Baroque Opera Live performed Handel’s Theodora at Holy Trinity Church, Hastings on 19th June 2010.

The setting of Theodora is the time of the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman empire. This persecution was ordered by the emperor Diocletian spurred on by Galerius, the Caesar of the eastern provinces. The persecution varied in intensity across the empire. It was weakest in Gaul and Britain, and strongest in the Eastern provinces, especially Antioch, where the story of Theodora takes place. The citizens of Antioch were ordered to take part in the forthcoming Roman pagan festivities. But Theodora and her small group of Christians refused. Valens, the president of Antioch then devised a terrible punishment for her. Theodora struggles with her conscience as her friends try to help her, but is their trust in God enough?… A Roman SoldierAntioch is now part of Turkey and was Diocletian’s primary residence from 299 to 302. While wintering at Nicomedia in 302, Diocletian and Galerius entered into an argument over imperial policy towards Christians. Diocletian argued that forbidding Christians from the bureaucracy and military would be sufficient to appease the gods, but Galerius pushed for extermination. The two men sought the advice of the oracle of Apollo. The oracle replied that it could not respond because ‘the just on earth’ hindered Apollo’s ability to provide advice. These ‘just’, Diocletian was assured by members of the court, could only refer to the Christians of the empire. The court persuaded Diocletian to begin a campaign of universal persecution. Accordingly in early 303 Diocletian issued a series of laws demanding that Christians comply with traditional pagan religious practices. Under these laws, Christians were compelled to sacrifice to pagan gods or face imprisonment and death. On 23 February 303, Diocletian ordered that the newly built church at Nicomedia be razed, its scriptures burned, and its precious stores seized for the treasury. The next day Diocletian’s first ‘Edict against the Christians’ was published, ordering the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship throughout the Empire, and prohibiting Christians from assembling for worship.

Public Torture

The torture and execution of Christians in the Roman empire were a form of public entertainment. Crucifixion was popular, as were gladiatorial fights or ‘damnatio ad bestia’ (thrown to the wild beasts). The first Christian martyred in the Coliseum at Rome is said to have been St Ignatius who was thrown to the lions.

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer

Gerome: The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Shortly after Ignatius, 115 Christians were executed with arrows. At the beginning of the third century a family of Christians, who also happened to be Roman patricians, were reputedly roasted inside a bull and four Christians called Sempronius, Olympius, Theodolus and Exuperia were burned alive in front of Nero’s colossal statue.

The Coliseum at Rome

The Coliseum today. Photo courtesy of Eustaquio Santimano

The refusal to join in any of the state’s religious practices made Christians universally unpopular. On one occasion during the reign of the benevolent Emperor Marcus Aurelius the Christians refused to participate in religious rites aimed at checking an epidemic of plague which was decimating the population. The Emperor was obliged to condemn thousands of them to a hideous death. Emperor Nero was fond of dousing Christians with oil and setting them alight or dressing them in animal skins and setting dogs on them. Sources: Wikipedia and www.mariamilani.com

Theodora

nude Christian women waiting to be thrown to the lionsNude Christian women waiting to be thrown to the lions. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Christian women did not escape torture and death in the Roman Empire. Handel’s opera Theodora takes place in Antioch, the very home of the Roman Emperor himself, and seat of the most atrocious of all the campaigns of persecution and torture. In Theodora’s story, the president of Antioch is named Valens. When he orders the local Christians to join in the sacrifices to the Pagan gods, they know only too well what will ensue if they refuse. Valens threatens that if they do refuse, Theodora will be thrown in prison and subjected to torture by rape. This opera tells the story of the Christians’ refusal and is also a moving love story between Theodora and a Roman soldier who secretly converted to Christianity. Handel’s gorgeous music pushes the emotions of this story to the heights, and the opera contains many very beautiful arias including the well-known ‘Angels Ever Bright and Fair’.

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