Tertullian was a church father from Carthage, a Roman city on the north coast of Africa, who lived from 160-225 ce. Born a pagan, he studied law in Rome, converted to Christianity in his thirties and had a long career as a theologian and apologist for the Christian faith. He stands out for the moral rigor he expected of Christians, and for his vigorous defenses of the minority Christian community against charges of atheism, cannibalism, and treachery toward the state that circulated in the second century, depicting Christians instead as good citizens of the empire who posed no threat to its well-being. He is also remembered for his colorful rhetoric, and left us with such enduring declarations as "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" and, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."
In the second century Christians were a common scapegoat when plagues, barbarian invasions and natural disasters struck. To bring an end to such calamities, a provincial or imperial decree would typically be issued, dictating that all inhabitants must offer sacrifices to placate the gods of the empire. Many Christians would refuse, the public would blame them for the latest troubles, and mob violence would ensue, only to be calmed by magistrates who would round up Christians and sentence them to various sorts of torture and death in the coliseums.
Coliseums and arenas throughout the Roman Empire were the sites of ceremonial games that performed a number of functions in Roman society - religious, penal, and patriotic. The games originated as rites of the imperial cult, which honored the pagan gods and were thought to be modeled after the festivals of the gods themselves. It was believed that the more spectacular the games, and the greater the loss of life, the higher the tribute being paid the deities.8 More immediately practical, however, the games had become an effective way to dispose of enemies captured in Rome's skirmishes at its frontiers (Gauls, Spaniards, Arabs, Germans), as well as enemies within (Christians and other minorities who had proven difficult to assimilate), displaying up-close to residents of the provincial centers of the empire that their adversaries were being destroyed.
The games featured gladiators, dwarves, women warriors and wild animals, sometimes matched against each other, sometimes matched against the enemies of the state. Criminals would be "purchased" from city jails by wealthy donors who would then send them in to be dramatically massacred by expertly trained fighters and wild beasts. Gladiators were themselves typically slaves or condemned criminals who could extend their lives and gain a sort of heroic celebrity through swearing the gladiator's oath and consenting to beatings, combat and, eventually, death. The wealthiest donors could supply combatants for games lasting several days, gaining favor with state officials whose authority was connected to the games, and earn public recognition and gratitude.9 This financing end of the whole operation can be seen as an early form of corporate sponsorship.
Ridley Scott's movie, Gladiator (2000), set during the reign of Emperor Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, opens in 180 ce, the year Commodus assumed power. The real life Commodus was particularly fond of the games, required the senators to attend as a sign of their loyalty, and is recorded by the third-century historians Herodian and Dio Cassius as displaying his own warrior prowess by descending to the floor of the coliseum to fight subservient gladiators and slaughter hippopotami, elephants, rhinoceroses, and ostriches in the hundreds. A favorite trick was to cleanly decapitate ostriches and send their headless bodies scurrying aimlessly around the amphitheater to the roaring approval of the crowd. Scott's movie does justice to the politics, economics, combatants, brutal violence, and public acclaim for the games.
This was the context of Tertullian's treatise de Spectaculus (197 ce), in which he condemns "the spectacles," or shows, as degrading to all who come into contact with them.10 For Tertullian, the shows included the gladiatorial games, but also the circus, the theater and the races -all manner of public entertainment of his time.11 In this treatise we have a classic articulation of one strain among several that have emerged in Christianity regarding the attitude that believers should adopt toward popular entertainment. "The laws of Christian Discipline," he writes, "forbid among the other sins of the world the pleasures of the public shows."12 In the treatise, Tertullian claims that the shows are demonic and he offers three arguments to prove this: their pagan origin, their conduct, and their social consequences.
The festival days around which the shows are arranged have their roots in paganism, he argues, as can be plainly seen in that they are dedicated to such false gods as Venus (patroness of lust), Bacchus (patron of drunkenness), Circe (the enchantress), and Neptune (ruler of the surging passions of the soul). The gladiatorial games retain elements of ancient rites of human sacrifice, which can be detected in the cruelty they are known to have perfected toward their victims. Perhaps they mete out a kind of justice, but it is a perverse justice. True, Tertullian allows, they provide a mechanism for the guilty to be punished; nevertheless, God commands us to love our enemies and show them mercy. Consequently, "the innocent can find no pleasure in another's sufferings: he rather mourns that a brother has sinned so heinously as to need a punishment so dreadful." Besides, it is not always the guilty who are thrown to wild beasts or drawn on racks.13 Instead of teaching us mercy, these spectacles of combat "lead to spiritual agitation," and thus to inward rivalries, which give rise to "rage, bitterness, wrath, and grief, with all bad things which flow from them."14
Furthermore, the games encourage their audiences to adopt a socially destructive sense of irony, given that the very brawls that are reproached in the streets are rewarded in the arena, "making that which is good in one place evil in another, and that which is evil in one place in another good." The combatants and performers, who have been deprived of their rights as citizens, are exploited; their souls and their bodies are prostituted. This, plus the violence to which they are submitted, so "disfigures the human countenance" that it amounts to "nothing less than the disfigurement of God's own image."15
So much for the games. Tertullian's charges against the theater are no less reviling, if differently nuanced. What the theater lacks in actual violence, it substitutes for in immodesty, buffoonery, the incitement of violence, and lies. The theater offers a harbor to harlots and fools in women's clothes who, in enacting tragedies and comedies before susceptible audiences, are "bloody and wanton, impious and licentious inventors of crimes and lusts." They instruct their audiences in social pathologies and encourage them to go and do likewise. Even if they don't inspire immediate mayhem, the plays so titillate theatergoers with images that they "store up in their souls," in the words of John Chrysostom - another church father who took a low view of the theater - that when they return home, they find the humdrum reality of their lives unbearable. In competition with these images, "your wife seems rather distasteful, your children seem rather tiresome, your servants a nuisance and your house too much, and the usual cares associated with running the necessary affairs of the household appear troublesome, and everyone who belongs to it is tiresome and a nuisance."16
Furthermore, Tertullian finds the donning of masks that occurs onstage to be in violation of the biblical prohibition against "making every kind of likeness." God, to the contrary, who is the very author of truth, does not approve of "any putting on of voice, or sex, or age; He never will approve pretended loves, and wraths, and groans, and tears."17 For Tertullian, acting is a form of image-making that falls under the prohibition against graven images found in the first of the Ten Commandments.
In a broad stroke, Tertullian dismisses everything that even appears to be virtuous in the circus, theater, athletic contests, and gladiatorial spectacles: "Everything there, then, that is either brave, noble, loud-sounding, melodious, or exquisite in taste, hold it but as the honey drop of a poisoned cake."18
In making his case, Tertullian raises what he takes to be the best argument of his opponents.
[E]veryone is ready with the argument that all things, as we teach, were created by God, and given to man for his use, and that they must be good, as coming all from so good a source; but that among them are found the various constituent elements of the public shows, such as the horse, the lion, bodily strength, and musical voice. It cannot, then, be thought that what exists by God's own creative will is either foreign or hostile to Him; and if it is not opposed to Him, it cannot be regarded as injurious to His worshippers, as certainly it is not foreign to them. Beyond all doubt, too, the very buildings connected with the places of public amusement, composed as they are of rocks, stones, marbles, pillars, are things of God, who has given these various things for the earth's embellishment; nay, the very scenes are enacted under God's own heaven. How skillful a pleader seems human wisdom to herself, especially if she has the fear of losing any of her delights.. .19
In short, since all that exists in nature has been willed into existence by God, and since, following the account of creation in Genesis 1, God has proclaimed each level of creation "good," the various creatures (horses and lions), activities (bodily strength and musical voice), and architectural elements (rocks, stones, marbles, pillars) found assembled for our entertainment at the coliseum are intrinsically good. What can be the harm in our enjoyment of them?
Tertullian concedes that there are no explicit prohibitions of the shows in the Bible. Nevertheless, he counters this sanguine view with the argument that there is a "hostile power" in the world that works against God and "perverts to wrong uses the things His hand has formed." We must differentiate, he insists, between the original purpose for which a thing was created and the perverted use to which it may be put. He writes: "There is a vast difference between the corrupted state and that of primal purity." True, all things are God's, "but in offending Him, it ceases to be His."20 The shows pervert elements of creation that are designed to testify to their Creator by recasting them into a great cacophony of noisy idols. He describes this as a desecration of good nature, which, once desecrated, is itself polluted and defiles all who come into contact with it. It is through such human actions of desecration reverberating upon the horses, the lions, the music, marble and architecture that serve as the constituent elements of the spectacles that Satan and his angels are invited to fill the world and to exercise their power.
In an earlier treatise, On Idolatry, Tertullian went so far as to say that one need not be so brazen as to "burn incense, immolate a victim, or give a sacrificial banquet" to be guilty of idolatry. Even artisans who enter contracts with the architects of pagan temples, altars, shrines, or statues - artisans at any stage of production, from quarrymen to plasterers to masons, bronze workers, gold-leaf manufacturers, incense-makers, and painters - corrupt their art if the work of their hands is knowingly destined for cultic practices, and should not be admitted into the church. Likewise the teacher of literature who even utters the names or delineates the genealogies of the gods to his students.21
Finally, in a move that offers to restore what he has just disparaged, Tertullian admits the need humans have for the delights of drama, music, intrigue, and even violence. But he invites his reader to pick up the Bible and its stories, and to attend to the liturgy of the church and the dramas that it enacts through ritual:
If the literature of the stage delights you, we have literature in abundance of our own - plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fabulous, but true; not tricks of art, but plain realities. Would you have also fightings and wrestlings? Well, of these there is no lacking, and they are not of slight account. Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, perfidy slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion ... [T]hese are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns. Would you have something of blood too? You have Christ's.22
Tertullian had such a high regard for divine revelation as found in scripture that he discounted the value of all things pagan, even its best literature. The poets and playwrights, along with the actors, charioteers and wrestlers, he concludes, are destined for that greatest of spectacles, the fierce fires of divine judgment. This treatise, aimed at the Christian community to admonish it to minimize contact with the surrounding pagan culture, was Tertullian's way of instructing Christians that, "you have your joys where you have your longings." If one longs for the excitement of the shows, one longs to be satisfied by a crass imitation of the deeper excitement of a life lived for God, where true drama consists in the struggles that overcome sin. In this, Tertullian established for Christianity one pattern of response to the surrounding culture - it is a land of alluring idols to be avoided. Contact with the culture on its terms is defiling. As H. Richard Niebuhr concluded, Tertullian serves as "one of the foremost illustrations of the anticultural movement to be found in the history of the church."23 The Church, for Tertullian, is an alternative society, an ark of redemption drifting upon a sea of roiling sin.
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