BMCR 2006.02.47

Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity

, Making martyrs in late antiquity. London: Duckworth, 2004. xiii, 207 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780715632857. £45.00.

The period up to the “Great Persecution” is often referred to as “the era of the martyrs” or similar expressions. In this book, a revised Cambridge PhD dissertation, Grig (G.) goes a long way in showing that this epithet could with equal fittingness be applied to the period of the post-Constantinian fourth century and the first half of the fifth. This period indeed generated a powerful discourse of martyrdom, present in martyr acts, sermons, hagiographical texts, visual representations, poetry and the like. Focussing on sources of the Latin West (mainly Italy and North Africa) G. demonstrates how the construction of this discourse, which is itself the outcome of a “messy” process of competition and contestation, contributed to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. G. does not read texts as sources of historical facts about the martyrs but as windows on the way the martyr’s life and death were narrated, appropriated and made subservient to the construction of Christianity. “It is the representation rather than the reality of those designated by the Church as heroes that is at issue here” (5). The performative, protreptic and artistic features of these texts are highlighted with power and authority being vital issues. With this approach G. situates herself squarely into the paradigm of Late Antique cultural history. The questions G. addresses are not new, but her application on the topic of martyrdom in the wake of Brown’s The Cult of the Saints is.

G.’s treatment of her topic is well-structured: after a historical introduction to the history and theology of martyrdom in the first centuries CE, the following key-themes pertinent to the literary and iconographical representation of martyrs are discussed: spectacle and schisms; the martyr’s suffering and Christian identity; the role of the cult of relics in the proliferation of martyr narratives; the interaction of texts and images. Between the chapters the thematic approach is abandoned, and all too short close analyses of the “making” of the following five martyrs are offered: Cyprian, Marculus, Agnes, Felix of Nola and Laurence.

G. provides insightful discussions on all her chosen topics, showing mastery over primary sources and secondary literature (including that in French, German and Italian). She is particularly apt in making each point of her argumentation briefly and then substantiating it with a close reading of well-chosen passages. All in all, G.’s book is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on martyrdom in Late Antiquity as well as on the construction of a Christian discourse. It is not the exhaustingly exhaustive analysis as one can expect of French doctorats d’état or German Habilitationsschriften, but instead it offers stimulating reading and a useful framework in which to study these texts on martyrs. The usefulness of her approach is illustrated by the fact that it can be easily applied to similar martyr texts from the Greek East, such as the panegyrical sermons of the Cappadocian Fathers or John Chrysostom. Being myself engaged in research in these texts,1 I was particularly struck that the approach adopted by G., when applied to these texts, leads to very similar results. In short: those wishing to see the principles outlined in Averil Cameron’s Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire applied to the topic of martyrdom will read Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity with great pleasure and benefit.

In the remainder of this review I will provide more in depth discussions of the individual chapters.

After the general introduction (chapter ἰ, chapter II outlines the development of discourses, myths and theologies of martyrdom in the pre-Constantinian period as well as a brief survey of the persecutions. Plurality and continuity with later developments are the keywords in this chapter, which brings nothing new but ably prepares the ground for the main thesis of the book developed in the following chapters. G. describes how many motifs of a discourse of martyrdom are already present in 4 Maccabees, the New Testament, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Pionius and the writings of Ignatius, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen and Clement. Among the motifs are: endurance in the face of suffering, martyrdom as agon and the use of agonistic terminology, the martyr’s death as vicarious atonement and as imitatio Christi, the martyr’s parrêsia with God, heavenly rewards, martyrdom as a second baptism, the issue of voluntary martyrdom, spiritual martyrdom, the martyr in radical opposition to the forces of evil. No “coherent” theology of martyrdom is present in these texts. Yet they all present the martyr as hero. The martyr cult was one of the privileged contexts to tell the martyr’s stories. It remained so during the fourth century, after the Constantinian settlement. And yet, despite all the continuities it exhibits with the pre-Constantinian period, telling the martyr’s stories in the context of the Triumphant Church was radically different from telling the same stories a century earlier. For, with the changed contexts, the purpose and the agenda behind the story-telling had also changed. It is this change that G. explores in the chapters 3-6.

It is well-known that in the North African liturgy the acta martyrum were read aloud during the liturgical celebration on the martyr’s annual feast day. Together with the sermon that followed, it constituted a powerful narrative event in which the meaning of the martyr’s suffering and death could be conveyed to the audience. Chapter III considers this event as a performance and analyzes it through the lense of the notion of spectacle. The material for this analysis is mainly drawn from the substantial body of Augustine’s martyrial sermons. G. convincingly shows that the narration of the martyr’s suffering and death, with its endless repetition and variations on sterotypical themes, drew the audience into the world of the text, which thus became a spectacle of the battle between the good and the bad, a spectacle in which the audience had to choose sides. Moreover, Augustine explicitly describes these as meliora spectacula than the ones on offer in the theatre. Hence, the martyr’s spectacula were intended to draw Christians away from the theatre and to fill their hearts with the example of the martyrs, not with the example of the actors on stage. Imitatio Christi was to be instilled, not the imitation of the mores of the pagan world. The anti-pagan thrust of the acta martyrum in general, and some explicit passages in particular, nicely tie in with this. Besides the non-Christian culture, exemplified here in the theatre, Augustine in his sermons also fought inner-Christian currents, most notably the Donatists. Finally the martyr’s realis praesentia through the narrative (as well as in the relics) is underlined once more. This presence made the challenge of these sermons bigger but was unable to guarantee a successful outcome. The martyr could be presented as a model, but ultimately the audience of Augustine and other preachers had to choose for themselves.

In their powerful polemical and performative discourse the Christian authors include extensive horrendous accounts of violence and torture. In Chapter IV G. shows how Christians built on existing narrative traditions of the courtroom drama and how the Christian martyrological texts participated in a discourse of intensified violence and suffering that was prevalent during the fourth century. This then raises the question of how exactly these descriptions of excessive violence in Christian martyrological texts contributed to the discourse(s) of the triumphant Church. G. persuasively argues that a crucial element of the answer lies in the perspective. Contemporary readers may be inclined to sympathize with the victim, but, in fact, the texts were written from the perspective of the spectators, that is, all readers and hearers of these captivating texts. In hearing or reading they witnessed the martyr’s interrogation, torture and witness to the truth. Close readings of, inter alia, the Acta Gallonii, some Donatist Martyr Acts and passages from Prudentius’ Peristephanon demonstrate that these descriptions of violence actually invite the spectators to enter into a power contest of which the martyr is the victor. He is victor over the bodily sufferings but also over the persecutor who, in the end, in quite a number of texts becomes the sufferer.

The martyr cult, with the relics in the martyr’s shrine as its tangible center, was the natural home for the performative discourse on the martyr. While the presence of the holy in relics was not an undisputed matter (see Jerome’s controversy with Vigilantius), in general the martyr cult went through an unprecedented and ever accelerating expansion in the fourth and fifth centuries, thanks to the practices of inventio and translatio. New cults resulted in new stories, and it is this proliferation of martyrological narratives, most notably miracle stories, that is discussed in Chapter V. G. shows that there is an intimate link between the relics and the stories: the martyr is almost palpably present in both of them, and the distribution of the former led to an increase of the latter. Vitricius of Rouen and Paulinus of Nola illustrate the changed role of the martyr cult.Yet, it is especially the cult of S. Stephen, its rapid expansion after the invention of the relics, the equally rapid expansion of narratives about the martyr’s miracles, and Augustine’s central role in this, that are discussed in the second part of this chapter. It is astonishing to see how quickly an extensive hagiographical dossier was built around Stephen, triggered by the invention of his relics. Here the “textualisation of a cult” almost takes places before our eyes or, in G.’s words: “A miracle needs to be narrated if it is to be effective” (103). Research has shown that, unlike many of his peers, Augustine took great pains in promoting this narrative representation of the martyr’s miracles, thus showing the central role of the bishop in the process of textualising the relics.

Narrativity is not only caught in words but also in images. Throughout her book G. has paid attention to the conversation between text and image, between verbal and visual representations. This is thematised in Chapter VI. Pride of place is given to the ecphraseis, the pictorial quality of which aims at communicating to the audience the experience of the subject described with the purpose of bringing about a change, e.g. encouraging to imitate the virtue of steadfastness in the faith to which the martyr had so eminently born testimony. Close readings of Asterius’ Ecphrasis of Euphemia’s Martyrdom and Prudentius’ Peristephanon 9 and 11 illustrate her point. From the ecphraseis G. moves onto the archaeological record, relating text and image to one another as exponents of Late Antique visual culture. Using examples such as medallions representing martyrs and the Damasan program of monumentalisation with its great interest in the martyr cult as examples, she demonstrates “that we need to understand the two media [sc. image and text] as functioning in a more symbiotic, interrelated way than some scholars have realised” (126/7).

To conclude: G. has written a stimulating and accessible book that deserves to be read by scholars in this particular field of specialisation and beyond.


1. E.g. J. Leemans, W. Mayer, P. Allen, and B. Dehandschutter, “Let Us Die That We May Live”: Greek Homilies on Christian Martyrs, London-New York: Routledge, 2003; J. Leemans, “Preaching Christian Virtue: Basil of Caesarea’s Panegyrical Sermon on Julitta”, in G. Partoens, G. Roskam, and T. Van Houdt (eds.), Virtutis imago. Studies on the Conceptualization and Transformation of an Ancient Ideal, Leuven:Peeters, 2004, 259-285.