The Medieval Review 10.10.12

Twomey, D. Vincent, SVD, and Mark Humphries. The Great Persecution: The Proceedings of the Fifth Patristic Conference, Maynooth, 2003. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009. Pp. 176. $65 hb ISBN 978-1-84682-161-5. .

Reviewed by:

Shawn W.J. Keough
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

This volume grew out of the Fifth Maynooth Patristic Conference, which took place at St Patrick's College in Maynooth on 21-23 November 2003, seventeen hundred years after Diocletian and his tetrarchic colleagues set in motion what has since been known as "The Great Persecution." The conference drew together both historians and theologians in order to broadly engage the phenomena of persecution and martyrdom alongside the diverse records of events in 303 and their aftermath. The ensuing volume marks this emphasis by collecting essays that represent the three major strands of discussion in Maynooth: why the Great Persecution happened; how Christians responded to persecution; and the legacy of the Great Persecution among successive generations of Christians.

Two essays investigate possible causes of the Great Persecution. Mark Humphries' opening essay examines "the mind of the persecutors" in an attempt to approach the question from the perspective of the persecuting authorities rather the persecuted Christians. Humphries argues that Diocletian's persecution in 303 can be viewed as a response to external pressures that was intended to restore divine goodwill (thereby restoring earthly harmony) by ridding the empire of Christian impiety. This attempt to restore traditional piety was "typically tetrarchic in its conception and execution" (31), particularly in its emphasis on the relationship between religious uniformity and the empire's well-being. Andrew Smith looks to pagan philosophical critiques of Christianity in the third century, especially Porphyry, and provides a helpful overview of the critical questions and objections to Christian doctrine current among non-Christian intellectuals in the decades leading up to the Great Persecution.

Further essays take up the Christian response to the Great Persecution. Oliver Nicholson examines the prescriptive writings of Tertullian, Origen and Lactantius in his investigation of the motivations of those prepared to undergo martyrdom and how they prepared themselves for it, while Finbarr Clancy asks the same question of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna and Cyprian of Carthage, emphasising the impact of Christian martyrdom on the liturgy. The importance of persecution in Eusebius of Caesarea's Historia ecclesiasica is detailed by Thomas O'Loughlin, who describes how Christian martyrdom served to provide an eschatological orientation to Eusebius' understanding of the Church and its history.

The Great Persecution's later reverberations are taken up in the remaining essays. David Woods' intriguing essay investigates the origins of the cult of St George. Rejecting any connection with events in 303, Woods builds his case in favour of the thesis that the George in question is rather the Arian bishop murdered in Alexandria (361). Hal Drake's essay examines the complete failure of the Great Persecution to produce religious conformity, arguing that the inability of coercion to create consensus was "grasped instantly" by political contemporaries, and that Constantine therefore sought consensus and uniformity by a recognition of diversity and pluralism. D. Vincent Twomey's "Concluding Reflection" considers the importance of the Great Persecution as an event generating several transformations, such as the beginning of the end of the Roman world and the birth of Byzantium in the East and Latin Christendom in the West, and ultimately modern Russia and Western Europe.

Each of the essays in this volume provide valuable insights, and the volume as a whole will no doubt be of great interest to historians and theologians alike.

Table of Contents:


Editors' Preface

List of Abbreviations

The mind of the persecutors: "By the gracious favor of the gods" / Mark Humphries

Philosophical objections to Christianity on the eve of the Great Persecution / Andrew Smith

Lessons from Diocletian's persecution / H. A. Drake

Preparation for martyrdom in the early Church / Oliver Nicholson

Eusebius of Caesarea's conceptions of the persecutions as a key to reading his Historia ecclesiastica / Thomas O'Loughlin

Imitating the mysteries that you celebrate: martyrdom and Eucharist in the early Patristic period / Finbarr G. Clancy SJ

The origin of the cult of St George / David Woods

Concluding reflection: the perennial importance of the Great Persecution for politics and religion / D. Vincent Twomey