The city was Rome, Italy. This tranquil setting was once known as the Circus Maximus.
Traquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, first created a track here in the 6th century B.C.
At its optimum, after the third expansion, the seating capacity was 350,000.
In its earlier years it hosted processions and gladiator combats, but principally chariot races with quadrigaes — chariots pulled by four horses. The last race occurred here in 549 A.D.
During Caligula’s reign there were 24 races a day. Domitian once had 100 races in one day.
In recent years, concerts attended by more than 500,000 have been hosted. The Italian World Cup victory was celebrated on the site in 2006.
It is hard to imagine the distinctly different events acted out in the circus over the centuries. Each era’s crowds cheered their own ethos as though it were the only one.
Like many before me, I could not escape the thought of what my predecessors in the faith suffered here in the first centuries. Most of the beastly cruelty endured by the emerging Christian community transpired here, not in the nearby Colosseum.
Strategically located around the circus were statues of various Roman gods. Christians were persecuted in the circus because they refused to worship these deities or to attend the races because they were held on Sunday. As emperors began to be considered gods, they turned their vengeance on Christians because they worshiped another one as god.
Nero began the persecution of Christians on the basis of disloyalty and blamed the great fire of 64 A.D. on them.
Tacitus, the Roman governor of the province of Asia, wrote of the nature of the persecution. Christians “were nailed on crosses ... sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night.”
In 202 AD, Emperor Septimius Severus made baptism a criminal act. In the early 300s Emperor Diocletian took the persecution to a new level. His “Great Persecution” resulted in the deaths of 144,000 Egyptian Christians.
Amid all that persecution by the end of the third century, there were more than 220,000 Christians in the Roman Empire. Had not so many been martyred that number would have been much higher.
My mind having raced across these historical epics as I walked across that glen, I came back to contemporary reality. I thanked God for the freedom to live and practice our faith.
Under that persecution Christianity flourished and became the dominant faith of Europe, Africa and much of Asia.
Today with all of our assets and freedoms, North America is the only continent where Christianity is not growing.
We live in a pluralistic society with people of various faiths. Each would do well to evaluate their devotion in light of the commitment of these devotees.
This is a single simple column, but it is offered with the hope that by reflecting on our heritage we will reaffirm our faith and respond with a new lifestyle evincing it.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.