Introduction

In my previous entries I outlined the initial early church practice to bury its dead in a mode similar to the culture around it. In my second I looked at the growing prestige of the martyr, in life and death, in the church who came to be seen as a type of individual set aside as a spiritual athlete who had great intercessory power in life. In my third entry I outlined the association of the martyrs, and those like them, with the pagan daimon or guardian angels. I also looked at the prestige progressively associate with their remains via the bleeding into the church of platonic notions of forms as expressed via individuals like Basil the Great. In this penultimate entry I hope to look at how the growth of the public cult of the relics became mainstream and how this shaped the life of the church going into the 4th century and beyond.

Relics and their Private Patrons

Some of the earliest accounts of people collecting the bones and relics of the martyrs and saints we have on record doesn’t actual come from clergy but wealthy members of the laity. A good example of this might be the patron Pompeiana in the year 295 who acquired the remains of a martyr called Maximilian. The account we have of her reads…

..She obtained the body from the magistrate and, after placing it in her own chamber, later brought it to Carthage. There she buried it at the foot of a hill near the governor’s palace next to the body of the martyr Cyprian. Thirteen days later, the woman herself passed away and was buried in the same spot.

The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, no. 248.

In this account, we don’t actually see any reference to veneration or worship of the said remains nor indeed any memoria erected to the name of Maximilian or Cyprian. Yet when we look at another event, just a decade later, we see a slightly different picture emerge.

At Salona, the first known Christian memoria was created in 304 by a well-to-do lady, Asclepia, above the grave of a martyr, Anastasius, in a building that had been designed to house also her own tomb and those of her family. Thus, for the influential layman, the grave, always “a fine and private place,” could reach out to appropriate the martyr, and so bring a holy grave, either directly or by implication, out of the Christian community as a whole into the orbit of a single family.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, p33

Ann Marie Yasin, Associate Professor of Classics and Art History at the University of Southern California, describes the memorials of Salona as “ideal illustrations of saint-cult development from common graves to memorial buildings and from these small shrines to monumental basilicas.”

At this point we get a picture that begins to more explicitly resemble the housing and cult of the saints. The remains of martyrs by this point weren’t just collected by wealthy patrons but were actively being homed in their family tombs by the 4th century. This practice itself also nodding to the blurred boundaries between that of family, patronage and kinship present in the early church. Wealthy individuals increasingly began to house the remains of those not of their own family but those co-religionists that might extend a degree of their prestige, and grace, to their family tomb, and the family by extension, by being housed there. This made sense not just to Christians but the broader Greco-Roman population who had historically even fought wars over which city a hero’s remains might reside in as a means to curry the active favour and support of the dead who it was believed could still exercise a form of localised agency.

This is also roughly the same period when the aforementioned Lucilla of Carthage, from my last entry, was rebuked for venerating a relic of the recently martyred Mensurius which she had appropriated and carried with her.

Brown also points out, in the above quote, how this conduct also introduced an element of scarcity by appropriating the remains of the martyrs out of the orbit of the broader community and into that of its wealthiest members. Decades after this, however, we find ourselves in a context in which the Church is no longer actively persecuted and is instead ascendant. This will give rise to a new generation of clergy who increasingly resemble the aforementioned wealthy patrons who will seek to change this.

Pope Damasus I is generally recognised as one of the principal architects of development of the cult of the saints. Installed in the year 366AD he rode the wave of the ascendant church in the wake of the Edict of Milan (313AD) which promised favour to be shown to the Christian community of the Roman Empire. Damasus, upon his installation, used this opportunity to begin an extensive series of public works on the previously restricted sites of the communal graves of the church, the catacombs, Ann Marie Yasin writes of his work…

One can see, for example, in the efforts of Bishop Damasus (366–84c.e.) the project of transforming saints’ tombs in the Roman catacombs into holy places. By adding stairwells, widening access galleries, and opening up spaces to gather around saints’ tombs, Damasus made the graves accessible to a larger public of pious Christians. He elevated the sacred tombs themselves by adding familiar monumental architectural elements, such as columns and arches, and creating grandiose verse inscriptions that recalled the lives and martyrdoms of the saints.

Ann Marie Yasin, Reassessing Salona’s Churches: Martyrium Evolution in Question, p 65.

This was a radical change from their previous state. Bartlett summarises Jerome, a contemporary of Damasus, and his own childhood experiences of the catacombs before their overhauled by the then Pope…

These places could be gloomy, even frightening. St. Jerome describes how, when he was a schoolboy in Rome around the year 360, he used on Sundays “to go around the tombs of the apostles and martyrs and frequently enter the crypts which had been excavated in the depths of the earth and which contain the bodies of those buried there in the walls on either side of those who go in.” He remembered how dark these places were and how rarely a beam of light from above “would temper the horror of the shadows.” The “blind night” down there brought to his well-educated mind a line of Virgil: “Horror and very silence fill the mind with fear everywhere.

Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, p 7

Damasus himself, due to his prodigious lobbying, earned the nickname “the ear tickler of noble ladies” according to a collection of Papal documents from the period known as the Avellana Compilation. The effects of this lobbying by church authorities towards wealthy patrons over the next century showed the progressive opening up of the cult of the saints to a broader body of the Churches membership. This came in the form of patrons eventually being willing to give their own private land over to having entire churches being built on them which were devoted to the relics of a given martyr or saint. This was a big change from an overhaul of the catacombs and included both the building of churches over the sites of the graves of martyrs and the relocation of graves to the site of existing churches.

The quotations and orations of individuals like Gregory of Nyssa we mentioned in my last entry occurred during this period showed similar changes occurring across the empire. Jerome’s Chronicle also recalls that in the year 356 “The relics of the apostle Timothy brought to Constantinople.” and a year later “the bones of the apostle Andrew and evangelist Luke were received from the people of Constantinople with marvellous goodwill.”

This wasn’t done despite wealthy patrons but increasingly using gifts from them. The Liber Pontificalis records the actions of one wealthy patron building a basilica to the first martyr, Stephen, in her own garden in Rome.

In his time Demetria, the handmaid of God, built a basilica to the holy Stephen in her own garden on the Via Latina at the third milestone.

Liber Pontificalis, XLVII. LEO I (440-461)

This work had the effect of democratising access to relics that had previously been the domain of the rich and powerful. It also shifted the locus of attention away from the private and familial into that of the ‘people’ often with ‘marvellous goodwill’. This basilica of Demetria was also likely the one spoken of by Augustine in Book 8 of the City of God.

Relics and the Bishop as Patron of Patrons

Increasingly the martyr themselves wasn’t just seen as a spiritual patron but was conflated with the identity of the local bishop himself. One of the best examples of this new breed of bishop was Ambrose of Milan who wrote and was written about extensively on this topic. A good example of this is Ambrose’s homily pertaining to the discovery of the remains of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius in 385AD during his bishopric there. Here he articulates a belief that God had brought about the discovery and introduction of the saints at this time “Thanks be to You, Lord Jesus, that at this time You have stirred up for us the spirits of the holy martyrs, when Your Church needs greater protection.” (Epistle 22.10) In this particular instance, he rushed to install the remains of the martyrs in his new church within two days of their discovery (Ep 22.2). Ambrose very clearly also saw the acquisition of relics as a means to incorporate the power and influence of the martyrs of the church. This was seen explicitly through the lens of the ancient patronage systems of Greco-Roman Society. He makes this clear in the aforementioned Epistle…

Such defenders do I desire, such are the soldiers I have, that is, not soldiers of this world, but soldiers of Christ. I fear no ill-will on account of them, the more powerful their patronage is the greater safety is there in it. And I wish for their protection for those very persons who grudge them to me. Let them come, then, and see my attendants. I do not deny that I am surrounded by such arms: Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will boast in the Name of the Lord our God.

Ambrose of Milan, Epistle 22.10

Ambrose, in many ways like Paulinus of Nola, conflated his view of his patron(s) with that of himself. These patrons in the words of Brown were, unlike their pagan counterparts…

The saint was the good patronus: he was the patronus whose intercessions were successful, whose wealth was at the disposal of all, whose potential was exercised without violence and to whom loyalty could be shown without restraint.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, p41

Ambrose himself directly contrasted his patrons to that of the world. Simultaneously drawing comparisons but highlighting the contrast and invoking the motif of the martyr as the spiritual soldier who wages spiritual, not physical, warfare.


Despite these changes, Ambrose, and those like him, were keen to distance the cult of the saints from the pre-existing familial and patronal cult. As one description of the patronage system wrote “As a part of his family, clients were supposed to meet on a regular basis at the tomb of the “father” of the family for the appropriate commemorative rites.” and we see in Augustine’s Confessions Ambrose’s attempt to distance the Cult of the Saints from the older Greco-Roman precedent…

When, therefore, my mother had at one time — as was her custom in Africa — brought to the oratories built in the memory of the saints certain cakes, and bread, and wine, and was forbidden by the doorkeeper, so soon as she learned that it was the bishop who had forbidden it, she so piously and obediently acceded to it, that I myself marvelled how readily she could bring herself to accuse her own custom, rather than question his prohibition.

As soon, therefore, as she found this custom to be forbidden by that famous preacher and most pious prelate, even to those who would use it with moderation, lest thereby an occasion of excess might be given to such as were drunken, and because these, so to say, festivals in honour of the dead were very like the superstition of the Gentiles, she most willingly abstained from it. And in lieu of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of more purified petitions, and to give all that she could to the poor; that so the communion of the Lord’s body might be rightly celebrated there, where, after the example of His passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned.

Augustine, Confessions, Book 6.2.2

Augustine’s mother Monica here exhibited a behaviour that seems to differ not so much in kind but degree to that of the broader Greco-Roman culture nor indeed that of the earlier church. A degree such that Ambrose was keen to discourage such commemorative meals and instead replace it with the a more formalised communion service. Yet to think Ambrose was inventing something here is a mistake. What he did do was directly link his ecclesial authority within his parish to that of the local cult of the saints. Peter Brown compares this work to that of an electrician re-routing the power of the saints into himself, the Bishop…

Ambrose had not “introduced” the cult of the martyrs into Milan, still less had he merely acquiesced passively to previous practices. His initiatives had been firm and in many ways unusual: he had been prepared both to move bodies and to link them decisively to the altar of a new church. Rather, he was like an electrician who rewires an antiquated wiring system: more power could pass through stronger, better-insulated wires toward the bishop as leader of the community.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, p38

Other Bishops did similar, one inscription by a Bishop Alexander of Tbessa, towards the end of the 4th-century reads…

Here where you see walls crowned with gleaming roofs, here where the high ceilings glitter and the holy altars stand: this place is not the work of any noblemen, but stands forever to the glory of the bishop, Alexander.

E.Diehl, Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres, 1825, 1-4

Bishops were a form of nobleman now, not just in a secular sense, but in a spiritual sense too. The prestige of the local martyrs and their relics came to act as a mirror onto the Bishop himself. The greater the spiritual authority of the local martyr, the greater the authority of the bishop and the diocese more broadly. This is most clearly evident in the earlier desire to secure and install the relics of apostolic era martyrs like Andrew, the brother of Peter, and Luke in Constantinople during the 4th century.

Architecture, Saints, and the Democratisation of Relics

With the cult of the saints being brought into the Church proper one of the biggest changes this lead to was the layout not just of church buildings themselves but of entire cities. Bartlett writes of the prior state of the burials of martyrs…

One of the most visible innovations was architectural. The martyrs had originally been buried in the ordinary cemeteries of the Mediterranean world, located along the roads leading away from the cities. At Rome most were interred in underground cemeteries, the “catacombs,” a vast network of tunnels and chambers which lay beneath the funerary areas. Their graves were simple.

Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, p. 7, 8

This changed dramatically after the advent of the cult of the saints took root. Bartlett continues…

The building of such monumental martyr churches transformed the setting of the cult. Whereas previously Christians had gathered in cemeteries, above or below ground, to reverence the martyrs at their tombs, they could now assemble in vast and elaborately decorated halls which had these tombs at their heart, a veritable “monumentalization” of the cult of the martyrs.

Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, p. 10

Jerome himself wrote of how the entire locus of Rome shifted with the growth of the cult of the saints in the mid-4th century…

Every temple in Rome is covered with soot and cobwebs. The city is stirred to its depths and the people pour past their half-ruined shrines to visit the tombs of the martyrs. The belief which has not been accorded to conviction may come to be extorted by very shame.

Jerome, Letter 107, Paragraph 1

Elsewhere he wrote “the city moved address” during this period. Entire sections apparently became neglected because of the emphasis and centrality given to the graves of the martyrs. This is perhaps best exemplified by St Peter’s itself, on the Vatican Hill, finding itself outside the original walls of Rome proper.

Even by the 5th century, even small frontier towns like that of Verulamium in Roman Britain had shifted to due to its centre of worship now being based outside the walls of the settlement. The new centre was the former cemetery where the 3rd century British Martyr Alban was buried. This was in no small part due to a travelling Gaulish Bishop called Germanus of Auxerre receiving a vision of the martyr Alban who conveyed the miraculous account of his martyrdom which led to the creation of his shrine at the Roman cemetery. The change was so comprehensive that the name Verulamium, Celtic in origin, fell into disuse and instead the settlement was increasingly known as ‘St Albans’ going forwards.

Public Pilgrimage and Areas of Retreat

Another aspect of the cult of the saints wasn’t just its change to architecture but as Jerome alluded to the very act of ‘pouring out’ to visit the martyrs. Pilgrimage became a major part of Christian life during this period that was an opportunity to set aside the geographic and socio-economic ties that otherwise divided society. William Christian wrote of processions to the graves of saints…

As images of social wholeness, the processions have an added significance. The villagers for once in the year see the village as a social unit, abstracted from the buildings and location that make it a geographical unit.

William A. Christian, Jr, Person and God in a Spanish Valley

The 4th-century writer Prudentius expressed a similar sentiment at witnessing the procession to the shrine of Hippolytus of Rome…

The love of their religion masses Latins and strangers together in one body…. The majestic city disgorges her Romans in a stream; with equal ardor patricians and the plebeian host are jumbled together, shoulder to shoulder, for the faith banishes distinctions of birth.

Prudentius, Peristephanon 11. 191–92; 199–202

The cult of the saints, particularly in its processions proved to be a great leveller that again broke down the boundaries between rich and poor, near and far, man and woman, and the neighbour and the stranger.

Even outside the times of procession, the location of the saint’s shrines proved a popular location for those on the margins of society. Brown convincingly argues that women could find a measure of liberty at the shrines away from their male counterparts as could the poor. The subsequent relationship between the two led to a development of almsgiving that contributed to a form of noblesse oblige that came to mark much of Western society as a body made up of varying individuals bound in responsibility to one another.

Resistance to Relics outside the Church and Within

Pagan and Jewish Objections

With all this said, however, despite the prodigious growth of the cult of the saints there was resistance to it on a number of levels. The proximity to the dead and the increased centring of so much of Christian worship on relics and remains was one of the critiques the Late Pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate levelled at the Church of the time…

However this evil doctrine did originate with John; but who could detest as they deserve all those doctrines that you have invented as a sequel, while you keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago? You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres, and yet in your scriptures it is nowhere said that you must grovel among tombs and pay them honour.

Julian the Apostate, Against the Galileans, Book 1

Another Pagan commentator wrote…

For they collected the bones and skulls of criminals who had been put to death for numerous crimes … made them out to be gods, and thought that they became better by defiling themselves at their graves. “Martyrs” the dead men were called, and ministers of a sort, and ambassadors with the gods to carry men’s prayers.

Eunapius of Sardis, 472AD

Peter Brown explains that what was found so objectionable to the Pagans of the age was the proximity of the dead and the aforementioned reorientation of entire cities that proved to be truly disturbing them. To have the cities they lived in have a newfound locus to be upon the dead, something which had formerly occupied the periphery….

The bishop and his clergy performed public worship in a proximity to the human dead that would have been profoundly disturbing to pagan and Jewish feeling. Furthermore, an ancient barrier between the private and the public, that had been shared as deeply by a former generation of Christians as by any other late-antique men, came to be eroded. The tomb of the saint was declared public property as the tomb of no other Christian was: it was made accessible to all, and became the focus of forms of ritual common to the whole community.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, p9

This wasn’t entirely foreign to Pagans, it’s fair to ask if the growth of saints shrines and martyr-churches was not in some way influenced by Greco-Roman shrines built to contain the remains of heroes common during this period (heroa). At some of these sites, a singular hero was still believed to be alive in a sense and present at the feasts that took place at their burial sites. These heroa could contain the remains of more mythic heroes like that of Orestes whose bones were stolen by the Spartans in Herodotus’s Histories or mundane like that of a Roman Senator. There are a decent number of similarities but as the reactions of Julian and Eunapius indicate the practice was something that took on a degree that seemed a perversion of accepted practice. Something shared by the Jewish population of the period. Brown commentating…

In Judaism the holy graves and the rabbinate drifted apart. The loci where Heaven and Earth had met, in the opinion of the rabbi Pinḥas ben Ḥama, still lacked their impresarios (patron). There was no denying the existence of so many tombs of the saints nor of their importance for the Jewish communities. But the leaders of Jewish learning and spirituality did not choose to lean upon tombs, as Christian bishops did, with the result that these maintained a low profile.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, p10

Christian Objections

Yet some of the objections came from the church itself. The most infamous of these is indicated to in Jerome’s letter against the priest Vigilantius. Behind Jerome’s flaming invective against presbyter, we get a picture of sections of the church genuinely concerned about the growth of the cult of the martyrs. Unfortunately, we don’t have Vigilantius’s writings today other than that which Jerome quotes for the sole purpose of disparaging but I will now include several excerpts below.

What need is there for you not only to pay such honour, not to say adoration, to the thing, whatever it may be, which you carry about in a little vessel and worship? And again, in the same book, Why do you kiss and adore a bit of powder wrapped up in a cloth? And again, in the same book, Under the cloak of religion we see what is all but a heathen ceremony introduced into the churches: while the sun is still shining, heaps of tapers are lighted, and everywhere a paltry bit of powder, wrapped up in a costly cloth, is kissed and worshipped. Great honour do men of this sort pay to the blessed martyrs, who, they think, are to be made glorious by trumpery tapers, when the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne, with all the brightness of His majesty, gives them light?

Jerome, Quoting Vigilantius, Against Vigilantius, 4

It’s clear here that Vigilantius doesn’t disparage the martyrs themselves but clearly took issue with the practice of carrying around relics and worship of their artefacts. We can see in the other section quoted below that he also clearly doesn’t accept the argument that some platonic form of the saints potentia endures in their primary and secondary relics after death…

Is it the case that the souls of the martyrs love their ashes, and hover round them, and are always present, lest haply if any one come to pray and they were absent, they could not hear?

Jerome, Quoting Vigilantius, Against Vigilantius, 8

Elsewhere in Jerome’s assault on Vigilantius we get the sense that the latter also didn’t believe that the martyrs couldn’t answer prayers to them after death. Jerome writes…

You say, in your pamphlet, that so long as we are alive we can pray for one another; but once we die, the prayer of no person for another can be heard…

Jerome, Against Vigilantius, 6

Vigilantius, although we have no quotation, also casts doubt on the miracles associated with such relics according to Jerome as a result of this. Something to which Jerome responds he only does because he is in fact in faux-denial given his possession by a demon!

Vigilantius does call the martyrs ‘blessed’ but clearly, alongside those he represented, felt that this did not translate into the cult that had built up around them and clearly manifesting throughout this period. Jerome clearly did not have a monopoly when it came to appreciating the martyrs. Yet the strength and violence of Jerome’s responses to Vigilantius clearly indicated the latter had touched a nerve indicating this was something that Jerome’s party were likely aware and nervous of and that the critic’s initial letter was not so much the voice of an individual but an entire party within the church.

Jerome as much admits Vigilantius to represent a faction within the church when he writes “Shameful to relate, there are bishops who are said to be associated with him in his wickedness.” (Against Vigilantius, 2). Yet this exchange is all the insight we have on a fork on the road of the Churches development over time and Jerome, for all his spittle-flecked invective ultimately won.

Despite this, no doubt to Jerome’s disappointment, Vigilantius and his party at the time were not considered heretical or excommunicated indicating that the church at least initially had been more divided on the topic than is traditionally understood. That didn’t stop one council of bishops at the Synod of Gangres in 340AD who anathematised those who partook in “condemning the services in honour of the Martyrs and those who gather or minister therein.” Of course, this implied someone was doing such things within the Church and the most explicit reference we have to this comes from Coptic Egypt in the mid-5th century which stated…

The Catholic Church, which God ransomed with his own blood does not need the honour of the martyrs; rather the places of the martyrs should be under the power of the Catholic Church. … Just as the sun does not need the light of a lamp, so the Church does not need the bodies of the martyrs.

The Canons of Basil, Clauses 31, 33

Robert Bartlett in his history of the Cult of the Saints also writes that the canons condemned…

The practice of naming churches after saints – “the name of Christ is enough to honour the church” – and the construction of buildings at the site of the martyrs’ tombs, a custom, the author alleges, that echoes pre-Christian Egyptian usage.

Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, p. 591

Which directly speaks against the by then common practice of building of Churches on the sites of tombs and shows that even by this point in the mid-5th-century churches remained divided on the issue of the cult of the saints.

Conclusion

Despite some criticism both within and without the church, the cult of the saints and the use of relics saw an extensive uptake in the 4th century that continued to grow until it was finally formalised and enshrined at the second council of Nicea in 787. Yet the changes of the 4th century, in particular, represent a revolution in how the Christian people saw their relationship, not just with one another but the heavens and the world around them. Peter Brown writes on this…

The death of paganism in western society, and the rise of the cult of saints, with its explicitly aristocratic and urban forms, ensured that, from late antiquity onwards, the upper-class culture of Europe would always measure itself against the wilderness of a rusticitas which it had itself played no small part in creating. We also look out on a natural world made passive by being shorn of the power of the gods. It seems to me that the most marked feature of the rise of the Christian church in western Europe was the imposition of human administrative structures and of an ideal potentia linked to invisible human beings and to their visible human representatives, the bishops of the towns, at the expense of traditions that had seemed to belong to the structure of the landscape itself.

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, p 123,124

This was the ‘hominisation’ of the spiritual world that recontextualised the believer as an earthly citizen of what Augustine had called the heavenly City of God. The class structures of Roman society perforating into the church in which relics had come to serve as means of grace, a form of noblesse oblige, by the City of God’s aristocracy, the saints.

Despite the heavenly nature of the saints they had also come to possess a local agency. The City of God increasingly came to resemble, in its own way, the City of Man and the two aligned as the relics and remains of the saints came to be associated increasingly with the princes of the Church, the bishops. The bishops, in turn, drew a measure of their stature and standing as a representative and possessor of the potentia or power of local saints, due to their possession of a respective saints relics. Through this the church that would aspire to be a mirror of the city of God.

This new society centred on the church in many of respects had built upon the foundations of its Greco-Roman forebears. The Greeks, for example, had expressed a modicum of behaviour that would provide a template for later works of the Church. By way of example Plutarch, in his account of the life of the 5th century (BC) hero Theseus, recalls how after his death his actions continued to persist leading to his celebration and veneration. Plutarch wrote…

In succeeding ages, besides several other circumstances that moved the Athenians to honour Theseus as a demigod, in the battle which was fought at Marathon against the Medes, many of the soldiers believed they saw an apparition of Theseus in arms, rushing on at the head of them against the barbarians. And after the Median war, Phaedo being archon of Athens, the Athenians, consulting the oracle at Delphi, were commanded to gather together the bones of Theseus, and, laying them in some honourable place, keep them as sacred in the city. But it was very difficult to recover those relics, or so much as to find out the place where they lay, on account of the inhospitable and savage temper of the barbarous people that inhabited the island. Nevertheless, afterwards, when Cimon took the island (as is related in his life), and had a great ambition to find out the place where Theseus was buried, he, by chance, spied an eagle upon a rising ground pecking with her beak and tearing up the earth with her talons, when on the sudden it came into his mind, as it were by some divine inspiration, to dig there, and search for the bones of Theseus. There were found in that place a coffin of a man of more than ordinary size, and a brazen spear-head, and a sword lying by it, all which he took aboard his galley and brought with him to Athens. Upon which the Athenians, greatly delighted, went out to meet and receive the relics with splendid processions and sacrifices, as if it were Theseus himself returning alive to the city. He lies interred in the middle of the city, near the present gymnasium. His tomb is a sanctuary and refuge for slaves, and all those of mean condition that fly from the persecution of men in power, in memory that Theseus while he lived was an assister and protector of the distressed, and never refused the petitions of the afflicted that fled to him.

Plutarch, Theseus, Chapter 35-36

Such accounts do not so much differ by kind from that of the 4th century AD church as much by degree. Yet instead of generals and warriors of the City of the World the churches heroes, and that of the City of God, were spiritual, they were confessors and martyrs. The cult of the saints has its roots in the understandable love of the martyrs but as syncretism went on it can be, fairly, argued that certainly the sites of pagan worship and occasionally even the pagan heroes themselves were repurposed and transformed by the ascendant church. Despite all this, the core of it remained rooted in historical individuals which gave it tangible advantages over its Greco-Roman antecedents. The Saints were ultimately flesh and blood people, like their petitioners, and their remains were a central part of driving home that reality.

In my final entry, I will write what I think of the use of relics more generally in light of the prior entries. The good and the bad. In addition to something of its history since the period surrounding the 4th century covered here.

2 thoughts on “Christianity and Relics. Part Four: The Public Cult

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