Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Eric Rebillard
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs is a collection of critical Greek and Latin narratives about the early martyrs with new, facing page translations. It is also an entry into historical and scholarly debates about which texts actually belong in such collections. By what principles does one decide to include an extant text? And for what purpose?

Eric Rebillard provides a well annotated and concise historical summary of narrative collections of the acts of the martyrs before delineating his own criteria for inclusion. He notes that in the 4th century, Eusebius collected individual narratives of martyrs who died before his own time for the purpose of documenting history. In this, however, Eusebius appears to have been the exception. Other early records indicate that church officials were concerned primarily with recording the dates upon which martyrs were executed. Such lists of dates evolved over time into the ecclesiastical calendar, and it was for the purposes of celebrating the days of the martyrs that narratives began to be appended to liturgical calendars in the 8th and 9th centuries. Certainly such annotated calendars included material pulled from earlier extant sources, but might also include snippets from more recently written sermons and panegyrics which are likely to have been more religiously edifying than historically accurate.

It is therefore not surprising that the Humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries began questioning the authenticity—that is, the historical accuracy—of much of the extant material available to them on the grounds of historical anachronisms, linguistic inconsistencies, or evidence of later literary conventions. They also began reorganizing collections by the supposed antiquity of the source, the supposed date the events recounted first took place, or even alphabetically by the names of the martyrs. Some collections, however, like that of Bolland, continued to include all available texts, even while acknowledging that not all shared the same historical reliability. This choice was justified by the belief that this provided readers with the most complete picture of the legacy of the martyr. By the beginning of the 19th century, Delehaye had reduced the number of historically “authentic” texts to less than eighteen, based upon the assumption that true narratives would reflect official written trial accounts, accounts of reliable witnesses, or texts which relied upon one of these first two.

Asserting that as contemporary historians, we must “examine the extant texts on their own terms, and use only external evidence when dating their composition” (21), Rebillard has decided to provide in this collection only texts “for which the question of their status as historical texts can be addressed” (21). The collection is “limited to narratives about…martyrs who were executed before the rescripts promulgated by Gallienus after the capture of Valerian by the Persian king Shapur in 260” (21). After this point in time, the availability of trial court records and a widespread familiarity with the genre of martyr narratives shifts the narrative form, and an argument can be made that we are no longer in the context of the “ancient martyrs.” In addition, the collection includes only isolated or stand-alone narratives, not extracts from historians, preachers, or poets (21).

Rebillard locates his external evidence for the dating of the included texts in the extant writings of Eusebius and in the Sermons of Augustine of Hippo, who frequently mentions a narrative being read prior to his sermon on a feast day. If a martyr narrative was known to Eusebius or Augustine, Rebillard considers all individual texts associated with that martyr, and includes only those that were likely composed before the middle of the 5th century (27). Finally, he asserts that the texts will be presented in alphabetical order (27), although those known to Eusebius appear first (Apollonius, Carpus/Papylus/Agathonice, Pionius of Smyrna, Polycarp of Smyrna, and the Martyrs of Lyone and Vienne), followed by those known to Augustine (Marian and James, Cyprian of Carthage, Fructuosus of Tarragona and his Companions, Montanus/Lucius and their companions, Perpetua/Felicity and their companions, and the Scillitan Martyrs). I remain at a loss as to how to explain why the text of Marian and James precedes that of Cyprian alphabetically.

The editorial decisions Rebillard has made mean his collection cannot be conceived as a complete history of the martyrs of the early church. The collection is, however, a clearly annotated and carefully conceived repository of ancient narratives that can be reliably dated to a specific time period, and thus it provides us with the opportunity to examine the narratives within the context of the first centuries of Christianity. It also provides access to martyr narratives that may be less familiar to some audiences.

The narrative translations themselves are clear and exceptionally readable. I have taught the Martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions many times, and will use this translation from now on. The inclusion of multiple narratives for some of the martyrs provides an interesting opportunity for comparison and reflection.

Rebillard’s book provides sufficient scholarly apparatus for researchers, but is accessible to an educated lay audience. This is particularly true of the martyr narratives themselves. It is a pleasure to recommend Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs for both audiences.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shawn M. Krahmer is associate dean of humanities at Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric Rebillard is professor of classics and history at Cornell University. He received his PhD from the Sorbonne, Paris, in 1993 and is a former member of the Ecole francaise de Rome. His research focuses on the transformations of religious practices in Late Antiquity. Professor Rebillard's publications include Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (2012) and The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity (2009). He is the co-editor of Group Identity and Religious Individuality in Late Antiquity (2015).



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.