History of Telemachus: the Monk Who Ended the Roman Gladiatorial Games — January 1, A.D. 404
January 1, A.D. 404 marked the last known gladiatorial games in Rome. What part did an obscure Christian monk from the East play in this epic change in Roman entertainment?
This is the story of St. Telemachus, whose festival is celebrated today and has been remembered throughout the last 1600 years.
You may have never heard of the name. Or you know it as the name of the son of Homer’s Odysseus (Ulysses,) who was tutored and protected by Mentor while his father was away fighting the Trojan War.
Here’s the background of the little-known monk and how he brought an end to the Imperial gladiatorial games, and how the story has been adapted over the centuries until that it was used less than 40 years ago by a President at an international event.
The church historian Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, first told the story in the 5th century in his succinctly titled Ecclesiastical History, a History of the Church in 5 Books from A.D. 322 to the Death of Theodore of Mopsuestia A.D. 427. Theodoret relates how a monk from the eastern part of the Empire named Telemachus came to Rome and saw the gladiatorial games when:
“After gazing upon the combat from the amphitheatre, he descended into the arena, and tried to separate the gladiators. The sanguinary spectators, possessed by the demon who delights in the effusion of blood, were irritated at the interruption of their cruel sports, and stoned him who had occasioned the cessation.”
Location of the Martyrdom of Telemachus
The amphitheatre mentioned here suggests the Colosseum, or more properly, the Flavian Amphitheatre. The “arena” (Latin: sand) refers to the sand covering the wooden floor to absorb the blood of the games. Theodoret continues
“After being apprised of this circumstance, the admirable emperor numbered him with the victorious martyrs, and abolished these iniquitous spectacles.”
This was the Christian Emperor Honorius, the son of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I.