Éric Rebillard, ed. Greek and Latin Narratives about Ancient Martyrs. Oxford University, 2017.
Martyrs matter. And martyrdom accounts are indispensable sources for reconstructing late antique identity construction in one of its more violent forms, even as they provoke sharp disagreements about our own historiographical priorities. With respect to this important set of late antique sources, Éric Rebillard’s texts, translations, and commentary of the most ancient martyr texts preserved in Latin and Greek are a valuable addition to the scholarly toolkit.
Ancient Martyrs has two main components. First, a dense but well-ordered introduction surveys the history of martyr “dossiers,” i.e. collections of martyr narratives. This introduction positions Rebillard’s approach in a genealogy of collection from Eusebius through to Delehaye ([Fr.] 1903, 1905) and Knopf ([Ger.] 1913; repr. 1929 with additions). Despite initial intentions to replace Musurillo’s standard-issue English volume (1972), Rebillard admits that the project “quickly evolved into something quite different” (1). Rebillard aims, first and foremost, to establish how to treat martyr narratives directly and primarily as literary texts in context, not historical data points (21). Thus he hopes to reorient scholarship away from a fixation with “authenticity”–namely, whether these texts really reflect early Christian collective memory or resulted from post-Constantinian invention.
Previous arguments aimed to establish which accounts were “authentically” ancient by linking martyr narratives to the genre features of court documents or eyewitness reports. But Rebillard, following Barnes (2010), suggests there is no evidence for such a coherent genre prior to the establishment in 260CE of a Roman precedent of toleration for Christian practices. Thus, internal, genre-specific form and content does not provide a stable means for scholars to identify which martyrdom narratives happened first. He does helpfully summarize scholarly discussion of the date of individual texts, but to select which martyr texts can count as properly “ancient” he proposes an alternative “objective criterion”; “the external attestation to the existence of a narrative about a martyr or a group of martyrs” in the works of either Eusebius or Augustine (21-22). Rebillard’s criterion guides him to include Apollonius; Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonice; Pionius of Smyrna; Martyrs of Lyon and Vienne; Marian and James; Cyprian of Carthage; Fructuosus of Tarragona and companions; Montanus, Lucius, and companions; Perpetua, Felicity, and companions; and the Scilitan martyrs.
The second, larger part of the volume contains texts and translations of accounts narrating the contests of martyrs in Roman Gaul, North Africa, and Asia Minor. In a few pages attached to each text and translation, Rebillard synthesizes and distils the core elements of each text’s manuscript history along with scholarly interpretation, interacting extensively with German, French, and Italian scholarship. Occasionally, Rebillard includes notes or addenda on significant contentious debates. A critical text and translation with ample short-form notes on manuscript problems follow.
The translations are by and large excellent, readable, text-oriented renderings. Musurillo, previously the only volume with English translations to collect so many narratives, was criticized by Barnes and Bowersock, amongst others, for relatively frequent imprecision. As well as avoiding translation mistakes, Rebillard largely resists slipping into terminology pre-loaded with conceptual baggage—and thus avoids stabilizing a wide range of terminology into a misleadingly uniform English text.
The scholastic paratext is similarly superb. Rebillard remarks that his footnotes are not exhaustive, but they nevertheless include major manuscript variations and important intertexts (where relevant). The paratext does focus on classic, and especially European, scholarship on martyrdom, rather than other important interpretive works by scholars of late antiquity like Virgina Burrus, Elizabeth Castelli, Lucy Grig, Jennifer Glancy, as well as Kim Haines-Eitzen on ancient scribes. On the one hand, many of the conceptual possibilities of this book remain unarticulated. On the other, it leaves many interstices which other scholars can exploit.
In short, Rebillard succeeds in presenting a rigorous, detailed, careful set of texts with relevant paratext, from a ferociously learned scholar. So how does this volume fit into the archipelago of resources available to the scholars of ancient martyrdoms? True enough, Rebillard does state explicitly that his work is not a replacement for Musurillo. Nevertheless, reflecting further on this volume’s relationship with Musurillo clarifies how this volume may augment work already underway. Rebillard’s translations are preferable in most cases, and he delves into MSS cataloguing and discussion—elements which Musurillo relegates to foreword or footnotes. Additionally, Ancient Martyrs, despite its substantial cost, has the advantage of being in print (although at time of writing was out of stock). Hopefully, like other popular volumes in this series, a paperback edition will follow its success.
On the other hand, one difference in the selection of martyr texts—a direct result of Rebillard’s criterion, so this is a musing rather than a criticism—gives pause for thought. The geography of Christian martyrdom that emerges in Rebillard’s collection, more than in Musurillo’s, closely resembles that of traditional patristics: North Africa, Asia Minor, and Gaul. The earliest Pannonian and Egyptian narratives slip out. Moreover, Rebillard does not offer Latin and Greek recensions when relevant, as Musurillo does with MCarpus, Papylus and Agathonice, since they are often late in date. And martyr narratives from beyond the Roman Empire, especially those in Syriac, are entirely absent due (once again) to their late date.
To some degree, this selectivity quietly emphasizes the authentic—that what matters about a text is primarily its verifiably ancient literary context. Rebillard himself has emphasized the “intermittence” of Christian identity—in other words, that often a “Christian” identity is not the most salient identity for a late antique individual to assert in any given social context. It is intriguing, therefore that he employs a criterion for selection that relies on narratives surviving in the quasi-canonical patristic authors Eusebius and Augustine. If Christian identity is “intermittent,” how far is it worthwhile to talk about the most ancient “Christian” martyrs as a historically or textually distinct unit? How far might this mislead us?
In summary, conceived as a reference work within the parameters of previous European habits of collation, this volume privileges the importance of the earliest martyrs in light of their status vis-à-vis the Roman empire. Reflecting the selectivity of the larger field, Ancient Martyrs proves innovative nonetheless. Furthermore, as an intervention within its scholarly context, like any well-designed tool, it does its own job very well. Ancient Martyrs is both an exceptional research tool for anyone requiring philological or manuscript details, and an opportunity for Anglophone scholars to make well-informed connections with contemporary French and German discussions of late antique martyrdom.
Matt Chalmers is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Week in Review editor at Ancient Jew Review. He tweets with only occasionally alarming regularity from @Matt_J_Chalmers.