When people today flock to stadiums, they may cheer the batters and even yell “kill the umpire.” But our baseball, football and soccer games are really mild sports in which the only real victim is the ball.
It was not thus in the days of the Roman Empire. Pagan sports-lovers had become inured to games in which killing was the main purpose. True, the sport of throwing Christians to the wild beasts was cancelled after 313 AD, when the Emperor Constantine decreed legal toleration for Christianity. But another bloody spectator-sport still continued: the gladiatorial games. They were essentially duels to the death in the arena.
The Roman Emperor Honorius, who ruled from 395 to 423 AD, was a Christian, and did much to promote Christianity. But he did not at once take any action regarding this carry-over from bloodthirsty pagan days, the so-called “games” of the gladiators.
One day, however (around 400), a devout monk from the East arrived in Rome. Not much is known about him. His name is usually given as Telemachus, but it was more likely Almachius. Historians doubt whether he was a fact or a fiction or a parable. During his sojourn in the Eternal City, the story goes, he went to a stadium one day to see what these gladiatorial games were all about.
When this gentle Christian ascetic beheld the two current contestants hacking each other to bits as the blood-drunk crowd egged them on, he was horrified. Unwilling to stand it any longer, he rushed down the bleachers, vaulted the arena wall, and, running over to the combatants, tried to separate them before they could do each other further harm. Had not God forbidden man to kill – particularly to entertain a savage mob?
When the mob saw what was happening, they went wild. Not with approval but with fury! Who was this busybody interfering with the fun? They would soon stop his nonsense. The angered spectators surged forward as one, many into the arena. Grabbing stones as they went, they pelted the monk until he lay dead where he had come to prevent death.
In the end, however, Almachius triumphed over his executioners and their ilk. News of the tragic event was conveyed to Honorius, and Honorius sided with the victim rather than with his killers. He hailed the monk as a Christian martyr, and in 404 AD he issued a decree forbidding all gladiatorial games forever after.
Today the world seems to be moving back from Christian respect for life to pagan disregard of it. Was it those two atomic bombs that confirmed our “civilization” in its growing willingness to see others suffer? Worldwide terrorism, shootings, torture, assassinations, abortion and child abuse, rape and other cruelties make the headlines daily. Movie and television shows become increasingly violent: it is getting harder to know who are the “good guys” and who are “the bad”. Even toys for children are all too often mere imitations of lethal weapons, and the lyrics of songs incite to destruction. Are not these signs of the return of a pagan darkness and callousness? St. Telemachus-Almachius, although he lived 1500 years ago, still sets us a good Christian example in this matter. His story reminds us that violence is not from God but from Satan. The peace that is so necessary for the functioning of society is not only shattered by the violent; violence can create a hell on earth for those who want only a chance to live ordinary lives.
Whatever the true story was, somebody prompted Honorius to abolish the bloody sport. Can we not pray to “Almachius” once more to protect us from gladiators?
–Father Robert F. McNamara