Chapter VIII.—The Same When at Rome, Being Led by Others into the Amphitheatre, is Delighted with the Gladiatorial Games.
13. He, not relinquishing that worldly way which his parents had bewitched him to pursue, had gone before me to Rome, to study law, and there he was carried away in an extraordinary manner with an incredible eagerness after the gladiatorial shows. For, being utterly opposed to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day met by chance by divers of his acquaintance and fellow-students returning from dinner, and they with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheatre, on a day of these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: “Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them.” They hearing this, dragged him on nevertheless, desirous, perchance, to see whether he could do as he said. When they had arrived thither, and had taken their places as they could, the whole place became excited with the inhuman sports. But he, shutting up the doors of his eyes, forbade his mind to roam abroad after such naughtiness; and would that he had shut his ears also! For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; 460 and p. 96 he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamour was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on Thee. For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others. And from all this didst Thou, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, pluck him, and taughtest him not to repose confidence in himself, but in Thee—but not till long after.
The scene of this episode was, doubtless, the great Flavian Amphitheatre, known by us at this day as the Colosseum. It stands in the valley between the Cælian and Esquiline hills, on the site of a lake formerly attached to the palace of Nero. Gibbon, in his graphic way, says of the building (Decline and Fall, i. 355): “Posterity admires, and will long admire, the awful remains of the amphitheatre of Titus, which so well deserved the epithet of colossal. It was a building of an elliptic figure, five hundred and sixty-four feet in length, and four hundred and sixty-seven in breadth, founded on fourscore arches, and rising, with four successive orders of architecture, to the height of one hundred and forty feet. The outside of the edifice was encrusted with marble, and decorated with statues. The slopes of the vast concave which formed the inside were filled and surrounded with sixty or eighty rows of seats of marble, likewise covered with cushions, and capable of receiving with ease above fourscore thousand spectators. Sixty-four vomitories (for by that name the doors were very aptly distinguished) poured forth the immense multitude; and the entrances, passages, and staircases were contrived with such exquisite skill, that each person, whether of the senatorial, the equestrian, or the plebeian order, arrived at his destined place without trouble or confusion. Nothing was omitted which in any respect could be subservient to the convenience or pleasure of the spectators. They were protected from the sun and rain by an ample canopy occasionally drawn over their heads. The air was continually refreshed by the playing of fountains, and profusely impregnated by the grateful scent of aromatics. In the centre of the edifice, the arena, or stage, was strewed with the finest sand, and successively assumed the most different forms; at one moment it seemed to rise out of the earth, like the garden of the Hesperides, and was afterwards broken into the rocks and caverns of Thrace. The subterraneous pipes conveyed an inexhaustible supply of water; and what had just before appeared a level plain might be suddenly converted into a wide lake, covered with armed vessels and replenished with the monsters of the deep. In the decoration of these scenes the Roman emperors displayed their wealth and liberality; and we read, on various occasions, that the whole furniture of the amphitheatre consisted either of silver, or of gold, or of amber.” In this magnificent building were enacted venatios or hunting scenes, sea-fights, and gladiatorial shows, in all of which the greatest lavishness was exhibited. The men engaged were for the most part either criminals or captives taken in war. On the occasion of the triumph of Trajan for his victory over the Dacians, it is said that ten thousand gladiators were engaged in combat, and that in the naumachia or sea-fight shown by Domitian, ships and men in force equal to two real fleets were engaged, at an enormous expenditure of human life. “If,” says James Martineau (Endeavours after the Christian Life, pp. 261, 262), “you would witness a scene characteristic of the popular life of old, you must go to the amphitheatre of Rome, mingle with its eighty thousand spectators, and watch the eager faces of senators and people; observe how the masters of the world spend the wealth of conquest, and indulge the pride of power. See every wild creature that God has made to dwell, from the jungles of India to the mountains of Wales, from the forests of Germany to the deserts of Nubia, brought hither to be hunted down in artificial groves by thousands in an hour, behold the captives of war, noble, perhaps, and wise in their own land, turned loose, amid yells of insult, more terrible for their foreign tongue, to contend with brutal gladiators, trained to make death the favourite amusement, and present the most solemn of individual realities as a wholesale public sport; mark the light look with which the multitude, by uplifted finger, demands that the wounded combatant be slain before their eyes; notice the troop of Christian martyrs awaiting hand in hand the leap from the tigers den. And when the days spectacle is over, and the blood of two thousand victims stains the ring, follow the giddy crowd as it streams from the vomitories into the street, trace its lazy course into the Forum, and hear it there scrambling for the bread of private indolence doled out by the purse of public corruption; and see how it suns itself to sleep in the open ways, or crawls into foul dens till morning brings the hope of games and merry blood again;—and you have an idea of the Imperial people, and their passionate living for the moment, which the gospel found in occupation of the world.” The desire for these shows increased as the empire advanced. Constantine failed to put a stop to them at Rome, though they were not admitted into the Christian capital he established at Constantinople. We have already shown (iii. sec. 2, note, above) how strongly attendance at stage-plays and scenes like these was condemned by the Christian teachers. The passion, however, for these exhibitions was so great, that they were only brought to an end after the monk Telemachus—horrified that Christians should witness such scenes—had been battered to death by the people in their rage at his flinging himself between the swordsmen to stop the combat. This tragic episode occurred in the year 403, at a show held in commemoration of a temporary success over the troops of Alaric.