In 1950, the posthumously published work of the Bollandist Paul Peeters—Le tréfonds oriental de l’hagiographie byzantine —demonstrated the extent of the pollination across historiographical and hagiographical literatures in Greek and Syriac in a Fertile Crescent he memorably described as “la Syrie bilingue.” It heralded a novel, multilingual approach to the literatures of the Middle East in late antiquity that disrespected not only linguistic and cultural frontiers, but also political ones. It is only in recent years, however, that scholars have begun to apply the panoramic perspective of Peeters to literatures that remain largely quarantined within the traditional boundaries of philological scholarship. Kyle Smith’s new book joins the ranks of the publications — by Muriel Debié, Jack Tannous, and Joel Walker, among others— that have rendered antiquated the division of labor between Hellenists and Syriacists. With a focus on a particular narrative rather than a linguistically or contextually delimited literary corpus, Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia demonstrates how much can be gained from following the lives of stories across linguistic, literary, and political contexts. There was perhaps no story that traveled as widely or consequentially across Mesopotamian frontiers as the conversion of Constantine.
Imagined Constantines are the book’s primary concern. So important are the historical events of the reign that the afterlives of the first Christian Roman emperor have all too often been neglected, with the notable exceptions of Gilbert Dagron’s Empereur et prêtre (Paris, 1996) and Alexander Schilling’s groundbreaking study of Constantinian conversion narratives in the Iranian Empire, Die Anbetung der Magier und die Taufe der Sāsāniden: Zur Geistesgeschichte des iranischen Christentums in der Spätantike (Louvain, 2008). Smith seeks to unveil the potency of accounts of Constantine within their evolving contexts rather than their historicity: “how narratives about Constantine and the Christians of Persia might have functioned when they were written, both for those who wrote these texts and for those who received them” (8). Doing so, however, requires the definition of historical contexts, and the great bulk of the first three chapters of part one centers precisely on establishing the most plausible scenarios for events subsequent authors would reframe for their own purposes.
The starting point for Constantine’s involvement in the matter of Persian Christianity was a letter Eusebius claimed he wrote to Shapur II, in which he proclaimed a commitment to the Christian religion, the favor of the one God, and a concern for the welfare of Christians in the Iranian Empire. Smith argues persuasively for the authenticity of the letter, while conceding that the “[t]he important point is that Constantine’s letter to Shapur circulated in late antiquity, as if it were authentic” (31-32). Constantinian authorship is nevertheless crucial for a key argument of chapter one: that the emperor’s profession of a new religion distinguished him from his predecessors, such as Valerian, who had earned divine disfavor through persecution (38-39). Roman and Iranian courts alike could now share a hostile view of third-century emperors, however different their reasons, and the conversion of Constantine presented the possibility of alliance as much as antagonism.
Earlier interpretations frequently combined the letter to Shapur with Eusebius’ account of Constantine preparing for a religiously inspired war against the Persians at the end of his life to argue that the Roman emperor’s attempts to protect Persian Christians “led Shapur to be wary of a Christian fifth column in his empire” (53). Constantine therefore indirectly and inadvertently inspired the king of kings to undertake the violence against Christians that came to be known as the “Great Persecution” (52-53). Perhaps the most fundamental contribution of Smith’s book is its definitive unraveling of these argumentative threads. The Constantinian “crusade” was a Eusebian construction, and “the Roman-Persian war following Constantine’s death had nothing to do with the Christians of Persia” (63). What is more, turning from the Roman evidence to East Syrian literature, he deconstructs the so-called persecution of Shapur as a matter of fiscality rather than religion. The two primary accounts of Iranian violence against Christians in the 360s, the History of Simeon and the Martyrdom of Simeon, agree that the Bishop Simeon, titular head of the Church of the East, was executed for refusing to collect taxes on behalf of Shapur’s court, not on account of his religious identity (111-117). In imputing religious motives to fourth-century Roman and Iranian rulers, fifth-century East Syrian hagiographers were developing novel visions of religious community they regarded as appropriate to their political circumstances, much as Eusebius re-envisioned Roman religio-political order.
In place of accounts of religiously inspired violence, Smith recovers fourth-century voices that regarded neither the Romans nor the Iranians as hostile to the religions of their enemies. Shapur, the theologian-poet Ephrem reported, honored Christian churches rather than assailing them (87). Ammianus Marcellinus described bishops as the most successful diplomatic intermediaries with the king of kings (79-80). The only author to enjoin warfare to “convert” the Persians was the emperor Julian, who wished to transform them into practitioners of paideia and bearers of Roman culture rather than Christians (72-73). Even the sixth-century Julian Romance, composed in a far more sectarian milieu, presented Shapur as a protector of Christians, despite framing the war in the polemical, religious terms (92-93). Here, however, Smith missed an opportunity productively to engage with the work of Philip Wood— “We Have No King but Christ”: Christian Political Thought in Greater Syria on the Eve of the Arab Conquest (Oxford, 2010)— locating the text within Mesopotamian communities deliberately distancing themselves from the religious and political authority of Constantinople.
In East Syrian literature produced within the Iranian Empire, Smith shows how fifth- and sixth-century hagiographical representations of the fourth-century wars— and of Constantine— served to distinguish Christian communities undergoing political integration from their Zoroastrian counterparts. The History of Simeon connected the death of the “blessed Constantine” with the outbreak of persecutory violence, making an external factor the paramount cause and linking East Syrian Christians with the universal, trans-imperial community of churches (125-126). Other hagiographers recalled the histories of the deportation of their respective communities from Rome to Iran and insisted on their loyalty to the “religion of caesar” rather than the Iranian cults (135-145). With stories of Constantine’s firm dealings with Shapur and protection of Persian Christians, Roman hagiographers and historiographers, writing in Greek and Syriac, reassured sixth- and early seventh-century Christian communities of the superiority of an empire compelled to submit tribute to an Iran so frequently triumphant in battle (154-169).
Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia richly documents the historical roles of mythical Constantines in the communal imaginaries of Christians across Mesopotamia and frontiers, while deconstructing myths previously accepted as historical. It tracks the lines of transmission that Peeters urged us seven decades ago to pursue, but that had gone unexplored. It will hopefully inspire others to track the afterlives of Constantine in other Eastern Christian literatures. Far beyond the Roman frontiers, the conversion of the emperor provided the starting point for Christian reflection on the relationship between religious and imperial institutions.