MIT Ancient and Medieval Studies Colloquium


Monday, September 21, 2020, 5:00pm to 6:00pm


Virtual presentation
Kim Sexton (University of Arkansas) and Lynda Coon (University of Arkansas), Racetrack to Salvation: The Circus, The Basilica, and the Martyr. Zoom link here.
Six basilicas constructed by Christians in fourth-century Rome relate purposefully to ancient athletic structures, namely the circus and the stadium. This relationship grew out of the shared cultural traditions of Classical athleticism and the cult of Christian martyrs materialized in the built environment and serving mixed religious audiences. These six “circus basilicas” mimicked the most iconic features of Roman racetracks, whether designed for sturdy horses or swift humans. The similarities in design between circus and basilica were not mere accidents of history bearing only “pseudo-resemblances” to pagan monuments. Rather, the architectural features of circus basilicas bear witness to an ancient Christianity practiced outside the city walls in the fourth century only to be eclipsed by newer styles of worship in subsequent epochs. Here, the martyr keeps company with the charioteer; the pagan dissolves seamlessly into the Christian; the godhead metamorphoses into the ultimate spectator at the games; and the athletic spaces of the later Roman Empire transmute into a racetrack to salvation. This subject is not new, but typically scholars have located the circus basilica within the context of Classical hero cults rather than the cult of Christian martyrs. This presentation brings together a wealth of sources—architectural, archaeological, artistic, and literary—combined with interdisciplinary methodologies to demonstrate how the Roman votaries of Jesus harnessed the cultural prestige and cosmological systems of the circus to promulgate the faith and exercise cultural dominion over the empire.