Telemachus, Exemplar of Spiritual Leadership


Recalling this story always inspires me.  I hope it also inspires you.

In the fifth century, a simple monk named Telemachus visited Rome, whether as a tourist or on business we do not know.   As he walked the streets, he was surrounded by a crowd that carried him along with them into the coliseum.  They anxiously awaited the day’s gladiatorial contests.

After the gladiators paraded into the arena, they paired off to begin combat.  Telemachus suddenly leaped into the arena and stood between two of the combatants.  He simply said, “In the name of God, stop!”

This surprised and angered the crowd.  They hooted at Telemachus and called for the contests to proceed.  Some probably called for the gladiators to remove Telemachus, and even to kill him.  But Telemachus repeated his objection, “In the name of God, stop!”

A gladiator cut Telemachus down, giving him a mortal wound.  Telemachus fell to the floor and lay in his own blood.  But he continued to say, “In the name of God, stop!”  After a short time, he died.

The contests could now begin.  But someone in the audience stood and slowly left the coliseum.  Then a few more left.  Eventually, all the audience left and the gladiators went back to their quarters.  There were no gladiatorial combats that day.  Moreover, the emperor ordered that the bloody spectacles be discontinued and that Telemachus be enrolled among the martyrs.

According to the historian LaTourette (1975), economic and social forces, such as the growing poverty in the declining Roman Empire and a lack of recruits for the gladiatorial ranks, contributed to the ending of the bloody contests.  But  Telemachus’ bold, sacrificial leadership was the catalyst that highlighted the moral need for the ban.

He was willing to sacrifice, even to die, for something in which he believed.  He was a spiritual leader who saved the lives of others and successfully influenced the culture of his time–and that of subsequent history.

Of course, no rational person wants to give up his or her life; a martyr complex definitely is not commendable.  But are we guilty of being too bureaucratic and too apathetic?  Do we go along to get along?  Solzhenitsyn (1978) laid this charge on leaders in the West.  He was roundly criticized, but his assessment, as did Telemachus’, gives leaders something important to consider as we engage our responsibilities to others in our spheres and throughout our world.


LaTourette, K. (1975). A History of Christianity, Vol. I. NY: Harper & Row.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1978). “A World Split Apart.” An address at Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, June 30.

>>This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.


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