Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Acts of the Martyrs

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 9
Acts of the Martyrs

by James Bridge

In a strict sense the Acts of the Martyrs are the official records of the trials of early Christian martyrs made by the notaries of the court. In a wider sense, however, the title is applied to all the narratives of the martyrs' trial and death. In the latter sense, they may be classified as follows:

  • Official reports of the interrogatories (acta, gesta). Those extant, like the "Acta Proconsulis" (Cyprian, "Ep. lxxvii ") are few in number and have only come down to us in editions prepared with a view to the edification of the faithful. The "Passio Cypriani" and "Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum" are typical of this class. Of these the former is a composite work of three separate documents showing the minimum of editorial additions in a few connecting phrases. The first document gives an account of the trial of Cyprian in 257, the second, his arrest and trial in 258, the third, of his martyrdom.
  • Non-official records made by eye-witnesses or at least by contemporaries recording the testimony of eye-witnesses. Such are the "Martyrium S. Polycarpi", admitting though it does much that may be due to the pious fancy of the eye-witnesses. The "Acta SS. Perpetuæ et Felicitatis" is perhaps of all extant Acta the most beautiful and famous, for it includes the autograph notes of Perpetua and Saturus and an eye-witness's account of the martyrdom. And to these must be added the "Epistola Ecclesiarum Viennensis et Lugdunensis", telling the story of the martyrs of Lyons, and other Acta not so famous.
  • Documents of a later date than the martyrdom based on Acta of the first or second class, and therefore subjected to editorial manipulation of various kinds. It is this class which affords the critic the greatest scope for his discernment. What distinguishes these Acta from the subsequent classes is their literary basis. The editor was not constructing a story to suit oral tradition or to explain a monument. He was editing a literary document according to his own taste and purpose. The class is numerous and its contents highly debatable, for though additional study may raise any particular Acta to a higher class, it is far more likely as a rule to reduce it.

Besides these three classes of more or less reliable documents, many others pass under the name of Acta Martyrum, though their historicity is of little or no value. They are romances, either written around a few real facts which have been preserved in popular or literary tradition, or else pure works of the imagination, containing no real facts whatever. Among the historical romances we may instance the story of Felicitas and her seven sons, which in its present form seems to be a variation of IV Maccabees, viii, 1, though there can be no doubt of the underlying facts, one of which has actually been confirmed by De Rossi's discovery of the tomb of Januarius, the eldest son in the narrative. And according to such strict critics as M. Dufourcq (Etude sur les Gesta martyrum romains, Paris, 1900) and P. Delehaye (Analecta Bollandiana, XVI, 235-248), the Roman "Legendarium" can claim no higher class than this; so that, apart from monumental, liturgical, and topographical traditions, much of the literary evidence for the great martyrs of Rome is embedded in historical romances. It may be a matter for surprise that there should be such a class of Acta as the imaginative romances, which have no facts at all for their foundation. But they were the novels of those days which unfortunately came to be taken as history. Perhaps such is the case with the story of Genesius the Comedian who was suddenly converted while mimicking the Christian mysteries (Von der Lage, "Studien z. Genesius Legende", Berlin, 1898-9), and the Acts of Didymus and Theodora, the latter of whom was saved by the former, a Christian soldier, from a punishment worse than death. And even less reputable than these so-called Acta are the story of Barlaam and Josaphat which is the Christian adaptation of the Buddha legend, the Faust-legend of Cyprian of Antioch, and the romance of the heroine who, under the various names of Pelagia, Marina, Eugenia, Margaret, or Apollinaria is admitted in man's dress to a monastery, convicted of misconduct, and posthumously rehabilitated. St. Liberata also, the bearded lady who was nailed to a cross, is a saint of fiction only, though the romance was probably invented with the definite purpose of explaining the draped figure of a crucifix.

Still these two classes of romantic Acta can hardly be regarded as forgeries in the strict sense of that term. They are literary figments, but as they were written with the intention of edifying and not deceiving the reader, a special class must be reserved for hagiographical forgeries. To this must be relegated all those Acts, Passions, Lives, Legends, and Translations which have been written with the express purpose of perverting history, such, for instance, as the legends and translations falsely attaching a saint's name to some special church or city. Their authors disgraced the name of hagiographer, and they would not merit mention were it not that conscious deceit has in consequence been attributed to those hagiographers, who, having for their object to edify and not to instruct, have written Acta which were meant to be read as romances and not as history.

Besides these detached Acta Martyrum, there are other literary documents concerning the life and death of the martyrs which may be mentioned here. The Calendaria were lists of martyrs celebrated by the different Churches according to their different dates. The Martyrologies represent collections of different Calendaria and sometimes add details of the martyrdom. The Itineraries are guide-books drawn up for the use of pilgrims to the sanctuaries of Rome; they are not without their utility in so far as they reveal, not only the resting places of the great dead, but also the traditions which were current in the seventh century. The writings of the Fathers of the Church also embody many references to the martyrs, as, for instance, the sermons of St. Basil, Chrysostom, Augustine, Peter Chrysologus, and John Damascene.

Finally there are to be considered the collections of Lives, intended for public and private reading. Most important of all are the "Historia Ecclesiastica" of Eusebius (265-340), and his "De Martyribus Palestinæ"; but unfortunately his martyron synagoge or Collection of Acts of the Martyrs, to which he refers in the preface of the fifth book of his "Historia Ecclesiastica", is no longer extant. The fourteen poems of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, published in 404 as the "Persitephanon liber", celebrated the praises of the martyrs of Spain and Italy; but as the author allowed himself the license of the poet with his material, he is not always reliable. The writers of the Middle Ages are responsible for a very large element of the fictitious in the stories of the martyrs; they did not even make a proper use of the material they had at their disposal. Gregory of Tours was the first of these medieval hagiographers with his "De virtutibus S. Martini", "De gloria Confessorum", and "De vitis Sanctorum". Simeon Metaphrastes is even less reliable; it has even been questioned whether he was not consciously deceitful. See, however, the article on METAPHRASTES. But the most famous collection of the Middle Ages was the "Golden Legend" of Jacopo de Soragine, first printed in 1476. All these medieval writers include saints as well as martyrs in their collections. So do Mombritius (Milan, 1476), Lipomanus (Venice, 1551), and Surius (Cologne, 1570). J. Faber Stapulensis included only Martyrs in his "Martyrum agones antiquis ex monumentis genuine descriptos" (1525), and they are only the martyrs whose feasts are celebrated in the month of January. But an epoch was marked in the history of the martyrs by the "Acta primorum martyrum sincera et selecta" of the Benedictine Theodore Ruinart (Paris, 1689) and frequently reprinted (Ratisbon, 1858). Other collections of Acta, subsequent to Ruinart's are Ilbachius, "Acta Martyrum Vindicata" (Rome, 1723). S. Assemai, "Acta SS. Martyrum orient. et occ." (Rome, 1748). T. Mamachii "Origines et Antiquitates Christianæ" (Rome, 1749). The critical study of the Acta Martyrum has been vigorously prosecuted within the last few years, and the standpoint of the critics considerably changed since the attempt of Ruinart to make his selection of Acta. Many of his Acta Sincera will no longer rank as sincera; and if they be arranged in different classes according to their historicity very few can claim a place in our first or second class. But on the other hand the discovery of texts and the archæological researches of De Rossi and others have confirmed individual stories of martyrdom. And a general result of criticism has been to substantiate such main facts as the causes of persecution, the number and heroism of the martyrs, the popularity of their cultus, and the historicity of the popular heroes.

The chief problem, therefore, for modern critics is to discover the literary history of the Acta which have come down to us. It cannot be denied that some attempt was made at the very first to keep the history of the Church's martyrs inviolate. The public reading of the Acta in the churches would naturally afford a guarantee of their authenticity; and this custom certainly obtained in Africa, for the Third Council of Carthage (c. 47) permitted the reading of the "Passiones Martyrum cum anniversarii dies eorum celebrentur". There was also an interchange of Acta between different Churches as we see from the "Martyrium S. Polycarpi" and the "Epistola Ecclesiæ Viennensis et Lugdunensis". But it is not known to what extent those customs were practised. And during the persecutions of Diocletian there must have been a wholesale destruction of documents, with the result that the Church would lose the accounts of its Martyr's history. This seems to be especially true of Rome, which possesses so few authentic Acta in spite of the number and fame of its martyrs; for the Romans had apparently lost the thread of these traditions as early as the second half of the fourth century. The poems of Prudentius, the Calendaria, and even the writings of Pope Damasus show that the story of the persecutions had fallen into obscurity. Christian Rome had her martyrs beneath her feet, and celebrated their memory with intense devotion, and yet she knew but little of their history.

Under these circumstances it is not improbable that the desire of the faithful for fuller information would easily be satisfied by raconteurs who, having only scanty material at their disposal, would amplify and multiply the few facts preserved in tradition and attach what they considered suitable stories to historical names and localities. And in the course of time it is argued these legends were committed to writing, and have come down to us as the Roman legendarium. In support of this severe criticism it is urged that the Roman Acta are for the most part not earlier than the sixth century (Dufourcq), and that spurious Acta were certainly not unknown during the period. The Roman Council of 494 actually condemned the public reading of the Acta (P. L., LIX, 171-2). And this Roman protest had been already anticipated by the Sixth Council of Carthage (401) which protested against the cult of martyrs whose martyrdom was not certain (canon 17). St. Augustine (354-340) also had written: "Though for other martyrs we can hardly find accounts which we can read on their festivals, the Passion of St. Stephen is in a canonical book" (Sermo, 315, P. L., XXXVIII, 1426). Subsequently in 692 the Trullan Council at Constantinople excommunicated those who were responsible for the reading of spurious Acta. The supposition, therefore, of such an origin for the Roman legends is not improbable. And unfortunately the Roman martyrs are not the only ones whose Acta are unreliable. Of the seventy-four separate Passions included by Ruinart in his Acta Sincera, the Bollandist Delehaye places only thirteen in the first or second class, as original documents. Further study of particular Acta may, of course, raise this number; and other original Acta may be discovered. The labours of such critics as Gebhardt, Aubé, Franchi de Cavalieri, Le Blant, Conybeare, Harnack, the Bollandists, and many others, have in fact, not infrequently issued in this direction, while at the same time they have gathered an extensive bibliography around the several Acta. These must therefore be valued on their respective merits. It may, however, be noticed here that the higher criticism is as dangerous when applied to the Acts of the Martyrs as it is for the Holy Scriptures. Arguments may of course, be drawn from the formal setting of the document, its accuracy in dates, names, and topography, and still stronger arguments from what may be called the informal setting given to it unconsciously by its author. But in the first case the formal setting can surely be imitated, and it is unsafe therefore to seek to establish historicity by such an argument. It is equally unsafe to presume that the probability of a narrative, or its simplicity is a proof that it is genuine. Even the improbable may contain more facts of history than many a narrative which bears the appearance of sobriety and restraint. Nor is conciseness a sure proof that a document is of an early date; St. Mark's Gospel is not thus proved to be the earliest of the Synoptics. The informal setting is more reliable; philology and psychology are better tests than dates and geography, for it needs a clever romancer indeed to identify himself so fully with his heroes as to share their thoughts and emotions. And yet even with this concession to higher criticism, it still remains true that the critic is on safer ground when he has succeeded in establishing the pedigree of his document by external evidence.

Acta SS.; Analecta Bollandiana; Bibliographica hagiographica graeca (Brussels, 1895); Bibl. hag. latina (Brussels, 1898); LE BLANT, Les Persécuteurs et les Martyrs (Paris. 1893); Les Actes des Martyrs, Supplément aux Acta Sincera de D. Ruinart in Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, XXX. (Paris, 1882); NEUMANN, Der Römische Staat und die allgemeine Kirche bis auf Diokletian, I (Leipzig, 1890); HARNACK, Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius (Leipzig, 1897-1904); DUFOURCQ,. Etude sur les Gesta Martyrum Romains (Paris, 1900-07); ACHELIS, Die Martyrologien, ihre Geschichte und ihr Wert (Berlin, 1900); QUENTIN, Les martyrologes historiques du moyen âge (Paris, 1907); GEBHARDT, Acta Martyrum Selecta (Berlin, 1902); LECLERCQ, Les Martyrs (Paris, 1902); LIETZMANN, Die drei ältesten Martyrologien (Bonn, 1903); DELEHAYE, Legends of the Saints (Eng. tr., London, 1907).

James Bridge.