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"A VERY SPECIAL DEATH": CHRISTIAN

MARTYRDOM

AND ITS CLASSICAL CONTEXT

Carole Straw

 

Clement of Alexandria wrote from experience. In 202-3, during the persecution of Septimius Severus, he had been forced to flee to Asia Minor. In his AhSce/l~I~7jCs (Stromata, 4.4), he discusses the perfection of martyrdom that had eluded him, and compares martyrdom to the valiant death of classical heroes:

 

And the ~ncients laud the death of those among the Greeks who died in war, not that they advised people to die a violent death, but because lie who ends his life in war is released without the dread of dying.

 

Just like the heroes of epics and the arena, the Chnstian martyrs displayed a contempt of ucath that allowed them to face the end with unnerving self control. '~Ve conquer death and are not conquered by it," boasted the martyr Flavian.  And Cyprian proclaimed that martyrs could be killed, but they could never be ha~ed.2

Yet, while pagans might die i~~~'icti, unconquered by the fear of death, Christians diii more~they conquered death itself. They had no need whatsoever to fear. Death was only of the body (and even that was temporary), never of the soul.. for the martyr's heroic death recapitulated Chnst's paradoxical victory on the Cross and anticipated the resurrection: "0, death, where is thy sting? 0, grave, where is thy victory?" (I Cor 15:56). "What is more glorious," Cyprian asks, than "by dying to have overcome death itself, which is feared by all'?"3 Because of this supernatural conquest of death, the Christian martyr could become invincible in a way the classical hero could never be.

Defenders of Christianity such as Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine4 conceded that the classical heroes of rcdeemed honor, such as Mucius Scaevola, Ctirtius, Regulus, the Dccii, had valiantly "despised death and all sorts of savage treatment"; but they were far outshone by the Christian martyrs.5 ~'Tllese martyrs," Augustine writes "far surpassed the Scaevolac, and thc Curtii, and the Dccii, both in virtue, because they possessed trtie piety, and also in the greatness of their numher."~ With such indomitable witnesses, surely Christianity had surpassed paganism!

 

 

This was the point Christian apologists belabored, and it was not to be fbrgotten.

Such ~ne-upmanship" arguments were the core of a rhetorical strategy by which early Christians hoped to crtish their pagan opponents. Christian writers would utilize the language of honor and the heroic death,7 even as they modified the meanings and rejected the most fundamental pagan attitudes toward death and the supernatural. They labored to establish a rivalry between the pagan practices and their own in order to defeat the pagans on their own terms. Their arguments were straightforward: Christians were the better fighters; theirs was the true cause; theirs the crown of victory, the only real crown of glory. To some extent, their 'one-upmanship" arguments reveal an identity with their adversarics' cultural values, as well as a transcending of them: by necessity, apologists had to accept the outline of the same classical valucs which they claimed only they could realize-honor, courage, glory, etc. At issue, however, is exactly how deeply this cultural mimesis went: was it anything more than a strategy of meeting pagans on common ground? Or are deeper continuities and more radical differences discernible'?

Consonant with the classical honor code and its ideal of the good death, a martyr's confi-ontation with death distilled the essence of his or her actions and worth. A martyr's feelings of control over death and torture-the voluntary, even cager acceptance of condeinnation-transforined the sordid ordeals one suffered into a most honorable vindication. In the Christian mind. this fall and rise embodied the familiar Pauline and Johannine dialectic of the slave who in suffenug an ignominious death ascended to the heights (Phil 2:5-Il) and the seed that must die to bear fruit (Jn 12:24). Yet this dialectic was also a counterpart to that of the repugnant, yet prized, Roman gladiator. Precisely, and paradoxically, because suffering was so contemptible when ~posed against one's will, it became all the more glorious and stunning when embraced actively with the will. In this case, the ~char~e" or valence reverses. For, by definition, whatever one willed fleely was honorable-even, and es/)e(.i(I/I~~, degradation, beeftuse that sel f-abnegation was the ultimate and most solemn of sacrifices: one could give no more than the offering of one's own life. This was Lucan's lesson with Vulteins. Fledged in by Pompey's troops and facing extermination (ef. Be1hi,~i Ci~'i/e 4.441-581), VulteinS exhorted his men before their immanent death by making clear that no one could force suffering upon anyone who ~iiose to suffer: '~No one is forced to die, who dies voluntarily." Volition was always the trump card for both pagans and Christians. ~Ve have then parallel and congruent traditions. Yet nuances and differences move us into another world.

Granted. both the pagan gladiator and the Christian martyr rise to glory by embracing and thus conquering degradation. Both act for themselves and the greater commLlnity. To some extent one may draw parallels between martyrs like Polycarp and Zachary, who died as scapegoats,9 and hemes such as Curtius