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The Emperor, the Church, and Chariot Races

The Imperial Struggles with Christianity and Entertainment in Late Antique Constantinople

By Jeffrey Larson

Throughout the city you can hear the enthusiastic shouts and the pounding of hooves on the dusty ground. Around 80,000 voices are in an uproar. The congregation of the church can hardly hear the bishop as he tells his dwindling audience to avoid attending the wicked games. The emperor, in his magnificent regalia, is seated in front of his people as they shout for their respective factions during the races. He knows how important it is to have these games. The crowd, enjoying the intense races and lively conversations with each other, know that this is the only place they can express their opinions of the emperor freely. Sayings like “you scoundrel” in between races are common amongst those displeased with the emperor, while the rest shout praises to him.

[Snip] In the Christianized Empire of the fourth through sixth centuries, there was little the Church could do to prevent the races from continuing. Although the Church Fathers effectively lobbied the imperial authorities to enact laws banning spectacles on Sundays and Church holidays, they could not stop their congregations from attending any of the spectacles. The people still flocked to the theatres and hippodromes instead of the churches. The Christian emperors struggled to keep the masses happy while still fulfilling their imperial duties to the Church.

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