The Colosseum: a Symbol of Martyrs

Interview With Fabrizio Bisconti of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Archaeology

Rome, (Zenit.org) H. Sergio Mora | 2226 hits

This year again on Good Friday, the Colosseum was the magnificent framework of the Via Crucis, presided over by Pope Francis. 

But was the Flavius amphitheater a place of persecutions and martyrdoms? Although the possibility is not excluded, there are no written or literary documents that confirm it. In fact, during the period of the great Christian persecutions it was already in disuse.

The Colosseum is, in fact, the symbol of many amphitheaters of the Roman age in which martyrdoms took place. There are written documents to this effect by pagan historians, leaving no room for doubt.

ZENIT interviewed professor Fabrizio Bisconti, one of the most important contemporary scholars on the subject, who is secretary and professor of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, as well as professor at the University Roma Tre. He is the author of more than 100 publications.

ZENIT: The Via Crucis took place in the Colosseum on Good Friday. Was this the place of Christians' martyrdom or is this just a legend?

Bisconti: I developed the theme of this thinking in my last book published in February, titled "The First Christian, the Stories, the Monuments and the Figures." The phenomenon of martyrdoms is certain. We are told about it by pagan sources, such as the historians of the time Tacitus and Suetonius, <who wrote about the martyrdom under Nero>, and the Christian sources, beginning with Clement of Rome, as well as by the Fathers of the Church: Tertullian and Minucius Felice, and later on in the mature age of the Church, by Augustine and Ambrose.

The great persecutions, after those of Nero, took place in the time of Domitian in the 3rd century and in the middle years with Decius in 250 and Valerian around 258. And then there was the great persecution of Diocletian, at the beginning of the 4th century, which affected the whole ancient Christian world.

ZENIT: Did everything change with the Edict of Milan in 313?

Bisconti: The persecutions ended with this edict of tolerance. There had already been a measure of tolerance under Valerian, but paganism did not end, in the sense that <Christianity> was not the official religion until the end of the 4th century with [Emperor] Theodosius.

ZENIT: What happened then?

Bisconti: The pagan temples were brought down and the churches restored, because during the previous persecutions churches and cemeteries had been confiscated. The great basilicas were built during the time of Constantine, and are in fact called Constantinian: the Lateran, Saint Peter's in the Vatican, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Apostoleion in Constantinople. Many shrines, including Roman ones and others in the world, monumentalize the tombs of martyrs and attract pilgrims to these tombs. The Roman circuit of shrines was very important in the High Middle Ages.

ZENIT: Which were the main places of martyrdom in Rome?

Bisconti: The small persecutions took place in open environments, not always specified. During Nero's time, they were carried out especially in amphitheaters, not in fact in the Colosseum, but in amphitheaters and amusement places and also in the emperor's gardens. It is known that, in gardens of the emperor Nero, Christians were burnt as human torches at sunset; ancient authors tell us. Many Christians were also crucified in several urban and suburban places of Rome during the circus games. Tacitus and Suetonius tell us that some were destroyed by beasts, while others were murdered by the "retiari," the gladiators, with nets and tridents. But also in other cities such as Lyon in France, in the amphitheater of Carthage in Africa, where there is more detailed information because they are recorded in the minutes of the martyrdoms.

ZENIT: And if martyrdoms took place in amphitheaters, one can suppose that they also took place in the Colosseum?

Bisconti: Yes, but we don't have literary information or any other sort of information to give us certainty. The persecutions took place in the 3rd century, when the Colosseum was no longer being used. This is the historical or chronological problem.

ZENIT: So it has been regarded as a symbol?

Bisconti: The amphitheaters were the places designed for the performance of games, and among them we know that tortures could be included. We can theorize about something sporadic in Rome's Colosseum. However, persecutions, such as Nero's, were delimited, and could hardly have taken place in an amphitheater as large as the Colosseum. In the 3rd century, when the persecutions were at their height, this amphitheater had fallen into decadence.

ZENIT: In what other places of Rome did martyrdoms take place?

Bisconti: We don't have precise sources other than the Vatican's gardens. We know that persecutions existed under Julian the Apostate, who tried to restore paganism. Not excluded is the possibility that Saints John and Paul were in fact murdered in their "domus" in the Celio, where there is a basilica. In fact, it is the only shrine of martyrs with a confessio that remembered them in the 5th century.

ZENIT: And the catacombs?

Bisconti: They received the bodies of martyrs, but were not places of martyrdom or hiding. They are cemeteries, large dormitories of the community awaiting the resurrection. For instance, they received martyrs, such as Peter and Marcellinus on the via Labicana, Agnes in the via Nomentana, Lawrence in the Lateran, etc.

ZENIT: At times there are confusions about names and places. Are there documents that are beyond doubt?

Bisconti: There are very important documents, such as the Depositio Martyrum, as well as the Depositio Episcoporum, written in all probability around 336. We are in the 4th century, an ancient period. There are even older documents in the archives. The one of the martyrs is the most reliable. It is a document taken up by the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, which extends the previous one to the 5th century. It is the surest one. They are undoubtedly the martyrs that were in Rome. The Medieval accounts are less reliable.

ZENIT: And the tombs with more than 2,000 martyrs in Saint Praxedes?

Bisconti: They are probably not martyrs but Christians who were brought to the catacombs in the Middle Ages at the time of Pope Paschal I, in the 9th century. They were brought as martyrs to the crypt of this High Middle Ages basilica.

ZENIT: What does your recent book, "The First Christians, the Stories, the Monuments and the Figures" include?

Bisconti: It takes up a series of articles published by L'Osservatore Romano on the Paleo-Christian period. It discusses the three great topics, the history of the Old and New Testament, the monuments, and the figures in Christian imagery of the first centuries. It has an Introduction by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi.

[Translation by ZENIT]