BMCR 2023.09.29

Living martyrs in late antiquity and beyond: surviving martyrdom

, Living martyrs in late antiquity and beyond: surviving martyrdom. Routledge studies in the early Christian world. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xiii, 280. ISBN 9781032261065



As anyone who grew up with a particularly gendered and self-sacrificial cultural model of motherhood knows, martyrdom is not just for the death bound. In contemporary discourse, ‘martyr’ is a title that is somewhat derisively applied to people who shoulder more burdens than they should and, worse, have the audacity to complain about it. Or it is deployed as part of a hyperbolic religio-political program. A more positive understanding of living martyrdom, however, flourished in late antiquity and it is precisely the notion that martyrdom requires death that Diane Fruchtman seeks to challenge in this well written study of the writings of Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, and Augustine.

Fruchtman opens the book with a strongly worded essay about the neglect of living martyrs in earlier studies of martyrdom. Fruchtman does not challenge definitions for the sake of it. Changing scholarly “search terms,” she writes, would allow academics to “better identify and understand martyrdom discourse in any historical or contemporary context” (p. 8). The broadening of the category and decentering of death inadvertently erases important aspects of ancient theologies of martyrdom. For Fruchtman, the payoff of her observation lies in the realm of the pedagogical. She argues that ancient “authors not only argued for martyrdom without death but also sought to inculcate in their audience a martyrial consciousness—a worldview that allowed them to think of themselves as martyrs and to become martyrs themselves” (p. 7). Though others have written about the interweaving of Christian identity and martyrdom and the inculcation of a martyrological way-of-life, there is a welcome sharpness to Fruchtman’s work that refines the terms and allows readers to see the stakes.

Throughout the book, and in a series of unusually sophisticated close readings of select Christian writers, Fruchtman chases down the production of this martyrial consciousness. She begins with Prudentius’s Peristephanon and hones in on the treatments of Quirinus, Vincent, Encratis, Gaius, and Crementius in Chapter One. Here she argues that Prudentius’s portrayal of death and even dying is often ambiguous. She snappily complicates our understanding of Quirinus’ demise by arguing that “God does not just allow Quirinus to die: he actually kills him” (p. 30).

Chapter Two, which draws upon Ruth Webb’s work on ekphrasis, destabilizes notions of “witness” by using the ekphrastic depiction of martyrs to elide the distinction between those who die and those, including the author and readers of the text, who do not. Her analysis of the adaptation of the story of the mother and her sons from 2 and 4 Maccabees is especially compelling. Here she posits a kind of empathetic suffering and martyrdom in which the sight of suffering elides the difference between martyr and vicarious observer. It would have been interesting to see this idea developed in the context of ancient medical and moral theories of contagion.

Chapters Three and Four turn to the poetry and letters of Paulinus of Nola and, in particular, to Paulinus’ treatment of Felix, a would-be martyr who did not actually die. Fruchtman deftly shows that for Paulinus it is volition and the “willingness to suffer [that] is the mark of the true martyr” (p. 112). While others might wish to probe the literary connections between Prudentius and Paulinus, Fruchtman instead argues that a widespread idea of living martyrdom circulated among late antique “elite” Christians (p. 118). The extension of the category of martyrdom to those who were willing to but did not die raises interesting questions about assesment, to which Fruchtman turns in Chapter Four. The legibility of martyrdom, she notes, demands an authorized and accurate interpreter (which, of course, we find in Paulinus). Didactic ekphrasis would direct the proper interpretation of events.

Finally, Fruchtman turns to Augustine and his much-studied views on martyrdom. Chapter Five is the most historical of the chapters and appropriately grounds Augustine’s shifting attitudes to the cult of the saints in the political contests between self-described Catholics and so-called Donatists. Nevertheless, and despite the pivotal acquisition of the relics of St. Stephen to Augustine’s position on these questions, Fruchtman posits that Augustine had a “constant underlying theory of martyrdom” throughout his life and career. For Augustine it was the legitimacy of the cause that authenticated the witness and martyrdom of the hero. It was, ultimately, the “correct cause was [t]hat made one a martyr in Augustine’s reckoning and it was, therefore, the causa that Augustine urged his listeners to imitate” (p. 192). Certainly, few would dispute her arguments here.

Like the other authors under consideration, Fruchtman argues, Augustine seeks to inculcate a specific martyrological ethic in his audience. Good conduct works as a “rehearsal of the life of martyrdom” specifically in the case of those who were sick and avoided forms of idolatrous or otherwise apostate medical treatments. Though he does not make an appearance here, readers will instantly recognize the synergy with John Chrysostom’s idea of the sick sufferers as martyr.[1]

In general, this volume offers a welcome series of rich and illuminating readings of the texts and is written with great erudition and verve. Fruchtman’s energetic turns of phrase, e.g., Datian “breaking the fourth wall” (p. 67), enliven what might otherwise be a laudatory but technical analysis of, for example, syntax (p. 143). The monograph is all the better for it.

There is some room for others to take up and further develop these ideas, particularly in conversation with earlier treatments of martyrological tropes. The connection between literary praxis and martyrdom that resurfaces on several occasions deserves its own exposition. If, for “Prudentius … the act of writing [the story of the martyrs is] a vehicle for speaking or confessing to God” (pp. 70-71) then it would be useful to compare this idea to other texts that link the act of writing to salvation (e.g., Martyrdom of Polycarp 22.3). So, too, the metonymic relationship between martyrdom, incarceration, and labor in the mines—a conceptual grouping that emerges at least as early as Cyprian of Carthage—seems relevant to the treatment of the incarcerated Vincent in Prudentius.[2] Perhaps most important, the use of ekphrasis in late antique descriptions of martyrdom could be placed in conversation with analogous literary trends in Christian apocalypses.[3]

Some readers might wonder if Fruchtman’s sharp denunciation of scholarly trends is entirely fair to the field.[4] Scholars of early Christian martyrdom have long noted the ragged edges of the definition of martyrdom and the existence of “living martyrs.” Fruchtman’s reckoning “with the Greek term (martys)’s literal meaning” (p. 8) would, similarly, have benefitted from engagement with earlier studies of this question. Norbert Brox’s monumental study of terminology springs immediately to mind.[5]

Nevertheless, Fruchtman has a point. The marginalization of living martyrs has impoverished our understanding of the discourse in general: “Focusing on death as the sole criterion for martyrdom limits what we see and are aware of; it precludes us from observing and analyzing as a real, historical form of martyrial consciousness, closing off from our understanding a significant element of Christian spirituality” (p. 16). Fruchtman’s detailed study of the role of martyrial consciousness in Christian self-fashioning and spiritual regimen is an important intervention in the conversation and must-read for students and scholars of Christian martyrdom.



[1] So Joseph E. Sanzo, “Magic and Communal Boundaries: The Problem with Amulets in Chrysostom, Adv. Iud. 8 and Augustine, In Io. Tra. 7,” Henoch 39/2 (2017): 227–46. John Chrysostom, of course, is not writing in the Latin West. Nevertheless, Shenoute receives extensive treatment on pp.135-6.

[2] Cyprian, Ep. 76-77; Matthew D. C. Larsen, “Carceral Practices and Geographies in Roman North Africa,” SLA 3/4 (2019): 547–80.

[3] See Meghan R. Henning, Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell: “Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth” as Paideia in Matthew and the Early Church (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014) and Robyn J. Whitaker, Ekphrasis, Vision and Persuasion in the Book of Revelation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).

[4] E.g., Fruchtman’s example for her assessment of the “fraught” and “improperly historically retrojected” (p. 7) distinction between confessors and martyrs is Everett Ferguson’s entry on “Confessors” in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (London: Routledge: 1999).

[5] Norbert Brox, Zeuge und Märtyrer. Untersuchungen zur frühchristlichen Zeugnis-Terminologie (Studien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 5. München: Kösel-Verlag, 1961).