Death's Dominion

Power, Identity and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine

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Nathaniel J. Morehouse
Studies in Ancient Religion and Culture
  • Sheffield, UK: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , September
     2016.
     288 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781781790823.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Nathaniel J. Morehouse’s Death’s Dominion: Power, Identity, and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, offers an ambitious contribution to contemporary, academic interest in martyrs and martyr cults. With the exploration of aspects of cult practices of 4th-century martyr sites—emphasis on “cult” rather than “martyr” (16)—as the goal, Morehouse explores, through textual evidence, the “structures and practices” (5) concerned with martyr sites, bodies, and veneration to support the claim that these conversations and practices were part of a “struggle to determine how the graves of the important dead would be used to fabricate an image of Christianity,” one which would “determine the direction of the church in the fifth and sixth centuries” (5).  

After an Introduction that places his scholarly goals within the greater academic conversation about power and the rise of the martyr cult, the first chapter, “To Begin: The Life of the Dead is Set in the Memory of the Living,” provides a terse survey of Roman burial and commemorative practices, including the specific locations of the dead, monuments to them and their placement, voluntary associations, the burial of the poor, and the burial of significant figures, or “important dead.” It is Morehouse’s contention that the presence of the important dead will provide opportunity for authoritative, powerful figures to “establish their power upon the martyrs’ graves” (51)—though in this section, this reader would have liked to have seen greater attention to the primary source material as additional supporting evidence regarding these claims.

The degree to which powerful figures shaped the development of the martyr cult is the focus of his second chapter, “To Build Up: The Erection of Shrine and Reputation,” which concentrates on the role and activity of Emperor Constantine and Roman Bishop Damasus in the construction and translation of significant Christian dead for the purpose of “expressing and solidifying their power” (55). Damasus dealt extensively with factions in his tenure as Pope [Damasus I], and Morehouse’s claims are, in theory, convincing as the Bishop struggled for unity during his tenure; on the other hand, Constantine did not need Apostolic bodies in order to solidify his power, as his military victories had done that well enough.

Chapter 3, “To Control: The Places and Practices Associated with the Remains of the Saints,” provides a survey of (mostly Latin) 4th and 5th century ascetic leaders and bishops who were favorable towards the veneration of the dead and martyr cult practices. This chapter is neatly balanced with chapter 4, “To Reject: Not Everyone Loves a Corpse,” which measures critical responses to the veneration of the dead among Christians—Athanasius of Alexandria, for example—and non-Christian figures. Both chapters nicely remind the reader of the diversity of responses among Christians in these centuries towards the veneration of the dead and subsequent cultic practices.

Finally, chapter 5, “To Accept: Unification Through Travel,” examines the development of cult veneration of martyrs among pilgrims for the purpose of thinking through the development of social identity and uniformity through the veneration of sacred figures (149). Ultimately, Morehouse concludes, the movement around the empire of pilgrims of varying social status, economic levels, and ethnic backgrounds assisted in smoothing over local differences and interests.

While this reader is not entirely convinced by the author’s claims, and while this reader would have preferred a more nuanced view regarding the role of the faithful vis-à-vis those in position of authority—it’s not always about “power”—nevertheless, Morehouse presents us with a nicely global and inclusive approach to the development of the martyr cults, which makes this useful for introductory studies of early Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen is Associate Professor of Early and Medieval Christian History at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. 

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathaniel J. Morehouse received his MA in Religious Studies from New York University and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Manitoba. He currently lives in Northeast Ohio where he teaches courses in Religious Studies and Philosophy.

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