Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview
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resurrection. Roman abuses were both physically and spiritually apotropaic-they wanted to expel and keep away both the ghosts and the bodies of Christians. In both respects water presented a 'final solution'.

These torments are attested in the The Jesuit Relations based on the information conveyed by Hurons, who escaped the Iroquois, to Christopher Regnaut, who brought the priests' remains back to the nearby Jesuit base at Fort Sainte Marie. Lalement suffered similar torments with Brébeuf and was killed the next day. The Jesuit Relations, vol. 34, Lower Canada, Hurons: 1649, ed. R.E. Thwaites (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers, 1898) Doc. 69 by Christopher Regnaut, 25-37; E.J. Devine, The Jesuit Martyrs of Canada, 3rd ed. (Toronto: The Canadian Messenger, 1925) 46-52; Parkman (1867) 489-95. The Jesuit Relations, 33, adds a comment on Brébeuf's remains: 'The barbarians threw the remains of his body into the fire; but the fat which still remained on his body extinguished the fire, he was not consumed.'
Prudentius, a Christian poet of the late Empire, was eager to retell the agonies of early martyrs but admitted a paucity of records about them: Perist. 1.73. Surveys of the value and problems of using such texts as historical sources include: Musurillo (1972) xi-lvii; G.E.M.de Sainte-Croix, 'Aspects of the "Great" Persecution', Harv. Theol. Rev. 47 (1954) 75-113; T.D. Barnes, 'The Pre-Decian Acta Martyrum', JTS 19 (1968) 509-31; T.D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U., 1981) esp. 148-63; Fox (1987) 434-41; and Bowersock (1995) 23-39. Most recently, Potter (1996), 144-7, notes that martyrology emerged around the same time as the development of Roman transcriptions of trials; even fictional narratives can be valuable when they give the appearance of transcription and reflect official procedures to suggest an air of authenticity.
Various martyrs are said to have been killed at Rome (e.g. Placidius, Telesphorus, Ptolemaeus, Justin, and others), and some martyrs are said to have died in the Colosseum (e.g. Ignatius, Eustace, Eleuterio), but no source reliably puts them there. See de Sainte-Croix (1954) 94-5, on the lack of contemporary written evidence for martyrdoms at Rome under the 'Great Persecution'; oral traditions circulated but were not put into writing until the late fifth or early sixth century. My discussion here is not comprehensive and it concentrates on the more reliable accounts up to Eusebius and Lactantius; selected incidents from persecutions are used to show procedures, attitudes, and methods of disposal. Valuable studies include: W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965); Fox (1987), esp. ch. 9, 'Persecution and Martyrdom', 418-92; H. Delehaye, Les Origines du culte des martyrs (Brussels: Bollandists, 1933); Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: U. Chicago, 1981); T.D. Barnes, 'Legislation against the Christians', JRS 58 (1968) 32-50; G.E.M.de Sainte-Croix, 'Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?', P&P 26 (1963) 6-38. On Tertullian as a source for the arena, see Bomgardner (1989) 85-8. Recent works have noted theatrical and literary parallels to pagan performances in the way Christians viewed themselves as martyrs in the arena; see Bynum (1995) 44; Rouselle (1988) 107-31; Barton (1994); and Potter (1993).
L. Hertling and E. Kirschbaum, The Roman Catacombs and their Martyrs, rev. ed., trans. M.J. Costello (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1960) 82-3,


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