Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.28

G.W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xii, 106. $29.95. ISBN 0-521-46539-7.

Reviewed by James W. Halporn, Indiana/Harvard University,

Bowersock's 1993 Wiles lectures, delivered at Queen's University of Belfast, are the second set in that series given on a subject concerned with ancient Christianity. The first was the justly famous Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety of E. R. Dodds, delivered in 1963 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1965).1 The space between the psychologizing of Dodds' work and the concern with historical narrative of Bowersock's study suggests clearly, as do the titles, the distance we have traveled in the past thirty odd years in our understanding and appreciation of early Christianity and its relationships with the surrounding pagan world.

With his focus on the narratives which we call "saints' lives," Bowersock looks at that borderline in narrative between what we call "history" and what we call "fiction." B.P. Reardon has stated, "... narrative fiction is not a clearly defined category of literature ... An important variant of th[e] question [at what point does history become fiction] is, At what point does hagiography -- which is ideologically directed biography -- become fiction?"2 This boundary line between fiction and history was the subject of Bowersock's earlier book, his Sather Lectures of 1991.3 In the last pages of that book, he notes that the Christians borrowed back a genre, "romantic scripture," that the pagans had taken up from the Gospels, and continued it in "the massive production of saint's lives" (143). The present volume takes up in more detail these observations of Reardon's and himself. Indeed, as Bowersock himself comments in a note, "[t]he present Wiles Lectures may be considered as a kind of pendant to the Sather Lectures" (25, n. 5).

Bowersock sees martyrdom as a peculiarly Christian response to the world of the Roman empire with its intertwined forces of social, religious and political practices and beliefs. How martyrdom came to be a Christian practice and when it arose are matters that are the subject of his first chapter. In dealing with the creation of the idea and terms of martyrdom, Bowersock goes to great length to eliminate any Jewish or pagan antecedents of the practice. Why he finds it so necessary to exclude such antecedents is only made clear later. Indeed despite the vehemence of his arguments, the evidence is scanty on both sides of the discussion.

I find it especially surprising that Bowersock does not consider the arguments of A.A.R. Bastiaensen, a distinguished scholar of the Dutch Nijmegen School, who is the editor of a recent collection of acta and passiones martyrum.4 In a full and carefully documented introduction (ix-xxiv), Bastiaensen arrives at a series of negative and positive conclusions about the lives of the martyred saints:

1) that they did not imitate the pagan glorification of heroic victims of tyranny (e.g., the trial and death of Socrates, or the so-called acta martyrum paganorum or exitus virorum illustrium), for most of these have political rather than religious motives.

2) that they were not a continuation of the Jewish veneration of martyred prophets (e.g. the lives of the Maccabees or the death of certain prophets). Despite similarities in language and thought, the veneration of Jewish martyrs collected about a specific place (of death or of burial) and always remained a matter of private devotion; the veneration of the Christian martyrs was always a fact of the Church as a community. This kind of community activity is lacking for the stories of the Jewish martyrs. It is clear that the Christian acta arise within the community and under the direct influence of the events.

3) the martyr is not identified with Christ through testimony inspired by the passion of Christ as narrated in the New Testament, nor is the martyr identified with Christ by a place in the eucharistic service. True, the martyr's sufferings are a glory to the martyr, but are not the substance of the martyrdom. Although the martyr is associated with Christ, and the martyr has a presence in the liturgy, the reading of acta is not tied to the eucharistic service, since these reports were intended to be heard by the catechumens as well, and thus the tie to the sacrifice of Christ is less apparent.

Bowersock approaches the problem of Maccabees and its relation to Christian martyrdom from a historical point of view. Remarking that the scholarly communis opinio now sets the accounts of the Maccabees (Books 2 and 4) to a period of the second or first century BCE, Bowersock states that both accounts could come from the period after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. He further notes that no one would suggest that these books are in any way contemporary with the events they narrate (viz., middle of the second century BCE). In this way, within the compass of a few pages, a suggestion becomes a fact. Why is it important for Bowersock to set the date of the Maccabean narrative so late, even though he offers no solid evidence to support this? It is necessary to his argument because he believes that the whole conception of martyrdom came into existence in the early years of the second century CE, probably in "western Asia Minor (Anatolia)" (17).

It is not clear why it is necessary that the idea of martyrdom be purely Christian. Certainly it seems a more convenient and easier hypothesis to assume that the notion of martyrdom was a general one wherever the authorities clashed with the adherents of a revealed religion. To deny Jewish influences on the concept of martyrdom seems equivalent to denying an influence of Judaism on Christianity in general. At the same time, however, it is certainly clear that the horrible drama of Christian martyrdom was played out in and for a public that considered the execution of religious criminals popular entertainment.5

As Bowersock observes (23), the period from which we have texts of martyrdom range from the second to the early fourth century CE. Once official toleration of Christianity became government policy, the need for such texts by the congregation of Christians for their edification and strengthening ceased to be a concern. Examining these texts we discern certain features that reflect the literary culture of the early Empire. These texts seem to share characteristics of what we now call anachronistically the "ancient novel." Bowersock sees (24) as the transitional work from which martyrology and later hagiography developed as that curious piece of historical fiction now known as the Clementine Recognitions.6

If this view is correct, then the early texts of martyrology are "potentially important documents for the taste and nature of Christianity when Rome still had its empire and empowered its far-flung bureaucracy to process recalcitrant Christians within the legal system of the age" (25). In this way, the martyrologies reflect a different world from that of the New Testament Gospels. It now becomes clear why Bowersock wishes to strip the martyrologies of any Jewish antecedents. While he admits that the Gospels arise out of Hellenized Judaism, the martyrologies are centered in the "non-Jewish Graeco-Roman society of Asia Minor, Greece, and North Africa" (26).

Crucial to the Christian experience of martyrdom seems to be at least in part official transcripts of the legal proceedings against them.7 Whether these materials, which appear in such martyr acts as those of the Acts of the Martyrs of Scili and of Perpetua and Felicity,8 are in fact actual transcripts is uncertain, but the way they appear suggests that they may have been considerably revised. A feature that Bowersock does not mention is that these judicial proceedings all seem to have a fairly set form, which may suggest not legal proceedings so much as the disproportion of power between the witnesses to the faith and their prosecutors. As James Scott observes, "the greater the disparity in power between dominant and subordinate and the more arbitrarily it is exercised, the more the public transcript of subordinates will take on a stereotyped, ritualistic cast."9

In addition to the remarks exchanged in the legal hearing, these Acta may also contain writings of the martyrs themselves (as in the case of Perpetua) as well as contemporary narration of the events of the punishment. Such documentary material, Bowersock states, "allows the historian to integrate the martyrdoms within the larger fabric of society and administration in the Roman empire" (28), which leads him to the conclusion, already adumbrated by him earlier, that the Christian martyr acts have more reference to Roman ways of thinking about religion and administration than to the Semitic world out of which Christianity arose. The interrogations and protocols that are presented take a form that is entirely fitted to Roman practice and are totally removed from Jewish ideas of martyrdom.

The question of whether the personal reports of the martyrs represent the actual writings of the martyrs is still unsettled. Bowersock suggests that the incorporation of references in the Acts of Pionios to himself and his companions in the first person plural points to a prior document by the martyr himself. Yet such references already appear in documents outside Bowersock's tradition.10 He also doubts whether there is a true woman's voice in the words of Perpetua. In a recent article, T. Heffernan11 finds the autobiographical element in this passion difficult to extract, and regards what are presented as the ipsissima verba of the saint as part of the editor's reconstruction. Here the problems of historical presentation, fictional reworking, and autobiographical construction seem woven together in an inextricable fabric.12

The place of martyrdom and the life of the martyrs are curiously tied to the world of the city, and thus to the world of holiday and spectacle. In a sense, the trial of the martyr offers an opportunity for the witness to the faith to speak to an audience of other city-dwellers, much as Bowersock suggests, the sophists and wise men did in earlier times. Here the martyr does reflect the world of the New Testament, especially that of Paul in many of the famous scenes in Acts. The death of the martyr in the arena is, Bowersock notes, closer to the world of the athlete and gladiator. In the last vision of Perpetua, God himself appears as the director of the games in which the martyr will perish, and it is he who delivers to her the reward of victory over the devil (Passio Perpetuae 10).

Yet, as Bowersock observes in his final chapter, the Christian defiance of the state differs from the suicides of the Roman aristocrats, described in such moving detail to us by Tacitus. Such a personal affirmation of freedom is foreign to the martyrs, who offer themselves up to a public death. The death of the martyrs must bear cheerful witness to the faith before the disbelievers. Yet Bowersock argues that the tradition of suicide among the Romans was a powerful incentive for Christian martyrdom (72). Once there is a serious prohibition of suicide (as that found in Augustine), the age of martyrdom is at an end.13

Since the book is based on four lectures, the discussion moves swiftly from supposition to fact, for the genre allows little space for close argumentation. It is, consequently, often more suggestive than convincing. Bowersock has raised more questions than he has answered, which makes the work exciting for scholars who are invited, in a sense, to continue the discussion of issues so clearly set out in so brief a compass.


  • [1] The Wiles lectures, intended "to promote the study of the history of civilisation and to encourage the extension of historical thinking into the realm of general ideas" (Dodds, 1), began in 1954 with a distinguished book, Herbert Butterfield, Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1955).
  • [2] Collected Ancient Greek Novels, Berkeley: U of California P, 1988, 3.
  • [3] Fiction as History: Nero to Julian, Berkeley: U of California P, 1994; reviewed in BMCR 95.6.19 by Simon Goldhill.
  • [4] A.A.R. Bastiaensen et al., Atti e Passioni dei Martiri, Milan: Mondadori, 1987, critical texts of major documents, both Greek and Latin, with notes, commentaries, and Italian translations. Far superior to H. Musurillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1972 (which Bowersock [41, n. 1], regards as "unreliable"). The new edition of these materials by A. Birley, announced in the same footnote, is not yet, to my knowledge, published.
  • [5] See Paul Plass, The Game of Death in Ancient Rome: Arena Sport and Political Suicide, Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1995, and the review by Christopher Kelley, Times Literary Supplement, December 27, 1955, 22 (this review also considers Bowersock's book). As the story of the martyrs of Lyon shows, these entertainments could be other than the "fatal charades" discussed by Kathleen Coleman in "Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments," JRS 80 (1990): 44-73, cited in Bowersock, 18, fn. 50. In Lyon, there is no suggestion that the crowd was offered anything more than the pleasure of watching the exquisite torture and torments of Christian victims.
  • [6] Sometimes referred to as part of the "Pseudo-Clementines": see B. Altaner, Patrology, trans. H.C. Graef, Freiburg: Herder, 1960, 104-106; J. Quasten Patrology, I: The Beginnings of Patristic Literature, Utrecht: Spectrum, 1950, 59-63. For the story of the Recognitions, see B. Perry, The Ancient Romances, Berkeley: U of California P, 1967, 286-291.
  • [7] Indeed, one scholar seems to regard this feature as the most important difference between these acts and the reports of witnesses to the faith of Jewish documents: J.W. den Boeft in J.W. van Henten, Die Entstehung der jüdischen Martyrologie, Leiden, 1989, 221, cited by Bowersock, 27, fn. 10.
  • [8] Bastianensen (op. cit., n. 4, above), 99-105, 114-147.
  • [9] Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven: Yale UP, 1990, 3, as cited by T. Caesar, New Literary History 26 (1995): 678. Bowersock (37), citing R. A. Coles, Reports of Proceedings in Papyri, Papyrologica Bruxellensia 4 (Brussels, 1966), lists the elements as: introductory formulae, question and answer between official and the Christian witnesses, the magistrate's decision, and a conclusion that sums up what precedes.
  • [10] Cf. Acts 21:1ff. et passim.
  • [11] "Philology and Authorship in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis," Traditio 50 (1995): 315-325.
  • [12] Augustine, De natura et origine animae 1.10.12 does not, as Heffernan suggests, cast doubt on the entire narrative of Perpetua, but only on the report of her first dream.
  • [13] There are four appendices. The first deals with Stephen, who only late in the tradition becomes recognized as the first martyr. The second deals with the relationship of the language of Ignatius and that of Book 4 of Maccabees; the third, with the term "Great Sabbath" that appears in the acta of Pionios and Polycarp. The fourth takes up again the question of the Martyrs of Lyon that Bowersock had dealt with in an earlier essay (Les martyrs de Lyon, Paris 1978, 249-256).