. Historians agree – it was the growth of the Faith & the persuasion of the Gospel that affected a fundamental shift in the way people regarded life. People grew uneasy with the idea that they were entertained by cruelty & murder. The emperors Theodosius & his son Honorius brought an official end to the games in the late 4th C after 7 centuries of brutality and untold thousands slaughtered for no more reason that entertainment.
Someone might ask if the modern penchant for violence in movies & TV, with all the blood & gore isn’t a return to the moral bankruptcy of the Roman games. There’s an important difference – in movies & TV, everyone knows it’s contrived – no one is actually hurt. In fact, stunt crews go to great lengths to ensure they aren’t; whereas in the ancient games, the victor was cheered & encouraged by the crowds to finish it by brutally killing his opponent. Even in modern boxing matches, the referee stops the match when one of the contestants is in danger of real harm.
Where this seems to be changing though is in the realm of MMA where combatants aim at doing real harm to their opponent and injury is common. As the sport grows & more fighters enter the octagon, the crowd’s thirst for the spectacular keeps growing apace. We can only hope they don’t ever get to the point where they stand, extend their arm and give a thumbs down on a loser who’s tapped out.
Christianity had a positive impact on other Romans laws as soon as the Emperor became a Christian. In 315 Constantine banned the practice of branding the faces of criminals condemned to serve in the mines or as gladiators. He did so because man was created in the image of God and the face is a special & unique way of identifying individuals. He eventually banned all branding of slaves. He also required people arrested for a crime be given a speedy trial, since holding them implied guilt by holding them against their will. Coming to see the cross as a most cruel form of execution, crucifixion was also outlawed.
Constantine’s son Constantius followed in his father’s reforming ways. He segregated male & female prisoners, to which we say, “Duh!” But know this, until the mid-4th C, male & female prisoners were incarcerated together. And yes, you can imagine what that meant for the poor women. It reveals what low regard Greco-Roman culture had for women who weren’t under the manus, that is – the controlling hand of a husband. Such women were considered fair game for the unwelcomed attention of men. The elevation of women found in the Bible brought social transformation where ever the Faith spread.
We’ve already considered the long historical debate over the legitimacy of Constantine’s conversion. Was it real or feigned because he could see which way the religio-political winds among Rome’s legions were blowing? His reforming of these deep-seated Roman customs regarding the sanctity of life do suggest he really understood the implications of the Gospel & had some kind of a moral revolution himself. A guy who merely used Christianity when it was convenient wouldn’t call for the radical reformation of centuries old traditions knowing the social unrest it would cause unless he was convinced it was the right thing to do.
Another way the Christian view of the sanctity of life shines through in transforming the ancient world is in the end it brought to human sacrifice, a fairly common practice in paganism. Child sacrifices were common rituals for Canaanite worshipers of Baal. Before Patrick arrived in Ireland, the Druids sacrificed both adults & infants. As late the 13th & 14th Centuries, the yet unreached Prussians & Lithuanians practice human sacrifice. In the New World, the Aztecs & Mayans both sacrificed many thousands of victims in blood orgies. The Aztecs would even subdue a neighboring tribe just to produce victims to sacrifice, leaving pools of blood at the base of their pyramids.
But where ever the Gospel went & people were converted to faith in Christ, human sacrifice came to an end.
Finally, where ever the Gospel reached, people’s views of suicide changed. The philosophy of Stoicism which held a powerful sway over the mindset of the Roman Empire, put little value on human life, including one’s own. The ancient Romans had gone all in on the idea of quality of life. The only lives that bore any quality were those of the rich, powerful & privileged. The lower classes were taught to accept the fact that Fate had passed them by & the best they could aspire to was to make the lives of the blessed a little better before giving up their pathetic little lives. Suicide was considered a viable option when life was just too much to endure.
Some Greeks & Romans even considered suicide a glorious end. The person who took their own life in their own time, their own way was the master of their own fate – not leaving death to claim them at its whim. Many notable Romans took their own lives, including Cato, Seneca, Petronius & some of the Emperors. Suicide was lauded as brave, a noble thing to do if it meant avoiding shame.
It’s sad therefore to see the modern resurrection of the old arguments for suicide, that it’s noble if it means being the master of your own destiny, avoiding shame, or is a rebuttal to the supposed lack of quality of a person’s life. Christians joyously announce that in fact we AREN’T the masters of our fate, God is. Shame is dealt with at the cross, & the issue isn’t quality of life – it’s sanctity of life. Quality is subjective, with one person’s abyssmalation being another’s glory, & vice versa. Abyssmalation isn’t even a word – but it gets the point across.
Christianity regards suicide as self-murder, a most obvious violation of the sanctity of life. It’s also, in nearly all cases, a profound loss of faith in God; concluding that one’s life is beyond God’s ability to rescue, restore & redeem.
Interestingly, while suicide came to be generally regarded as incompatible with Faith in God, it wasn’t until the Council of Elvira in 305 that it was formally condemned. And even then it wasn’t suicide as an act of desperation that was in view by the ban placed on it. What prompted the Council’s ban was the fact some Christians were too eager to be martyred. Remember that the couple decades just before Constantine became emperor were times of great & bloody persecution for Christians. Martyrs had achieved heroic status. What had been meant as a way to encourage Christians to stay faithful went overboard & became a kind of perverse delight in being martyred. So there were dozens who could easily have survived just by exercising some simple wisdom. But they nearly dared their tormentors to kill them, thinking that by doing so they were being heroic and would earn more points with God. Really, it was an ancient form of suicide by cop – in this case, suicide by executioner = Martyrdom. The Council of Elvira called a halt to it in 305.
Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, Gregory of Nazianus & Eusebius all condemned suicide. But the most vociferously opposed to it was Augustine in the 5th C. You may remember he wrote against the Donatists in North Africa. The Donatists believed there was no forgiveness of sins after baptism, so some had gone to extreme measures & agreed to a mass suicide right after being dunked.
Augustine reasoned suicide violated the command “You shall not murder.” He pointed out that in the Bible, none of the Heroes of the Faith took their own lives and when Elijah asked God to slay him, God refused.
As the years passed, the Roman church added more prescriptions to suicide in the hope no one would even think about it for the way it would consign the soul to eternal darkness. Public attitude toward suicide eventually changed to such a degree that it went from being considered noble to cowardly. Instead of using it to escape shame, it became a means to it.
In our next episode, we’ll consider Christianity’s impact on sexual morality.