Book Review: G.W. Bowersock, “Martyrdom and Rome”

Over the summer, Peter Leithart referred to Bowersock’s short book on martyrdom.  Bowersock made some really fascinating connections in this book of just about 100 pages.  He argued that the Greek word “martyr” and its variants only began to be used in the 2nd century to denote someone killed for his faith by the political authorities.  Before this, “martyr” simply meant “witness” in the legal sense.  Even in the New Testament, Bowersock writes, only Revelation 2:13 and Acts 22:20 refer to people who were killed by the Greek word that would become “martyr,” and in both of these cases he believes that “witness” (one who saw) is a better translation than “martyr” (one who was killed for his faith).  Even one of the most famous and eager Christian martyrs, Ignatius of Antioch, did not use the Greek word “martyr” for himself.

Instead, Bowersock believes that the Christian tradition of martyrdom came from the urban culture of the Roman Empire, especially in Asia Minor: “Apart from Justin at Rome and the group of martyrs at Lyon in France, the early martyrdoms provide a check-list of the most prosperous and important cities of the eastern Roman empire: Pergamum, Smyrna, Caesarea by the Sea, Carthage, Alexandria” (41).  For Bowersock, martyrdoms fit right with the culture of urban centers.  Like the sophist rhetoricians of this time, they taught and were referred to as “teacher” and “father” in the same way that the sophists (were see the third paragraph of the link for the sophists of the 2nd century AD, as opposed to the pre-Christian sophists).  Bowersock notes that the speeches that the martyrs gave to civic crowds fit with the genre of teachers addressing the cities.  Martyrs tended to be executed on holidays and also could find themselves as victims of city gladiatorial games.  In fact, Tertullian actually told martyrs that God himself was the host and orchestrator of the games in which they would be put to death.  Bowersock sums up the correlation of martyrdom and civic life:

Martyrdom was thus solidly anchored in the civic life of the Graeco-Roman world of the Roman empire.  It ran its course in the great urban spaces of the agora and the amphitheater, the principal settings for public discourse and for public spectacle.  It depended upon the urban rituals of the imperial cult and the interrogation protocols of local and provincial magistrates.  The prisons and brothels of the cities gave further opportunities for the display of the martyr’s faith. (54)

One issue that the church struggled with was voluntary martyrdom.  Perpetua and Germanicus (the latter described in the martyrdom narrative of Polycarp) took hold of a sword and a wild animal, respectively, to hasten their deaths.  On some occasions, people confronted Roman officials demanding to be martyred.  Bowersock traces the enthusiasm of some for martyrdom to Roman culture, which could sometimes have a heroic notion of suicide.  This spilled over into some church figures like Tertullian.  On the other hand, the disdain for suicide by people like Plutarch, Middle Platonists, and neo-Platonists was shared by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, both of whom drew from Plato.

This is a short book of only about 100 pages that packed in a lot of ideas for consideration.  I’ve tried to spell some of them out above.  One thing that makes the book a bit more difficult is that there are a lot of Greek and Latin words that he doesn’t translate, which can make some parts difficult to follow.

There were also some questions that I had.  First, Carthage doesn’t really fit geographically into the eastern Roman Empire, where he says a lot of the culture of martyrdom took place.  Second, he traces the culture of martyrdom to Roman urban culture, but says that Asia Minor was a major location of the martyrdom cult.  The cities of Asia Minor would have had a much longer heritage of Greek culture since at least 600 BC, if not earlier.  So it seems like Carthage fits into the category of Roman-influenced cities, but not into the category of eastern Roman cities.  On the other hand, the cities of Asia Minor fit in as eastern Roman cities, but he doesn’t explain how they became so Roman in culture.  I’m sure that Bowersock would have some answers for these questions, which may well come from my amateur understanding of the ancient world.  This book came from lectures rather than a comprehensive work of scholarship.

Overall, this is an intriguing look into the culture of martyrdom that’s worth it if you’re interested  in the early centuries of the church.


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