BMCR 2020.07.04

Mens immobilis: recherches sur le corpus latin des actes et des passions d Afrique romaine (IIe-VIe siècles)

, Mens immobilis: recherches sur le corpus latin des actes et des passions d Afrique romaine (IIe-VIe siècles). Collection des études augustiniennes. Série Antiquité, Vol 203. Paris: Institut d'Études Augustiniennes, 2018. 544 p.. ISBN 9782851212924. €71,00 (pb).

A revised version of Fialon’s 2012 dissertation of the same title, the work under review aims to provide a synthetic overview of early Christian north African hagiography. Divided in three parts, Fialon’s study focuses alternatively on the historical aspects revealed by the texts, the heroization of martyrs and saints, and the literary culture of hagiographers. While the first two sections are both important états de la question and mainly present evidence of important historical and thematic aspects that the texts reveal, the third part presents a new intertextual reading of the corpus. This is an important book that set the study of North African hagiography on a more solid footing.

Fialon based her useful and learned study on thirty passions and acts of martyrs, which range in dates of composition from the 2nd to the early 6th century and cover events from 180 to 482 (a helpful chart presents all the texts considered, the dates of events reported and the dates of composition, at 32-3). Despite the abundance of recent work on hagiography, the discovery of new texts and the recent exclusion of others from the corpus of North African hagiography justifies, for Fialon, the need for a new synthetic study to provide a much-needed update to Monceaux.[1] For instance, recent scholarship has rejected the Passio sanctae Restitutae (BHL 7190), the Passio sanctae Candidae (BHL 1537) and thePassio sancti Arcadii (BHL 659) as either fictitious or later medieval compositions (29-30). Benefitting from the recent editions of other passions and acts, Fialon also based her analysis on her own reeditions of two texts: the Passio sancti Mammarii (BHL 5205-5206) and the Passio sanctae Marcianae (BHL 5256-5259). Unfortunately, these reeditions are not included in the published book under review, and scholars interested in these texts will have to acquire a copy of her unpublished dissertation to have access to her version of these texts. From this analysis, she concluded that the Passio sanctae Marcianae included two versions, a short, better known, version, and a longer text (BHL 5256), which presents notable differences. It is also noteworthy that she excluded three of the better known North African hagiographical texts, Pontius’ Vita Cypriani, Possidius’ Vita Augustini, and Ferrandus’ Vita Fulgentii, because they would require a separate, extensive analysis. While this might be understandable, it will undoubtedly disappoint many who would be interested in reading her take on these texts and how they may diverge from the corpus under study.

Following an insightful historiographical introduction, part one focuses on the provincial historical elements that African hagiographical texts reveal. Progressing in chronological order, chapter one, on the 2nd and 3rd centuries, focuses on the Acta Scillitanorum and the Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Fialon highlights the main aspects of the conflict between early Christians and Roman society, which led to the first bouts of persecution in North Africa, directed by municipal and provincial authorities. She also shows how the “permeability” of the literary genres (acts and passions) started to blur with the story of Perpetua.

Chapter two focuses on the third century, by looking at the Passio sanctorum Luci, Montani et ceterum, the Passio sanctorum Mariani et Iacobi, and the Acta Cypriani. The first two tend to follow the model of the Passio Perpetuae, and therefore do not include much information about the wider historical context. The Acta Cypriani follow more closely the model of the Acta Scillitanorum and taken together show the evolution of hagiographical texts, increasingly used by early Christians for ritual purposes.

Chapter three breaks the chronological order by focusing on the theme of military martyrs, found in numerous texts (Acta Maximiliani, Passio sancti Typasii, Passio sancti Fabii, Acta Marcelli and Passio sancti Cassiani). Fialon argues that the main goal of hagiographers was to turn Christians hostile to the military profession into martyrs, the concept of the miles Christi slowly emerging from these texts and announcing its later popularity. Additionally, a concern about the body of the deceased and the establishment of a cult developed, which led to numerous narratives about the context and place of inhumation or the power of relics.

Chapter four resumes the chronological progression by focusing on the texts relating the Diocletianic persecution of 303-304 in Africa (eleven texts, including three “donatist” passions). Tackling the length of the persecution and the number of edicts applied in Africa, Fialon concludes that only the first and fourth edicts were applied and that the persecution lasted two years (121). Fialon also argues that a geographical analysis of locations mentioned in the texts reveals that a specific urbanized area, in the North-East section of Proconsularis, seems to have been more intensely Christianized than the rest of the province (134, with map on 243), but that the texts also show an increasing rate of conversion in all social classes (143). The texts also increasingly vilify the figure of Anullinus, proconsul of Carthage responsible for applying the persecution edicts, and reveal the close cooperation between municipal and provincial authorities in enforcing imperial will (161). Victims of these measures became the object of local cults, which eventually spread to Italy and Spain, where their stories were revised and rewritten during subsequent centuries.

In chapter five, Fialon looks at the way religious controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries (“Donatism” and “Arianism”) influenced and transformed North African hagiography. Finding very few traces of rewriting by “Donatist” writers of earlier “Catholic” texts, she concludes that the Passio sanctorum Datiui, Saturnini presbyteri et aliorum was profoundly transformed in order to present a “Donatist” point of view regarding the events of 303-304, but that other revisions (except for one episode of the Passio sanctarum Maximae, Donatillae et Secundae) do not seem to reflect confessional viewpoints (188). The three “Donatist” texts (Passio sancti Donati, Passio Isaac et Maximiani and Passio sancti Marculi), by contrast, show a strong unity and distinct characteristics: the victimization of Christians reached a peak, here, with polemic and political intentions, focusing on the violence and downplaying the judicial aspects of earlier texts, in order to depict the persecutions as ongoing, linking earlier Roman persecutions of Christians with what they considered as persecutions of their faction by Christian rulers (196). As such, these texts present a strong rewriting of earlier stories in order to constitute a new communal memory (201). And in somewhat similar, but less assertive, fashion, the writer of the vandal-era Passio septem monachorum professed his trinitarian beliefs and the unicity of baptism against Vandal practices and beliefs, using the seven monks as Nicene symbols (201).

Chapter six looks at fifth century Mauritanian passions (Passio sancti Victoris, Passio sanctae Salsae, and Passio sanctae Marcianae), texts without specific historical context and partly fictional. Fialon considers that they constitute a transition toward later hagiographical texts, which concentrate on monks and bishops. Overall, the present summary hardly does justice to the extreme wealth of details that this first part includes, discussing a wide variety of topics that Fialon situates in their historical context while engaging with the relevant scholarly debates.

Part two zooms in on the central figures of hagiographic texts, martyrs, which authors progressively transformed into saints. In the first chapter of this section, Fialon studies the lexicography of martyrs and argues that the personal holiness of martyrs slowly emerged to distinguish them from confessors, leading to a transformation of holiness, from a sacramental conception to a view dominated by ethics and asceticism in which saints incarnate the perfect Christians. The hagiographical discourse of virtues is the topic of chapter two, which highlights the depiction of saints following earlier scriptural models such as the Maccabean martyrs, and of course the imitatio and sequela Christi. The martyrs’ virtues also explain the ubiquitous presence of dreams, visions, apparitions and miracles in these hagiographical texts, which illustrate how martyrs and saints, for Fialon, eventually replaced the various heroes of Greco-Roman literature. This process of heroization of martyrs is the topic of chapter three, in which Fialon demonstrates the prevalence of a polarizing rhetorical discourse opposing the power of the persecutors to the bravery and resistance of the persecuted. Such a discourse implied a reinterpretation of the meaning of suffering and death, over which the Christian hero can only triumph when he is a consenting victim. The polarizing discourse of martyrdom thus leads to an increasingly harsh depiction of its evil characters, especially through an animalization of the persecutor and the devil. The martyr, his opponent, is the hero that North African hagiography depicts as a new sage and a new epic hero who triumphs through a glorious death.

In part three, Fialon reads the North African hagiographical corpus through an intertextual lens in order to better understand the literary culture of early Christians, the circulation of ideas, texts, and literary genres among them. Strictly focusing on Latin literature, she divides her inquiry along two main poles, biblical and classical culture and reminiscences. Chapter one focuses on intertextual relations between the hagiographical corpus and scripture. As is to be expected in such literature, Fialon concludes unsurprisingly that the North African hagiographers’ biblical culture was wide and very diverse (374). Donatist texts deploy biblical passages as weapons in the religious debates that they staged in their textual realities. And more generally biblical passages serve to present and defend ideas, concepts or emotions.

Finally, in the last chapter of the book, Fialon analyzes non-biblical intertextual allusions, including both classical and patristic literature. This is a strange decision, and it seems that it would have been more appropriate to treat them separately. It may be the case, however, that the slim pickings from classical literature can explain this editorial choice. Again, there are few surprises here: Cyprian is the most popular Christian author in North African hagiography (388), followed by Augustine, while Virgil, Ovid, and Apuleius are the most popular Roman authors (386). Interestingly, Fialon points out that the “Donatist” authors are extremely well learned and do not hesitate to put it on display, even if Cyprian remains their favorite reference (401-7). The author of the Passio septem monachorum does not refer to the text of Victor of Vita (410). And the Mauretanian authors appear among the most educated of the corpus. For example, the long recension of the Passio sanctae Marcianae presents several citations of Ambrose (also the favorite Christian author of the Passio sanctae Salsae) and a preference for Tertullian over Cyprian and Augustine, a rarity (410-2). Similarly, this author’s use of Christian texts concentrates on didactic works relative to women, which probably explains the text’s elaborate depiction of Marciana (412). This method also leads Fialon to suggest new dates for the Passio sancti Donati, the Passio Isaac et Maximiani (both early 5th century), the Passio sancti Fabii and the Passio sanctae Salsae (both mid-5th century). In the rest of this fascinating chapter, Fialon analyzes a select few examples of literary borrowings to illustrate their main uses: the Christianization of the theme of the sea from classical literature, the Donatist use of Apuleius’ tale of Amor and Psyche, the elaboration of a feminine model of holiness, and the influence of Cyprian to project ideal textual Christians as well as to deploy military metaphors (especially the miles Christi) in a new Christian context.

The above summary barely scratched the surface of the vast array of topics covered in this erudite study, which is also richly documented with both an abundance of evidence from the hagiographic corpus under study and modern scholarship from the last century and beyond. Readers should be aware, however, that Fialon shows a slight preference in the latter category for French and Italian titles, and omits some important work in the English language.[2] This minor blemish does not, however, detract seriously from Fialon’s achievement in presenting a revised overview of the early Christian North African hagiographic corpus. This is an important book that all students of hagiography, Christian literature, early Christianity, and late antique North Africa will read with immense profit. All serious scholarly libraries should acquire a copy, if they have not already.


[1] P. Monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l’Afrique chrétienne depuis les origines jusqu’à l’invasion vandale (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1901-1923).

[2] To give but one example, the bibliography only includes two items from the very important work of Brent Shaw.