Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul has been based on that visit. This morning I conclude this series with one of the most visited tourist sites in Rome, the Colosseum.
The apostles Peter and Paul never saw the Colosseum for a very simple reason. It hadn’t been built yet. The great fire of 64 AD, which destroyed 2/3 of the city gave the Roman emperors the opportunity to rebuild the capital in their own image. For Emperor Nero this meant wide roads, new temples and a golden palace for himself, and so his designs were unveiled. One detail, however, was not to be overlooked. Nero wanted a colossal statue of himself erected outside his new palace. Yes, a nearly 100 foot bronze statue of the emperor, 11 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty was to be raised in his honor and it was named the Colossus of Nero. Fortunately, it was created with a detachable head. In 67 AD, Nero was declared a public enemy and condemned to death in absentia. He fled Rome, and on 9 June AD 68 at the age 30, he took his own life. His death sparked a brief period of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
When Vespasian finally emerged as the first of the three subsequent Flavian family members to rule as emperor, he ordered the abandonment of Nero’s golden palace, and he proposed the construction instead of a new amphitheatre for the entertainment of the masses. It was a shrewd political move. People loved the gladiator fights. Construction began in 72 AD, and for the next 8 years, slaves worked to build the largest amphitheatre of its kind in Rome. The Flavian Imperial Amphitheatre, as it was formally known, could hold an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 spectators. It’s typical audience of some 65,000 could enjoy the games beneath a canvas awning protecting them from the sun. The imperial amphitheatre was used not only for gladiatorial contests, but for public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on mythology. In time, Romans coined a new word for the amphitheatre. It became known as the Colosseum- all as a result of its close proximity to the statue, of Colossus of Nero which had been given a halo and renamed the Colossus of the Sun.
The Colosseum has always been a monument surrounded by mystery, ambiguity and legend especially as it relates to the early Church. About 3000 Christian martyrs died in the Colosseum, but far more died in the other historic places around ancient Rome, such as at the Circus Maximus and the Circus of Nero. Many Christians today have been raised solely on the painting of the Martyr’s Last Prayer by French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme who had an affinity for the ancient world. He didn’t, however, always get the details right. His painting sets the martyrdom with the Colosseum. Gérôme might have been inspired by stories he read about how the Romans treated early Christians. He might have even come across various texts how Christians were supposedly fed to half-starved lions. In truth, this punishment including being burned alive or hacked to death was not reserved for Christians alone, but it was standard treatment but other criminals too. It was a brutal age, regardless of your faith.
Yes, Christians died in in the Coliseum but those who died there chose to die there publicly as martyrs. They were making a witness, a public statement against Rome. At that time in the Roman Empire, Christians had a choice to sacrifice to the Roman gods or even have one of their slaves sacrifice to the Roman gods on their behalf and avoid persecution. But time and time again, these early Christians chose to be different. They chose to make a public testimony of the sovereignty of Jesus over the pantheon of Roman gods. And they chose to make a statement on the love of God over the popular acceptance of Rome’s culture of violence and brutality. Yes, these early Christians chose to be martyrs. St. Ignatius of Antioch the first Christian who was killed in the Colosseum by lions, chose to die for his faith in front of tens of thousands of people rather than escape persecution or die in a less public place.
For a thousand years, violence played a significant role in Roman identity. Images of war and brutality, violent myths and battle scenes adorned the tombs of the fallen, and of course, triumphal monuments bearing scenes of victory and conquest stood in public spaces for all to admire. There was no greater challenge facing the early church, than proclaiming that this Jesus they served who was crucified by the Roman authorities came as the prince of peace. How could this Jesus be victorious to this violent world? For the Christians in Rome, the Colosseum represented nothing more than a place ritualized, public violence as a favorite form of entertainment.
Like the Roman Empire, the Colosseum itself underwent a rise and fall. By the late 6th century a small chapel had been built into the structure of the amphitheater, though this did not confer any particular religious significance on the building as a whole. Later. the arena was converted into a cemetery. The numerous vaulted spaces in the arcades under the seating were converted into housing and workshops. Around 1200 the Frangipani family took over the Colosseum and fortified it, using it as a castle. During the Renaissance, marble was reclaimed for various building projects, including St. Peter’s Basilica. By the 1600’s, the Church of Rome began to say that the Colosseum was a holy place insisting that the sand on the arena floor could be collected and cherished as the relics of the martyrs. There was even a proposal to a built a church inside the Colosseum to commemorate the Holy Martyrs. It is why the Pope holds a Good Friday service in the Colosseum every year.
But how do you deal with the historic brutality and violence that was at the heart of the Colosseum? Emperors tried to change the nature of the society by edict. Constantine the Great, the emperor who made Christianity a legal religion in Rome, banned the gladiator games, but they didn’t end. Decades later they were abolished again by Constantius, and Julian, even Theodosius I, who made Christianity the official religion. Still the culture of violence for the sake of entertainment and folly permeated Roman culture. It was like so many things that become acceptable within contemporary life and culture. We simply give up and give in and say that we can’t do anything about it. We wonder what difference can one lone voice really make?
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan told the following story at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. of a lone monk named St. Telemachus. He truly believed one voice could make a difference. In the 5th century a monk from the Eastern region of the Empire named Telemachus visited Rome and followed the crowd into the Coliseum on New Year’s Day, and… he saw the gladiators come forth, stand before the Emperor, and say, ‘We who are about to die salute you.’ He realized then that they were going to fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowds. He cried out, ‘In the Name of Christ, stop!’ And his voice was lost in the tumult there in the great Colosseum…
As the games began… the crowds saw this scrawny little figure making his way out to the gladiators and saying, over and over again, ‘In the Name of Christ, stop!’ And they thought it was part of the entertainment, and at first they were amused. But then, when they realized it wasn’t, they grew belligerent and angry…
As he was pleading with the gladiators, ‘In the Name of Christ, stop!’ one of the gladiators plunged his sword into his body. And as he fell to the sand of the arena in death, his last words were, ‘In the Name of Christ, stop!’ And suddenly, a strange thing happened. The gladiators stood looking at this tiny form lying in the sand. A silence fell over the Colosseum. And then, someplace up in the upper tiers, an individual made his way to an exit and left, and the others began to follow. And in the dead silence, everyone left the Colosseum. That was the last battle to the death between gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. January 1st, 404 AD. Never again did anyone kill or did men kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd…
One tiny voice that could hardly be heard above the tumult made all the difference. ‘In the Name of Christ, stop!’ My friends, it is something we could be saying to each other throughout the world today. Even in the colosseums of our modern world, true change begins one voice at a time. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.