- Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy
Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, who died in February 2000, was one of Oxford's most unusual and most prolific dons. He received his academic training at neither Oxford nor Cambridge, but in London. He was an articulate Marxist, an historian equally at home in fifth-century Greece and late antiquity, a tennis-player at a near-professional standard, a passionate devotee of Wagnerian opera, and a militant atheist. His huge books on the Peloponnesian War and on the class struggle in antiquity dwarfed the meager output of most of his Oxford contemporaries (with the signal exception of Sir Ronald Syme), and his university lectures, after he became a Fellow of New College in 1953, were among the few that students found exciting and rewarding. He was as comfortable with economic theory as with theological disputation.
At his death de Ste. Croix left masses of unpublished papers. He was, as this reviewer knows from personal experience, always overflowing with ideas about problems across the entire range of ancient history and well into the Middle Ages. He wrote ceaselessly—long and learned letters as well as drafts of articles and books. He talked as illuminatingly as he wrote. Because he had been raised in the obscure sect of British Israelites, who promoted a wholly literal interpretation of the Bible, de Ste. Croix had almost total recall of Scripture, and he loathed it all. His work on Christianity and martyrdom is remarkable in being profoundly well informed, fierce in its convictions, innovative, and polemical. Some of his previously published papers have deservedly had a tremendous influence, particularly the ones on the Great Per-secution (Harvard Theological Review, 47 , 75–113) and on the causes of persecution of the early Christians (Past and Present, 26 , 6–38). It was in the latter paper that de Ste. Croix first expounded his views on what he called "voluntary martyrdom," to explain the behavior of those who deliberately put themselves in the way of death by persecution. The present volume contains a hitherto unpublished paper on this controversial theme. [End Page 126]
Although de Ste. Croix's anti-Christian prejudice is apparent everywhere in what he wrote, his papers continue to be well worth reading for their incisive and original contributions. One can only welcome the decision of the Oxford University Press to issue a volume of his work, both published and unpublished, on persecution and martyrdom. In fact, the Educational Foundation of the National Bank of Greece had already had the same idea and brought out in 2005, in modern Greek, a valuable volume of several of the papers in the Oxford volume, with a substantial introduction by Dimitris Kyrtatas.
Michael Whitby is the editor of the Oxford collection, but because of administrative responsibilities at his university he prudently assigned much of the work to a graduate student, Joseph Streeter. It is a pleasure to report that Streeter's introduction is outstandingly good, offering a balanced assessment of de Ste. Croix's achievement together with a thoughtful and comprehensive survey of current scholarly debates about persecution and martyrdom. Streeter has also provided useful supplementary notes to several of the articles. Whitby himself has furnished excellent introductions and supplements for the papers on the Council of Chalcedon and early Christian attitudes to property and slavery. The volume as a whole is a bracing reminder of a formidable and much-missed scholar.