“Games” in the Arena

It was sometime in the months of March-April of AD 203. A group of Christians, who possibly gathered in the house of Perpetua, was arrested and imprisoned. This incident happened in a small town in Thuburbo Minus, about 60 km west of Carthage, North Africa. Perpetua was apparently from an elite family. She and her young friend, Felicitas, a slave, came together with others and learned about Jesus’ teachings and the new way of life. Saturus was their house group leader or the catechist who lived what he taught. But when his catechumens were arrested, he came to prison by his own choice and embraced death in the Arena. Perpetua’s crime was a political one—she was guilty of treason. Along with her friends and Saturus, she was executed in the Arena at Carthage.

Hilarianus was the then governor of Africa, and the proconsul Minutius gave the order to arrest these catechumens. Christian faith was considered illegal throughout the Roman Empire because Christians refused to acknowledge the official gods of the state. Such worship was regarded as a demonstration of political loyalty. Therefore, Hilarianus arranged to have these believers put to death during the games organised to honour the birthday of Geta, the ruling emperor’s younger son. 

But there are much murkier collaborations behind the story of treason. The execution was, on May 7, 203. Thousands of Carthaginians went to the amphitheater to be entertained, to pay honour to the emperor and the local aristocrats. The animals would gore each other, the gladiators would fight skillfully and die well, and the dehumanized criminals or anti-nationals, those counted for treason, would cringe before being dispatched by an animal’s teeth or the executioner’s sword. 

The even darker side of the story is, gladiators were expensive, but criminals were cheap. According to the imperial law of 176, procurator was allowed to sell condemned criminals to landowners for use in games that they sponsored at one-tenth the price of a gladiator. So it is possible that Hilarianus sold local prisoners, including Perpetua and her friends, at a cut rate, making money for himself, saving money for the local sponsors. Euergetism—the phenomenon of elite gift-giving to cities (or groups within them) in Greek and Roman societies was practised by the wealthy and influential spectators such as magistrates and landowners who sponsored the game. Power politics, newer legislations, and the generosity of the rich were used to titillate the crowds and warn them not to do what the criminals had done. The day’s event would confirm the society’s values and degrade those who in some way threatened them. 

In the present context, the “arena” and the “games” are gone but the challenges that believers face remain the same. But we do have own Saturuses in our midst. These people have embodied the message of kingdom of heaven in attractive ways and imparted it to others. It is the vertical and horizontal values that make the lives of believers unique. As Christians we live with kingdom values which are both vertical, i.e., how we draw from/relate to God, and horizontal—how we relate to our society.

The “systems of disposition” that we carry in our bodies, formed by our faith and community conventions, are essential. By ‘disposition’, I mean our ‘second nature’ that we acquired as Christians—through our regular studying of the scripture, reflections and piety—our transformed life. In situations of ‘persecution’ what is our ’second nature’?

And, the populous, who were prepared for the cruel entertainment of gladiators in the Arena, were surprised to see the humble values of the persecuted standing tall. As we read in the pages of this issue, we pray that our vertical and horizontal values will greatly be embodied in the situations around us.

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