Tertullian and “the Spectacles”

Last week I posted a small article about the Colosseum in Rome and promised a follow-up where I talked about Tertullian and his views.  Tertullian was an austere Christian writer from Carthage who lived from about 155 to 240 AD.  He wrote an “Apology” around 197 AD, during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus where he defended the Christian faith.  Shortly thereafter, he wrote a book addressed to Christians called “De Spectaculis” (“On the Spectacles”) where he discussed the subject of Roman theater, the Colosseum (i.e. the Flavian Amphitheater), festivals, and other forms of entertainment.

Tertullian was not a fan of these “spectacles.”  Some context is in order here, though.  The Roman entertainments had a religious undertone to them.  That is, they were instituted in honor of the Roman pagan gods.  Festivals were held, games celebrated, plays created, and gladiatorial bouts fought in the honor of the gods.  The gods themselves were immoral, sensual, libatious – thus, the games and events celebrated in their honor tended to be as well.

Therefore, the question arose of how involved Christians could be in these “spectacles.”  Was it proper for Christians to patronize these things?  Tertullian answered in the negative.  He believed that Christians, having been re-born as God’s children in Baptism, ought not to pollute themselves with spectacles such as these.  He writes, “Places do not of themselves defile us, but the things done in the places, by which even the places themselves (as we have argued) are defiled” (De Spectaculis VIII).

In addition to the fact that the Roman spectacles were dedicated to the gods, there was also the issue of the emotions and actions they aroused in the spectators.  Tertullian believed that the games incited people to irrational cheering or jeering, which was unbecoming of Christians.  He also believed that the actors of the theater publicly did things which, in private, people would be ashamed of.  Regarding the amphitheater, he believed that watching people fight, kill, and be killed for sport was soul-destroying.  The central issue for him really was the fact that these sorts of things corrupted the spectator: “Eyes and ears are the servants of the spirit, nor can the spirit be clean whose servants are dirty” (De Spectaculis XVII).

What application does this have in our own time?  How involved can Christians be in the culture around us (that was really Tertullian’s central point of investigation)?  To what extent should Christians shun the things of this world?

Those are good questions, without easy answers.  On the one hand, Christians are representatives of Christ, bringing his light and a foretaste of restoration to creation.  Thus, Christians are to be encouraged to participate in the arts in order to spread true beauty to them.  On the other hand, it cannot be denied that many of our modern spectacles can be as soul-destroying as they were in Tertullian’s time.

Therefore, like many things in life, I think the answer to these questions rests squarely, clearly in the muddy, gray area of life.  There are no set guidelines, other than to say that Christians are in the world to bear witness to God’s grace and mercy through Christ, and that there is much in the world which is corrupted and fallen which we must guard our souls against.  Between these two fence posts, we must walk until Christ returns to completely restore creation.


Picture is of the later Christian plaque on the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater) in Rome, reading in part:

The amphitheater, one consecrated to triumphs, entertainments, and the impious worship of pagan gods, is now dedicated to the sufferings of the martyrs purified from impious superstitions.