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Christians in the amphitheater? The ‘Christianization’ of spectacle buildings and martyrial memory
By Kim Bowes
Mélanges de l’École française de Rome – Moyen Âge, Vol.126:1 (2014)
Abstract: In order to place the site of Sant’Agnese in Agone in its broader late antique and early medieval context, this article presents an overview of the archaeological evidence for Christian spaces inside spectacle buildings – stadia, hippodromes, theaters and amphitheaters. It suggests that the « Christianization » of such buildings was very rare, and in only a few cases linked to martyrial commemoration. The paper concludes by suggesting some reasons why spectacle buildings should have been so infrequently associated with martyrial memory.
Introduction: Ever since Gibbon, scholars have been fascinated with the re-use of ancient buildings for Christian ritual. As it was for Gibbon, listening to the footsteps of monks rustling over the same stones that used to form the Capitoline Temple but had become the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, the « conversion » of such buildings (the common use of the term is significant) has signified more than a simple change of function, but rather has served as a physical synecdoche for the far more complex, messier process we term the « Christianization » of the ancient world. So evocative was the notion of Christians literally building their churches atop the temples of the traditional religion that previous generations of scholars tended to gloss over the very different archaeological contexts for such conversions – the state and function of the building at time of its conversion, its date, and the frequency with which such substitutions took place. Instead, all such examples were read as marking the deliberate « triumph » of Christianity over paganism, and it was assumed that such triumphalist conversions were the norm.
More recent work has complicated this simple narrative. More careful studies have paid attention to the archaeological succession of temple to church, finding that the temples in question may have been abandoned for centuries and their stones simply quarried for many projects, including churches. In still densely populated cities, temples may have constituted rare available building plots in prime downtown locations. Some temples were wholly erased by the churches atop them, while others were carefully preserved to broadcast the substitution of one building for the other. Finally, it now seems clear that in most regions of the empire, the vast majority of temples were simply left to decay and nothing was built over or with their remains – either a kind of death by snubbing, or simply a disinterest in the kind of pagan-Christian fisticuffs with which modern scholars have been so fascinated.
Those interested in the material culture of « Christianization » have largely focused on temple-church conversions. The use of spectacle buildings for churches has seen less systematic study, but has been assumed to be both ubiquitous and thus pregnant with triumphalist meaning4. Amphitheaters, hippodromes, stadia, and theaters – what I shall here shorthand as « spectacle buildings » – are assumed to have been the spaces of Christian martyrdom. Thus, the appearance of later churches in these spaces is often thus interpreted as marking the actual locus where the martyr met his or her death, and thus the elevation of the criminals of one regime to the heroes of another.