For one night every year, all crime is legal – including murder. This is the premise of the popular American horror franchise, the Purge. Set in a dystopian but familiar U.S.A., the franchise has spawned three films that follow different characters’ battles to survive the unbridled chaos of Purge night. Not only is this an excuse for stomach-churning violence and hyperbolic social commentary, this premise is also grounded in real history.
Ritualised violence was a common feature of ancient societies, whether in the form of animal sacrifice or gladiator battles, but in the 4th century A.D. the town of Caesarea in Mauretania took ritual violence to the next level. For seven continuous days each year the town would divide into two sides, and fight a battle in the streets. Armed with stones each side aimed to kill as many of the other as they could. These two sides did not respect the social boundaries of ordinary life, and instead set neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, and father against son.
The reason why the people of Caesarea held these lethal battles, known as ‘Caterva’, is not precisely clear. Our only source attesting this practice was a Christian Bishop, Augustine of Hippo, who mentions that he travelled to Caesarea to convince the locals to abandon this custom. The only justification he gives for the caterva is that it had been handed down through the generations and in Augustine’s own words, it had taken hold of their hearts. Historian Brent Shaw comments that the caterva is a testament to the power of tradition. Although it defied logic, this tradition compelled people to risk their own lives and turn against their friends and family.
The rationale of the Purge, on the other hand, is ostensibly to give citizens an outlet for their violence impulses. Yet the film gradually reveals that the Purge is more of an elite conspiracy intended to kill off those least able to defend themselves – namely the poor, and the marginalised. The ruling party that promotes the Purge, the New Founding Fathers of America (or the ‘NFFA’ for short), is a heightened parody of the Republican party comprised entirely of grey-haired white men, flanked by silent, pearl-clutching women. The NFFA is loaded with Third Reich imagery hinting at their underlying white supremacist agenda. What’s more, on Purge night itself the NFFA leaders conduct a ‘Purge night mass’ at church Our Lady of Sorrow, where captured civilians are ritually sacrificed to chants of ‘purge and purify’.
Within the chaos of the Purge, there is cooperation between those who identify with one another. The Purge doesn’t create an exception to the social divisions of American society, but reinforces them. The NFFA employ bands of armed Neo-Nazis to target their political enemies, including rival politicians and black community activists. The same gangs that terrorize the street by day flourish on Purge night – in Election Night when the protagonist’s van is being attacked in the street he uses the Crip whistle to let his attackers know that he is one of them. What seems like anarchy is in fact more organised, and more sinister.
It may seem it may also seem like the Caterva was a departure from the usual social structures that held the town in place, leaving only mindless violence. Yet this too was an organised fight between two sides inherited from their ancestors, for reasons long forgotten. Ultimately both the Purge and the Caterva boil down to a form of ritual violence that creates and reinforces identity. It affirms the continued primacy of racial identity in modern America, and one’s belonging to the town of Caesarea in ancient Mauretania.
America is waking up to find that prejudices dismissed as a relic of the past are more deeply ingrained than ever. Despite its over-the-top approach, the Purge: Election Year proved to be terrifyingly accurate in predicting the renewed strength of American white nationalism during the 2016 election. As much as the caterva may seem like a quirky relic of the ancient past, the same inherited social divisions and culturally sanctioned violence can be seen in modern America. The deep-rooted power of tradition, that led the people Caesarea to perform this self-destructive ritual, certainly lives on today.
 Aug. De. Doct. Christ. 4.24.53.
 Shaw, Brent (2011) Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Conflict in the Age of Augustine, Princeton: Princeton University Press.