Thursday, February 19, 2015


You might be asking yourself what the ending of the Roman games has to do with a blog dedicated to apologetics. You might even be asking yourself: "What are the Roman games?" Apples to Apples? Monopoly? The Olympics? Well let me answer those two questions and then we will get on to a brief discussion of the ending of the Roman games.

First, the Roman "games" or spectacles were the lavish events thrown by Roman emperors and other politicians for the entertainment of their citizens (or their prospective voters, as the case may be). These events started as fairly modest one-time events that were about as tame as a country fair. Over a period of 500 years they grew into a nearly daily event that consumed about a third of the Roman economy and focused on making entertainment out of torture, murder, rape and other forms of degradation while tens of thousands watched, cheered and made bets. They included gladiator fights to the death, people being thrown into the arena live to be torn apart by all kinds of wild beasts, watching people being crucified and betting on who would die first, criminals being consumed by fire, and pretty much any bizarre and extreme form of cruelty that they could invent for the degradation and killing of men, women, and children.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

I just finished reading The Way of the Gladiator by Daniel P. Mannix (also published under the title Those About to Die) which presents these "games" in vivid gruesome detail. This book is very well written, but I don't necessarily recommend you read it. It is horrifying and disgusting--yet much less so than the games themselves.

Mannix gives this summary of the games' increasing prevalence in Roman society:

"Julius Caesar might be called the father of the games because under him they ceased to be an occasional exhibition of fairly modest proportions and became a national institution. By the time of Augustus, the people regarded the games not as a luxury but as their right. Under the old Republic the games lasted for sixteen days: fourteen chariot races, two trials for horses, and forty-eight theatricals. By the time of Claudius (50 A.D.), there were ninety-three a year. This number was gradually increased to a hundred and twenty-three days under Trajan [98-117 A.D.] and to two hundred and thirty under Marcus Aurelius [161-180 A.D.]. Eventually there were games of some kind or other going on all the time. In 248 A.D. the crowd didn't go to bed for three days and nights." (p.46-47)

Mannix notes that "Sadism, instead of being incidental to the games, became the order of the day." (p.207) and sums up this trend in this way:

"Up until the second century A.D., there still remained some sense of fair play in the games. A gladiator had a chance to leave the arena alive. He could even insist that the lanista put a price on him and if he could raise the sum he was free....Gradually the games began to degenerate into spectacles of pointless massacre. People develop an immunity to scenes of cruelty and bloodshed and demand more and more ingenious methods to titivate their jaded interest. A favorite trick was to pit an armed man against an unarmed man....Seneca, the famous philosopher, said of these exhibitions: 'All previous games have been merciful, these are pure murder. The men have no defense, their bodies are open to every blow and every attack is bound to be successful. Most spectators prefer this to the regular duels of skill. They would! Protection and training only postpone death, which is what the crowd have come to see." (p.203-204)


So that is a glimpse of what the games were all about (and you can learn much more by reading the book). But now for the second question: What does this have to do with apologetics (giving reason for the Christian faith)?

The answer is found in Jesus' words in Luke 7:35: "Wisdom is proved right by all her children." The truth of Christianity, the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh come to redeem and renew the very people that he created is "proved right" by her children, by her effects on humanity through those who call him Lord. These effects are what I call "Wisdom's Children" (#20 of my top 20 reasons to believe).

I have not read a better summation of this proof than that given by Francis Power Cobbe. This quote is a little long, but well worth the time. In response to a discussion of the historical reliability of the Gospels, he writes:

“But, whether these or any other passages in the life of Jesus be or be not historically
true, we yet possess a means of forming an estimate of his character independently of them.

We may ‘measure him by his shadow: nay, rather say by the light he has cast on the world.’
We may judge what great results he effected by his words and his life. What was the world
before his time? what has it been since? In these inquiries, we can not go very far wrong.
The broad and general facts of the results of the Christian movement are clear enough, and
do not depend on questions of authenticity or veracity of special books. Let us obtain the
measure of the change introduced into the world by Christianity, and we shall, at the same
time, obtain the best measure of the greatness of Christ. . . ."

“The view, therefore, which seems to be the sole fitting one for our estimate of the
character of Christ, is that which regards him as the great regenerator of humanity. His
coming was, to the life of humanity, what regeneration is to the life of the individual. This is not a conclusion doubtfully deduced from questionable biographies, but a broad, plain inference from the universal history of our race. We may dispute all details; but the grand
result is beyond criticism. The world has changed, and that change is historically traceable to Christ. The honor, then, which Christ demands of us, must be in proportion to our estimate of the value of such regeneration. He is not merely a moral reformer, inculcating pure ethics; not merely a religious reformer, clearing away old theological errors, and teaching higher ideas of God. These things he was; but he might, for all we can tell, have been them both as fully, and yet have failed to be what he has actually been to our race. He might have taught the world better ethics and better theology, and yet have failed to infuse into it that new life which has ever since coursed through its arteries and penetrated its minutest veins.

What Christ has really done is beyond the kingdom of the intellect and its theologies; nay,
even beyond the kingdom of the conscience, and its recognition of duty. His work has been
in that of the heart. He has transformed the law into the gospel. He has changed the bondage
of the alien for the liberty of the sons of God. He has glorified virtue into holiness, religion
into piety, and duty into love. . . ."

*From “Broken Lights: An Inquiry into the present Condition and future Prospects of Religious
Faith.” Boston, 1864. P. 150 ff. (as quoted in: Schaff, Philip. The Person of Christ, p.154 & 156)

These children have taken the form of relief to the poor (not only through giving but through organized efforts), healing the sick (not only through prayer but through hospitals), ending slavery, giving dignity and equality to women, education, science, democracy, etc., etc. But you don't have to take my word for it; you will find a very long list of books at the end of this article....or you can explore David Marshall's "Christ the Tao" blog that I will provide a link for there, also.

And that's where we come to the matter of the ending of the Roman games.

The longer the games went on the more "brutal and lewd" they became. In reflecting on this degenerative spiral, Mannix writes: "The more intelligent Romans were perfectly conscious of this deadly trend but they were helpless to prevent it." (p.209) Caesar Augustus attempted to limit the games to twice a year but could not. Marcus Aurelius said they were an "expensive bore" and enacted a law that only blunted weapons be used. He was not only forced to retract that law but actually increased "the number of games from 87 to 230 a year." Vespasian vowed to end them but ended up building the Colosseum! Interestingly enough, only one of the Roman philosophers expressed any open opposition to the games, and that was Seneca. Mannix shares this conversation that Seneca had with a spectator at one of the games:

'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?'

As a result of Seneca's opposition, he "was cordially disliked and finally committed suicide by order of Nero." (p.209-210)

To sum all of this up: Very few people of importance opposed the games and those that did so were impotent to stop them--even the emperors themselves.

But then (after more than 400 years) something happened. And I will just quote Mannix at length here to avoid charges of bias on my part. (And I have seen no hint that Mannix is a Christian--certainly not any hint that he is a Christian apologist.):

"The Christian church was growing in power and did everything possible to stop the games. In 325 A.D., Constantine tried to put an end to the games but they still continued. Then in 365 A.D., Valentinian forbade sacrificing victims to wild beasts. He was able to make his edict stick, and that took all the fun out of the spectacles. In 399 A.D. the gladiatorial schools had to close for want of pupils. Then in 404 A.D., a monk named Telemachus leaped into the arena and appealed to the people to stop the fights. Telemachus was promptly stoned to death by the angry mob but his death ended the spectacles. The Emperor Honorius was so furious at Telemachus' lynching that he closed the arenas. They were never reopened." (p.220-221)

It was the church that stopped this insanely cruel and seemingly unstoppable abomination that affected every region of the Roman empire from Europe to the Middle East to Africa and that literally involved the torture, rape and murder of thousands of men, women and children every month of the year.

And this is just one example of many. Christianity has been the force that has stopped abuses of all kinds in every corner of the globe. It has been Christians who have sacrificed time, money and even their very lives to bring this about--and that out of devotion to Christ and his power at work within them. And it has been Christianity that has brought about so many positive influences in the world from universities to hospitals to democracies to the endeavor of modern science.

Of course, there are always those who object to this line of reasoning and are quick to point out atrocities that have been committed by those who call themselves Christians. Sorting out all of that is too complicated a subject for this brief paragraph. But let me simply note this: You don't accuse Rolex of making lousy watches just because there are lots of cheap fakes out there. There are fakes and there is the real thing. As Jesus himself said: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46) All such atrocities are clearly in contradiction to the teaching of Christ and the apostles he appointed to represent him (as found in the New Testament). More than that, when examined, the positive changes brought about by Christianity far outweigh any negatives brought about by the fakes and failures who have chosen to call themselves followers of Christ.

Some of the best books on this subject have been written by Dr. Rodney Stark, an eminent sociologist who has been teaching at the university level for more than forty years. When Stark started noting and writing about the effects of Christianity on the world, he was not a believer. But being constantly confronted with such evidence changed all of that. In an interview with David Marshall, Stark says: "I guess I wrote my way back" (Marshall, David, ed. Faith Seeking Understanding, p.137). The Wikipedia article on Stark gives this account of Stark's journey to faith in Christ: 

"In their 1987 book A Theory of Religion, Stark and Bainbridge describe themselves as "personally incapable of religious faith".[8] While reluctant to discuss his own religious views, he stated in a 2004 interview that he was not a man of faith, but also not an atheist.[9] In a 2007 interview, after accepting an appointment at Baylor University, Stark indicated that his self-understanding had changed and that he could now be described as an "independent Christian." In this interview Stark recollects that he has "always been a “cultural” Christian" understood by him as having "been strongly committed to Western Civilization." Of his previous positions he wrote: "I was never an atheist, but I probably could have been best described as an agnostic."[10]

*How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test by David Marshall (a page-turning must read)
*The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark
*For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery by Rodney Stark
*What's So Great About Christianity? by Dinesh D'Souza
*What if Jesus Had Never Been Born by D. James Kennedy
*7 Truths That Changed the World by Kenneth R. Samples. Currently only $1.99!
*What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? by Jonathan Hill
*How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt
*The Biblical Basis for Modern Science by Henry Morris
*Goyer, Tricia. Prayers That Changed HistoryFrom the Christian Library Journal review: "Though suggested for a grade and middle school audience, Prayers that Changed History would be a compelling and enjoyable book for all ages, particularly history enthusiasts." Currently only $1.99!
*"Dawkins, Maher Blast Churches for Selfless, Life-saving Aid During Louisiana Floods" a little satire from the folks at Babylon Bee. :)
*"The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers

If you can't find what you want in the list above, David Marshall has a list of 12 recommended books starting here.....And then provides a list of 124 books here.

You might also find this article at Dr. Marshall's "Christ the Tao" blog very interesting.


“There are an estimated 350,000 religious congregations in the United States, and a ‘vast majority . . . serve in some capacity as a community safety net for those in need.’ Together with faith-based organizations, congregations help over 70 million Americans each year, fueled by a staggering $20 billion in donations. One key service is feeding the millions who are struggling with poverty and limited access to food. Over 60 percent of the 46,000 agencies working with food banks nationwide are faith-based organizations. Simply put, America would starve if the church vanished.”

— Jeremiah J. Johnston, Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity(Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group), 152. Footnotes omitted.