(D2-4) Martyrdom and the Discourse of Martyrdom in the 4th Century A.D.

After the last persecution of Christians in 303–305 and 311 A.D. and since imperial support of the church began with Constantine, Christian martyrdoms have basically been a thing of the past. In reality, the phenomenon retained its importance, as did the admiration of martyrs and the theology of martyrdom in the 4th century; it even widened its horizons and functions in new conflicts. A multifaceted martyrdom debate emerged which unfolded a high potential to create identity in the communities, in church-internal disputes and in conflicts with pagans and Jews and which, in addition, assimilated new, contemporary experiences of violence.

The valency of martyrdom and of martyr admiration was not only questioned by pagans but in part also by church leaders. The popularity of the martyr cult as a (quasi pagan) feast-filled death cult (but also with incubation and divination) provoked the protest of bishops such as Augustine who developed the concept of every Christians ‘daily martyrdom’. Others (Vigilantius vs. Jerome and others) opened up a theological discourse regarding the basic principles and justification of martyr worship.

The dynamics of late ancient worship of martyrs has its roots mainly in popular religiousness. New communities sought to create places of worship by (re)constructing and inventing martyrs and by embellishing martyr legends (a new literary genre) and created own liturgies for which the martyr feasts and martyr sermons (another new genre) were constitutive. The mobility of relics and worship of martyrs ‘discovered’ in the 4th century (by translation, trade) allowed the formation of a sacral topography across the empire. Bishops used the unearthing or translation of a martyr’s mortal remains as a chance to demonstrate spirituality and to gain additional power.

New martyrdoms in the 4th century reflected the religious disputes’ continuously high potential for conflict and violence. ‘Martyrs’ were above all produced by the pagan reaction of Julian, his victims being turned into objects of an excessive martyrology of a new calibre that created anti-pagan identity. Martyrdoms suffered, staged and propagated became the outer signum of the returning oppression and open persecution of dissenting Christian groups in the late antique empire. The North-African Donatists, who understood themselves as a church of martyrs, confronted the Catholics with an unparalleled martyr cult and initiated a controversial martyrdom debate that lasted for generations.

From the innovative developments of the martyr debate and the worship of 4th-century martyrs, the project will analyse those that owe their emergence and development directly to the contemporary religious disputes and experiences of violence and that were functionalised here: as (aggressive) founding myths of communities, to delegitimise rival faiths, or, for example, in fighting for the conquest of sacral spaces.

The Project is part of coordinated project groups The implementation and enforcement of norms, Dealing with religious diversity and Martyrdom and the cult of martyrs.

Martyrdom and Martyrdom Discourses in the 4th Century AD (Subproject of Marie Kleine)

The project aims to investigate the importance that Emperor Julian, being the first and last heathen Roman Emperor after Constantine, had for martyr worship in the 4th century. Due to Julian’s religious policy – which indeed divested Christianity of the privileges it had secured under Julian’s predecessors, but which abstained from forcefully converting or persecuting the Christians within the Empire –, contemporary records only provide evidence for confessors and not for martyrs . Nevertheless, legends and accounts arguing to the contrary began emerging from the 380s onwards. One part of this investigation will thus be the deconstruction of martyr legends of that time, and another will be a closer examination of the prerogative of interpretation over Julian’s life and work in the years after his  death, which was contested by Christian and pagan authors.

Contemporary Martyr Worship (Subproject of Alissa Dahlmann)

In church historical works, the development of martyr worship from its beginnings until the Middle Ages is described as a continuous triumph of a church institution. Here, the initiating and participating persons or groups are always evaluated as secondary, and the martyr cult is seen as a significant cultic phenomenon of Late Antiquity detached from the social context. In view of the religio-political upheavals in the 4th century A.D. (the so-called Constantinian shift), however, a diverging picture of the contemporary martyr worship can be drawn which is not in agreement with the often historically straightened accounts: on the one hand, as regards the organisation of a daily liturgical routine – standardised within the scope of the Universal Church –, it was decisive for the episcopal church wardens that the “true” martyrs, that is, those who were considered orthodox, were honoured properly under church supervision and under the guidance of clerics. Hence, they attempted to establish or to stabilise and expand their supervisory competencies to that effect. On the other hand, some bishops were skeptical of and in part disapproved of the martyrdom cult. As a consequence, a lively discussion about the general legitimacy of martyr worship emerged in which many significant church representatives participated, for example Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Hieronymus and Augustine of Hippo. In addition, there is evidence for disputes between bishops and communities with regard to the martyrs that were to be worshipped so that the question arises as to which persons or groups tried to exercise control in the 4th and early 5th century A.D. over the martyr cult by means of which social mechanisms and on which ideological basis. Furthermore, it will have to be resolved as to when and why the focus of late antique pluralistic martyr and relic worship became restricted to the medieval phenomenon of a material relic worship as constituted and institutionalised by the church.