It is 390AD. Emperor Theodosius is on the throne of Constantinople but the Roman Empire is not yet Byzantium. There are still pagans aplenty in the Empire, and Emperor Julian the Apostate has just tried to get rid of those annoying Christians – but no, he failed…
In Salonika, there lived a striking-looking cup-bearer, a slave whose beauty in the Roman symposia was much in demand, since he was eye-candy material. We don’t know his name, nor that of the great Charioteer who tried to seduce him one night. This Charioteer was famous; he was the Lewis Hamilton of his day, and his presence in the Hippodrome of Salonika was enough to draw a crowd of thousands. Pagans, of course: Christians wouldn’t partake in such appalling spectacles as sports. The Olympic Games were about to be banished a few years later.
Famous the Charioteer might have been, but we don’t know his name either. But we do know the name of the cup-bearer’s lover. He was Buterrich, the city governor. He was the head of a Goth contingent which Theodosius had tried to amalgamate with the Roman army. The Goths were stationed in Salonika in charge of the peace – and were unpopular with the locals who, quite rightly, considered them barbarians. (They certainly fitted the definition. )
Buterrich threw the Charioteer into the deepest dungeon of the city.
Just before the chariot games!
Next day, as the mob was gathering in the Hippodrome, the news broke out: their hero was languishing in prison. So, the enraged Salonika mob stormed the prison, freed the Charioteer and killed Buterrich and his Goths.
Emperor Theodosius seemed to have swallowed the bitter pill, for he promised the citizens of Salonika a new games, where the popular Charioteer would once again show his skill. On the appointed day, everyone flocked into the Hippodrome to cheer their idol, the Emperor and the demise of the Goths.
But once they were in, Theodosius’ army closed the gates and massacred all 7,000 of them, for the Emperor’s wrath was severe and his revenge was pitiless. It took three whole hours to kill them all.
And this is where it happened.
There were two important outcomes of this affair. Firstly, at a stroke,most of Salonika’s pagans had disappeared and the city had an almost purely Christian population. Secondly, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, refused Emperor Theodosius the Holy Communion, until he atoned for his crime. Theodosius had to appear bare-headed and in a white sackcloth in front of Ambrose to be finally forgiven.
This was the first time the Christian church had stood up against royal authority.
And all because of a handsome cup-bearer…