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Alois Koch SJ
The Antique Athletic and Agonistic
in the Focus of the Criticism of Tertullian of Carthago
and of Other Writers of Early Christianity.

(Published in: W. Schwank; A. Koch (ed.): Begegnung. Schriftenreihe zur Geschichte der Beziehung zwischen Christentum und Sport, volume 5. Aachen 2005, p. 11-32.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

German Version

When it is in sport-historical papers about the position of early Christianity to the antique physical culture in general, and to athletic and agonistic in particular, then the reference to the church writer Tertullian (about 160-225) and his writing "De spectaculis" is rarely missing. "Tertullian's 'De Spectaculis' is ... the most complete and most well-known work campaigning against one of the oldest and popular entertainments of Roman paganism"; he regarded "the activities of the stadium as pure vanities" (Thuillier, 1999, p. 56 and 57). Jüthner similarly says: "Also Latin church writers such as Tertullian follow the condemnation of athletic" (by the Cynic Stoic philosophers) " (Jüthner, 1965, p. 36). Another place reads: "Among the Church Fathers who fought the plays Tertullian of Carthago stands in the foreground; his saved work 'De Spectaculis' contains these attacks" (Jüthner, 1965, p. 153).

Müller points out the increasing body enmity of Christianity as crucial criterion for the refusal of the antique sport; but "the Christian sport criticism" had not any success: "The clearest proof of the failure of Christian sport criticism ... gives just that author from whom the most violent attacks on the sport come: Tertullian." (Müller, 1995, p. 338) Saurbier is even of the opinion that Tertullian had - just like other early Christian writers - "regarded the body as something sinful, as bearer of wickedness", and had for this reason disapproved of the care for the body (Saurbier 1978, p. 44, note). Also other authors call Tertullian as chief witness for the extensive refusal of the antique physical culture and athletic by the early Christians. Thus Mähl calls our author a "passionate opponent of agonistic and athletic" (Mähl, 1974, p. 51).

 


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In the paper in hand are first to be given biographic references to Tertullian's person. Then will be quoted, and afterwards evaluated the texts from "De Spectaculis" that refer to the antique athletic and agonistic. Finally will be mentioned the "surroundings" and the "living on" of Tertullian's critical expressions with the early Christian writers Tatian, Novatian and Laktanz, and from early medieval time with Isidor from Sevilla.

 

Tertullian's Biography.

Tertullian (about 160-220 A.D.) is not only the first but up to Augustinus also the most important Christian Latin writer. The concepts of the Latin theology were lastingly shaped by him. He originated from a well-off family in Carthago. There and probably in Rome he acquired "a founded bilingual literary, rhetorical and philosophical education" (Fürst, 2000, p. 1344).
Before the year 197 A.D. he became Christian. From that time on he devoted himself as teacher and writer to the Christian community of Carthago, in which he was probably entrusted with the instruction of the catechumens, hence of those who applied for baptism. His "rough, to extremes and rigorism inclined nature" (Kötting, 1964, p. 1370) led finally to his discord with the church, and to his turn to Montanism and its prophetic ascetic convictions.
Tertullian composed an extensive, in its contents very many-sided work of apologetic, dogmatic and pastoral ascetical writings, not only in Latin but also in Greek. So he wrote for example a (not retained) treatise in Greek "About the Plays" (cf. Schöllgen, 1982 a). In his 31 preserved writings he deals usually particularly with the defence of the Christian faith against paganism and Gnostic Christian sects.

 


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In these writings Tertullian proves to be someone who tries to win just the educated pagan readership with reasonable arguments for Christianity (cf. Schulze-Flügel, 1998 and 2002).

Philosophically Tertullian is influenced by the Stoical philosophy. From here can also be explained partially his scathing criticism of the various plays, and of the athletic of his time. Thereby he is obviously influenced by Cicero and Seneca. The Stoical thinking becomes particularly clear in the evaluation of the human body. But Tertullian is far from the Stoical body undervaluation, and from body enmity. "Tertullian became by all moral rigorism never the despiser of the body, he has rather always held up ... in the theory his principle 'natura est honoranda' (nature has to be honoured)" (Keseling, 1950, p. 772).

In the defence against and in the argument with the body-hostile Gnosis he hit the crucial point. His word "the flesh is the pivot of salvation" (= caro cardo salutis) characterizes this positive valuation of the body (cf. De Resurrectione Carnis, 8, 2), and refutes - at least for our author - the reproach of body hostility or that of neglect of body care. Soul and body are brother and sister and both deserve the resurrection: "For what, soul, do you envy the flesh? None is to you so much your neighbour that you are to love after God; none is so much your brother as the flesh that is born together with you in God" (De Resurrectione Carnis, 63, 4-5).
The apodictic statement or reproach, Tertullian had called the flesh not only weak, but also "lost, sinful and condemned" (cf. Kösling, 1988, p. 101), has to be rejected also for the reason that it does not consider the text connection. In the writing already quoted is said, God does not permit that the work of his hands was surrendered to eternal death:

"He loves the flesh that is close to him in various ways (=proxima), even if it is weak (=infirma) ... infirm (=imbecilla), ... hopeless (=perdita), ... sinful (=peccatrix) ... and condemned (=damnata) ... Why do you reproach the flesh for those characteristics that yearn and hope for God?" (De Resurrectione Carnis, 9, 2 - 5)

 


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Expression of Tertullian's positive attitude towards the body is also the fact that he visited regularly, obviously even daily the baths - except at the time of the Saturnalia, i.e. at the time of pagan practices in the baths (cf. Apologeticum, 42).

 

Tertullian's Criticism of Athletic and Agonistic

Tertullian's writings about the plays do not only address those who apply for baptism, the "catechumens", but "expressly also the baptized parishioners" (Schöllgen, 1982 b, p. 21). For his negative attitude against the various forms of plays he mentioned several reasons.

Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures was the attendance of the various plays condemned; but one could quote for this prohibition the verse from Psalm 1:

"Happy indeed is the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked; nor lingers in the way of sinners, nor sits in the company of scorners" (De spect., 3, 2).

Tertullian's decisive argument is the proximity of the different Games to the pagan cult, just their fusion with it. The plays are for him clearly part of an idolatry that is unacceptable for Christians. By his/her baptismal vows the Christian has in principle carried out the break with the idols and their veneration; he has thereby at least inclusively abjured also the plays:

"Hence, if it is certain that everything belonging to the plays is due to idolatry, then is thereby given an irrefutable judgement that our protestation by the baptismal abjuration refers also to the plays; because these have - namely by idolatry - become the property of the devil, of his splendour and his angels" (De spect., 4, 3).

 


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The close fusion of the plays with pagan idolatry is clarified by Tertullian by many examples. Of course, it is allowed to the Christian for an appropriate reason to enter the locations in which the plays take place, for instance the circus. One may even visit the pagan temples. After all also the roads, the market and the baths are provided with idols:

"Yes, the whole world is filled with Satan and his angels. By the mere circumstance that we are in the world we do not apostatize from God yet, but only then if we take part in any crime of the world. Hence, when I enter into the Capitol, when I enter into the Serapeum as one who sacrifices and adores there, then I apostatize from God; likewise if I enter the circus and the theatre in the quality of a spectator.
The locations as such are not capable of defiling us, but probably the things that happen there and by which ... the locations are tarnished. We become defiled by defiled things" (De Spect., 8, 9-10).

In this connection now he also particularly mentions the Olympic, Nemeic and Isthmic Games by which the entire surroundings are "soiled" by idolatry. Yes, even the individual gymnastic disciplines have according to Tertullian's view their origin in the pagan thinking. They were either dedicated to pagan gods, as in Olympia to Jupiter, in Nemea to Hercules and at the Isthmus of Corinth to Neptun; or they were celebrated as "corpse plays" (= mortuorum agones):

"Hence what then is so remarkable, when even the outside apparatus of the contests (=agon) is soiled by idolatry, by unholy wreaths (=corona), by the chairmen (=praeses) from the priesthood, the serving cooperatives, and finally by the victim blood of an ox? ... By the contest (=duellum) and blowing of trumpets (=tuba) in the stadium they copy the circus. The stadium is naturally also a temple, namely of the idol whose ceremony one commits" (De spect., 11, 1-3).

 


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Even the individual gymnastic exercises (=gymnicae artes) have, according to Tertullian, their origin in the pagan cult, and are therefore "devil work" and forms of "idolatry". Particularly the wrestling, but also the various run, throw and jump exercises, and therefore they are not acceptable for Christians, in particular however the "forcible diet", criticized also by contemporaries:

"You will not applause to the foolish run (=cursus), throw (=iaculatus) and jump exercises (=saltus). The disgraceful and vain heavy athletic exercises (=vires) will never find your favour, as little as the concern about the strenously achieved corpulence, because it wants to outbid God's creation. And you will abhor those people who are fattened (=altilis) for the sake of the Greek idleness. Also the art of wrestling (=palaestrica) is some devilish thing. It was the devil who as the first one pressed man upon the ground. Even in the motions there is a similarity with the snakes' way of fighting; they are tough in holding, full of turns in entwining and smooth in slipping away" (De spect., 18, 2-3).

In another writing Tertullian deplores the fact that the African cities and the city Carthago promote the "Greek contests" (=certamina Graecorum) at the pagan holidays, and the "orgies" (=voluptates) attached to them: "With their congratulations several cities give still no rest to Carthago, since to this city has been entrusted a Pythic contest (=Pythicus agon)" (Scorpiace, 6, 2).

In this connection it is remarkable that Tertullian's argumentation that the various plays and also the athletic exercises had been fused with idolatry, is only little noticed in the literature already quoted - for instance by Jüthner, Mähl and Thuillier. Only Weiler (1981) and Müller (1995, p. 337) point out that Tertullian's main argument against the athletic was idolatry; but thereby they do not enter in detail.

With the mentioned "heavy athletic exercises" (=vires) are probably meant primarily boxing and pancratics. They had by the spectators

 


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the largest popularity, because of the cruelty and the contempt of humanity shown in these exercises. For "only they were able to fascinate yet an audience accustomed to cruel gladiator plays and wild chariot runs" (Weismann, 1972, p. 63).

"You cannot deny that the things that happen in the arena (=stage), are unworthy of your sight: the punches (=pugnus), the kicks (=calces), the blows falling in the face (=colaphus), the impudent behavior of the hands and all the disfigurements of the human face, this image of God" (De spect., 18, 1).

And another place reads:
"The master (=artifex) in the fist-fight (=pugnus) ... will he too remain unpunished? Has he probably got his whip scars (=cicatrices caestuum), his lumps from the punches (=pugnus), his knots behind the ears from God already by his creation? Has God given him the healthy eyes for losing them by the brawl?" (De spect., 23, 7)

Hence boxing and pancratics stand for Tertullian on the same stage as the fights of the gladiators and the animal chase (cf. especially the chapters 19, 20 and 25). But equally firmly he rejects the nourishing practices liked and used by the athletes. In this point he knows himself united with the criticism particularly of the Stoical philosophers who called the "fattening" of the athletes by "forcible diet" (=anankophagia) beneath human dignity. Thus Philostratos in his "gymnastic writing" makes fun of the athletes by caricaturing them as "stuffed like Libyan and Egyptian flour bags" (Gymnastik, 44; cf. also Jüthner, 1965, p .195 f); and Seneca calls - in a letter to his friend Lucilius - the athletes "poor puke brothers, whose physical function exists in the fattening of their bodies, but their spirits suffer a continuous emaciation and somnolence" (Briefe an Lucilius, 88, 19). In relation to those critical statements Tertullian's judgements sound almost moderate.

 


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As far as the description and the condemnation of the wrestling-matches (=palaestrica) are concerned, the explanations of Lukian of Samosata can illustrate Tertullian's critical statements (cf. Steindl, 1963, p. 12-14 and 43-45). On the whole the objections of the Scyth Anacharsis by Lukian against the customs at athletic contests seem like the background for the scathing criticism of Tertullian and other early Christian authors.

Tertullian's perhaps most important argument against the plays - apart from the argument of idolatry - is connected with his coinage by the Stoic philosophy. But this "root" of his view is not considered by the critics. For the Stoa it was characteristic that one lead one's life so, that thinking and acting were totally determined by the mental nature of man. At stake is the internal harmony, since it is in danger to be lost by the dominance of affects and pleasures. Those "irrational" forces make the spirit incapable of action. The aim of the moral effort must therefore be the order, the getting free from affects and sensual amusements, hence to achieve "indifference" (=apatheia), the "imperturbability" (=ataraxia) opposite to those negative influences.

Tertullian who grew up in this Stoical thought, and also as Christian is still connected with it, was in Carthago confronted with the fact that many Christians satisfied their need for entertainments with preference by the pagan celebrations and plays. Against this "pagan entertainment culture" he wrote therefore "De spectaculis", where he "submitted those entertainments, the 'voluptates spectaculorum' to a passionate and radical criticism" (Kessler, 1994, p. 313 f). Indeed the term "voluptas = pleasure, self-indulgence" belongs to the central terms of Tertullian's spectacle treatise, and is a key to the understanding of his criticism.

With the thought of the (first quite positively seen) 'value neutrality' of pleasure, and with the possibility of a positive pleasure associated with it, Tertullian follows the Stoical philosophy.

 


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The true longing of the Christian is realized for him in the wish to leave this world for the sake of being with God (cf. 2 Cor 5, 8). The desires and longings of the Christian have therefore nothing in common with those of the heathens. Contrary to this incompatibility is the fact of a not insignificant number of Christians who were enthusiastic about the spectacles. Hence Tertullian is concerned to make clear to those people how they, by the suction of superstition and entertainments, come into the power circle of the demons. This suction appears for him in the enjoying this ever more increased cruelty, yes, this brutality e.g. of the gladiator fights, of the animal chase, and not least also of some athletic duels, such as boxing and pancratics.
Hence Tertullian's refusal of the inordinate love of pleasure makes use of the Stoical argumentation. Just in this "lusting after entertainments" (=voluptates) by attending the plays (De spect., 14, 3) he sees the danger for Christians:

"No spectacle will happen without strong mental excitation. For where it is about entertainments, interest in them too will be there, and by this pleasure will get then its attraction naturally; where interest is, there also envy and jealousy are there, whereby interest will just get i t s attraction. But where envy and jealousy are, there also wrath, irritation, annoyance and so on are there, due to the things which, together with these affects, are incompatible with moral decency" (De spect., 15, 3-4). "If you want pleasure in the world, my Christian, then you are a servant of sensuality, or better: you are a fool, if you regard such a thing as pleasure" (De spect., 28, 3).

This dependence on entertainments is the more dangerous, the more catching they are - not only for the thought-less heathens, but just for the arrogant Christians who mean the participation in the plays were purely outwardly, morally harmless, and did not mean irreverence towards God: "Only in a pure Christian world such 'soul hygiene' would be possible" (Kessler, 1994, p. 321).

Each spectacle and with it any pleasure causes for Tertullian a shock and a confusion of spirit and mind. Hence people who deny themselves any emotion are seen as ideal.

 


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"When the affect stops, then there will no longer be any pleasure" (De spect., 15, 6). Tertullian's "ideal Christian ... shows her/himself as Stoical sage" (Kessler, 1994, p. 324). A little later Tertullian will celebrate the ideal of "apatheia" in his writing "About Patience". There he gives, as it were, the counter model for the vicious circle of those passions that are described by him in the fifteenth chapter of his writing about spectacles.

Tertullian offers to his fellow-Christians in the last three chapters "entertainments" that are approved by God, and that are to spellbind the Christians who are always abused by the pagans. First it is this joy:

"Which lust (=voluptas) can be greater than the loathing for lust, contempt of the whole world, true freedom, an undefiled conscience, a content life, and freedom from any fear of death?" (De spect., 29, 2)

Then the Christian should become aware of the joy which is triggered by the final judgement over kings, pursuers of Christians, philosophers, poets, charioteers and athletes. He has an almost sadistic pleasure in this picture of the final judgment: "No Greek, but also no medieval Christian has ever written down such a gruesome grandiose, up to sadism wild thing." (v. Campenhausen 1986, p. 30) With the advise: "Expect the turning points (=meta) of completion!" Tertullian tries to give his Christian counterpart to the enthusiasm uttered by the turning of the teams in the circus. He opposes the Christian faith and the certainty of salvation to an as perverse felt pagan world:

"Your circus plays (=ludi circenses) may are: Regard the run of the world; count the transitory flying hours and times; expect the turning point (=meta) of completion; defend the church communities; awake with the signal of God; rise with the trombone (=tuba) of the angel; set your fame into the palm of martyrdom ... Do you require fist fights (=pugilatus) and wrestling (=luctatus)? They are present, namely many and important ones. Look, how lewdness is thrown down by chastity, how unbelief is overcome by faith,

 


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how brutality is driven from the field by compassion, how insolence is pushed to the side by modesty! These are internal contests (=agones) in which we will be crowned (=coronari)" (De spect., 29, 3 and 5).

For Tertullian the appropriate expression for this thinking is the longing for martyrdom, the actual Christian "agon". The Christians are to pride themselves on the palms of martyrdom, instead to cheer the winners in the circus or in the stadium. Already in the dungeon the Christian condemned to death gets the benefit of this release from the life of pagans. In its writing "To the Martyrs" is said:

"You look no longer at foreign gods; ... you do not take part in the holidays of the pagans by your presence; you ... are no longer insulted by the roar of the spectacles, by the cruelty, the rage, and the shamelessness of the participants" (An die Märtyrer, 4).

It is amazing, indeed, how this aspect does not find any mention (in the newer literature), i.e. the view based on Stoical teachings about the affects, and the crucially on it based refusal of pagan "entertainments" by early Christianity, respectively Tertullian, in its/his treatises on criticism of agonistic and athletic. It surprised also that from Tertullian's general condemnation of the spectacles, but especially of the athletic exercises, is drawn the conclusion that he had been in principle an opponent of hygiene and physical exercises. This can in no way be proved from his writing about the spectacles.

To reject the forms of a degenerate and also otherwise rejected athletic, as we meet them especially in boxing and pancratics, is not yet tantamount to the refusal and condemnation of reasonable physical exercises and body care, as they are described not only in the contemporary, but also in the early Christian literature, for instance by Clemens of Alexandria, a contemporary of Tertullian (cf. Koch, 1965 a, p. 81-85).

It has been already pointed out that Tertullian did not neglect the personal body care, for he went regularly into the baths -

 


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with one exception: the time of the Saturnalia (cf. Apologeticum, 42). Sporting plays and hygiene belonged to the matter of courses of life which have no need to be mentioned or justified. Where this happens it indicates a problematic discord.

 

The "Surroundings" and the "Living On" of Tertullian's Criticism
With the Early Christian Writers

Tertullian is not the first Christian writer who submitted the contemporary athletic and agonistic to a scathing criticism. That does not only apply to the pre-Constantine time. "The attitude of the church as a whole ... was clear: it always rejected the attendance of the 'spectacula', and maintained this position also in the time after Constantine." (Schöllgen, 1982 b, p. 21). That can be shown by the attitude of some early Christian writers.

  1. The Syrian Tatian (born approx. 120 A.D.), founder of the Gnostic sect of the Encratits, composed a "Speech to the Greeks", a disputation in which the entire Greek culture is rejected and disparaged. Also the physical culture is not spared by his criticism and mockery. Apart from the criticism of the different plays (theatre, gladiator fights etc.) Tatian attacks also the athletic. Remarkable is that their refusal does not happen due to their connection with the pagan cult:

    "I saw human beings fattened for the combatant plays (=somaskia) dragging the load of their flesh, to whom were promised victory prizes (=epathla) and wreaths (=stephanos), where the umpires (=agonothetes) called them not to noble days but to the contest (=philonikia) in outrageous fights, and awarded the most malicious wrestler (=plektes) with the wreath (=stephanoun)" (Rede an die Hellenen, 23, 1).

     


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    It is obviously about a condemnation of the professional athletic, particularly of wrestling, boxing, and pancratic, where heavy-weighty athletes were particularly successful. With this criticism Tatian is in agreement with Stoical philosophers; but if he thereby affected Tertullian cannot be proved.

  2. Even Clemens from Alexandria (approx. 145-215 A.D.) who was otherwise open to the Greek culture and education, and who recommended hygiene and physical exercises (cf. Decker, 1936 and Koch, 1965 a, p. 81-85), talks critically about the presentations in the stadia and theatres: "Not without right one could call the stadia (=stadia) and the theatre 'seat of depravity'." (Paidagogos, III. 76, 3) And with clear allusion to the deadly gladiator fights is said: "No longer harmless fun are the ostentatious appearances which are so pitiless that they bring death" (Paidagogos, III. 77.4).

    From his criticism is not excluded the so-called "forcible diet" of the athlets. To mark the contrast to a healthy nutrition and the "strength" resulting from it he states: "The forcible diet of the athletes" leads to a "deceitful and pitiable strength" (Paidagogos, II. 2, 1). Not least he considers in his "Admonitory Speech to Pagans" the Pan-Hellenic contests, the imminent end of which he wishes because of their fusion with idolatry (cf. Protreptikos, II. 34, 1).


  3. With great probability Tertullian's writing about the spectacles influenced the church writer Minucius Felix, who likewise originated from North Africa. In his writing "Octavius", that was composed probably about 240 A.D., he ridicules the pagan religion with its many gods. Hence it is not surprising that the spectacles are altogether rejected and condemned, even if the athletic is not expressly mentioned.

     


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    Addressed to a pagan friend who reproaches the Christian to avoid the spectacles and the contests in honours of the gods (=sacra certamina) (Octavius, 12, 5), we read:

    "Of course, we stay away from your bad entertainments, processions, and spectacles, the religious origin of which we know, and the dangerous attractions of which we reject. Who then should at the spectacles in the circus not be appalled at the insanity with which the people argue; by the fights of the gladiators at the workmanlike manslaughter? In the stage-plays too there is not less rage, and the infamy is still more licentious" (Octavius, 27, 11-12).



  4. With security Tertullian influenced the church writer Novatian (who died about 258 A.D. as martyr). In his writing "About Spectacles" the same arguments are used as in Tertullian's spectacle-writing. There are also many reminiscences to the Stoical theories of Seneca. First Novatian names the excuses stated by the Christians. The apostle Paulus used nevertheless also comparisons from the world of the athletic contests in the stadium for the religious fight of Christians - so in his First Letter to the Corinthians. "Why then is it not allowed to Christians to watch the things about which to write in the holy letters is allowed?" (Über die Schauspiele, 2, 2) Also the reference to the Prophet Elijah, the "Charioteer of Israel" (=auriga) and to the "choir leader David" is no reason, "to sit in the theatre" and "to watch bad things" (3, 2). Then Novatian writes:

    "All kinds of spectacles have been (by the Holy Scriptures) condemned, when they eliminated the idolatry (=idolatria), the mother of all plays (=ludus), from which the enormous insanity and carelessness descend. For which play has no idol? Which contest (=certamen) is not dedicated to a dead. What has the faithful Christian to do with all that? ... If the Christian goes to a play of the devil, then he has foresworn Christ" (Über die Schauspiele, 3, 2).

     


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    Apart from the reference to the idolatrous content of spectacles and contests, for Novatian above all the cruelty and senselessness of the contests is the subject of his criticism.

    Primarily the gladiator fights are meant, which particularly lead to precarious reactions on the part of the onlookers, but also individual athletic exercises:

    "How senseless are the contests (=certamina), the disputes between the 'colours' (the circus parties), the arguments by the runs or car runnings (=cursus); ... to be pleased if a horse is faster; to be sad, if it is too slow; to calculate the years of the animal" (Über die Schauspiele, 5). "How horrible is wrestling (=luctamen), where men lie above each other ... In such a fight (=certamen) one may be spectator or winner, in each case the shame comes to grief. There some naked men jump (=salire), others throw with all forces the brazen discus (=orbis aeneus). That does them however in no way credit. It is insanity ... Those plays which are so senseless, so ruinous, have to be avoided by Christians" (Über die Schauspiele, K. 8).

    Interesting by this text is especially the mention of the discus throwing in a Christian writing. Of course there is not missing by Novatian the reference - similar as by Tertullian - to the "better spectacles" of the Christians: to the spectacle of nature as God's creation, and to the narrations of the Holy Scriptures. That is the entertainment appropriate for Christians:

    "They will see therein faith fighting (=luctare) with fire; wild animals are overcome by faith in God; ... finally the devil, who triumphs over the whole earth, lying under Christ's feet ... This spectacle cannot be offered to us by any praetor or consul, but only ... by the father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Über die Schauspiele, K. 10).

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  6. At this place the reference to decisions by early Christian church orders, councils, and synods is appropriate. So already the "Apostolic Tradition", which was composed about 215 A.D. in Rome, and is attributed to Hippolyt (approx. 170-235 A.D.), deals with the question how one should handle the admission of new members who followed a profession that was typical for the immoral pagan world. There it said:

    "A charioteer (=auriga), and likewise a contestant (=certare), or somebody who participates otherwise in an agon, has to stop it, or must be rejected. Those who are gladiators or train those who belong to the gladiators in the fight, or an animal fighter (=venator) who takes part in an animal chase, or a civil servant who organizes the gladiator fight have to stop it, or must be rejected "(Apostolische Überlieferung, 16).

    On this early Christian writing the so-called "Canones Hippolyti" are based, a collection of decisions which were composed about the middle of the fourth century in Egypt. Dependence appears e.g. in canon 12:

    "Each actor or gladiator ... everyone who takes part in the Olympic plays (as charioteer, fighter, runner, play organizer ...): all these people are not to be admitted to the holy meetings, before they did not cleanse themselves of those impure works."

    Nearly all such regulations are contained in a collection which is attributed to Isidor of Sevilla (about 560-636 A.D.) That concerns also an (in the Isidorian collection quoted) canon of the Third Synod of Carthago from the year 387 A.D.:

    "The sons of priests and clerics are not to organize worldly spectacles; yes, they should not even be spectators there, particularly since also to all laymen the watching is forbidden. It will namely always be forbidden to all Christians to go there where God is blasphemed" (J. P. Migne, Patres Latini, volume 84, p. 191).

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  8. These regulations and views were obviously known to Isidor from Sevilla; that can be seen particularly from his chief work "Etymologiae", a "compendium" of the antique knowledge, but also from a small treatise, a "educating program" probably written by him (cf. Koch, 1965b). In clear borrowing from Tertullian's "De Spectaculis" Isidor comes to speak about the spectacles. Several sentences coincide nearly literally; which can be explained only from the knowledge of Tertullian's writing. So he says: "Spectacles are in my opinion named generally those entertainments (=voluptates) which do not defile by themselves, but by the things which are done there." (Etymologiae, 18, 16). This sentence coincides literally with sentences from the chapters eight and fifteen of Tertullian's writing about the spectacles.

    Also other texts of Isidor "breathe" Tertullian's spirit. After he took over his division of the "plays" ("there are various spectacles: the gymnastic, the circus games, the gladiator fights, the theatre representations") is said:

    "The origin of the plays lies in the idolatry. Therefore the plays are also called 'Liberalia', because of the veneration of Father Liber (=Jupiter). Therefore has to be paid attention to the stigma of the beginning, so that you do not consider something as good which originates from something bad ... These cruel plays and the watching of vanities have been started not only by the vices of man but also by the order of demons. Therefore Christians may not have anything in common with the insanity of the circus, with the shamelessness of the theatre, with the cruelty of the amphitheatres, with the brutality of the arena, with the obscenity of the plays. Those who do such things deny God deliberately.

    Those who aspire to it anew act against their Christian faith; because already in the bath of baptism they have foresworn him, i.e. the devil, his pomp and his works "(Etymologiae, 18, 16 and 59).

     


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    Similarly is said in Isidor's "Educating Program": "He has to avoid the amusements of the immoral plays, the triviality (=vanitas) of the presentations in the circus, and all the infamous actions of the unrestrained appetites" (Institutiones Disciplinae, Z 55-57).

    Whether in Spain these plays were really common in the beginning seventh century, and to what extent, cannot not be proved with security. Perhaps they existed still among the Hispano-Roman population, particularly since Christianity was not yet so common at that time, that these "pagan customs" were given up. In his argumentation Isidor follows at least Tertullian's arguments, and perhaps also the different decisions of the early Christian councils and synods. It is also remarkable that Isidor in the eighteenth book of his "Etymologiae" informs in detail about the "gymnasium", about the various "agons", and the "gymnic plays" (=ludi gymnici), and explains the corresponding terms: so jumping (=saltus), running (=cursus), throwing (=iactus), the pancration (=virtus), and wrestling (=luctatio). But one should not conclude from those explanations that these plays at Isidor's time existed, the more so as he reports for his time of many other "exercises", particularly of the West Gothic youth (cf. Koch, 1965b).

 

CONCLUDING REMARK

That Tertullian rejected the antique athletic and agonistic for different reasons is an indisputable fact. That this refusal meant the condemnation of physical exercises, body care, and even body enmity, that conclusion cannot be exemplified and proved from the spectacle-writing (and from other writings of Tertullian). A higher valuation means in no way the contempt of the "lower" value, or even enmity and hate against this "low" value. Those who do therefore not admit the criticism of athletic plays, particularly because of their proximity to idolatry,

 


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declare body care and physical exercises in comparison to (Christian) faith as the "higher value" for man. This "declaration" is likewise a conviction, which can and must be "believed" only. Those who reject Tertullian's and other early Christian writers' argumentation against the plays and the athletic fights, have also to defend or justify morally the brutality and cruelty practiced there. Then even the on the Stoical teaching about the affects based arguments against the love of pleasure, as due as they were to present-day conditions, would have to be refuted. Finally one should not hold back the positive advices of the representatives of early Christianity to body care and physical exercises. Just this fact of ignoring or not-knowing is deplorable and unacceptable. That points again to the ideological fixation to a certain value preference.

 


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Literature

a. Source Writings

The writings Tertullians are edited in:

CSEL (=Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum) in the volumes 20, 47, 69, 70 und 76. Wien 18901957. The here mainly mentioned writing "Über die Schauspiele" is in volume 20, p. 129.

Weeber, K. W. (1988). Quintus Septimius Tertullianus: De spectaculis. Latin/German. Stuttgart.

German translations of most of Tertullian's writing are published in the "Bibliothek der Kirchenväter", 2. edition, volume 7 and 24. München-Kempten 1912 und 1915.

Concerning the quoted writings of the other early Christian writers mentioned is referred to the appropriate articles:

S. Döpp & Geerlings, W. (ed.) (1998): Lexikon der antiken christlichen Literatur. Freiburg.

W. Kasper (ed.). (1993-2001). Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (3rd edition). Freiburg.

Concerning the "agona" mentioned by Tertullian and the other early Christian authors is referred to the appropriate articles by:

Pauly-Wissowa: Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumstumswissenschaft. Stuttgart 1893 pp.

 


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b. Literature to Tertullian

Backhaus, W. (1978). Öffentliche Spiele, Sport und Gesellschaft in der Römischen Antike. In H. Ueberhorst (ed.). Geschichte der Leibesübungen, volume 2., (pp. 200-249). Berlin.

Bardenhewer, O. (1913). Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur (2nd edition). Freiburg.

Baus, K. (1940). Der Kranz in Antike und Christentum. Bonn.

Brown, P. (1994). Die Keuschheit der Engel. München.

Campenhausen, H. F. von (1986). Lateinische Kirchenväter. Stuttgart.

Decker, A. (1936). Kenntnis und Pflege des Körpers bei Clemens von Alexandrien. Innsbruck.

Fürst, A. (2000). Article "Tertullian". In Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche. (3rd edition). volume 9. (pp. 1344-1348). Freiburg.

Jüthner, J. (1965). Die athletischen Leibesübungen der Griechen. volume 1, Geschichte der Leibesübungen. Wien.

Keseling, P. (1950). article "Askese II, E J". In T. Klauser (ed.), Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, volume I. (pp. 763-795). Stuttgart.

Kessler, A. (1994). Tertullian und das Vergnügen. "De spectaculis". Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie, 41, 313353.

Koch, A. (1965a). Die Leibesübungen im Urteil der antiken und frühchristlichen Anthropologie. Schorndorf.


 

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Koch, A. (1965b). Ein "Erziehungsprogramm" aus dem westgotischen Spanien. Leibeserziehung 14, 117 ff.

Kösling, B. (1988). "Sport" und "Spiele" im Urteil der lateinischen Kirchenväter. Diplomarbeit. Mainz.

Kötting, B. (1964). Artikel "Tertullian". In Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (2. edition). volume 9, (pp. 13701374) Freiburg.

Mähl, E. (1974). Gymnastik und Athletik im Denken der Römer. Amsterdam 1974.

Müller, S. (1995). Das Volk der Athleten. Untersuchungen zur Ideologie und Kritik des Sports in der griechisch-römischen Antike. Trier.

Saurbier, B. (1978). Geschichte der Leibesübungen. (10th edition). Frankfurt.

Schöllgen, G. (1982a). Der Adressatenkreis der griechischen Schauspiel-Schrift Tertullians. Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, 25, 2227.

Schöllgen, G. (1982b). Die Teilnahme der Christen am städtischen Leben in vorkonstantinischer Zeit. Tertullians Zeugnis für Karthago. In Römische Quartalschrift für christliche Altertumskunde und für Kirchengeschichte, 77, 129).

Schulz-Flügel, E. (1998). article "Tertullian". In S. Döpp & W. Geerlings (Hrsg.), Lexikon der antiken christlichen Literatur. (S. 582-587). Freiburg.

Schulz-Flügel, E. (2002). Tertullian: Theologie als Recht. In W. Geerlings (Hrsg.), Theologen der christlichen Antike. (pp. 13-32). Darmstadt.

Steindl, E. (1963). Lukian: Leibesübungen im alten Athen. Zürich.

Thuillier, J. P. (1999). Sport im antiken Rom. Darmstadt.

Weiler, I. (1981). Der Sport bei den Völkern der alten Welt. Darmstadt.

Weismann, W. (1972). Kirche und Schauspiele. Würzburg.