Friday, 24 May 2019

Ben Kolbeck: Living in the castra tenebrarum: Were Christian soldiers persecuted?

A celebrated figure appears in third-century Christian literature: the virtuous Christian soldier executed by the military hierarchy. This is often presented as persecution, culminating in the statements by Eusebius and Lactantius that Diocletian’s persecution began in the army. However, even in these Christian texts, the soldiers are always prosecuted individually, on the basis of some transgression of military discipline occasioned by their Christianity – rather than their faith itself. As these transgressions normally concern religious matters, the key to understanding the nature of ‘persecution’ in the army lies in the religious life of the military, the nature of ritual observance expected of soldiers, and the manner of enforcement. This paper will present a sketch of the religious life of the third-century Roman army, and examine the ways that Christians navigated it, taking account of varied levels of commitment to the faith. A firm picture is difficult to glean, since much of our evidence for the religious life of the army comes from these same Christian narratives, but I will argue that for the majority of Christians, the army was an inhospitable, though not an impossible religious environment. As military discipline and religion were intertwined, elements of religious policing necessarily pervaded camp life; at the same time, most of our examples of military martyrs concern officers and provocative dissenters, suggesting that agency was a complicated issue. Establishing a proper historical context allows us to peer behind the literary elements of the martyr narratives, and qualify their descriptions of ‘persecution’.

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