Thursday, 23 May 2019

Rebecca Usherwood: Even the memory of his name was erased: remembering and forgetting the persecutors

The idea that political disgrace and material obliteration were God-sent punishments inflicted on any emperor – or other secular authority figure – who had persecuted the Christians is a consistent theme throughout Christian writings, particularly at the turn of the fourth century. This discourse, blending Roman, pre-Roman, near-eastern, and biblical concepts, emphasised the destruction of honorific dedications (e.g. portraits, statues, images, and inscriptions). This was often accompanied by graphic descriptions of the bodies of the persecutors lying unburied or wasting away due to horrific diseases, their shameful ends an ironic reversal of the destruction they had sought to inflict on individual martyrs and the wider Church. The often-contradictory rhetoric of social forgetting was also featured: the claim that these punishments lead to these figures’ complete erasure from collective memory, whilst simultaneously memorialising them with the aim that their stories should never be forgotten.This paper charts the development of the motif of the disgraced persecutor: how it intersected with established Roman concepts of political dishonour, and the role it played as a focal point in the creation of a mnemonic heritage and unifying group narrative for Christian communities. I will argue that the motif cast interactions between secular authorities and Christians in an established pattern which suppressed regional, chronological, and typological nuances. Moreover, this motif endured in the changed world of the later fourth century, drawing its potency from the memory of the great persecution, as a way of articulating relationships between the powerful and the powerless.

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