What happened to the Colosseum in Rome?


Ever thought about it? What caused the Colosseum to close down? I didn’t, till I read this story of a monk from Asia. There is one thing that is very “sacred” to all people: their pleasures. They will enjoy it and defend it – irrespective of the type of pleasure or the consequences of their pleasures. For some, it is women, for other theatre, movies, race cars, rugby, cricket, soccer, smoking and many others. Every country has its own. The Romans had several. One of them was the killing of people in the Colosseum in Rome. Tens of thousands of Christians were fed to wild beasts in the Colosseum. And later it expanded to gladiators that were trained and were fighting till the last man stands. Romans liked blood. That was their sport.

Not that we do not like blood today. We just have other names for it. More about that on another day.

So what stopped the blood-hungry Romans. What stopped them to satisfy their thirst for blood as entertainment?

Telemachus was a monk from Asia, a monk with a lofty mission burning in his heart. He knew of the Roman arena. Of the cruel scenes that delighted the pagans there, and his mind could not rest while he knew that such wickedness still lived in the world. But what could one man do about it?

Nothing. Not if he stayed in Asia anyway. So, with no clear plan in mind, but with the sure knowledge that God had called him, Telemachus departed on foot for the western capital. Hundreds, then thousands, of miles he travelled, through heat and cold, wind and rain, alone with his God and his mission.

‘Lord, I know not what You plan for me, but I ask only one thing- that You find me not unworthy of this mission.’

It was New Year’s Day 404 that Telemachus finally arrived in the city of Rome.

‘Lord, I am here. What am I to do?

Telemachus made his way to the arena, and like everyone else was soon seated inside as the day’s entertainment began. The scene can hardly be imagined. The cruel Romans delighted in the sight of bloodshed, but to the most bloodthirsty, simple murder can become boring rather quickly. They had developed a variety of means to make death more interesting.

Gladiators with a short sword and full body armour would be pitted against others who were without shield, but provided with a long trident (a three-pointed pitchfork) and a strong net. The crowd would roar with delight as the cumbersome armoured man became trapped in the net, trying to avoid his enemy’s trident and get in a blow with his short sword at the same time. Some of the gladiators were forced to wear bronze helmets, with no eyeholes. Two poor souls dressed in such helmet could provide endless amusement to their cruel audience as they swung at each other wildly, dodging blows when none were coming and then being struck totally unawares. It could be a long time before his opponent’s random blows finally vanquished one. Even women were thrown into the arena to fight before the insane crowd. 

‘O, Lord!’ Telemachus cried. ‘No!’

The monk watched in helpless exasperation as young men attacked each with a savagery that only certain death can provide.

‘Lord, bring this horror to an end!’

Unable to sit a moment longer, Telemachus began to push his way through the cheering crowd. A look of grim determination was etched upon his face as he made his way to the lowest tier, oblivious to the shoves and curses that came his way. He sprang over the partition, and seconds later was dashing across the arena floor towards the two combatants.

For a few seconds, the crowd roared with laughter at the unusual sight, this shabbily dressed foreigner running wildly into the danger zone on the Colosseum floor, but silence fell as Telemachus separated the warriors, stood between them and addressed them in a powerful voice.

‘For the sake of Christ, I beg you to show true bravery,’ he cried. ‘Don’t fight like animals to amuse these savages! If you must, offer your neck to the sword of the foe, but do not bring this guilt upon yourselves! Put your trust in the eternal life which Christ offers, and do not fear what men can do to you!’  The weary gladiators stood silent and uncertain. Exhausted and bloody, they listened with full attention to the earnest Christian’s words. The crowd also was silenced – but not for long.

‘You filthy beast!’ Enraged at the interruption of their vile pleasures, the crowd exploded with demonic fury. ‘Kill him!’ They began to throw stones, and whatever rubbish came to hand at the defenceless monk, as he turned his attention to them.

‘Only Jesus can set you free!’

With a roar, the crowd burst over the barricades, and within seconds they were upon him. The monk soon collapses beneath their blows.

‘Lord forgive them! They know not what they do.”

Telemachus breathed his last and entered the life that knows no horror, no pain. But what had he achieved? What had God accomplished in sending him across the world to die on the Colosseum floor? The answer was soon revealed.

Telemachus had not died in vain. News of his death had drawn an immediate and furious response from the Christian population. Emperor Honorius heard about what Telemachus had done. ‘Gladiatorial combats are prohibited,’ came the imperial order. ‘Organizers of such events shall be severely punished.’ The chief attraction of the great Roman arena, the Colosseum (and also the Circus Maximus) was outlawed, and the scene of untold suffering eventually fell into disuse and was left to crumble slowly. Its remains stand to this day as a reminder of the horror of the pagan past.

Not a few pagans, brought to their senses by this last victim of the amphitheatre, were converted soon after the fateful day. One account said that after what happened in the amphitheatre on that day, many just got up and silently left – never to come back.

St. Telemachus’ death is commemorated on the first of January. At the beginning of each year, we should perhaps spare a thought for all those Christians who have given their lives to give us something much more significant than a new year. They have bought with their blood a new world.


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About the author

Bennie Mostert
By Bennie Mostert