Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hunger games in ancient Rome

Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year old girl from District 12, was compelled against her wishes to compete in a game to the death with 23 other youths in post-apocalyptic North America (Panem) in the film adaptation of the book Hunger Games. The 2000 film Gladiator with Russell Crowe similarly portrayed matches to the death which were held in ancient Rome for the entertainment of spectators. The Roman Colosseum was dedicated in A.D. 80 and, on one day, 3,000 men fought. Ancient Rome was vicious with the populace thirsty for more and the emperors, to win political power, presented the most grandiose shows. For example, Trajan celebrated his conquest of Dacia by arranging for 9,138 pairs of gladiators to fight over 123 days. [1] After centuries of cruelty, the games finally came to a stop in A.D. 404 in an unexpected way.

An elderly monk by the name of Telemachus, who had lived an ascetic life, one day decided to travel from the East to Rome while Honorius was emperor. Upon seeing the abominable spectacle in the Colosseum, he took the fanatical step to enter the arena during a match. [2] John Foxe provides this record of Telemachus:
“Rome was celebrating its temporary victory over Alaric the Goth in its usual manner, by watching its gladiators fight to the death in the arena, when suddenly there was an interruption. A rudely clad robed figure boldly leaped down into the arena.” Telemachus, a hermit who had devoted himself to prayer and separation from the wicked life of Rome, had come to visit the churches and celebrate Christmas in Rome. “Without hesitating an instant, Telemachus advanced upon two gladiators who were engaged in their life-and-death struggle. Laying a hand on one of them, he sternly reproved him for shedding innocent blood, and the monk, turning toward the thousands of angry faces around him, called to them: ‘Do not repay God’s mercy in turning away the swords of your enemies by murdering each other!’
Angry shouts drowned out his voice. ‘This is no place for preaching! On with the combat!’ Pushing Telemachus aside, the two gladiators prepared to continue their combat, but Telemachus stepped between them. Enraged at the interference of an outsider with their chosen vocation, the gladiators turned on Telemachus and stabbed him to death.
The crowd fell silent, shocked by the death of this holy man, but his death had not been in vain, for from that day on, no more gladiators ever went into combat in the Colosseum.” [3] Emperor Honorius numbered Telemachus as one of the victorious martyrs and at that time ended the vicious games.

This old story provides us with a reminder that one person can make a difference. Unfortunately, significant societal changes are often derived from the greatest tragedies. We can think of Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Not long ago in the USA, legislation was enacted following horrific events – The Adam Walsh Act and Megan’s Law. Like Telemachus, and others throughout history, may we as well boldly stand for what is right.

[1] Keith Hopkins, “Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome”, History Today, Volume 33, Issue 6.
[2] Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Volume 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1885), 346.
[3] John Foxe, Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World, (Westwood, NJ: Barbour Books, 1989), 26-27.