Augustinian View on Spectacles

Early Life of St. Augustine in Carthage
St. Augustine was not always opposed to the spectacles which occurred in North Africa. Augustine arrived in Carthage in the year 371 CE. His purpose in coming to this metropolis of the ancient world was to complete his education as a rhetor. Augustine was only seventeen. Over the next two years he would not merely continue his studies, but would develop a deep love for the theater. His attitude reflected his shared feelings with the events on stage.[1]

Stage-plays also carried me away, full of images of my miseries, and of fuel to my fire. Why is it that man desires to be made sad, beholding doleful and tragical things, which yet himself would be no means suffer? Yet he desires as a spectator to feel sorrow at them, and this very sorrow is his pleasure.[2]

The Presence of Entertainment Facilities in North Africa

The entertainment establishment in North Africa was quite pervasive during the 4th and 5th centuries CE. In the city of Carthage alone were a circus, an amphitheater, a theater and an odeon. The presence of these facilities and their size together demonstrate the opportunity for the population of Carthage to be spectators at these various events. The fact that Carthage, the third or fourth largest city in the Roman Empire, had these monuments of empire is not surprising, due simply to the fact that Romans loved to place their stamp on their empire and Carthage was a major city. For evidence of the importance of the spectacula in Roman North Africa, the best place to look is in the smaller cities of the region. Thugga, modern day Dougga, Tunisia, had a cavea in its theater that could hold virtually the entire population of the city.[3] The amphitheater in Thysdrus, modern day El Djem, was capable of holding nearly thirty thousand spectators. Stud farms for raising and training horses for the circus were also found throughout Africa Proconsularis. The presence of these buildings, though an indicator of the wide spread popularity of the spectacles, does not prove the popularity with the people of North Africa of the events.

Literary Evidence of Popularity of Spectacles in the Roman World

If some bodily pain or weakness of health has prevented your coming to the games, I put it down to fortune rather than your own wisdom: but if you have made up your mind that these things which the rest of the world admires are only worthy of contempt, and, though your health would have allowed of it, you yet were unwilling to come, then I rejoice at both facts—that you were free from bodily pain, and that you had the sound sense to disdain what others causelessly admire.[4]

Really I think that the characteristic and peculiar vices of this city, a liking for actors and a passion for gladiators and horses, are all but conceived in the mother’s womb. When these occupy and possess the mind, how little room has it left for worthy attainments! Few indeed are to be found who talk of any other subjects in their homes, and whenever we enter a classroom, what else is the conversation of the youths. Even with the teachers, these are the more frequent topics of talk with their scholars.[5]

Since, then, frenzy is forbidden us, we are debarred from every type of spectacle, including the circus, where frenzy rules supreme. Look at the populace, frenzied even as it comes to the show, already in violent commotion, blind, wildly excited over its wagers. The praetor is too slow for them; all the time their eyes are rolling as though in rhythm with the lots he shakes up in his urn. Then they await the signal with bated breath; one outcry voices the common madness.[6]

Archaeological Evidence for the Popularity of the Spectacles


An excellent indicator of the popularity of the spectacles in North Africa is the private and non state representations of the spectacula found throughout the region. Mosaics form a large part of the evidence found supporting the widespread love of the spectacles. At Hadrumetum, modern day Sousse, several mosaics of actors were found in private residences. One such mosaic, dating from the late 2nd early 3rd century CE illustrates three actors in a scene. Another, also from Hadrumetum, with the same dating as the last, illustrates a man seated, presumably a playwright, with another man standing next to him holding a theater mask. Mosaics of charioteers and chariot racing are also prominent throughout the district. The mosaic of a charioteer found in Thugga, dating from the 3rd century CE depicts a charioteer in his chariot with a victory wreath.[7] There are also two houses located in Carthage which have received names based on the mosaic finds. The first house, known as the House of the Horses, is located in the northern quadrant of the city to the west of the theater. The house of the horses received its name from the mosaics of horses that was found in the interior of the house, which date to around 300 CE. The horses are branded and are likely meant to be used as circus ponies. The second house, known as the House of the Greek Charioteers is found in the southern quadrant of the city, near the Byrsa hill. The mosaic from this house dates to between 400 CE and the 6th century CE. The mosaic depicts four charioteers with Greek names inside the carceres, starting gates, and each is also representative of one of the four colored teams, red, green, blue and white, and they are all holding victory palms. The amphitheater also received a great deal of treatment in mosaic in Africa Proconsularis.[8] At Hadrumetum, an inverted T-shaped mosaic, which was likely situated in a triclinium with the three couches around the mosaic, depicts a scene of four venatores, hunters, at the top with a myriad of animals located below, showing the vast array of fauna found in the area to be hunted. Another mosaic found at Thelepte, shows a hunter in the act of impaling a lion on his spear. What is most interesting about this mosaic from the later 3rd century CE is that it actually shows the audience watching, which is rare for gladiatorial scenes. One of the best examples of the importance of the games is a mosaic found in a house at Smirat. This house was probably once owned by a magistrate named Magerius, as the inscriptions on the mosaic imply. The most interesting feature on the mosaic is an inscription that actually records a brief dialogue in which the crowd demands five hundred denarii for the victors, but the scene indicates he gave one thousand. The dialogue between the audience and the giver of the games can indicate the important involvement of the crowd at the event. The overly abundant nature of representations of the spectacles found in private settings, especially mosaics, shows a close connection between the citizens and the spectacula.

Other Archaeological Evidence

Besides mosaics, there are several important types of evidence to illustrate the importance of the spectacles in North Africa. One example is the curse tablets that have been found in various places, but most importantly in this discussion, they have been found in the circuses and amphitheaters. The purpose of these curse tablets was to attempt to use magical powers to give an advantage or more often a disadvantage to certain participants in the games or races. These tablets were usually prepared by magicians and then literally nailed down to the ground to try and bind the recipient with the curse. Statuary was also existent in the province. A statue of a charioteer and presumably his wife from a cemetery site in the Yasmina cemetery near the circus in Carthage illustrates the wealth that could be obtained by a member of the performing groups.

Other Christian Writers Response to Spectacles


Italy has already been devastated by many disasters: have the vices of the Italians therefore ended? The city of Rome has been besieged and taken by storm: have the Romans therefore ceased their mad blasphemy? Barbarous nations have overrun the states of Gaul: have the crimes of the Gauls therefore changed in character, as far as their evil habits are concerned? Tribes of Vandals have crossed over into the Spanish countryside: the fortune of the Spaniards has indeed changed, but not their corruption. Lastly, that no part of the world might be immune from fatal destruction, wars have begun to cross the seas, they have devastated and overthrown cities shut off by the waves, in Sardinia and Sicily, the imperial granaries. Having, as it were, cut off the vital channels of the empire, they captured Africa, which may be called its heart. What then? As barbarians entered that land, did its vices cease, even through fear? Or, as even the most worthless slaves are usually reformed for the time being, did terror drive them to modesty and self-restraint? Who can rightly estimate this evil? The barbarians' arms clashed about the walls of Cirta and Carthage while the Christian congregation of the city raved in the circuses and wantoned in the theaters. Some had their throats cut without the walls, while others still committed fornication within; part of the people were captive to the enemy without, while part within the city were captive to their own vices. It is hard to decide which suffered the worse misfortune. The former indeed were captive externally in the flesh, the latter inwardly in the soul. Of the two deadly evils, it is less, I think, for a Christian to endure captivity of the body than of the soul, according to the teachings of the Savior himself in the Gospel, that the death of the soul is much more fatal than that of the body.
Or do we perhaps believe that those men were not captive in soul, who then rejoiced in the time of their people's captivity? Was he not captive in mind and heart, who laughed amid the punishments of his people, who did not know that his throat was being cut along with theirs, that in their deaths he also died? Outside the walls, as I have said, and inside them too, was heard the din of battle and of the games; the voices of dying men mingled with the voices of revellers; the outcry of the people slain in the war could scarcely be distinguished from the clamor of those who shouted in the circus. What was accomplished by this but the hastening of the destruction of the people who chose such a course, though God perhaps did not yet wish to destroy them?[9]

What are the partakers in all this --no longer their own masters--likely to achieve for themselves? At best, the loss of their self-control. They are saddened by another's bad luck; they rejoice in another's success. What they hope for and what they dread has nothing to do with themselves, and so their affection is to no purpose and their hatred is unjust.
Or are we, perhaps, permitted love without cause any more than to hate without cause? God who bids us to love our enemies certainly forbids us to hate even with cause; God who commands us to bless those who curse us does not permit us to curse even with cause.
But what is more merciless than the circus, where they do not even spare their rulers or their fellow citizens? If any of these frenzies of the circus become the faithful elsewhere, then it will be lawful also in the circus; but, if nowhere, then neither in the circus.[10]

Augustine’s Response to the Spectacles


In the 3rd book of the confessions, Augustine is describing the time between the ages of 17 and 19. In 3.2 he spends an entire chapter discussing the allure and depravity of the theater.

But I, miserable, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, when in another’s and that feigned and personated misery, that acting best pleased me, an attracted me the most vehemently, which drew tears from me. What marvel that an unhappy sheep, straying from Thy flock, and impatient of Thy keeping, I became infected with a foul disease?[11]

Augustine, through his own personal experience has recognized the consuming power of the theater and the ability it has to affect the emotions of the auditors. He does not however indicate how the impact of engaging in this artificial affecting of the emotions is either beneficial or healthy, but rather the opposite. His final comments on the shows are rather revealing. He speaks of how the dramas act rather like venomous nails that lightly scratch the surface but in time, through the poison, swell up and fester into sores. He concludes with a question.
My life being such, was it life, O my God?[12]


Augustine describes the attractive nature of the circus in a discourse about his friend Alypius. In the 7th chapter of the 6th book he describes the ability of the circus to ruin the potential of a bright young student.

Yet the whirlpool of Carthaginian habits (amongst whom these idle spectacles are hotly followed) had drawn him into the madness of the Circus. … I had found then how deadly he doted upon the Circus, and was deeply grieved that he seemed likely, nay, or had thrown away so great promise:[13]

As with the theater, the circus only has the potential to engage in false reality. The attraction to the races would prevent Alypius from pursuing his studies. He describes Alypius as a person who was always acting with virtue. It is a stark contrast that Augustine places between the pre and post circus days, indicating the power of the circus to cause its spectators to lose focus.


Augustine after recovering Alypius from the circus is faced with a new and difficult challenge, the amphitheater. Alypius, after some time spent with Augustine, travels to Rome to continue his studies. He describes a scene where Alypius is forced to attend the gladiatorial games and despite his protests is dragged along against his will. Alypius then says to his friends that they may force him to go to the games but he does not have to watch or think about the games while there. While at the games he does, however, eventually watch and is enthralled by them. Augustine’s distaste with the amphitheater is quite evident in his thoughts.

Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant--also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness--delighted with the wicked one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides. And yet from all this, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, thou didst pluck him and taught him not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee--but not till long after.[14]

Again, Augustine describes the attractive allure of the spectacula. His description of Alypius’ inability to overcome the allure of the games indicates the power they had over people. Augustine uses descriptive language to describe his dislike of the games. Drinking in the madness is a phrase that describes a scene of carnal pleasure, but one that is not beneficial to the soul. As he states, the fall of the soul is harder than the fall of the vanquished opponent’s body. Each of these sections of the Confessions shows the utter disdain that Augustine has for the various types of spectacles present in North Africa during the late 4th and early 5th century CE.

Mark Hamilton

I. Primary Sources:
Augustine, Confessions 3.2, 6.7-8
In section 3.2 of the Confessions Augustine describes his own enthrallment with the theater in his late teenage years spent in Carthage. He follows this description with a discussion of the foolishness of engaging in the theater life. In section 6.7-8 he describes the admonition to and temptation of his friend Alypius, who is beguiled by the gladiatorial games in Rome.
Tertullian, On the Spectacles 16-19
In these four sections of his speech on Roman Spectacles Tertullian describes the nature of the debauchery exhibited in each of the 3 types of spectacle: the circus, theater, and amphitheater. He leaves no room for a positive to be found in any way in these arenas.
Tacitus, Dialogue on Oratory 29
Tacitus laments the apparent lack of concern on the part of parents to offer a proper early childhood to their children. He speaks of how the parents are not concerned with the talk going on before their children by their nurses, while they themselves are consumed by discussions of the spectacles.
Cicero, ad familiars 7.1
In this letter to Marcus Marius, Cicero, in the first part of the letter, expresses his joy over Marius’ inability or lack of desire to attend the games.
Salvian, On the Governance of God, 6.12
Salvian describes the depravity of the people of the Roman empire and their inability to cease their debauchery and attendance to the spectacles, even when the whole empire is falling apart around them.

II. Web Resources:
Augustine**augustine**/ This site includes a brief biographical sketch of St. Augustine, but continues by giving some brief commentaries as well as translations of some of his major works and sermons. The commentaries appear to be by James O’Donnel, the author of a three volume commentary on The Confessions of St. Augustine. This site includes an introduction to The Confessions of St. Augustine by Albert C. Outler as well as a complete translation of the text, also by Outler. This site includes categories dealing with Mediaeval topics, but does include a section on the end of the classical world. This gives links to other sites dealing with various topics from church fathers to specific texts written by the church fathers. This wikipedia page gives a brief but thorough biography of Augustine. The site also includes a short compendium of works by Augustine as well as being well cited.
Archaeological Data This site includes maps and pictures of North Africa and the art found using archaeology. It also includes links to other sites related to this topic. This site includes a slide show of pictures depicting mosaics and frescoes found in North Africa from the Roman period. It includes several pictures depicting chariot racing, gladiatorial events, and scenes representing drama.
III. Secondary Sources for Students
Raven, Susan. Rome in Africa: 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge Press, 2002
Raven in her description of the history of North Africa spends a modicum of time discussing the prevalence of the entertainment facilities in North Africa and the adoption of the love of the spectacles by the Africans. The books primarily discusses this topic in pages 109-117.
Norman, Naomi. “Entertainment in Roman North Africa.” (90-95) From Hannibal to St. Augustine: Ancient Art of North Africa from the Musee du Louvre. Univ of Penn Press, 1995
In this article Norman describes the great importance of the spectacula in the African provinces. She sites evidence, including the representations of the spectacula in the homes of the people in Carthage and the surrounding areas, with all three areas of entertainment covered.
IV. Secondary Sources for Teachers
O’Donnell, James. Augustine: Confessions. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992
This is a commentary helping to define some of the Latin terms as well as explaining the significance of key phrases found in the text of the Confessions.
Lancel, Serge. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Saint Augustine. London, SCM Press 2002
This is a very detailed biography of the life of St. Augustine. It uses a lot of outside sources and research to back up the descriptions given in the text.
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. New York, Dorset Press 1986
This is also a very detailed biography of the life of St. Augustine. A little easier read than the Lancel book.
Ros, Karen. “The Roman Theater at Carthage.” AJA, Vol. 100 No. 3 (July, 1996), pp. 449-489
This is a very detailed description of the Roman Theater at Carthage. Ros spends a great deal of time exploring the details of the site as well as related materials.
Bomgardner, David. “The Carthage Amphitheater: A Reappraisal.” AJA, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1989), pp. 85-103
This article is like the Ros document but describes the amphitheater in detail, and explores related materials.

Dunbabin, Katherine. “The Victorious Charioteer on Mosaics and Related Monuments.” AJA, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 65-89
This article discusses the significance of the various charioteer mosaics throughout the empire. It goes into detail discussing the fine points and details of researching the differences and explains the process thoroughly.


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Annotated Bibliography:

  1. ^ Confessions, 3.2
  2. ^ Ibid
  3. ^ Norman, 90-91
  4. ^ Cicero, ad familiares 7.1
  5. ^ Tacitus, dialogus de oratoribus 29
  6. ^ Tertullian, on the spectacle
  7. ^ See picture at end of entry.
  8. ^ See picture of ad bestias below
  9. ^ Salvian, On the Governance of God, 6.12
  10. ^ Tertullian, on the spectacles, 16
  11. ^ Augustine, Confessions 3.
  12. ^ Ibid
  13. ^ Augustine, Confessions 6.
  14. ^ Augustine, Confessions 6.8