The Emperor, the Church, and Chariot Races: The Imperial Struggles with Christianity and Entertainment in Late Antique Constantinople
By Jeffrey Larson
Master’s Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2012
Introduction: Throughout the city you can hear the enthusiastic shouts and the pounding of hooves on thedusty ground. Around 80,000 voices are in an uproar. The congregation of the church canhardly 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.
The hippodrome of Constantinople served as the perfect setting for thousands of citizens to socialize and express their sentiments toward the emperor. With seating available for around 80,000 citizens, just under one sixth of the population of Constantinople in the fifth century could get their voices heard by the emperor at each of the nearly 70 races held in the hippodrome every year, making chariot racing the most popular sport in the Roman world.
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.