Since the 17th century, when the Jesuit Société des Bollandistes was formed, the academic study of the lives of the saints has operated with a central, though sometimes unspoken, goal: to sift the fraudulent chaff from the pious history. As a result, over the centuries, a few central texts began to monopolize scholarly interest. Those accounts—deemed early, reliable, and authentic—have been translated dozens of times over, are widely available on the Internet, and are classroom staples in religious studies and classics courses.
The problem with the focus on early and authentic accounts is that it has pushed to the margins the passiones: thehistorical romances, fictional compositions, and what famed Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye called “deceptive forgeries.” These are the martyrdom accounts that were written long after the events they purported to describe, whose details were embellished and expanded by the most licentious of authors, and the composition of which was tied to the churches, liturgical practices, and tourist industries they advertised and supported. These texts, no less authentic to ancient ears than the “more reliable” ones, survive largely in critical editions from the 15th to 17th centuries, and, as Lapidge notes, rarely warrant a mention in the standard treatments of Christianity. Their neglect is both a blank page in our histories and a blot on our common academic copybook.
Michael Lapidge’s The Roman Martyrs: Introductions, Translations, and Commentary seeks to correct this error. It provides introductions, translations, and commentary on a collection of forty passiones from late antique Rome, most of which claim to describe events that took place during or in the aftermath of the Great Persecution (303-305 CE). Lapidge recognizes the “outrageous errors” and “stylistic deficiencies” of the material contained, but also persuasively advocates for their importance for our understanding of the “concerns and anxieties of the average Roman Christian” who lived c. 425-675 CE (2).
Lapidge should be commended for the detail and seriousness with which he has approached his subject matter. The book is presented very much in the manner of Herbert Musurillo’s classic Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Clarendon Press, 1972). In addition to the introductions and translations, the inclusion of a glossary, maps of cemeteries and churches, and appendices dedicated to pilgrimage itineraries, liturgical calendars, and liturgical books give this tome serious heft and broad utility. It is regrettable that critical editions of the relevant texts are not included, but given that the book stands at some 716 pages, one imagines that even the most generous editor would have balked at the idea of expanding the volume further.
Where Lapidge is weakest is his coverage of the history of martyrdom and persecution in the early church, a period with which he seems less familiar. Here he tends to plod unquestioningly in the footsteps of classicists like Geoffrey Edward Maurice de Ste. Croix, Timothy Barnes, and Glen Bowersock. Even where he does footnote more challenging scholarship, like J. B Rives’s arguments about the Decian “persecution,” he nevertheless retreats to a much more conservative position. In a similar vein, Lapidge overlooks some of the more recent, methodologically inclined contributions of Nicola Denzey Lewis, Elizabeth Castelli, and others.
Lapidge comes into his own however, in his treatment of the texts themselves. Each entry includes a summary, some brief hypotheses about the origins of the text, and the text itself, complete with footnoted commentary. Direct quotations from scripture are frequently noted, and Lapidge should be commended for his interest in chasing down the geographical references and architectural structures pertinent to each text. References to legal issues, textual difficulties, and earlier critical editions are frequently in evidence.
While readers may often find themselves longing for a closer analysis of the imagery of the narratives or the theologies present here, that is the task of those who use these texts. Lapidge’s contribution is, on its own terms, nothing short of a magnum opus. It is an indispensable reference work for those in classics and late antique studies, as well as those curious about the way that martyrdom is crafted in peacetime literature.
Candida Moss is Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham.Candida R. MossDate Of Review:August 7, 2018