Spectator sports and entertainment were fully developed by the Romans so as to satisfy the common people’s lust for excitement and blood. Even the rush for seats was an excitement in itself; there were no reserved seats until the time of Augustus. In the arena, condemned criminals fought against wild animals-lions, bears, elephants, and hyenas- and the crowd would urge on the contest. Paul says that he fought against wild beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32), but he may have been referring to the experiences recorded in Acts 19 in a metaphorical way (see also Hebrews 10:33).

In order to maintain the crowd’s excitement, the early contestants word armour, but by midday they were led naked into the arena. When Paul wrote, “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle” (1 Corinthians 4:9), he may have been referring to this practice.

Other spectator contests to the death involved the gladiators. They were specially trained slaves. The use of gladiators originated in connection with funerals as a means of dispatching slaves to go with their master while at the same time providing entertainment for the funeral guests. Then contests between gladiators became a state entertainment. Gladiators were trained in the use of different techniques and weapons. Some fought with swords and shields. A wounded gladiator had to lay down his arms. If the spectators gave the “thumbs up” signal, his opponent was being given permission to kill him; the thumbs down meant that his life was spared. Others used a net and a trident to try to beat an opponent with sword and shield. Most spectacular was the mass battle, eighty-five men on each side. The last one remaining alive received a crown.

Another popular sport was chariot racing, which took place in the hippodrome. Charioteers were the sports heroes of the day. They raced seven laps (six miles) of the stadium, protected with crash helmets and lashed to their chariots. If there was a crash, the charioteer had to cut himself free. It was also big business. Wealthy patrons had slaves trained to race the chariots and to buy the equipment, and much money was placed in bets on the result of races.

The Theatre

The theatre was an important building for public meetings as well as for drama (see Acts 19:29). The Jews watched very little drama and acted very little. This may have been because the part of the dramatist was taken by the story-teller, who kept alive the history of Israel. It may also have been because the Greeks turned the theatre into a religious occasion. Theatres appeared throughout the Greco-Roman world. The Romans built them wherever a natural site made it convenient to provide a tiered auditorium, without having to make a free-standing building. The auditorium was semicircular, around a stage and its buildings. The seating was arranged in an upper and lower tier and was graded according to rank. Special accommodation was reserved for distinguished guest. Access was gained through vaulted passageways, interconnected with vaulted corridors; the passageways divided up the tiers into blocks of seats. Theatre was quite popular; there were three theatres in the city of Gerasa.


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