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A Spectacle in Rome

A Spectacle in Rome

Most people have heard about what happened in the Roman Colosseum, where Christians, criminals, slaves, and other “undesirables” were hauled into an arena and executed. Some say that most Christian martyrs were slaughtered in the Circus Maximus, not the Colosseum, but wherever it took place, this was entertainment to the bloodthirsty Roman crowd.

People love a spectacle. Always have. Always will.

But did you know that the Romans also held full-scale naval battles as entertainment? In 46 B.C., to celebrate the victories of Julius Caesar, the Romans created a man-made lake where they staged a battle between two fleets of ships. These were full-scale ships, featuring as many as 6,000 fighters.

What’s more, these were real battles, where real blood flowed and real people died or were badly injured, writes a recent article in National Geographic History magazine. Today, we put our violence into spectacles on the big screen, but it’s all fakery and special effects. In Rome, it was real.

Like today’s big-budget movies, these Roman spectacles were very expensive, which was why they weren’t held very often. When Emperor Claudius staged a battle on a lake, he used 100 boats and 16,000 fighters, all of them criminals. Armed guards surrounded them, standing on pontoons and forcing the criminals to fight. And if they wouldn’t agree to fight, the guards would kill them anyway.

While most of these battles were staged on lakes, some believe that the Colosseum in Rome was flooded so that naval battles could be staged there. I visited the Colosseum ruins last year, and they are quite impressive—although depressing when you think about what went on there. Looking down on the floor of the enormous arena, you can still see the tunnels where the wild animals were kept, and I even saw their ingenious early elevators, used to raise people, animals, and stage sets to the floor above. It’s amazing.

But could the Colosseum hold water? Some researchers say it’s possible, although it would have required 1,120,000 gallons, says National Geographic History magazine.

What is it about spectacles that attract us? Not all of them are about violence, of course. Many can be joyous. Just think of the Fourth of July fireworks that have knocked your socks off, or the Disney World ride that made your head spin. But let’s face it. People today are still drawn to catastrophic spectacles, such as floods, fires, and car accidents.

In Rome, crucifixion was one of the most awful spectacles, and they were conducted in the most visible of places as a warning to others not to run afoul of the law. So I find it fascinating that in Colossians 2:13b-15, Paul writes this about the cross:

“God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Did you catch that? Jesus made a “public spectacle” of the powers and authorities that tried to kill Him on the cross. The powers and authorities tried to make a spectacle of Jesus by lifting Him up on the cross for all to see and gawk, but He turned the tables and made a spectacle out of them.

While Romans were forcing people to kill each for entertainment, Jesus was conquering death and walking out of a tomb…alive! The powers and authorities looked like fools, and they nearly lost their minds when they realized they couldn’t find His body.

We have been cheering ever since because this is a spectacle we can all jump to our feet and applaud. I’ll take it over an IMAX movie any day.

History by the Slice Family Activity

Read about the Colosseum online, then read Romans 5:1-11 and Colossians 2:13-15. Discuss these questions:

  1. Why does Paul say we should glory in our suffering?
  2. How does suffering produce perseverance?
  3. How does perseverance produce character? What does it mean by “character” here?
  4. How does character produce hope?
  5. How are we reconciled to God through the cross? What does it mean to be reconciled?
  6. What does Paul mean when he says Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities”?
  7. How did Jesus make a spectacle of the powers and authorities?

By: Doug Peterson has written 42 books for VeggieTales and is the author of four historical novels: The Disappearing Man, The Puzzle People, The Vanishing Woman, and The Lincoln League. Visit Doug at

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