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  • Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts
  • Georgia Frank (bio)
Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion). By L. Stephanie Cobb. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. xv + 208 pp. $50.00 (cloth)

Dying to Be Men focuses on anonymous Christian accounts of martyrs' trials and deaths composed in Greek and Latin during the second and third centuries of the Common Era. Whether dying in the arenas of Gaul, Asia Minor, or North Africa, martyrs raised important questions about what it meant to call oneself a Christian. For L. Stephanie Cobb, the didactic value of these tales was their promotion of Roman ideals of masculinity. As Cobb argues persuasively, Christians portrayed martyrs as enacting and upholding one of Roman society's most cherished ideals: manliness. Her close analysis of the discourse of masculinity within martyr accounts offers a helpful window into Christian efforts to legitimize the new movement and gain converts. More precisely, what to Roman eyes was a prosecution would be refashioning in Christian accounts as a story of persecution. Cobb focuses on how the subtle dynamics of gender had the power to turn tables, such that Christian men and women conformed to and, more often, exceeded Romans ideals of masculinity. Simply put, "to be a Christian was to be a man" (21).

"To be a man," however, was more than simply a matter of anatomy. Drawing on new scholarship in classics and cultural studies, Cobb shows that masculinity was an ideal available to both sexes. Moreover, it was performative, insofar as one's gestures, words, gait, and virtues were measured according to this ideal. Groups also embraced these gender ideals. Thus, a female martyr could embarrass her persecutors by showing manly valor in trial and arena, yet appear feminine among Christians (to preserve gender norms). To understand the nature and workings of these shifting identities, Cobb draws on theories of social psychologists John Turner and Henri Tajfel, who claim that one's identity shifts whether one is addressing one's own group or an outside group. Key for Cobb's analysis is that self-identity is anything but fixed. Identities are multiple and salient depending on [End Page 107] the social context of the players. That is to say, martyrs' identities shift whether they are defining themselves in relation to Christian or non-Christian groups (for example, pagans, imperial authorities, Jews, etcetera).

To appreciate the subtle operations of gender dynamics requires us to rethink gender. As Cobb argues, gender in antiquity was based on a single gender: maleness. By this reasoning, femaleness was not a separate or opposite gender so much as it marked the absence of maleness. Thus, anatomy was secondary to the definition of the sexes. Instead, one's comportment, physical attributes, vocation, age, and class plotted one's identity along this spectrum. This single-gender model implied that men as well as women performed gender in ways that heightened or diminished their standing on a single scale.

After offering a lucid explanation of the construction of gender in antiquity (chap. 1), Cobb turns to the highest exemplars of masculinity: the gladiator, athlete, and warrior. Significantly, she calls attention to the importance of the amphitheater as a setting for these displays of masculinity and/as Romanness (chap. 2). The site of athletic and martial competitions, the amphitheater heightened the display of masculine ideals between the victor (masculinized, Roman, high status) and the vanquished (feminized, barbarian, low status). What is significant here is how Cobb convincingly widens our awareness of the gendered competition simmering beneath the surface of these accounts. One appreciates the masculinizing force of language in martyrologies and how group dynamics are reflected in martyrs' actions. Martyrs' mastery of passions, volition, and justice in the arena defined them as more masculine than their persecutors. By this calculus, those less male on the scale (the elderly, slaves, and, certainly, women) could improve their standing on this scale of masculinity and put to shame (that is, feminize) those who arrogated for themselves a higher claim to masculinity (for example, male Romans and imperial authorities). Her analysis of male martyrs shows how...


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pp. 107-109
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