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Execution as Entertainment: The Roman Context of Martyrdom

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Chapter Summary

Arena spectacles with high levels of violence were an important component of the social and political fabric of Roman life, especially in the urban areas of the empire. Although the people who were featured in these entertainments were mostly very low ranking slaves, captive prisoners, and convicted criminals they performed for citizens of the highest level, including emperors and their families. This chapter focuses on wild beast hunts and public executions in the later imperial period, with geographic emphasis on the Roman provinces of North Africa. Christian authors, such as Tertullian, built on existing philosophical and social views, but with substantial differences, since their opposition was primarily directed against idolatry. From a Roman perspective, the convicts were considered criminals who deserved to be punished, but in the eyes of their own constituency they were viewed as heroes or martyrs, as they were called: witnesses for the Christian cause.

Keywords: Christian authors; martyrs; North Africa; public entertainment; Roman world



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