History lesson: gladiators and martyrs to the faith

| Will Herrmann | January 13, 2020 | 0 Comments

Following Sunday Mass at the Pontifical North American College (celebrated by alumnus Archbishop Hebda and assisted by seminarians from our archdiocese as part of our ad limina pilgrimage to Rome), we met art historian Elizabeth Lev for a tour of pre-Christian sites of the city, beginning at the iconic Colosseum.

Since I had taken four years of Latin in high school (and love the movie “Gladiator”), I was familiar with this magnificent structure and its gladiatorial games. Seeing this engineering marvel up close was incredible, and I was especially impressed to see the network of underground passageways and trap door shafts that allowed for dramatic changes of set pieces and scenery.

Will Herrmann at the Coliseum in Rome. Courtesy Will Herrmann

Lev explained that the reason the Colosseum is in such good shape today is because of papal restoration projects. Why would popes preserve such a site? Because it was where uncounted Christians were martyred. The Romans gave little thought to the human dignity of these “cannibals” who were known to eat flesh and drink blood in their clandestine Masses, and so their grotesque deaths became entertainment for 65,000 cheering spectators. For this reason, Pope Benedict XIV erected Stations of the Cross around the arena, one of which I could see displayed alongside a bronze cross honoring these martyrs.

Learning so much about this legacy and seeing the place firsthand brought about conflicting feelings within me. For years I had this romantic idea of the Colosseum as a masterpiece of engineering in which gladiator slaves fought for their freedom. And yet there is nothing noble about people dying for their faith for the perverse entertainment of the masses. Is it possible to admire such an amazing place while also feeling sorrowful of the atrocities that took place there?

Our tour took us to the Arch of Titus adorned with carvings celebrating the eponymous emperor’s sack of Jerusalem, in which the Temple was destroyed. This arch also honored Titus’ ascension to godhood. Entering the Forum, we passed more structures honoring the apotheosis (glorification of a subject to godhood) of other emperors, the first of whom was said to be Julius Caesar. His adopted son, Emperor Caesar Augustus, encouraged this religious development as a tool for building a Roman identity.

But ironically, Augustus had another, unexpected influence on religion. He ordered a census that brought a husband and wife to the town of Bethlehem ,where they gave birth to a son. Years later, two men named Peter and Paul came to the city of Caesar. They laid down their lives as they told of one who died and rose again. Not a man who became a god, but a God who became a man.

As I looked at the domes of at least a dozen basilicas visible from where I stood, I realized how the martyrs and saints surrounding me attested to the power of this simple truth. I said a silent prayer thanking God that by entering the Catholic Church this past Easter, I am now part of this family.

Will Herrmann

St. Bonaventure, Bloomington, MN

(Editor’s note: Will is among young adults blogging their experiences for The Catholic Spirit while in Rome. Find additional posts and stories in our Ad Limina Blog special section.)


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