The Flavian Amphitheater, or the Colosseum as it was called in the Middle Ages and later because of the greatness of its size, is the work of the Flavian emperors. The construction was begun by the Emperor Vespasian and inaugurated by his son Titus in the year A.D. 80; later work was carried out by Domitian, the younger brother of Titus and the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty. The amphitheater was built for the gladiatorial games, in which the pagan world reached the peak of supreme cruelty. However, beginning with the edict of Nero in A.D. 67, Christianity was proscribed by the Empire, and three centuries of bloody persecutions began, which concluded only with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313. Domitian was, after Nero, the first great persecutor, and under his reign the Colosseum began to be the scene of the martyrdom of Christians.
For the first three centuries after Christ, Christianity was never considered religio licita, that is, a religion tolerated by the Roman State. In the life of Christians, moments of tranquility alternated in waves with ferocious persecutions. Christians, from one end of the Empire to the other were crucified, quartered, condemned to be devoured by beasts, and subjected to infamous tortures. All this took place publicly, and the amphitheaters were chosen as suitable places for the spectacle, the same places where the gladiatorial games took place. No other place in Rome lent itself to this like the Colosseum. All of the ancient writers agree on this point: in Rome beginning in A.D. 80 “there existed only one permanent amphitheater in full use for solemn and public shows; and this was the Flavian (Mariano Colagrossi, L’anfiteatro Flavio nei suoi venti secoli di storia, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, Rome, 1913, p. 281).
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dear Friends, social media is cracking down on Conservative content. Many of you have complained that you stopped seeing our content in your news feeds. We hear you, and we have a way of staying connected in the fight — subscribe to my FREE weekly eblast. Click here. - MJM
The crowd entered the ambulatory through the building’s eighty entrances, ascended up various staircases to various levels, and from there the spectators spread out into the various sectors of the arena. The seating section or cavea was formed by a continuous series of concentric steps: it has been calculated that it could hold 50,000 spectators. A place was reserved on stage for the Emperor (on the side towards the Coelian Hill), next to whom the consuls and Vestal Virgins took their places. In the center of the amphitheater the games took place. The floor was dug out so as to reveal a lower level that contained the services for the games, and the cages for the beasts, which were brought up to the arena floor by means of elevators. To protect the spectators from the sun an enormous curtain or velarium was stretched on the top of the building: in order to maneuver it a detachment of sailors from the Misenum fleet was used.
On the occasion of the inauguration of the Colosseum, in the course of a spectacle that lasted several weeks, nine thousand animals were killed (Cassio Dione, Historia Romana, 66, 25, 1), while thousands of gladiators fought to solemnize the triumph of Trajan over Dacia. The Emperor Commodus (180-192) came down into the arena himself to fight with the gladiators, degrading his imperial dignity. They were atrocious spectacles of blood, in which the people witnessed mortal duels with delirious enthusiasm; and if a gladiator had wounded the antagonist, the crowd often shouted its death wish: Iugula. The emperor then had the power, by putting his thumb down, to give the order that the fallen gladiator should be slaughtered.
The performances that took place in the Colosseum lasted all day: the morning program included hunting and animal fights, while the afternoon was reserved for gladiatorial combat and the execution of criminals, and among these damnati were the Christians. Their punishment was to be public and spectacular (cfr. I cristiani nel contesto mediatico dei giochi gladiatorii, Il Posso di Giacobbe, Trapani, 2009; Fik Meijer, Un giorno al Colosseo. Il mondo dei gladiatori, Italian translation, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 2004, pp. 112-148).
Giovani Marangoni (1672-1753), a great scholar and Christian archaeologist, gives a list of martyrs who certainly died at the Colosseum in his accurate essay entitled Delle Memorie Sacre e profane dell' Anfiteatro Flavio di Roma volgarmente detto il Colosseo [Concerning the Sacred and Profane Memories of the Flavian Amphitheater of Rome, commonly called the Colosseum] (Stamperia Pagliarini, Rome, 1746), basing his work on a critical analysis of the sources. Among the first names, Marangoni recalls that of Manlius Acilius Glabrio, a Roman senator who was consul in the year 91, who converted to Christianity. Glabrio was known for his strength and valor, and in 93 the Emperor Domitian summoned him to the Juvenalia on Mount Albano and made him fight a lion. Cassius Dio and Eusebius report that Glabrio not only was not wounded but succeeded in knocking down the lion with a masterful blow (Storia Ecclesiastica, III, 18, 4), provoking the anger and envy of Domitian, who had him killed in the Colosseum the following year.
But the first official martyr is Saint Ignatius, who was torn to pieces by two lions at the Colosseum in the year 107 under the Emperor Trajan. Condemned to death in Antioch with his two companions Rufus and Zosimus, Ignatius was sent to Rome to be devoured by the lions. In the face of the most frightening fate imaginable, he cried out with supernatural enthusiasm: “Since the altar is ready, let me complete my sacrifice! Let me become the prey of the wild beasts so that I can reach God. I am God’s wheat: in order to become the pure bread of Christ, I need to be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts” (Letter to the Romans 3,1).
The martyrdom of Saint Eustachius, his wife Theopista, and his sons Theopistus and Agapius is also tied to the Colosseum. Eustachius is identified with the general Placidus, a victorious fighter over the Parthians under Trajan. According to the Legenda Aurea, one day Placidus was chasing a deer while he was hunting, when the deer stopped in front of a ravine and turned to face Placidus, revealing between its antlers a luminous Cross surmounted by Jesus, who said to him: “Placidus, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus whom you honor without knowing it.”
Placidus told all this to his wife, who told him that she had a dream that night in which an unknown man announced to her that the next day she would go to him with her husband. Placidus, his wife, and their two sons went to the bishop the next day and were converted and baptized. Placidus received the name Eustachius (from the Greek Eustáchios meaning “he who gives good ears”, his wife was named Thepoista (from the Greek words théos and pístos, meaning “believing in God”) and their sons were called Theopistus and Agapius (from the Greek Agápios meaning “the one who lives by charity”).
The Legenda Aurea relates that Eustachius, after leaving the Roman army, was persecuted by fate, first losing all of his belongings, then his wife, and finally his children, but after numerous years of separation, he miraculously rediscovered his family. Called back to arms as a general, he resumed service and fought valiantly against the barbarians. The Emperor Hadrian however condemned him ad bestias, together with his entire family because he refused to burn incense to idols. They were brought to the Flavian Amphitheater, but when the lion was unleashed on them, it did not even touch them. Then they were placed inside a red-hot bronze ox. They died instantly, but the heat did not burn a single hair on their head. Their bodies were removed by the Christians and buried nearby, and after the peace of Constantine an oratory was built over their remains, where their dies natalis was celebrated on November 1. One of the most ancient churches of Rome was dedicated to Saint Eustachius behind the Pantheon.
Abdon and Sennen are described by the unknown author of their Passio as two nobles of the East who were brought to Rome by the Emperor Decius after a military campaign. In Rome, after they were converted to Christianity and freed from slavery, they assisted those being persecuted and buried the bodies of the martyrs. When Decius became aware of their activity, he imprisoned them. They appeared in chains before the Roman Senate, which condemned them to death when they refused to sacrfice to the pagan gods. The Passio narrates their martyrdom in detail: brought before the beasts in the Colosseum, they succeeded in taming them. They were then quartered by the gladiators and their tattered bodies were thrown in front of the statue of the Sun where they remained for three days before being gathered by the deacon Quirinius who hid them in his own house. Their remains were rediscovered following a revelation when Constantine was emperor, and they were buried in the cemetery of Pontian.
There were many other martyrs who stained the arena of the Colosseum with their blood: Martina and Tatiana under Alexander Severus; Prisca and two hundred anonymous soldiers under Claudius II; Sinfronius, Olimpius, Theodolus, and Exuperius under Valerian and Gallienus; the Roman senator Julius under Commodus; Marinus, the son of a Roman senator, under Carinus; Potitus under Antoninus Verus; Vitus, Modestus and Crescentius under Diocletian (Marangoni, op. cit., pp. 20-25).
Saint Almachius, or Telemachus, was the last martyr to consecrate the amphitheater of Rome with his blood. Theodoret in his Historia Ecclesiastica (5, 26) relates that during a gladiatorial contest a monk named Telemachus (known also as Almachius), walked into the middle of the arena, exhorting the combatants to stop the battle in the name of Jesus Christ. He fell beneath the sword, the victim of the savage passion of the fighters and the spectators, but his sacrifice made such a great impression that it provoked the decree of Honorius on January 1, 404, which abolished the gladiatorial games. The Spanish painter José Benlliure y Gil painted a large canvas in 1887 entitled The Vision of the Colosseum, which is kept today at the Valencia Art Museum, in which Saint Telemachus is seen preaching calling for an end to the gladiatorial games.
The most recent archaeological investigations confirm the torture of the martyrs at the Colosseum. Professor Pier Luigi Guiducci, professor of Church history at the Lateran University, working with digital imaging processing techniques, has discovered a piece of graffiti dating from the third century which contains a tiny red Latin cross placed between two large letters, T and S, connected by a line. The letters stand for taurus (bull) and the piece of graffiti is a message of compassion for a Christian who was destined to be trampled by the bulls, who in the second half of the second century and throughout all of the third century were among the animals most frequently used in the arena. The Roman people used to wait for the entrance of the bull into the Colosseum, and the cry “Taurus, taurus, taurus” would often be raised when there was a delay bringing the bulls into the arena or when the spectacle called for the cruel incitement of the crowd at the beginning.
To the strength of the ancient documents is added that of Tradition, and in particular the teaching of the popes and the testimonies of the saints. Benedict XIV, Pope from from 1740 to 1758, consecrated the Colosseum to all the martyrs, and under his pontificate Saint Leonard of Port Maurice officially inaugurated the Via Crucis at the Colosseum at the conclusion of the Holy Year 1750. In the Bull Peregrinantes a Domino of May 5, 1749, with which he indicted the Jubilee, Benedict XIV affirmed: “Here we see how the highest worldly power devoutly folded before religion and how the earthly Babylon was transformed into a new heavenly city...”
The ceremony of inauguration of the Via Crucis by Fra Leonardo took place on the evening of November 27, 1750, and it was the Franciscan himself who preached, after having come in procession with bare feet with his brothers from the convent of San Bonaventura on the Palatine Hill. Even today the Church celebrates the Via Crucis on Good Friday in the presence of the Pope.Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, in her Story of A Soul, relates how in the course of her journey to Rome in 1887 when she was fourteen years old, one of the “sweetest visions” was the one that made her “startle at the sight of the Colosseum,” where she finally saw “that arena where so many martyrs had given their blood for Jesus.” Therese left the group, embarking on a dangerous descent through the ruins together with her sister Céline under the worried eyes of her father. “We hurried on at once, scrambling over the ruins which crumbled under our feet. Papa, aghast at our boldness, called out to us, but we did not hear. As the warriors of old felt their courage grow in face of peril, so our joy increased in proportion to the fatigue and danger we had to face to attain the object of our desires. Céline, more foreseeing than I, had listened to the guide. She remembered that he had pointed out a particular stone marked with a cross, and had told us it was the place where the Martyrs had fought the good fight. She set to work to find it, and having done so we threw ourselves on our knees on this sacred ground. Our souls united in one and the same prayer. My heart beat violently when I pressed my lips to the dust reddened with the blood of the early Christians. I begged for the grace to be a martyr for Jesus, and I felt in the depths of my heart that my prayer was heard” (Autobiographical Writing A, n. 168).
In an era like ours in which the persecution against Christianity is again being renewed, the silent ruins of the Colosseum speak to our hearts as they did to the hearts of the saints, and they renew in us the faith of Tertullian: “We become more numerous every time you mow us down; the blood of Christians is a seed” (Apologeticum, n. 50).
We are not afraid of the lions of our day, because, traversing space and time, the great crowd of martyrs accompanies us and supports us in the struggle. Their epic is not a concluded episode of past history. There is a place in the world where the lesson of martyrdom is still alive and present: it is the Colosseum, the Flavian Amphitheater, built by Vespasian. If for most people it is simply a tourist destination, for some the Flavian Amphiteater still remains a place of meditation that challenges the ages with its message. It is for this reason that Venerable Bede wrote: “As long as the Colosseum stands, Rome too will stand; when the Colosseum falls, Rome too will fall; but when Rome falls, the world too will fall” (Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 94, col. 543).
- Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino
 The Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend is a collection of hagiographies compiled by Jacobus de Varagine that was one of the most widely read books of the late Middle Ages.