BMCR 2021.07.23

Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum. A literary commentary

, Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum. A literary commentary. Giornale Italiano di Filologia - Bibliotheca, 24. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 140. ISBN 9782503590950 €45,00.

The Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum (AMS) is a Latin text that purports to record the proceedings of a trial held in Carthage in the year 180 CE. Saturninus, the proconsul, presides in judgement over six North African Christians. After a brief exchange of words, mostly with Speratus, the apparent leader of the group, Saturninus orders them all (including six other Christians not present) to be put to the sword. The text itself is fewer than four hundred words in length, but it has traditionally held importance in early Christian studies since it is thought by some to be among the earliest examples of Christian Latin. Because of the unadorned way that direct speech is introduced (e.g., Saturninus proconsul dixit…, Speratus dixit…, etc.) and its seemingly plain style, some have considered it to be a slightly modified court transcript with limited literary aspirations.[1] For others, the AMS betrays extensive literary modelling intended to draw attention to Christian values despite its simple form.[2] In this volume, which consists of introduction, text and translation, and commentary, Hunink situates himself between those positions of nonliterary plainness and rhetorical plainness. He seeks to provide an interpretation of the text as the script of a “dramatic exchange” (21) between representatives of discrete worldviews, while remaining unbiased. He does not intend to reproduce a critical edition, to review scholarship exhaustively, or to dive deeply into the theology of martyrdom.[3] In terms of his main literary goal, Hunink succeeds in elucidating the drama embedded in the text, but his underlying historicism confines that drama to the action in an original courtroom and ultimately raises important questions about the meaning of the word “literary.”

Hunink’s emphasis on drama is best illustrated by his English translation of the Latin text. Even though it follows the Latin and Greek texts in the volume, it will be helpful to begin here. Hunink sticks closely to the original, aiming at economy of language rather than a full unpacking of the dense and colloquial expressions found in the AMS. This style gives the text a brisk feel. The most innovative feature of his translation, though, is his adoption of a novel layout that invites us to read the text as a staged performance. In section 7, for example, we find:

Proconsul Saturninus (to the others <pointing to the others>)
Stop being of this man’s persuasion.

A bad persuasion is to commit murder, to speak false witness!

By dividing the text by speaker, leaving the occurrences of dixit implied, and adding a number of stage directions where he finds textual support, Hunink gives us a text that can be acted out. It prompts the reader to consider more carefully, for example, how the characters respond to and play off each other’s words, how the delivery of those words by a performer may affect their meaning, and how an audience may respond to the scene. Thinking about a performance (or actually performing it) in these ways has the potential to provide a means for appreciating what this text might mean, especially in a classroom setting.

Hunink’s presentation of the Latin text and the later (perhaps third or fourth century) Greek translation is a bit at odds with his emphasis on liveliness. The texts themselves are drawn from the most recent critical edition (Ruggiero, 1991) with only very minor changes that he justifies well in his commentary.[4] Hunink, though, chooses to interweave the Latin and Greek section by section, which interrupts one’s reading. He intends this measure as a way of offering close comparison. However, he presents the Latin and Greek (along with English translations of both) in the same way at the headings of each section of the commentary, where he thoroughly treats the differences between the two. Since he offers this means of close comparison already in the commentary, his use of this style of presentation for the Latin and Greek texts here is superfluous. In the end, his decision does more to undermine the heart of the project than to sustain it. Arranging the texts on facing pages would have eased the tension between his different interests.

The commentary follows these texts and makes up two-thirds of the volume. It is helpfully divided by the numbered sections and proceeds by the Latin and Greek lemmata. Hunink treats the Latin text extensively and the Greek text to a lesser degree and only where it diverges noticeably from the Latin. Although he does not intend to be exhaustive in his consideration of modern scholarship (24), his notes are enough to summarize the most important disputes, to guide interpretation, and to direct the interested reader toward more in-depth studies. His occasional and brief notes on grammar may also be helpful for intermediate Latinists. The real value of Hunink’s commentary, though, is his acute sensitivity to lexical connections in the dialogue of the AMS. Commentators have long considered the question of (mis)communication between the two parties. Seeing that Saturninus, for example, tells the group that they can receive the indulgence “of our Lord the Emperor” (domni nostri imperatoris, section 1), they have pondered what Speratus means and intends by his claim to respect “our Emperor” (imperatorem nostrum, section 2): the Roman emperor or God.[5] Is his use of this ambiguous phrase an affront to imperial authority, cunning doublespeak, or a deliberate attempt to sow confusion? While earlier commentators have been content with showcasing only the most obvious of such features, Hunink has done a more systematic analysis of the text’s repetitions and other tropes that he persuasively argues to be signs of interactivity. As a result, readers can better see how the AMS is animated and unified by the mutual engagement of the characters even as potential ambiguities seem to challenge the stability of meaning and the possibility of genuine communication.

Hunink is also heavily invested in recovering a real historical event through the AMS, and his position on the authenticity of the text is controversial.[6] In the introduction, he hedges with a fallback position, saying, “Whether the AMS is an original Roman document quoting verbatim what was stated during the interrogation, or a piece of conscious Christian fiction, or anything in between these extremes, it is always possible to ask what the protagonists in this little drama say or imply, and how events take shape” (23). In the commentary, though, he frequently reverts to the theory that the AMS originated as a court transcript (16, 20, 45, 50, 97, 118). He also extensively discusses issues of specifically historical interest—chronology, prosopography, and legal mechanisms—which he uses to reconstruct the trial. Here, Hunink covers much ground that will be familiar to specialists, but even though his arguments are likely not strong enough to tip the balance of opinion in favor of the authenticity of the AMS, his synthesis will be a useful resource.

Hunink’s historicism can raise questions when it limits his willingness to accept what some readers will recognize as literary interpretations. For example, commenting on Speratus’ speech at section 6, he states: “Alternatively, it seems remotely possible to take Saturus’ [sic][7] words as a lesson … meant for the Christian community… However, there is no clue in the AMS that the exchange between Saturninus and Speratus is anything else than a debate between the two” (67, my emphasis). As Hunink knows (119), though, the AMS was read in early Christian communities. Thus, it seems strange in a literary commentary to foreclose a broader consideration of the meaning that Christian audiences might have taken because Speratus or the redactor did not specifically authorize readers to do so. In the end, what Hunink means by “literary” appears imperfectly delimited somewhere between the language of the historical agents and a playscript without an audience or readership.

Another weakness of the commentary is that the notes are not universally useful. Comparing the list of women named as defendants in section 1 (Donata, Secunda, Vestia) and the order in which they speak in section 9 (Donata, Vestia, Secunda), Hunink adds that they appear “nearly in the same order” (81; cf. 105). He counts the number of times that speakers speak without elaboration. Observations like these can give the impression of filler. His commentary is not immune to more significant errors in judgement either. He rejects, for example, an inference in one of Augustine’s sermons on the martyrs (299F.2). Hunink claims that Augustine adds a “mysterious suggestion that Speratus had been told before not to think about what exactly he would say, since the Spirit would give it to him” (75). He then wonders whether Augustine had confused the AMS with the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis or possessed a longer version of the AMS. However, the clear explanation is that Augustine, like most Christian readers, is reading into the AMS what Jesus promised to the persecuted faithful in the Gospels. Augustine references that promise at the beginning of this very sermon in a mashup of Matt. 10:19 and Luke 12:12: Nolite cogitare quid loquamini, spiritus enim Sanctus docebit vos quid oporteat loqui (299F.1). Hunink has intentionally limited his attention to early Christian theology from Biblical and Patristic literature. Nevertheless, a more significant, even if still select, treatment would have provided a greater background for understanding the conditions that motivate the characters within the AMS (historical or not) and would have influenced how its primarily Christian audience in the ancient world engaged with it.

Hunink’s resistance to delving into the theology of martyrdom is understandable. As he indicates (59, 72), he is tired of obviously biased Christian interpretations in scholarship. For this reason, he aims at a neutral and fair presentation of the parties “without a clear-cut, overall winner” (23). However, throughout the volume, Hunink paints the Christians as arrogantly defiant, intentionally disruptive, and dreaming of martyrdom from the start, while the Roman official is made out to be lenient, reasonable, and even protective of Speratus—in other words, he is a nice guy. To be sure, his interpretation is a valid one. It also aligns more with recent critical research on early Christian martyrdom that has both challenged Christian identification with persecution as socially constructed and has made space for appreciating a Roman imperial view of Christianity as a threat to the socio-political order.[8] However, as important as this Roman perspective is to our understanding of the history of Christian martyrdom, adopting it, as Hunink does, cannot be called a neutral position. Further, this interpretation runs the risk of flattening out a debate about ethics that is important and still relevant today. How does the idea that this proconsul did everything he could to avoid commanding these people to be executed affect our appraisal of him and the justice of the state he represented? Should we adopt the perspectives of states and their administrators rather than those of the people who know themselves to be oppressed? The social, political, and theological complexities of martyrdom are particularly challenging to attempts at a neutral interpretation.

In sum, Hunink’s commentary demonstrates the utility of reading the AMS as drama with an interactive cast of characters. This kind of reading will, I think, be useful for exploring questions of meaning and yield further insights when applied more broadly to Christian martyr texts like the Acts of Justin, the Acts of Cyprian, and any others with a trial scene. Although he has not pursued his literary angle and its consequences as far as he could have, we can be very grateful that he has taken a few big steps in this increasingly popular direction and has produced a synthesis of current scholarship on the AMS for the first time in English.


[1] E.g., Rudolf Freudenberger, “Die Akten der scilitanischen Märtyrer als historisches Dokument,” Wiener Studien 86 (1973), 196–215.

[2] E.g., H.A. Gärtner, “Passio Sanctorum Scillitanorum: A Literary Interpretation,” Studia Patristica 20 (1989), 8–14.

[3] Those searching for such things are still better served by Fabio Ruggiero, Atti degli martiri Scillitani (Rome: 1991).

[4] Éric Rebillard has recently produced a fascinating synoptic edition of the AMS, bearing the texts of all of the extant manuscripts presented one after the other, in his new book, The Early Martyr Narratives (Philadelphia: 2021).

[5] E.g., Antonie Wlosok, Rom und die Christen (Stuttgart: 1970), 43–4; Otto Lendle, “Christliche Texte im altsprachlichen Unterricht?” Gymnasium82 (1975), 213n39.

[6] See Éric Rebillard, The Early Martyr Narratives (Philadelphia: 2021), chapter 2, esp. 23–4, 26, 34–5.

[7] Saturus, one of the martyrs in the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, is confused with Speratus a number of times (54–5, 67, 87–8).

[8] The most famous of such works is Candida Moss’s controversial book, The Myth of Persecution (New York: 2013).