Were Christians really thrown to the lions?

January 30, 2009

Dear Cecil:

My friend says Christians weren't actually thrown to the lions in ancient Rome, but when I was at the Colosseum, I saw a big cross there in honor of all the Christians martyred at that spot. He insists this was just made up by the church to perpetuate their religion. What gives?

Cecil replies:

The story has its suspicious aspects, I guess. According to the historian Tacitus, Christians during Nero's time (at least) were mainly torn apart by dogs, crucified, or burned alive — no mention of lions. The Romans did throw people to lions on occasion, and Tertullian, writing later, remarks that the Romans were always ready to exclaim "Away with the Christians to the lion!" whenever times got tough. However, Tertullian doesn't claim he witnessed any martyrdoms-by-lion personally, and anyway he was a Christian himself. Fact is, while the Romans evidently fed Christians to animals, and people to lions, we have no source stating directly that they specifically fed Christians to lions. So theoretically it's possible the whole Christians-lions thing was a Christian ploy for sympathy.

But probably not. The Romans did a big business in mass slaughter by and of animals, showing great enterprise in arranging dramatic forms of killing, so if they didn't throw any Christians to the lions, it was likely an oversight. While record keeping at the time wasn't the best, and many early Christian texts have their implausible moments, here's what we can say with reasonable certainty:

1. During the early Christian era, the Romans executed some prisoners using animals, sentencing them ad bestias, "to the beasts." The beasts in question included dogs, bears, boars, and lions.

2. Christians were executed by the boatload during that time, often in cruel and unusual ways, with animals regularly playing a role. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote letters en route to execution in Rome predicting he’d be thrown to the beasts. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was threatened with being thrown to the beasts but as it turned out was finished off by the sword. Possibly no one saw more animal action than the Christian priest Saturus — reportedly he was first tied to a boar (which turned on its handler instead), then exposed to a bear (it proved too cowardly to attack him), and finally killed by a leopard. Speaking of Nero's persecutions, Tacitus adds the detail that the emperor had Christians dressed in the skins of animals before throwing them to the dogs, possibly to help overcome any performance anxiety on the dogs’ part.

3. Animals weren't used just for execution in ancient Rome; animal combat, usually ending in the animals' demise, was unfailingly popular. Sometimes armed men fought beasts; sometimes the beasts were made to fight one another. Such games, originally held for religious purposes, became ever more lavish and were staged in amphitheaters across the empire. One well-loved event was the venatio, or hunt, often conducted amid elaborately constructed scenery, including real trees, rocky hills, artificial lakes, and the like.

4. Roman executions typically were considered a form of public spectacle. When coinciding with a game day, they usually took place during the midday break between the morning animal hunts and the afternoon gladiator matches. A favored method was exposing an unarmed criminal to lions or bears. Since it’s pretty clear that Christians were at times sentenced to death by beast (see 1 and 2 above), one may surmise that some of them met their end via lion in front of a Colosseum crowd, but we have no sure knowledge of this. The entertainment value of executions was apparently low due to their sheer number — many people found them boring, either leaving for lunch or sticking around and writing letters to friends about the tedium.

5. You have to think the killing of animals might have eventually gotten dull as well — it’s estimated that 9,000 beasts were slain during the inaugural games of the Colosseum alone (possibly an exaggeration; another source says 3,500 during 26 events). Over time more exotic animals were introduced to hold the crowd's interest: lions and panthers turned up in 186 BC, bears and elephants in 169 BC, hippos and crocodiles in 58 BC. Pompey brought rhinos to Rome; Caesar wowed 'em with giraffes. The ever-growing number and variety of animals required put a considerable burden on the supply chain. In his Natural History Pliny the Elder tells us lions were originally hard to catch (the idea was to chase them into covered pits), but later it was discovered they could be subdued by throwing a cloak over their heads. Elephants were captured and tamed by beatings and starvation. A major source of animals was the Roman army, which had a special rank (venator immunis) for those in charge of animal procurement.

A sorry business for sure, but Roman animal sports did at least provide an answer to one perennial question: Which is tougher, a bull or a rhino? Answer: Never bet against a rhino, which according to the writer Martial had no problem getting its horn under a bull and flipping it like a flapjack.

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References

Boatwright, Mary T. "Theaters in the Roman Empire." The Biblical Archaeologist 53.4 (Dec., 1990): 184-192.

Chevallier, Temple et al. “A Translation of the Epistles of Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Ignatius, and of the First Apology of Justin Martyr: With an Introduction and Brief Notes Illustrative of the Ecclesiastical History of the First Two Centuries” Translated by Temple Chevallier, Published by New-York Protestant Episcopal Press, 1834.

Coleman, K.M. "Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments." The Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990): 44-73.

Epplett, Christopher. "The Capture of Animals by the Roman Military." Greece & Rome, Second Series 48.2 (Oct., 2001): 210-222.

Parker, Grant "Ex Oriente Luxuria: Indian Commodities and Roman Experience." Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 45.1 (2002): 40-95.

Paschke, Boris A. “The Roman ad bestias Execution as a Possible Historical Background for 1 Peter 5.8.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.4 (2006).

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 8, subsection 16-17, 54.

Poynton, J.B. "The Public Games of the Romans." Greece & Rome 7.20 (Feb., 1938): 76-85.

Scarre, Chris. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1995.

Thompson, Leonard L. "The Martyrdom of Polycarp: Death in the Roman Games." The Journal of Religion 82.1 (Jan., 2002): 27-52.

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