Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation

Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation

Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation

Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation


The book of Revelation presents a daunting picture of the destruction of the world, complete with clashing gods, a multiheaded beast, armies of heaven, and the final judgment of mankind. The bizarre conclusion to the New Testament is routinely cited as an example of the early Christian renunciation of the might and values of Rome. But Christopher A. Frilingos contends that Revelation's relationship to its ancient environment was a rather more complex one. In Spectacles of Empire he argues that the public displays of the Roman Empire--the games of the arena, the execution of criminals, the civic veneration of the emperor--offer a plausible context for reading Revelation. Like the spectacles that attracted audiences from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other, Revelation shares a preoccupation with matters of spectatorship, domination, and masculinity.

Scholars have long noted that in promising a complete reversal of fortune to an oppressed minority, Revelation has provided inspiration to Christians of all kinds, from liberation theologians protesting globalization to the medieval Apostolic Brethren facing death at the stake. But Frilingos approaches the Apocalypse from a different angle, arguing that Revelation was not merely a rejection of the Roman world in favor of a Christian one; rather, its visions of monsters and martyrs were the product of an empire whose subjects were trained to dominate the threatening "other." By comparing images in Revelation to those in other Roman-era literature, such as Greek romances and martyr accounts, Frilingos reveals a society preoccupied with seeing and being seen. At the same time, he shows how Revelation calls attention to both the risk and the allure of taking in a show in a society which emphasized the careful scrutiny of one's friends, enemies, and self. Ancient spectators, Frilingos notes, whether seated in an arena or standing at a distance as Babylon burned, frequently discovered that they themselves had become part of the performance.


WHAT DID ANCIENT CHRISTIANS FIND APPEALING about the book of Revelation, a story about the end of the world? To be sure, this text, also known as the Apocalypse, includes some of the Western world’s most enduring images. In its visions clash the “gods and monsters” of Christianity: the four riders on horseback who visit famine and disaster upon a dying world; the final battle between a multiheaded beast and the armies of heaven; and the great day of cosmic judgment that gives way to the blinding glory of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev.21:1). The poetical force of the book is unquestionable, great enough to obscure for many readers the details of its disturbing plot, in which the earth and its inhabitants are systematically destroyed to make room for a universe of Christian “conquerors”: “Those who conquer will inherit these things [a new heaven and a new earth]” (Rev. 21:7). A frankly imperialist narrative, Revelation predicts the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of a Christian one.

Many scholars, seeking to understand the book in its original context, have concluded that the shrill tone and misanthropic outlook of the Apocalypse reflected the fears of early Christians, a beleaguered minority in an environment hostile to the new religious movement. By promising an imminent reversal of fortunes, the book’s visions, like apocalyptic ideology and literature generally, responded to a collective sense of alienation. Indeed, a scholarly consensus has formed around the notion that Revelation rejects the Roman world because it speaks for a community that has cut itself off from this world: Christ and Caesar have nothing in common.

The present study approaches the Apocalypse from a different angle, finding in its visions of monsters and martyrs desires that were formed and caught fire in the spectacles of the Roman Empire. Revelation, I shall argue, permitted its audience to do what Mediterranean populations . . .

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