Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Suicidal Exhibitionists

Peter Brown, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 7-8, with notes on p. 214:
Yet, what for Christians such as Cyprian was an "extraordinary" death struck the average pagan as abnormal. Christians were seen by pagans as suicidal exhibitionists. As the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) wrote in his Meditations: a wise man could decide to leave the world through suicide. But to court death out of a mere spirit of opposition "as is the case with the Christians" was a form of "stage heroics" that repelled him. The phrase "as ... with the Christians" may have been added by a later copyist.11 But the copyist got the point. Some deaths (and not only the deaths of Christians) were public theater of the most obtrusive and unwelcome sort.

We should always remember that, for the average pagan, Christian martyrs were not a unique phenomenon. They fitted all too easily into a long line of gore-soaked and crazed figures. Gladiators played with death in the arena. Their blood and mangled corpses were associated with uncanny powers.12 Maverick philosophers also courted death by going out of their way to insult the powerful. The craziest of these, the philosopher Peregrinus, had even toyed for a time with Christianity. He gained great prestige among Christians as a potential martyr. He ended his life, in 165 AD, by committing suicide through burning himself near the crowds assembled at Olympia for the Olympic Games.13 The deaths of Christian martyrs did not necessarily impress outsiders. Rather, these deaths struck them as bizarre and disturbing. But pagans and Christians had one thing in common: heroic or pathological, the grisly, fully public deaths of the Christian martyrs held their attention, at the expense of more ordinary deaths.

11. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.3, ed. C. Haines, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 294. See R.B. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 188.

12. F. Dölger, "Gladiatorenblut and Märtyrerblut," Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg 1 (1923-1924), 196-214.

13. Lucian, Peregrinus, 11-14 and 35, ed. A.M. Harmon, Lucian 5, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 12-16 and 38-40; see J. König, "The Cynic and Christian Lives of Peregrinus," in The Limits of Ancient Biography, ed. B. McGing and J. Mossman (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2006), 227-254.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?