Fought in stadiums before tens of thousands of boisterous onlookers, ancient Roman gladiator duels are well known today—more than 1,600 years since the last one was fought. Too few people, however, know of the one man who deserves the most credit for bringing those bloody spectacles to an end. A lowly monk from either Turkey or Egypt, his name was Telemachus.
By the old Julian calendar of Telemachus’s day, he performed his famous duel-ending deed on January 1, 404 A.D. You can wait a couple of weeks and celebrate it on January 14 if you choose, because that’s the corresponding date in the Gregorian calendar the world uses today. Before I tell you what this humble humanitarian did, allow me to provide some historical background.
The History of Gladiators
The Latin root of “gladiator” is “gladius,” meaning “sword.” Gladiators (swordsmen) were combatants armed with swords but also with spears, daggers, and nets. They sparred in the arenas throughout the welfare/warfare state of the late Roman Republic and for the great majority of the period of the Roman Empire.
The most famous of all Roman gladiators was Spartacus (not to be confused with New Jersey Senator and presidential flame-out Cory Booker). He fought fiercely in the arenas, escaped, and led a failed slave revolt in 73-71 B.C.
The bloodiest shows in Roman arenas, the still-surviving Coliseum being the best-known, did not involve the professional gladiators.
Gladiators entertained the increasingly morbid sentiments of a public thirsty for blood. Most were free men. A small number were women. Professional gladiators were a privileged class in ancient Rome, even endorsing products as idolized athletes. An especially illuminating article about them is “Misconceptions About Roman Gladiators” by Indiana University historian Spencer Alexander McDaniel.
Emperor Commodus, who joined in the killing as a gladiator himself on numerous occasions, once decapitated an ostrich in an amphitheater. Then, holding the head aloft, he signaled to the senators present that they might be next. Power corrupts, just as Lord Acton told us.
The bloodiest shows in Roman arenas, the still-surviving Coliseum being the best-known, did not involve the professional gladiators. The combatants in those instances were prisoners of war or criminals condemned to death. Others were slaves and were forced to fight to their last breath. They not only fought each other but frequently even wild animals—including lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!).
A Simple Monk and a Declining Rome
By January 404, the remaining days of the western Roman Empire were numbered. Its decadence moderated slightly by the legalization of Christianity in the previous century, it would nonetheless fall like ripe fruit to barbarian invaders in 476. In 410, Rome itself was briefly occupied and sacked by the Visigoths. The place had largely become a moral cesspool run by brutal and often megalomaniacal tyrants—men who controlled whatever aspects of other people’s lives their whims fancied.
In this environment, Telemachus made his appearance. Rome was his destination after a long sojourn from Asia Minor. A stadium packed with raucous, sadistic pagans may not sound like a place that would attract a pious pilgrim, but Telemachus was on a mission. What happened on that fateful January day in 404 was recorded as follows by Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus in Book V of his Ecclesiastical History:
There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant and inspired by the fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.
When the admirable Emperor (Honorius) was informed of this he numbered Telemachus among the victorious martyrs and put an end to that impious spectacle.
Another account claims that as he raised his arms between dueling gladiators, Telemachus repeatedly cried out, “In the name of Christ, stop!” Yet another, though likely spurious one, reports that the spectators fell silent at the monk’s murder and then, one by one, quietly filed out of the stadium. There’s no real dispute over this central fact, however: Moved by those last, courageous moments of Telemachus’s life, Emperor Honorius immediately stopped the killing games of ancient Rome—forever.
One Person Can Make a Difference
One man made a difference. He was a man of little note before January 1, 404. We know almost nothing else about him but what I’ve told you here. It’s likely that few, if any, in the stadium that day noticed him when he entered, but they all knew afterward what he came for and what he did.
He loved and valued life—the lives of others at least as much as he cherished his own.
Without knowing the outcome, Telemachus gave his life for something in which he strongly believed. He surely realized that the odds he could succeed were long at best. It’s doubtful he put himself in danger because he thought that doing so would result in earthly fame, fortune or power for himself. While it might be tempting to dismiss him as nuts or stupid or naively altruistic, I suspect his motivation was quite noble: He loved and valued life—the lives of others at least as much as he cherished his own.
Some people write or speak about their principles, and that’s perfectly fine. I do that a lot myself. But one graduates to a higher level of conviction and commitment when he (or she) assumes the ultimate risk and pays the ultimate price on behalf of those principles. Though they are a small minority, such heroes appear again and again in human history.
I’m grateful for that fact, and I am inspired by it. I hope you are too.
Happy New Year!
For related information, see www.fee.org/rome