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  • Death’s Dominion: Power, Identity, and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine by Nathaniel J. Morehouse
  • Justin Buol
Nathaniel J. MorehouseDeath’s Dominion: Power, Identity, and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine
Studies in Ancient Religion and Culture 1
Sheffield, UK; Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2016
Pp. viii + 203. $85.00 (hardcover); $29.95 (paperback).

There have been many publications in recent years on early Christian martyr cult. This monograph, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation, makes its contribution by exploring the growth of martyr cult during the fourth century c.e., with particular focus on cultic sites and practices. Morehouse argues that memorializations of the martyrs served as potent tools by which various groups used the past to attempt to control the present.

Morehouse begins by situating himself against prior scholarship on burial practices and the cult of the saints. He seeks to balance synchronic treatments of martyr cult by providing a diachronic presentation of its origins and development, as well as to correct a tendency to downplay the role of the masses in promoting martyr cult (Peter Brown). He then moves to traditional Roman burial practices (Chapter One), including the role of family in commemorating the dead, and the extra support that collegia provided for poorer families. Most significantly, he highlights the habits of “important dead” in using their memorials to project a grand image of the past and support their dynasty’s future, and observes that martyrs served as the church’s “important dead.” Unfortunately, Morehouse’s approach toward early Christian texts is not always as critical as it should be. He refers to Ignatius as the “earliest martyr account outside the New Testament” (45), but does not even provide a footnote mentioning the serious debates on the date and authenticity of the letters. The footnote regarding the date of Revelation is similarly insufficient (46). The stated preference for Migne’s Patrologia Latina over more recent critical editions is another flaw (179). These issues, however, do not affect the overall argument.

These observations about the power of “important dead” for controlling memory lead into Chapter Two, an analysis of the shrine building programs of Pope Damasus and Emperor Constantine, the biggest contributors to the rise of martyr cult in the fourth century. The most striking example of Constantine’s basilicas is the site of his own tomb, the Basilica Apostolorum, to which he translated apostolic relics to surround his tomb. This arrangement does not just equate Constantine with the apostles—approximating emperor divinization (65)—but also raises the apostles to the level of the emperor (66). The translation of relics was a watershed moment: moving martyrs to places not associated with them in life allowed martyr cult to become “trans-local” (66–67). Damasus was beset by factions in his time as pope. He erected inscriptions at numerous Roman martyr shrines to connect himself with the martyrs, and to connect them both with images of Rome’s “illustrious past” (68). This program made Damasus a patron of the saints and strengthened his power against his schismatic foes (71). Morehouse differentiates himself from preceding scholars by arguing, contrary to Saghy and Brown, that the primary purpose of Damasus’s program was to consolidate power [End Page 674] and defeat rivals (71–72), attested to in his inscriptions’ alteration of history: thus Hippolytus atones for his schismatic past by rejoining the church in martyrdom, and Peter and Paul are united as citizens of Rome. Damasus used his inscriptions to project “the current situation that [he] found himself in” (74), and to create uniformity between past and present (75).

The tactics of Constantine and Damasus continued in late fourth-century bishops (Chapter Three), who used martyr cult to “control the Christian message and the practices of their congregations” (124). Ambrose, in order to boost his prestige, but possessing no local martyrs, made himself a patron of relics by creating the practice of dividing relics to distribute to others, and by “discovering” forgotten local martyrs. Augustine used the relics of Stephen to promote a universal martyr cult in his struggle against the Donatists and rowdy local cult practices (109). Paulinus, on the other hand...


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