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Spectacles for the People

Christians, said St. Augustine, must give people something better to love and be prepared to embrace the martyrdom of everyday life.

Exterior of the Colosseum in Rome (Diana Ringo/Wikipedia)

In the ancient Lavinium, a port city thirty miles south of Rome, the people celebrated the festival of the god Liber for a whole month. The main festivity was a parade which included a large statue of the male sexual organ on a small cart. The parade lasted several weeks, starting in the rural districts until it came to a stop at a certain crossroads, where Bacchanalia ensued, and eventually the member made its way into the city. Before it entered into its temple, the most respected matron of the town publicly had to crown the statue with a wreath.

This story came to mind recently as I was reading about Jessica (née Jonathan) Yaniv, a Canadian transgender woman (née man) who is suing several women, including a Brazilian immigrant mother, who refused to wax her testicles. This case is being heard in a British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and no one yet knows whether the court will decide, in accord with our #MeToo sensitivities, that no one should be forced against her will to touch another person’s sexual members or, faithful to our transgender sympathies, that an honorable matron will have to give up her scruples and participate. This may seem like an extreme case that could only happen in ancient pagan Rome or Canada, but the Equality Act, which recently passed in the House, will make these live questions in America too.

The practices of ancient Rome—and the Christian response—are at least partially instructive here. In ancient Rome, the government was the ultimate arbiter of reality, indeed, it considered itself ultimate reality. Religion and entertainment—institutions we see as wholly distinct from government—were really branches or tentacles of the government used to reinforce the primacy and power of the state. The government sponsored religious festivals and theater productions (which usually included religious themes), all of which claimed divine authority.

Augustine called these activities spectacula, “spectacles.” These spectacles tickled the baser desires of the people, sating and distracting them, while also instructing them. In the theaters particularly, the often criminal and sexual deeds of the gods were put on display for the spectator to behold. Augustine critiqued these lewd public spectacles not only for their immoral content, but also because of their overwhelming power. They captured the hearts and minds of people, addicted them to the theater, and formed their affections and theology. Indeed, for Augustine, these spectacles were a kind of demonic liturgy which united them as a body, a false church.

And no one was exempt from these practices. They had the coercive weight of divine and government authority as well as that of custom and social pressure. Often they were presented as rites of passage or woven into the fabric of everyday living. Augustine tells us about the old marriage custom, where the young bride, before going in to her husband, had to sit on the “the huge and indecent phallus” of the god Priapus. Should the bride feel any shame or reservation about this perverse activity, she was assured that what she was doing was “in accord with the most respectable and most religious custom of the matrons.”

He writes in City of God (Bk VII, ch 24) about the Galli, priests of Tellus, the Great Mother, who were still active in his day. These men practiced self-castration and would ritually work themselves into a frenzy, often cutting themselves in honor of the goddess. Augustine describes their public presence: “As recently as yesterday, they plied the streets of Carthage, with their oiled hair, their powdered faces, their languid limbs, and their feminine gait, demanding from shopkeepers the means of maintaining their disgraceful existence.” Everyone had to see, to participate, and to fund these perversities. Everyone, willingly or unwillingly, was compromised.

In the summer of 399, Augustine was invited by a neighboring bishop to preach to his congregation about these spectacula. It seems that many in that congregation were skipping Sunday services to attend the local theater and many would not show up all year except at Easter. Augustine preached to the church on the Feast of the Maccabean martyrs and spared no one. In the course of a vigorous rhetorical assault, he offered two responses to what he called lasciva pietas, “the licentious civic piety” of the theater and religious festivities: Christians must give people something better to love and be prepared to embrace the martyrdom of everyday life.

In contrast to the perverse spectacles of the Roman world, Augustine holds up the spectacula of the Christian liturgy, in particular, the readings and the Eucharist. He says,

We have just now been spectators of the great contest of the seven Maccabean brothers and their mother. Compare with this holy spectacle the pleasures and delights of the theaters. There the eyes are defiled, here the heart is purified; here spectators are to be praised, if they become imitators; while there the spectator is base, and the imitator infamous. (Sermon 301A)

For Augustine, you become what you love and you love what you gaze upon (see 1 John 3:2). If we behold the martyrs, we learn to love them, to imitate them, and become like them. Similarly, Augustine says, if we behold the Eucharist, we become like the Eucharist. “Be what you see here on the altar,” Augustine famously says. “Become what you are” (Sermon 272). Behold Christ’s body so you can become Christ’s body.

The example of the holy martyrs and of the holy sacrifice of the original Martyr gives us something better to love, something more beautiful and inspiring than what the world offers. It not only shapes our affections, but gives us a new horizon and opens up new possibilities. It might even make us willing to die for what we love, that is, prepare our hearts for martyrdom.

While statewide persecutions were long gone by Augustine’s time, “the affairs of every day,” he says, “test people effectively enough.” He then presents another spectaculum for the people: imagine a powerful figure, a boss, say, who asks you to give false evidence and threatens to harm you if you do not cooperate. Most of us would hesitate about what to do, but Augustine calls us out right away:

The powerful man doesn’t say to you, ‘Deny Christ’; that, after all, is what you were preparing yourself for… Are you giving false evidence? You have let go of Christ, because he said, I am the truth (Jn 14:6). (Sermon 301A)

We always have a choice, Augustine says: “commit iniquity or suffer what God wishes you to suffer for a time.” With great rhetorical flourish, Augustine tells us to count the cost of this choice: this powerful man can harm, even kill, your body; but only you can kill your soul by bearing false witness. So, preserve your soul, even if it means embracing martyrdom, for any temporal good we might gain by lying “is nothing compared with the God who made it.”

We, too, do not live in a time of statewide persecution, though perhaps that day is not far off. Still, there will be no shortage of “daily trials and temptations,” some specifically designed to compromise us. We will be confronted with the choice of saying what we know to be true or, for the sake of being left alone, going along with the coercive power of the state, the entertainment industry, big business, and, increasingly, many religious figures. What can be done in such a situation? In addition to voting, fighting legal battles, and trying to persuade others, we should heed Augustine’s sermon. We should behold regularly the holy spectacula and learn to love them and let ourselves be transformed by them. We should put them before our neighbors so they, too, can be transformed. And, finally, we should prepare ourselves and our loved ones to cling to the Creator and to not fear losing the temporal goods He has made.

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About Dr. Jared Ortiz 16 Articles
Dr. Jared Ortiz is Professor of Religion at Hope College and author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016) and editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019). He is also founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute.


  1. “a Canadian transgender woman (née man)”

    No. He is a man. There is no such thing as a “transgender woman” or a “transgender man,” and to cooperate with the agenda of evil even to the extent of using the phrase is wrong.

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