Tertullian and De Spectaculis

Julie Smith
CLAS 8020
University of Georgia
Summer 2010

An artist's interpretation of Tertullian from the Christian History Institute.

Few first hand accounts exist of daily life in ancient Carthage. Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was a native Carthaginian pagan, living between circa 160-240 CE. In the thirty one extant treatises attributed to Tertullian, a picture of the people, history, and daily life in Carthage becomes clear. Although the specific details of his life are obscure[1] , a picture can be drawn of his early and late life from St. Jerome in the fourth century CE. Jerome describes Tertullian as the son of a proconsular centurion during the rule of Septimius Severus and Caracalla. Tertullian may have made a visit to Rome during his life, and was the teacher and “master” to St. Cyprian. Jerome revered Tertullian as a sharp and violent literary talent.[2] He also states that Tertullian was a priest, or presbyter of a church in Carthage until he reached middle age, at which point he lapsed into Montanism, a sect of Christianity focused on the New Prophecy which opposed conceding with sin.[3] Jerome concludes his short biography of Tertullian by stating that he died in old age after publishing many works which do not all remain. Tertullian scholars used the treatises written by Tertullian himself as a way to fill in his life in Carthage and how this affected his view of his native city.

Tertullian was known to have been a pagan in his early life until, in response to some event, he converted to Christianity and both regretted and rejected his past life. [4] This conversion may have been because he witnessed the Christian martyrdoms perhaps in the amphitheater at Carthage. From that point on he shunned pagans, their beliefs, and their customs. Tertullian may have been from an elite class in Carthage, although he was assuredly native to Carthage.[5] His social class can be assumed based on his literacy, competence in classical languages and his composition in both Latin and Greek.[6] During Tertullian’s lifetime only ten percent of the population of Carthage were literate, and even Tertuliian admits that most Christians were uneducated. His treatise on his wife shows that he was married at one point, committed adultery, and that his wife had died. There are no certain dates for any of these events. In fact, most of his work is dated according to Montanist views or Pre-Montanist views.

The tone Tertullian uses and the way he expresses his views led scholars to describe him in numerous ways, namely, impetuous. He has also been called impatient, uncompromising, fiery, passionate, ardent, harsh, sarcastic, cruel, and a hard man to like. Sharpes describes him as a “witch-hunter” and a “church attack dog.” [7] His literary style shows training in rhetoric, suggesting education past a secondary level. He also seems to have had legal training, and some scholars surmise that his father, the centurion in the Roman army, was intending for him to pursue a career in the legal field. Upon analyzing his rhetoric style, Tertullian utilized a common style which was known as exemplum to argue his points.[8] This style uses lists of exempla, especially historical and philosophical to appeal to a more general audience. The audience of his time would have been fellow Carthaginians.

Most of his literary career was spent in Carthage, so it was only natural that his opinion of his hometown should come across in his work. In On the Pallium he actually addresses the treatise to the men of Carthage. To Scapula, who was the proconsul of Africa Proconsularis, addresses fires which recently occurred near the walls of Carthage, a solar eclipse which was visible in Utica, and also calling for the end of Christian persecutions in order to save the city from God’s wrath. In other various works, Tertullian mentions off hand mythological and historical references which would be typical of a local author to his hometown. Antidote for the Scorpion’s Sting mentions the Pythian games held in Carthage under the reign of Septimius Severus. Finally, in De Spectaculis, Tertullian discusses the local customs of entertainment which pagans attend and how it is improper for Christians to attend. Through this treatise on public shows the modern reader can create a picture of what types of entertainment existed, what the origins of those shows were, what events were held, and what was used in order to perform the shows. This knowledge is important in forming a clear picture of what ancient Carthage was in the lifetime of Tertullian in the second century.

De Spectaculis is a treatise written by Tertullian, as a Christian writer and as a warning to newly converted Christians. The warning is against attending public shows including the theater, amphitheater, and circus. The work was composed as a reaction to the chant “Christiano leonem,” which developed during the time of Nero and the Christian persecutions. It was a common chant at the amphitheater and Tertullian was upset that the people chanting this did not even think twice as to if the person sitting next to them was a Christian.[9] Christians who attended public events at that time either ignored the aspects of the show which were contrary to the Christian belief, or they attempted to attend shows at the theater, the “high class” entertainment, in order to justify their attendance.[10]

Tertullian, however, tries to use his treatise as a warning to new Christians that they should not be fooled by the pomp of the shows, and that they should look deeper at how the origins, structures, and rituals of the shows all worship fake idols. He does acknowledge that the structures which the games are held in are created from materials God created and are held under His sky. Plane et ipsae extructiones locorum, quod saxam quod caementa, quod marmora, quod columnae dei res sunt, qui ea ad instrumentum terrae dedit; sed et ipsi actus sub caelo dei transiguntur. (De Spectaculis, II) He also mentions the materials made to create the likeness of false idols were given by God, so He must permit the making of these idols as long as it does not take away from the worship of Him. Proinde aurum aes argentum ebur lignus et quecumquae fabricandis idolis materia captatur quis in saeculo posuit nisi saeculi auctor deus? (De Spectaculis, II). Tertullian finds forms of idolatry in every aspect of shows and denounces them in an outlined form showing how they contribute to the worshiping of demons.

Tertullian traces the origins of shows, citing classical authors as the source of his information. Timaeus first told of the Lydians from Asia settling in Etruria and a contest being held between brothers which led to public shows held in the name of religion. The Romans came next, borrowing the name “ludi.” Varro gives the information to Tertullian that they were used on festival days, temples, and holy reasons. Because there is a pagan religious context from the beginning of even the naming of such activities, Tertullian then tells of the different reasons games were established. The festivals which were included were Liberalia for father Liber, Consualia for Neptune, and Equiria for Mars and Romulus. These festivals were all celebrating false idols in Tertullians eyes, even if they were in honor of the presence of wine and saving the population of Rome through the rape of the Sabine women. Concrete evidence of this idolatry was then given by Tertullian in an inscription found at an underground altar under the first turning point of the circus. The inscription shows the practice related to the pagan religion and the religious ties to the games. This is verified by Tertullian in Suetonius Tranquillus, which does not survive.

et nunc ara Conso illi in circo demersa est ad primas metas sub terra cum inscriptione eiusmodi: CONSUS CONSILIO MARS DUELLO LARES + COILLO POTENTES. sacrificant apud eam nonis Iuliis sacerdotes publici, XII. Kalend. Septembres flamen Quirinalis et virgines. [8] dehinc idem Romulus Iovi Feretrio ludos instituit in Tarpeio, quos Tarpeios dictos et Capitolinos Piso tradit; post hunc Numa Pompilius Marti et Robigini fecit (nam et robiginis deam finxerunt); dehinc Tullus Hostilius dehinc Ancus Marcius et ceteri. (De Spectaculis, V)
Tertullian is outraged that the names of the games from antiquity still survive showing whom the spectators are supposed to worship with their presence. Tertullian also points out that these shows are used to worship dead men, meaning that pagans worship their gods and dead are celebrated in the same way and should be renounced in the same way by Christians.

This idolatry of the gods which are honored by the games and shows is emphasized by the procession leading to the actual event. Tertullian describes long lines of images and statues carried by carts, chariots, and chairs. Crowns, garlands and robes are also described as being carried in this procession to the event. There are also sacred rites and sacrifices which happen before, during, and after the event performed by pagan priests and officers of the city. All of these things, individually, and as a whole are false idols. The statues of the pagan gods are idols even when they are carried by a chariot which has associations with Jupiter. etsi unam tensam trahat, Iovis tamen plaustrum est. (De Spectaculis, VII)

The circus is the focus of Tertullian’s argument about public shows being the place of idolatry. It is in chapters VII-VIII that he gives the reader, the new Christian a description of the building itself, as well as the meanings of the features. This also helps modern scholars recreate an image of what an ancient circus must have looked like. The circus was dedicated to the Sun with a temple on the grounds. On the top of the temple was a cult statue of the sun god so as not to be covered by a roof. Tertullian informs the reader that the name circus actually is derived from the name of the Great Mother, Circe, and the games are dedicated in honor of her father. In fact, he claims that there is an image of Circe standing over the trench. In the circus itself are eggs, which are known for counting laps, associated with Castor and Pollux. Dolphins, also counting measures, were present in honor of Neptune. The columns in the circus show images of the Sessiae, protectors of sowing, Messiae, protectors of the harvest, and the Tutelinae, protectors of the crops. These images are especially relevant in Carthage, considering their affinity for agriculture and economic reliance on the harvest. There are other features of the circus which show how diverse the culture of Carthage was at the time. An obelisk stood in the circus, from Egypt, to honor the Sun, and there were three altars of Samothrace. The underground altar, described earlier, was also present at the first turning post. Tertullian advised the young men that there is no written word prohibiting them from frequenting public places like the forum or markets, or even pagan temples and games, however this defiles God because of the imagery present even in the architecture.
Circus Maximus in Rome.

The stage, Olympic contests, and amphitheater all have the origins as the circus. In order to arrive at the stage Tertullian tells how the path is directly from the temples and altars and there is a procession complete with flutes and trumpets. Tertullian describes the stage, the so called high-class entertainment, as a “citadel of uncleanliness” and it originated as a temple to Venus. He then references the Theater of Pompey and how it came to be. Before permanent theaters the censors would destroy the structures in the interest of morals, but Pompey built a large stone structure and placed a temple to Venus on the top of the seats. He then called the whole structure a temple to Venus with the seats acting as the monumental steps to the temple itself. Tertullian reprimands the theater because it is a place of collaboration between Liber, or Bacchus, and Venus. The arts of Apollo, the Muses, Minerva and Mercury are all performed on the stage.

The Olympic contests are an outright idolatry because they were meant to be sacred to the dead or in honor of the pagan gods. There is also a procession, similar to the one at the circus, but this time Tertullian mentions the blood of bulls. Likewise, are the events in the amphitheater. Tertullian calls these munus, which he defines as an officium, because it is paying a duty to the dead. Tertullian makes a commentary on the government structure in Carthage by saying that the munus was established for honoring the dead, but has moved to honor the living who are entering public office. This shows even further decline on the part of the Carthaginian people for not only idolizing false gods, but idolizing them while they are alive. The final commentary which Tertullian mentions, is that the amphitheater is specifically bad because it is the place where the most unclean spirits gather, as well as where living men go. Pluribus enim et asperioribus nominibus amphitheatrum conseratur quam Capitolium: omnium daemonum templum est. (De Spectaculis, XII)

Tertullian’s life serves as an example to newly converted Christians as to how to remain faithful to God, and why attending public events in Carthage was encouraging false idolatry and undermining the purity of the Christian religion. His work on De Spectaculis shows his perception of the games in the city and the impious people who attend them. It also shows the long history of how the shows developed and to whom they are dedicated. The architecture, rituals, and practices are also discussed, which is a rare view into the daily life of an ancient city. The most important aspect of Tertullian’s commentary is the evidence of the amalgam of cultures that have convened in Carthage. In the circus alone there was evidence of worshiping Roman and Greek gods, along with evidence of Egyptian culture by the presence of an obelisk, and images of the protectors of harvest, which are all important to the ancient city and its ties to ancient Rome.

Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources
Felix, Minucius, and Tertullian. Tertullian: Apology and De Spectaculis. Minucius Felix: Octavius (Loeb Classical Library No. 250). London: Loeb Classical Library, 1931.
The Tertullian works are in this edition from the Loeb Classical Library. The introduction to Tertullian and his works was very helpful as a first read. I would recommend it being the first thing any student or teacher with no prior knowledge of Tertullian picks up. The translation and facing Latin text are clear and explained well.

Secondary Sources for Teachers
Bray, Gerald Lewis. Holiness and the will of God: Perspectives on the theology of Tertullian (New foundations theological library). Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979.
This is a very complete source and in depth look at Tertullian, his life, his work, and his influence on the Christian church. The biography section of this book is well thought out and inclusive. The most helpful aspect of this book is how it looks at Tertullian relative to his religious views of the time. This helps define his viewpoint throughout his life.

Waszink, J.H.. "Varro, Livy and Tertullian on the History of Roman Dramatic Art." Vigiliae Christianae 2, no. 4 (1948): 224-242. __http://jstor.org/stable/1582375__ (accessed June 27, 2010).
Waszink provides an analysis of the origins of the games chapter of De Spectaculis. In the origins section Tertullian cites Varro as a source of information about how the games came to be in Rome. The article shows the truth in the passage and how some of his origins are a stretch. It is a helpful source for teachers in leading a discussion on the origins chapter of Tertullian’s De Spectaculis.

Secondary Sources for Students
"Tertullian - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. __http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tertullian__ (accessed June 30, 2010).
This is a great overview of Tertullian for students that is easily accessible. It also has links to concepts such as Montanism and his works to give a brief summary on the topics.

" The Tertullian Project." The Tertullian Project. http://www.tertullian.org/ (accessed June 27, 2010).
This website is an official website created by Tertullian scholars as a common place for information, commentary, and translations to be posted. There is so much information, but it is laid out in a clear manner, and the introductions to his works are a nice overview of his literary career. The site also includes the translation of St. Jerome’s biography of Tertullian in Latin and English with a summary. This website in itself is a wonderful research tool and easily accessible for teachers and students.

Chase, Reginald Melville. "De Spectaculis." The Classical Journal 23, no. 2 (1927): 107-120. __http://jstor.org/stable/3289360__ (accessed June 27, 2010).
Chase does a fantastic job analyzing the entire De Spectaculis. Every chapter is summarized, explained, and supplemented with historical and mythological information justifying the views of Tertullian. It is easily understood and focuses heavily on the entertainment complexes and their place in the city of Carthage. This source is a great side by side read with the primary source to make it more easily understood.

Dunn, Geoffrey D. Tertullian (Early Church Fathers). 1 ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Dunn creates an easy to read background of Tertullian and how he formed his views on his city. He also looks at his upbringing and clarifies the debate around his upbringing and later life. Dunn also attempts to date the works of Tertullian and uses scholars to justify his arguments. This book is appropriate for students and teachers alike, although because of the varying views on his life I believe it to be more suitable for a teacher who can summarize the points more easily.

Frend, W.H.C.. "Some North African Turning Points in Christian Apologetics." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 57, no. 1 (2006): 1-15. __http://jstor.org__/ (accessed June 27, 2010).

This article is most appropriate for the teacher who would like an overall examination of the apologetics in North Africa and why they were written. It includes Tertullians work and how he, as a Christian writer, influenced Christian movements and ideals. The article shows how the Christian writers faced a pagan population and martyrdoms in North Africa during the third century and how Christianity changed during that time.

Sharpes, Donald K.. Outcasts and Heretics: Profiles in Independent Thought and Courage. New York: Lexington Books, 2007.

Pages 134-137 in this book are a wonderful and easy to read introduction to Tertullian and his life. It also talks about his place in Montanism, which is one of the most accessible explanations on the topic. The overview is informative, yet a wonderful introduction if a teacher were to have students read about Tertullian and his views prior to reading De Spectaculis.

Sider, Robert Dick. Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (Oxford theological monographs). London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

This book is useful for describing the tone Tertullian uses in his works and the rhetoric style which he uses. It analyzes the way he presents arguments and what the desired effect is. It is best for teachers to read before presenting it to a class.

  1. ^ Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (Early Church Fathers) (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), 3.
  2. ^ " The Tertullian Project." The Tertullian Project. http://www.tertullian.org/ (accessed June 27, 2010).
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (Early Church Fathers) (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), 4.
  5. ^ Sharpes, Donald K.. Outcasts and Heretics: Profiles in Independent Thought and Courage. (New York: Lexington Books, 2007), 134.
  6. ^ Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (Early Church Fathers) (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), 5.
  7. ^ Sharpes, Donald K.. Outcasts and Heretics: Profiles in Independent Thought and Courage. (New York: Lexington Books, 2007), 143.
  8. ^ Sider, Robert Dick. Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (Oxford theological monographs). (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 111.
  9. ^ Chase, Reginald Melville. "De Spectaculis." The Classical Journal 23, no. 2 (1927): 107. http://jstor.org/stable/3289360 (accessed June 27, 2010).
  10. ^ Ibid, 108.