Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

By Thomas Sizgorich | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
“Are You Christians?” Violence, Ascetics,
and Knowing One’s Own

BY THE END of the sixth century, the imperial descendants of Theodosius and the distant offspring of the Syrian monks whose zealotry Libanius lamented in his Oratio 30 found themselves on opposed sides of a bitter and often violent controversy over the nature of Christ.1 Central to this controversy, of course, was a contest over the identity of the one true community of God upon this earth. During the decades of the sixth century, the local communities of Syria that opposed the imperial-sponsored genre of orthodoxy that issued from the Council of Chalcedon in 451 recalled their histories through narratives of oppression and persecution, many of which now featured as their stars certain militant and charismatic ascetics whose role it was to defend the behavioral and doctrinal boundaries which set their own communities apart from all others.2 This was a role kindred with that of the martyr in earlier renditions of the Christian past, and the stories that now recalled the acts of more recent defenders of urgently imperiled communities drew upon much older narratives of persecution and resistance, incorporating now ancient themes, tropes, and aesthetics to mediate contemporary events through the hermeneutic lens afforded by those narratives.3

The stories in which these ascetic militants confronted imperial authorities drew upon what was by the middle of the sixth century another well-worn series of traditions, traditions that figured Christian ascetics as characters that controlled, patrolled, and defended the hard edges, the impassable bound-

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