Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.02.07


Louis Robert [edition, translation, commentary], Le martyre de Pionios, prêtre de Smyrne, mis au point et complété par G.W. Bowersock et C.P. Jones. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1994. Pp. ix + 152. ISBN 0-88402-217-X.


Reviewed by Brent D. Shaw, The University of Lethbridge.

This posthumous work by Louis Robert, the doyen of Greek cultural historians and epigraphers, is testimony both to his massive erudition and to the magnitude of our loss. Ever since he delivered a lecture on the Greek text of the martyrdom of Pionios at a conference in Warsaw in 1968, Robert had never ceased to concern himself with the subject and had continued to collect materials that were to be used to produce a final edition of the text. His interests were driven in part by a genuine piety marked by his epigraphs to the book -- the one from the Latin liturgy and the other expressing his gratitude to the Capuchin Fathers of the parish of St. Polycarp in present-day Smyrna. Both the textual materials and those aggregated in support of an explication of its contents were to be presented as a volume in the Sources chrétiennes series. Robert's death in 1985, however, left the project in a state well short of final book form. It is only because of the considerable efforts of its editors that we are now able to have both Robert's critical version of the text and, perhaps more usefully, his detailed commentary on it. The acts of the martyrdom of the priest Pionios and his companions were known for a long time only in a longer and a shorter Latin version. The original Greek text that lay behind these Latin versions was discovered and published by von Gebhardt in 1896. Old Slavonic versions and an Armenian one were discovered in the course of the nineteenth century (the latter was published in 1914). A French translation of the Old Slavonic text made by André Vaillant is usefully included in an appendix.

In his Warsaw paper, a modified version of which stands in the place of an author's introduction, Louis Robert emphasized the particular value of the martyr acts of Pionios as a propitious route of connection between literary text and archaeological data. He takes the archaeological records, above all the specifics of epigraphical texts and numismatic data as confirming the authenticity of the martyr acts. The Greek text retails the events in the lives of the priest Pionios and his followers -- two women (one of them a fugitive slave) and two men (one of them, like Pionios himself, a priest) -- between their arrest on 23 February 250 and their trial before the governor on 12 March of the same year. The Greek text itself clearly indicates the date in the Decian persecution -- but it has been doubted. Robert's characteristically meticulous explication of the numismatic evidence (on the peculiar city titulature of Smyrna) and prosopography (on the identity of the Sophist Rufinus) vindicates the date in the text against the spurious claims of Eusebius of a date in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, Robert argues for a level of authenticity that postulates an eyewitness source who actually saw the events as they happened in the agora of Smyrna in the spring days of 250.

Establishing the authenticity of the Greek text is important not just for the 'historicity' of the events retailed in it, but for the warnings that authenticity has for historical evaluations of martyrological accounts in general. The Bollandists first published the longer Latin version. Showing greater apparent caution, Ruinart only deemed the briefer Latin version to be worthy of his Acta Sincera (doubtless because brevity seemed to be a touchstone of greater authenticity). That would seem to follow a good methodological premise which would hold that acta closer to the 'trial transcript' literary type are more reliable than elaborated literary narratives. In point of fact, it turns out that it is the longer Latin version which most faithfully reproduces the Greek original. Even with this Latin text, however, there has been a history of tampering, and Robert has some interesting remarks on the 'censorship' of the longer Latin acta prompted by bishop Lipomanus' anti-protestant sentiments. His excisions (of chapters that might reflect unfavourably on the catholic priesthood) are also found in the Armenian version. Finally, in his presentation of the Greek text Robert foregoes a technical apparatus criticus in favour of a detailed exposition of the textual problems in the commentary itself.

The commentary is filled with the sort of fine attention to detail for which Robert was particularly renowned, and is therefore a treasure-trove of insights for students of the political history of Rome in the East, relations between Christians and Jews, the technicalities of Christian martyrdom, and, in general, the cultural milieu of the cities of the Greek east. The remarks, as always, are blunt and to the point, not shrinking from correcting Mommsen (p. 108, on the governor's tribunal) or reprimanding an errant English translation of the text by Musurillo (Robert remarks on M.'s 'traduction lamentable' and on his translation of agoraios as 'lawyer' as 'une absurdité'). The latter judgements, of course, only serve to emphasize the need for a 'new Musurillo' for all the early Christian martyr acts, and not just for those of Pionios. To take but a few examples of Robert's attention to detail, one can note the exposition on the development in meaning of the verb A)POLOGEI=SQAI (p. 56, on c. 4.2 -- Robert's valuable comments on such technical terms are easily accessed through a convenient 'Index des Mots Grecs'); his remarks on the nature of procedures taken with those who were about to be executed (p. 115, on c. 21.1); and his forceful deployment of Pio Franchi de' Cavalieri's work on the often gruesome details of punishment and execution (e.g., p. 117). Whether in these matters or others, however, Robert is at pains to show how the text offers a consistent gateway to a better understanding of the topography and history of Smyrna (plates i-v), and how a better knowledge of the site and of the city's history in turn confirms the accuracy of the acts. He even argues for the genuineness of Pionios' speeches delivered in the agora, containing, as they do, small coded references to the city of Smyrna and its history that only Pionios' fellow citizens would fully understand and which are therefore unlikely to be inventions of 'a fabricator of saints lives' (p. 5). Problems of interpreting the distinction between rhetoric and reality still remain. That dialogues between judges and accused were commonplace, for example, is guaranteed by bare 'transcript' versions of the trials of Christian defendants. But the form is so deeply entrenched in the literary genre of martyr acts that even Robert admits that it is sometimes very difficult to separate 'documentary' from 'imaginary' elements in these texts (p. 105, on c. 19).

One cannot complete a review of this book without returning to a recognition of the work done by its editors. In her personal prefatory note, Jeanne Robert comments on the magnitude of the task of editing the mass of notes, annotations and marginalia made by her late husband, admitting that such was a task 'qui demandait pourtant un gros effort.' The evenness of the final text perhaps disguises from the reader just how great an effort that was. But there is some hint in her remark that her husband's handwritten work 'était en une écriture et un style très cursifs, difficiles à déchiffrer souvent même pour moi, avec des abréviations parfois personnelles qu'il fallait élucider.' Having had the opportunity (some years ago) to see some of the originals from which this edition has been compiled, I can attest to the accuracy of the observation. The gap between Robert's notes and this beautifully and carefully presented final product is, in some instances, considerable, but the transition is always managed with a grace and a fineness of touch that preserves both the tenor and the careful erudition of the original. The painstaking work of reconstruction was undertaken by the editors as an 'expression of gratitude to this great scholar.' Their labour is therefore an act which Louis Robert would have instantly recognized as one of the deepest values of the world which he himself studied with such devotion and empathy -- a demonstration of pietas. It is difficult indeed to envisage a final envoi from a scholar whose entire life exemplified a quality of learning and scholarship that will largely disappear with him and his generation. For, to modify the true claim of the editors somewhat, Louis Robert was not just a great scholar, but a grand one. Hence our debt to Glen Bowersock and to Christopher Jones for their part in assuring this fitting MNHMEI=ON KA/LLISTON.