In the ancient Roman persecutions, a favorite way of executing Christians was to let man-eating wild beasts destroy them in the stadium. For pagans who hated Christians as killjoys, this was a great spectator sport.
Not all who sat in the bleachers were there for pleasure. Many fellow Christians came to watch and pray. They were often rewarded with scenes of heavenly courage that strengthened their own faith. Sometimes also they saw God’s hand intervening, in a miraculous way that impressed even non-Christians.
Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340?) was the pioneer historian of Christianity, and, in general, a careful scholar. In his Ecclesiastical History, written before 325 A.D., he tells of some wonderful things that he himself witnessed during the last great Roman persecution under Emperor Diocletian.
Eusebius attended, for instance, the martyrdom of a number of Egyptian Christians who had settled in Tyre and were executed there. After being severely lashed, they were pushed out into the stadium. The animals were first “prepared” so as to be as mean as possible. Leopards, bears, wild boars and bulls were goaded and burnt with hot irons. Then they were released into the crowded arena. The victims had been ordered to wave their hands about so as to attract the animals to them.
But this time, Eusebius notes, it didn’t work as planned. “The man-eating beasts for a considerable time did not dare to touch or even approach the bodies of those who were dear to God, but made their attacks on the others who presumably were provoking and urging them on from the outside, while the holy champions were the only persons they did not reach at all… and sometimes, when the beasts would make a rush at them, they would be checked by, as it were, some divine power and once again retreat to the rear. And when this happened for a long time, it occasioned no small astonishment among the spectators so that, as the first beast did nothing, a second and third were let loose against one and the same martyr.”
True, the animals might come very close, as in the instance of one young Egyptian Christian man, aged about twenty, who stood with his hands outspread in the form of a cross. But, although he may well have felt the heat of their breath, “their mouths were muzzled, so to speak, and they ran back again to the rear.” One bull was so maddened that he tossed up some of the stadium attendants on his horns, leaving them half dead. “But, when he rushed in threatening anger at the holy martyrs as they stood unprotected, he was unable even to approach them, though he pawed with his feet and pushed with his horns this way and that.”
Finally, those in charge of the day’s “show” gave up. If the animals were going to be temperamental about their performances, the producers would have to solve the problem before the final “curtain.” Swordsmen were therefore sent in to behead the Christians.
God did not interfere this time, and the Christians won their crowns. The animals, under God’s direction, had “listened to reason.” It was the executioners who were the real beasts!
–Father Robert F. McNamara