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Pompa diaboli: Christian Rhetoric, Imperial Law, and the Roman Games

Jacob Latham

University of Tennessee

Pompa diaboli: Christian Rhetoric, Imperial Law, and the Roman Games

Standing at the head of a long Christian rhetorical tradition, Tertullian insisted that Christians “have nothing to do with the madness of the circus, the shameless of the theater, or the savagery of the arena” (Apol. 38.4). Despite such efforts, games and spectacles continued with Christians of all stripes in attendance. Even so, Christian rhetoric seems to have had an effect on how the games were framed by Christian emperors, who needed to satisfy both Christian opinion makers and their other subjects. Late-antique emperors could not dispense with what had become the central stage of imperial political theater, but they could argue in law that the games had been freed from superstition (i.e. sacrifice and image devotion) and were thus “safe,” not to say secular, ancestral amusements.

According to Tertullian, “rather more pompous is the pomp of the circus, to which the term pompa properly belongs. The pompa (procession) comes first” (Spect. 7.2). Indeed, the pompa circensis seems to have inpsired the phrase pompa diaboli, the “pomps [or procession] of the Devil,” renounced during Christian baptism (Waszink accepted by Curran and Latham). From Minucius Felix, a near contemporary of Tertullian, who insisted that Christians “rightly keep aloof from wicked amusements, processions, and spectacles” (Oct. 37.11) to Caesarius of Arles in the mid sixth century CE, who denounced “all spectacles whether furious, cruel, or shameful [as] pomps of the Devil [pompae diaboli],” (Serm. 12.4) the circus procession and the games which followed were condemned (DeVoe, French, Jiménez Sánchez, Kahlos, and Lugaresi). Such moralizing invective had, of course, a venerable classical past—Seneca, for example, argued that the shows were bad for the soul (Ep. 7.2-5)—and Christian criticisms had about as much impact as their classical, largely philosophical, predecessors: not much (Mammel and Wistrand). Indeed, Tertullian and Novatian (mid-third century CE) argued with other Christians who deployed scripture to justify their attendance. Christian atttendance at and Christian criticisms of the games lasted as long as the games themselves.

Little effect does not, however, mean no effect. The relentless assault of Christian rhetoric and the enduring value of the games caught the emperors in a double bind. On the one hand, as Christians, late antique emperors felt compelled to acknowledge, if not exactly to obey, the dictates of Christian opinion makers. On the other hand, Christian emperors and the aristocracy, whether “pagan” or Christian, deeply coveted the stage that the games offered. To appease critics and to allow the games to continue a two-pronged imperial strategy developed. First, the games were “de-sacralized” or even “de-paganized” with the legal prohibition of sacrifice and image devotion and the legal demotion of “pagan” religious holidays and, second, the games were re-interpreted as ancestral amusements (Markus, Belayche, and Soler). Such “secularized” and traditional entertainment need not trouble anyone. Though the games had long been construed as customary pleasures (e.g. Cic. Mur. 74), late antique law employed the trope rather prodigiously, in response, it seems, to equally prodigious Christian critiques (Salzman and Lim). For example, in a law of 399, Arcadius and Honorius (or rather their quaestor) succintly and precisely summarized the legal re-framing of the games: “according to ancient custom, amusements shall be furnished to the people, but without any sacrifice or any accursed superstition.” (CTh 16.10.17, Hunt, Bradbury, and Sandwell).

Stripped of sacrifices and shorn of image devotion, games, shows, and spectacles were re-interpreted, at least in law if not also in practice, as the neutral, not to say secular, and customary amusements of the people. The games were decadent, the games were immoral. Sure. But the games must go on!

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Spectacle and Authority

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