The Legend of St. Telemachus: Last Martyr of the Roman Colosseum

"The Vision in the Coliseum:The Last Martyr" by José Benlliure y Gil

Guest Article by Ian Stone

Some pieces of art are able to do things that a million words could never hope to accomplish. The painting above is one of them and is titled, “The Vision in the Coliseum. The Last Martyr.” It was painted by José Benlliure y Gil in 1885 and was completed while he was residing in Rome. The painting won the gold medal in 1887 at the Munich International Exhibition and is now housed in the entrance of the Museum of Fine Arts in the artist's hometown of Valencia, Spain. The piece is massive in its size, standing tall at a total of 580 x 745 cm. This painting shows us a scene of a saint being given the grace of seeing the world we live in being flooded by the one that is to come. His story is worth getting to know.

January 1st marks the feast day of this saint, whose name is Telemachus (also called Almachius) and his death officially ended the gladiatorial games in Rome. After numerous bans, ranging from different events and actions being banned at different times and with differing levels of social acceptance and ascent, all assigned from different Emperors (Nero, Constantine I, and Theodosius I and finally Honorius) the gladiatorial games had at last come to a complete stop. What we know of this saint is limited almost exclusively to that single day in his life.

According to Fr. Frederick George Holwecks “A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints” this day happened in the year 391 AD, others say 404. Telemachus, a hermit or monk, after seeing the gore and violence decided to do the unthinkable and jumped into the Colosseum to break up a gladiator match and was killed, his death was met with frustration and confusion by Emperor Honorius (the son of Emperor Theodosius I) which lead to the final ban of gladiator games. There is very little known about this saint and with source material ranging from various dates we will look at the earliest account of that day from Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria (393-457 A.D.) This quotation is taken from Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, it goes:

Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and, stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the mad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the array of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.” -- Book V, Chapter XXVI: Of Honorius the Emperor and Telemachus the Monk

This saint's death is incredible and an amazing witness to the valor, intensity and almost immediate effects brought about in the social sphere when faithful Christians truly witness and act to thwart injustices by taking action.

In this piece we are shown by the artist the Colosseum after its own glory, already dilapidated and collapsing and resting in darkness. This is the clearest contrast we see in this piece, from the ruinous theater to the vision of our saint holding up a cross that is emanating white light. We see in St. Telemachus this moment of fearless and bold glory that will never fade, ironically surrounded by the pinnacle of the decaying and temporal earthly powers that once embodied and fancied themselves as reigning gods in this exact space.

It's not enough to see in the painting the magnitude of the humble power of the faith in comparison to the minuscule and aging powers of this world, we are then even more so emboldened by seeing our saint surrounded and the Colosseum being flooded by a sea of the martyrs.

These witnesses: priests, monks, nuns, virgins in white robes, children throwing the flowers of their youth down, all holding the candles of faith coming in a glorious procession. It's as if the entire history of the Church's martyrs has instantaneously flooded into the Colosseum from heaven and all those who have shed their blood in it have come to give a final witness to the glory that awaits the saint in his last moments.


It is incredible and gives us a new perspective to view this saint, this magnificent piece of art and to keep in mind the cloud of witnesses that surround us even when we feel the powers of this world have triumphed and have won the day. As St. Paul tells the Church in Corinth, “we walk by faith and not by sight.” This painting gives us this lens to truly see for just a moment the reality of the glory that never fades and the light of Christ that illuminates the darkness.

Ian Stone is a traditional Catholic husband and father from Massachusetts. He is a theology and philosophy student who enjoys reading, writing and sharing the Catholic faith.

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