- Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia: Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity by Kyle Smith
If one is interested in a definitive history of Shapur II's persecution of Christians during the fourth century and the way this was influenced by Constantine's conversion to Christianity, one had best look elsewhere. If, however, one is interested in the way in which ancient historians and hagiographers crafted an image of persecution and tailored (what Smith refers to as) historical memory to fit their needs, then you will be well pleased with this text. Smith intentionally resists the urge to examine or attempt to recreate the events of fourth-century Persia. Instead, he ultimately demonstrates that "the consensus opinion … that Shapur II persecuted Christians in his empire while he was at war with Rome, and that he did so because he believed that those who worshiped the Christian god were necessarily partisans of Caesar" (6) is an understanding of the events that was shaped, not necessarily by the actual events, but by the circumstances of later historians. [End Page 346]
Through his six chapters, divided into two major parts along with an introduction, Smith convincingly demonstrates that the hagiographies and histories at the center of the consensus opinion cannot be reliably trusted. In fact, they often present conflicting and contradictory images of not only the major players in these narratives, but also the events themselves.
The first part of the book explores, from a Roman perspective, the conflict between Rome and Persia. While its focus is primarily on Constantine, other players—such as his successors Constantius II and Julian—also make appearances. Chapter One introduces the letter from Constantine to Shapur as part of a larger narrative on behalf of Eusebius. The "emperor's letter is undeniably unique, but it did not touch off a persecution or lead to a religious war" (20); it should "be read as a reconceptualization of Roman history and a repudiation of his anti-Christian predecessors" (45).
Chapter Two moves from Constantine's letter as it was used and understood in the fourth century to its use in subsequent centuries. Here Smith focuses on the fifth-century historian Sozomen, who presents an alternate image of Constantine. Sozomen's Constantine "transforms from a victor over the enemies of the people of God into a rather impotent king whose too little, too late response to overwhelming violence against Christians is merely a letter of protest" (55).
Chapter Three focuses on descriptions of the battle of Nisibis, a frontier city in Roman Mesopotamia. Smith succinctly demonstrates how "the various accounts of the defense, loss, and evacuation of Nisibis were written (and later developed) to serve quite different historiographical ends" (68). By the fifth century, it became the norm to present Nisbis as divinely defended, even if the majority of its inhabitants were not Christian.
The second major part of the work turns its attention to hagiography that came out of Persia, exploring how the idea of fourth-century Christian martyrdom changed in subsequent centuries. Chapter Four is tightly focused on two differing accounts of the martyrdom of a fourth-century bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Simeon bar Sabba'e, over his refusal to collect a tax levied on Christians. Smith argues that the Martyrdom and the History of Simeon must be seen as independent sources that tell us not about the past as it happened, but as sources which "demonstrate the ways in which Persian Christians claimed and wrote about the past" (103). Chapter Five examines the various ways in which Christian identity was constructed in fifth-century Persia, predominately (much as it had been in the "West" during the previous century) the idea that being a persecuted, even captive, minority did not in fact keep them from "achieving a relatively high social status in the empire" (151).
The sixth and final chapter, which examines the way in which Constantine was remembered in Persia, is Smith's strongest. While it comes in Part Two, which is nominally concerned...