Saturday, 11 April 2015

Kyle Smith: Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia

Despite recent arguments to the contrary, it remains widely assumed that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity quickly politicized religious allegiances. According to many historians, both ancient and modern, one unintended consequence of the emperor’s support for Christianity in the Roman Empire was the persecution of Christians in the Sasanian Persian Empire. Yet the evidence for this persecution is vague and contradictory.
In fact, the history of Christianity in the fourth century has been written mainly on the basis of Greek ecclesiastical histories and Syriac martyrdom narratives that date to decades, even centuries, after the fact. These sources often exhibit conflicting religious, political, and hagiographical agendas. More importantly, they reveal an evolving portrait of Constantine. This portrait of the first Christian emperor is useful not for re-constructing the events of the fourth century, but for understanding how the Syriac Christians of Roman Mesopotamia and Sasanian Persia used Constantine and the Christians of the West to fashion multiple political and religious identities over a prolonged period of change.

This short communication will focus on one sixth-century text in particular, the Syriac History of the Holy Mar Ma’in, which is set in the fourth century during the persecution of the Persian king Shapur II. In Mar Ma’in, Constantine is presented as belligerently (and successfully) intervening on behalf of Christians in Persia. He sends an envoy to the Persians who reads a threatening letter to the king and then secures the release of one of Shapur’s former generals, Ma’in, who has become a Christian.

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