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Roman Amphitheater: I visit a Roman Amphitheater where the Christian martyrs Perpetua and Felicity were killed
Posted by Douglas, Jun 14, 2008. 2616 views. ID = 1385

Roman Amphitheater

Posted by Douglas, Jun 14, 2008. 2616 views. ID = 1385
This post was written in 14 minutes.
This post has been awarded 27 stars by 6 readers.
This post is Part 6 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man.

In the middle of a long rectangular meadow stands the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater. Ruins are ruins, but the natural course of decay is very different here on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. In Israel, ancient structures turn to a dry and irritating dust that is swept by hot winds, but here in North Africa, ancient buildings decay into a dark, heavy sod from which lush green grass and vines spring, coating the dead ruins with a layer of teeming life.

As I looked on the barely recognizable structure, I recalled the words of Augustine, who wrote in his Confessions of the "whirlpool of Carthaginian bad habits" and the "empty enthusiasm for shows in the Circus." I cannot help but wonder if Augustine himself once sat in these very seats and cheered for one gladiator or another as combatants circled warily under the African sun.

All the walls have fallen in, leaving only a foundation, and one lone pillar that juts upward toward the sky, supporting nothing. Even that lonely, brave pillar has not escaped the destruction of time; scrawled across its surface with a reddish-purple spray paint there is a lopsided heart - a pathetic symbol of some silly teenage romance that will not last more than a few weeks, yet has been immortalized on a centuries old landmark. The irony of it irritates me more than I care to admit.

But that single pillar helps to give a sense of magnitude to the structure. It helps me to imagine what this place was like with hundreds of spectators seated around the meadow, cheering fanatically for every entertainment that passed before their eyes. It helps me to get a sense for the tragic last days of Perpetua and Felicity.

Perpetua, a woman of well respected and noble family in the city of Carthage, converted to Christianity, though her father was a pagan, and Christianity was actively discouraged by the government. She, along with four other men and women, were imprisoned for their faith, and threatened with death in the gladiatorial arena if they should choose not to recant their faith. Felicity was Perpetua's slave, but more importantly, she was also a Christian, and so became one of Perpetua's cell mates. Between the two grew a bond of sisterhood and devotion that denied any meaning to the words master and slave. Strengthened and encouraged by one another throughout their captivity, they stayed true to their faith, right to the very end, when the wild bull tore into their bodies.

As I started down the steps that led to the subterranean caves where prisoners and wild animals had once been imprisoned in preparation for the games, I saw the short and stocky figure that had haunted me for so long. I saw him before he saw me, and I was tempted to return the way I had come. But I could not leave without seeing the plaque commemorating the brave deaths of these Christian martyrs. Perhaps the bovine man knew that about me.

He turned to look at me as I approached, but said nothing. I thought he looked tired and old, as though a great weight had been placed on his shoulders. After a moment, his dark and brooding gaze returned to the bronze plaque I had been looking for. It declared - in French - Here were martyred Perpetua and Felicity, March 6, 203.

After mentally translating the rest of the sign's message, I said - without looking at my silent and unwanted companion, "You're a long way from home."

He shrugged. "Not so far as you might think. I am at home in many places."

I'm not sure why I said it - perhaps because he looked so tired and haggard - but I hazarded a guess, "I don't think you are at home here, though."

He was silent for a long time, then with a sigh he said, "No. This place is no home to me."

"Yet you are here."

"Sometimes," he said, "You need to leave home in order to appreciate home."

I thought he was lying to me, but I didn't feel like engaging in conversation with him, so I made no response, except for a short grunt. I continued staring at the monument on the wall, thinking about the brave women who had lost their lives here. According to some versions of the story, the wild bull had not succeeded in killing them, so soldiers had to be dispatched to finish them off. The story continues that the soldiers were so troubled by the brave stand of these faithful matrons that they could not bring themselves to deliver the fatal blow. The martyrs, legend tells us, fearlessly guided the swords for them, in order to help them complete their monstrous task.

"I have never understood you Christians," the bovine man said with a tired sigh.


"This death was senseless. Pointless."

Remembering past conversations with this strange man, I replied, "More pointless than the deaths of innocent babes in the time of Herod, or the deaths of Jewish rebels at Masada?"

He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Irrelevant. Don't you see? The babies had no choice."

"The Jews at Masada had a choice," I argued.

He nodded. "Yes. Some of them. Not all." I thought of the terrified children lying in rows waiting for death, and I could not argue with him. "But these women. They died for nothing."

"Not for nothing," I protested. "For their faith."

"And what does that mean? For their faith?"

"Well," I said, grasping for an explanation, "They did it for the rewards of heaven and eternal life."

"Nonsense. You don't believe that any more than I do. Their reward was already secured before they marched into this arena. They could have taken the easy way out."

I remembered something Jesus had said that seemed to relate to taking the easy way out. "If you deny me before men..." I began quoting, but was interrupted in mid quotation.

"Don't quote that verse to me," the bovine man snapped, "This isn't what he was talking about, and you know it."

I didn't know it, actually; I couldn't remember the context well enough to be sure what the quotation meant. I held my peace.

"No," he said. I couldn't understand it, but from the tone of his voice he seemed angry - almost bitter - toward these two martyrs who had died centuries ago. "These women didn't gain anything by their martyrdom. They could have recanted, then gone on to live peaceful lives. Perhaps even remain secret Christians and spread their faith throughout North Africa."

"But others gained by it," I said passionately, as I realized I had some ground on which to argue with the him. "Don't you see? This monument has stood for centuries as an inspiration and encouragement to others. Do you think that hasn't spread their faith? And not just in North Africa, but around the world!"

He shrugged. "But to what end? Why would anyone want to be inspired by a brave death? So they too could be brave in death? Is that the sum total of your faith? An unending, unbroken line of brave people throughout history - starting with your Christ - marching courageously to their deaths? What purpose does that serve? Who wants a church filled with people eager to die? Isn't living much better than a tortured death? Isn't your entire faith just one horrible fixation on torture and death?"

In retrospect I thought of so many answers I could have given. I could have told him that to live is Christ, but to die is gain, that they - like Paul - were not eager to die, but eager to taste the joys of heaven. I could have told him that only those with courage enough to face death have the courage to face life. I could have told him that those who endure the fellowship of Christ's suffering also enjoy the fellowship of His glory. I could have told him...

But I waited too long, and the bovine man tired of waiting for a response. He yawned. That was something I hadn't yet seen him do, up to this point in our interactions. "I'm bored of this place," he said. His anger had turned in a moment to indifference. "It is tedious and tiring. I want to go home." Then, with a nasty grin, he said, "Would you like to see my home here in Carthage?"

I was discouraged and frustrated; for just a moment I had thought I was getting through to him, but now that moment was gone. I wanted to say "No." At least, I thought that was what I wanted to say. The truth is, though, that I always say exactly what I want to say; sometimes my mouth is the first thing to reveal to me what I really want. Maybe it was simple curiosity, or maybe it was my desire to convince him of my view of things, but for whatever reason, I found myself agreeing to follow him to his home.

What I saw next has haunted me ever since.

Copyright 2008 Douglas. All rights reserved. has been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work. For permission to reprint this item, please contact the author.

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This post has been awarded 27 stars by 6 readers.
This post is Part 6 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man. The next part of this series can be found here: Necropolis.
This is a revised version of a post. Click here to view the original version

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