The Colosseum is one of ancient Rome’s greatest symbols. Each year, 6,000,000 tourists traipse through the massive stone-and-concrete arena and peer into its underground passages. Historians are lauding an upcoming restoration of this architectural marvel. But few recognize the Colosseum’s grim history of death and Christian persecution.
The Emperor Vespasian authorized building a magnificent amphitheater (“theater in the round”) around A.D. 72. Tens of thousands of slaves worked eight years to complete what is still the world’s largest amphitheater. The structure, known as the Flavian Amphitheater, could seat over 50,000 people.
Some historians believe the building’s name became “Colosseum” because of a statue of the infamous Roman Emperor Nero. The figure, called “The Colossus of Nero,” was supposed to stand near the new amphitheater built on the site of his former palace. Vandals likely stole the enormous piece. But the name associated with the statue stuck.
SPORT, ENTERTAINMENT . . . AND EVIL
From its beginning, the Colosseum held battle recreations, exotic animal showings, and gladiator fights. Roman emperors used such activities to gain popularity with their unruly citizens. Some events at the arena even included free admission and food. (See note “Bread and Circuses.”)
However, Colosseum activities often had an extremely dark side. Most were bloody and brutal—for both humans and beasts. During certain so-called “games,” gladiators fought beasts to the death of one or both contestants. Emperors ordered as many as 10,000 animals killed in a single day.
CHRISTIANS: TRAITORS OR MARTYRS?
The frequent Colosseum spectacles also included appalling executions of people who dared defy Roman laws. These laws often involved paying tribute—money and honor—to a ruler. The executions were meant to teach a lesson to those who worshipped apart from Roman custom.
Remarkably, Roman officials respected Judaism as an ancient—if strange—religion. That meant Jews were generally exempt from joining in the common pagan practices of the Roman Empire.
The same did not apply to Christians. Romans viewed the “new” religion of Christianity as treasonous. Most Christians would not bow to the emperor or refer to him as “God.” Their talk of a “King Jesus” and His “kingdom” sounded like mutiny to Roman ears. Believers were labeled troublemakers and lawbreakers.
The Romans’ violent persecution of Christians is well known. Historical documents and artifacts bear witness to beheadings, crucifixions, and burnings of Christians.
Especially horrific was the punishment of facing beasts in the Colosseum. Rulers sent Christians and others into the arena and forced them to fight wild animals, including boars, elephants, leopards, lions, and tigers.
Ruthless Roman rulers believed every natural event reflected either the favor or the wrath of the gods. Tertullian, an early church father wrote, “If the Tiber overflows or the Nile doesn’t, if there is a drought or an earthquake, a famine or a pestilence, at once the cry goes up, ‘The Christians to the lion.’”
Sadly, Roman citizens who witnessed such atrocities found them entertaining—and fair according to Roman law. Spectators clapped and cheered as animals attacked their neighbors, humans made in God’s image.
During 500 years of near-constant use, some historians estimate that a parade of Roman emperors slaughtered half a million people and a million animals for sport and entertainment.
RESTORING A LANDMARK
This spring, Italy’s Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, announced the restoration of a lightweight stage floor inside the ancient Colosseum. He says parts of the original arena existed until the 1800s when archaeologists removed it for research on the underground levels.
The new high-tech system will involve hundreds of rotating slats. Moving the boards can allow light and air into the underground passages or keep rain out. The system could be removed if plans for the Colosseum change in the future.
According to Franceschini, arena restoration will allow visitors “to see the majesty of the monument.” Visitors will be able to stand centerstage and view the Colosseum’s vaulted walls as they would have been seen by gladiators and persecuted Christians.
In 2014, Franceschini tweeted about the daunting project: “All that is needed is a bit of courage”—a strange choice of words, given the Colosseum’s history of persecution and terror.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” — Deuteronomy 31:6