Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 14, Part 4 of 10

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Almost the only Roman philosopher who came out openly against the games was Seneca, who lived at the time of Nero. He records a conversation he had with a spectator at a show.

"But," my neighbor says to me, "that man whom you pity was a highway robber."

"Very well, then hang him, but why nail him to a cross and set wild beasts on him?"

"But he killed a man."

"Let him be condemned to death in his turn. He deserves it. But you, what have you done that you should be condemned to watch such a spectacle?"

Seneca was cordially disliked and finally committed suicide by order of Nero.

Originally only a few criminals of the worst type were killed in the arena but when it became obvious that the mob regarded these killings as the main attraction, holocausts of victims were arranged. Finding enough prisoners for these spectacles became increasingly difficult. Probably the persecution of the Christians eventually became only another way of getting fresh fodder for the arena.

The first of the Christian persecutions were under Nero. According to Roman historians, Nero dreamed of turning Rome from a rabbit warren of twisting streets and wooden slums into a city of marble. He also wanted to clear away a large section in the center of the city where he could build a palace worthy of him—"The Golden House."

Later, the Colosseum was built on the site of the Golden House as an apology to the people. Nero's agents fired the city but popular resentment forced the emperor to find a scapegoat. He settled on the despised and suspected sect called Christians.

Tacitus tells us: "Nero had all admitted Christians seized. These informed on others who were also arrested, not so much for setting fire to the city as for their hatred of mankind. Everything was done to make their deaths humiliating. They were dressed in animal skins and torn to pieces by dogs, crucified, or covered with pitch and used as torches to light the arena after dark. Although as Christians they deserved punishment, still people felt that they were being punished to satisfy the emperor's love of cruelty and not for the good of the nation."

Suetonius supplies some other details. Nero used to dress himself up as a lion or a leopard and attack the private parts of men and women tied to stakes in the arena. Afterwards, one of his freemen named Doryphorus would enter the arena dressed as a venador and pretend to kill the emperor.

It was probably exhibitions like this that caused St. John to speak of the arena as the "mother of fornication ... the church of sacred sanguinary."

Nero also spent large sums trying to locate a legendary Egyptian ogre who was supposed to kill and eat people. Nero wanted to exhibit him in the arena. The ogre never turned up.

Some of the most terrible persecutions of the Christians took place under Marcus Aurelius in 166 A.D. Marcus Aurelius was one of the most enlightened emperors Rome ever had, but he didn't like Christians.

As pacifists, Christians refused to serve in the legions at a critical period when the barbarian hordes were breaching the defenses on all sides, they denounced wealth which made the Romans regard them as dangerous radicals, and they refused to sacrifice to the emperor's genius—roughly equivalent today to refusing to salute the flag or repeat the oath of allegiance.

Scratched on a wall in Rome there is a crude drawing showing a donkey nailed to a cross with the legend below: "All Christians are donkeys." Marcus Aurelius decided to stamp out this vicious cult and went about it systemically.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Fourteen, Part 5 is next.

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