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Constantine and the Gladiators: Politics or Culture?

April 23rd, 2013 | 7 min read

By Guest Writer

Is the legal and political downstream from culture, or vice versa? That’s the debate going on in religious conservative circles today. A rising number of voices, mostly in reaction to the excesses and missteps of the Religious Right, have been arguing that religious conservatives have been largely blind to the way that culture is upstream from law. In an effort to secure legal ground against progressive advances, the Right was ceding the deeper war for the imagination and affections of the populace. Gay marriage is an obvious example of this. As social conservatives secured dozens of temporary political victories, the vision of the general population was being captured through media narratives that were laying the groundwork for the generation-shaping, sea-change in popular opinion we’ve witnessed in the last few years.

While many of us might have been nodding our heads in agreement with this line of critique over the last couple of years, a jaunt into early church history might complicate the picture a bit. Peter Leithart’s fascinating cultural analysis of the Roman spectacles and their proscription by Constantine in Defending Constantine: The Twilight of An Empire and the Dawn of Christendom suggests a more intricate relationship between the two spheres than any strict dichotomy can capture.defending-constantine


A School of Romanitas

“A microcosm of Rome”–that’s how Peter Leithart describes the gladiatorial shows. Identifying a number of threads present in the contest that made them more than just entertainment, Leithart reveals that they were one of the primary means of inculcating the populace with a sense of romanitas–the guiding cultural-political spirit of Imperial Rome.

Roman military culture was a complex of “devotio, patriotism, self-sacrifice to chthonic deities” which supported an attitude and practice “closely resembling human sacrifice”—what better description can one find of the games? (pg. 192) Drawing on Tertullian’s analysis of the bloody spectacles, Leithart points out they were also were called munera because they were regarded as offering services to the dead. In the games, men were trained to kill and die as a sacrifice for gods of Rome. Following the thread of sacrifice, Leithart also sees the combat in the arena as enacting the founding myth of Rome, that of Remus by his brother Romulus. Remus was put down by his brother for daring to cross the line that separated Rome from the “non-Roman.” As the slaves died in the arena, the line between the nobility and everyone else was symbolically drawn and reinforced. (pp. 192-193)

Spectacular events also functioned to show “Rome on parade,” (pg. 193) Rome exhibited itself in all of its many-splendored and hierarchically socially-structured glory in amphitheatres across the Empire. Leithart points to the way that everyone from the lowest peasant to the Emperor himself was present and yet simultaneously carefully separated, “visually and spatially” depicting and reinforcing the social order.

The presence of the Emperor made the games political. He served as a sort of master of ceremonies, overseeing, approving, and expected to be involved, approving and enjoying himself just as the crowds did. (pg. 193) It was a time for politicking and displaying the “common touch” that would endear him to the people, as well as for the crowds to call out policy advice. “The arena was also an instrument of imperial policy the provinces.” (pg. 194) Architecturally, amphitheatres functioned to display Roman glory. The bloodshed on the sand inside served as a reminder of the threat of Roman violence against provincials who would oppose them.

Perhaps most importantly, the spiritual aspirations of the gladiatorial games are what knit the populace together most, inculcating romanitas across social boundaries. While gladiators were usually socially-disgraced slaves, even the most noble military officers and aristocrats could recognize “the gladiators’ pursuit of glory” as a mirror to their own pursuit on the battlefield for the glory of Rome. (pg. 194) Pliny the Younger praised Trajan’s games for promoting manliness and courage in the face of death. Even critics such as Seneca and Cicero found , attitudes worth praising in the games and used them as metaphors for moral development.

Leithart summarizes, “Rome was the arena, and the arena was Rome, What would the empire be without it?” (pg. 196)


Constantine the “Christian” Culture-Shaper?

What would Rome be indeed? That was the question Rome had to ask itself when Constantine the Great banned the games in 325. “Bloody spectacles are not suitable for civil ease and domestic quiet”, and as such, those who were typically sentenced to participate in the games should now be sent to the mines so that they might be punished bloodlessly. (pg. 196) While not a total condemnation, Constantine’s proscription marked a significant step forward from his own sentencing of criminals to the gladiatorial games earlier in his career in 315.  Leithart shows how, while not explicitly attempting to form a Christian empire, or quoting chapter and verse to justify legislation, much of Constantine’s legislative activity springs from Christian concerns, specifically citing the case of the gladiatorial spectacles. One has to look only at the writings of Lactantius, Tertullian, or Cyprian to find a ready witness to broad Christian teaching against the spectacles from which he was able to draw.

My interest in outlining all of this has been to set up Leithart’s analysis of Constantine’s edicts concerning gladiatorial spectacles, which are worth quoting at length:

When Constantine outlawed gladiatorial contests, he may have believed he was doing no more than opposing the decadence of bloody spectacles. But his law had much wider effects on Roman culture. Gladiators continued to perform for some time after Constantine, and Christian emperors were still legislating against them into the middle of the fifth century. Already with Constantine, however, we see the beginning of a revolution in public spectacle, and that revolution, perhaps unwittingly, subverted much of what made Rome Rome. Not only did he outlaw bloody entertainments, by by eliminating one of the main public venues for the display and inculcation of Romanitas he began to chip away at the pagan civilization that had preceded him. It is too much to say that Constantine’s legislation “Christianized” public entertainments, but he clearly de-Romanized them. (pg. 204)


So, Politics or Culture?

Constantine’s political outlook was increasingly shaped by the minority culture of the Church throughout his career. This had an effect on the legislation for the empire as a whole, which then began to shift the majority culture. In this specific instance, it created an “‘atmosphere’ of public disapproval and played its part in forming a world without sacrifice”, (pg. 204) that had far-reaching effects for the empire’s self-understanding. In other words, Constantine’s proscription of the games are an example of politics shaping culture and culture shaping politics in a complex, inter-related manner that prevents us thinking of either as a non-determinative factor for Roman culture in the years to come.

As Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner observe in City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, “The problem is this: culture is upstream from politics, except in those important cases when politics is upstream from culture.” (Kindle Location 1994). While it might be easier to tell ourselves that we can’t simply legislate morality (as philosophically suspect of a claim as that is), or evangelize via political coercion, the concrete realities of history suggest that the situation is far more complex. Yes, we ought to be humble about our political engagement as Christians in our pluralistic society, wary of our own motives, guarding against idolatry, superbia, and libido dominandi that is so blatant in much Christian involvement on both the Left and the Right, as well as wise about the particular battles we choose to fight. And yet it isn’t hard to imagine that a hasty retreat from the realm of the legal and the political to the purely cultural will lead to the loss of a prophetic voice in either realm.

Leaving aside the particulars of gay marriage, abortion, or legislation about poverty, Gerson and Wehner call our attention to another historical instance where Evangelical withdrawal from the political in the hope of broad, slow work at the cultural level was naive and unjust. In the case of the Civil Rights movement, it was the seven white ministers telling Martin Luther King Jr. to slow down, to be patient for that steady turning of the tide instead of hastily raising a political clamor. Gerson and Wehner write:

A distrust of political action—a preference for gradual cultural change—would have left legal segregation in place to this day. Changing a culture of bigotry required both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act: coercive measures that created a social expectation of equal treatment and shifted the political balance of power in America. And none of this would have happened without idealism, impatience, and the single-minded pursuit of justice.  (Kindle Locations 2030-2033).

Of course, it’s possible to think that by the point segregation might still have moved along in its own way in time. It is undeniable that this, in fact, was the way the culture shifted.

Again, none of this is meant to imply that Christians are not called to make prudential judgments about those issues in which we will engage, or that churches should be explicitly politicking from the pulpit. As an officer in my church I make it a point to refrain from making any sort of public endorsement of candidates or parties that would compromise my witness for the Gospel.

As a recovering political idolater, calls for sobriety in these matters are important and the danger of relapse strikes real fear in my heart. A brief look at Constantine and the gladiators, however, ought to warn us against a too reactionary or naive withdrawal into political teetotalism.

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog, and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. You can also follow him on Twitter.