Addiction, Alypius and the Gladiators


Originally Published as a guest post at The Millennial Star on January 28, 2015

Alypius1 was a life-long friend of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. Both were born in the 4th century in Numidia (current Algeria) which was part of Roman North Africa.  They were converted to Christianity together while studying in Milan. Though revered as a Saint of the Catholic Church, there was a time in his life when Alypius seemed hopelessly enslaved to an addiction of the most unlikely sort.  Augustine describes the plight of his friend better than I could ever hope to.

He had gone on to Rome before me to study law . . . and there he was carried away again with an incredible passion for the gladiatorial shows.

For, although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows.

He protested to them: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.”

When they heard this, they dragged him on in, probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they got to the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness.

Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body.

Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness–delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust.

He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.

And yet from all this, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, thou didst pluck him and taught him not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee–but not till long after.”2


Addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming to such an extent that cessation causes severe trauma”. Though the allure of watching slaves and criminals battle to the death is hardly on our top ten list of addictions to watch out for, the story of Alypius illustrates how susceptible the human brain is to addiction. A review of the diagnostic criteria for addiction (here) makes it pretty clear that its not just nicotine, alcohol or drugs that have addictive potential. Most of us wouldn’t think of work, shopping, Facebook, texting, or video games as being much more of an addictive threat than gladiatorial games. But this lack of respect is disarming and very dangerous. In reality, addiction is so multifaceted that it holds the potential to threaten most of us. Addiction is a lot like eBay–there’s something for everyone.

Parallels between the story of Alypius and the modern plague of pornography should be obvious  (GBH’s watershed talk here; Dallin H. Oaks here). One look was all it took for Alypius to be drawn in. Spurred on with curiosity “he opened his eyes and was struck with a [deep] wound in his soul” that took him years to recover from. The exact words could be used to describe those ensnared by pornography.

In his Conference talk on addiction a few years ago, M. Russell Ballard described addiction as surrender. He said “any kind of addiction is to surrender to something, thus relinquishing agency and becoming dependent”. Surrender to anything other than God is tantamount to idolatry. It is a moment Satan instantly recognizes; he will immediately move in to seize control. Elder Ballard went on to teach that the cause of the disease and its remedy are different faces of the same coin:

“Ask him for the strength to overcome the addiction you are experiencing. Set aside all pride and turn your life and heart to Him.”

As we surrender to our addiction we are enslaved by it. On the other hand, as we surrender to God, He liberates us.

A Modern Example of Addiction

The story of Alypius’ addiction to gladiatorial games in the waning years of the Roman Empire has me thinking about human susceptibility to addiction in general.

When I lived in Boston, I was the Home Teacher of a man that became addicted to crack cocaine.  My friend was not the kind of guy you think of when you say ‘crackhead’.  He was smart, sophisticated and wealthy. He lived in a luxury high-rise apartment downtown.  He had worked for years as an auditor for multinational accounting firm. When he found the church he was all in; he was totally passionate about the gospel. On one visit I could tell there had been a significant change in my friend.  Over the next few months he opened up to me about his problems with drugs. He told me that he tried crack cocaine once, and knew immediately that he was hopelessly addicted. His love for God and the gospel took a back seat. I watched on rather helplessly as he gradually withered. Though I tried to keep in touch after I moved to Nevada, he wasn’t interested. His addiction worsened and became more complex. Ultimately he died young, angry and bitter.

You cannot become addicted to cocaine without trying it first; you can’t become a slave of the Colosseum without going to watch the games. Alypius’ problems didn’t begin with a decision to go see Christians be covered in pitch, crucified and then set ablaze, or sewn into animal hides and left to be torn to pieces by starving lions. My friend’s fight to the death with drugs began when he threw caution to the wind and allowed another addict to talk him into buying the drugs they could then share. What my friend and Alypius had in common on day one of their individual battles with addiction was an arrogance that made them feel invulnerable to something they both knew was wrong.

Trusting in Our Own Strength

Augustine said that Alipius’ soul “was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee.” The line that separates being valiant from being audacious is sometimes pretty thin.  To be valiant is to show courage, determination and excellence.  Audaciousness is a willingness to take bold risks, usually while showing impudent lack of respect to custom or prevailing wisdom. Alypius confidently proclaimed: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.”  But this valiant exterior was just the facade of an audacious young man that had too much confidence in himself, and too little respect for Satan.

If audaciousness and excessive self-confidence sets the stage for our addictions, then it is supplemented by forgetting the we aren’t supposed to face these challenges alone:

“[The Lord] knows the mistakes we can so easily make: to underestimate the forces working for us and to rely too much on our human powers. And so He offers us the covenant to “always remember Him” and the warning to “pray always” so that we will place our reliance on Him, our only safety.” 3

In Augstine’s account of the addiction of Alypius, he also highlighted the way of out the nightmare in which Alypius was trapped. It seems that Augustine scooped every 12-step program ever published by pointing out that the Lord rescued Alypius and taught him “not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee”. As he did so, Alypius walked away from one master into the arms of Another.

Art Credits:

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), 1872 by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ)

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1863 by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Walter Art Museum, Baltimore, MD)


  1. He is also referred to as Saint Alypius of Thasgate
  2. Augustine – Confessions VI;8:13
  3. Elder Henry B. Eyring, Always, CES Fireside (Oct Ensign 1999)
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