Editors’ note: To contextualise these translations of Karlheinz Deschner’s encyclopaedic history of the Church in 10-volumes, Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums, read the abridged translation of Volume I.
The theatre, ‘The temple of the devil’
Almost unanimously (with very few exceptions, such as those of Victorinus of Pettau and Gaius Marius Victorinus), the Fathers of the Church denigrated the spectacles: this constituted an important component in their anti-Hellenic polemic. The shows really reflected to them all the iniquity of the Greco-Roman world.
The Father of the Church Salvian of Marseilles, who in the 5th century considered the visit to spectacles by Christians a crime and also sought to know that God hates these amusements, informs us that when an ecclesiastical festival coincided with the games, most of the spectators were sitting in the theatre. The suaviludii (fans of shows) used all kinds of arguments to defend theatre attendance and their censors tried to refute them. At the indication, for example, that there was no express prohibition in Sacred Scripture, Tertullian replies with Psalm I, 1, ‘Avoid the meetings of the ungodly’.
The theatre happened to be a domain of the devil, of the evil spirits, and the ‘Fathers’ almost whipped it up, giving it attributes such as ‘immoral’ (turpis), obscene (obscoenus), ‘repulsive’ (foedus) and many other similar epithets. It was, however, ‘very infrequent’ the case that the theatre was attacked because of its—still then current—cultic meaning, the veneration of the gods. In this sense, only Irenaeus, Tertullian, and the Syrian bishop Jacob did it; and Sarug (451-452), who stated that ‘Satan tries to restore paganism through comedy’. All others demonized the theatre for reasons of an almost exclusively moral nature.
The Philippic of Tatian Oratio ad Graecos, an authentic invective against Greek culture, gives us an idea of the poisonous bile that those paladins of the anti-dramaturgy of primitive Christianity were spewing. The actor appears in it as
boastful and dissolute ruffian without restraint, who as soon as he looks with sparkling eyes as he moves waving his hands, delirious under his clay mask, it assumes the role of Aphrodite, followed by that of Apollo… And such a scoundrel is applauded by all!
Many pious ‘Fathers’ saw how the vices penetrated the hearts of the spectators through their eyes and ears as if they were open windows. According to St. Ambrose (introibit mors) ‘death will penetrate through the window of your eyes’ and the stage choir is ‘lethal’. For Jerome, theatrical music also threatens morals. Moreover, the very critical mention of representations was sinful, said Salvian. Even married women, according to Augustine, ‘take home new knowledge’ learned from that ‘lascivious bustle’.
It was necessary to wait for Theodosius I so that, in 392, the careers of cars were prohibited; a prohibition that in 399 was extended to all the spectacles during Sundays, but with so scarce success that in the year 401 the Synod of Carthage requested that the measures already adopted were intensified.
The Church, since Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, considered attendance at shows incompatible with Christianity, and ended up strictly prohibiting it to priests and laymen in the III and IV Council of Carthage, threatening the transgressors with excommunication. The bishop of Rome, Eusebius, did not allow the performance of comedians even in the banquets of homage.
The First Council of Arles denies the charioteers and all the theatre staff permission to receive Communion while they are holding shows. The VII Council of Carthage prohibits all actors in 419 from filing complaints against clerics. If an actor, a ‘flute of Satan’ (Jacob of Sarug), wanted to convert to Christianity, the old ecclesiastical constitutions and the councils generally demanded the abandonment of his profession.