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Alte Geschichte

Remembering the Great Persecution (c.303-311) in Late Antique and Byzantine Egypt

Förderungsbeginn: November 2015
“The ‘Great Persecution’ begun by emperor Diocletian and his tetrarchic colleagues in 303 CE ranks as one of the most traumatic experiences of the early Church.” With these words, historians Mark Humphries and Vincent Twomey open The Great Persecution: Proceedings of the Fifth Patristic Conference (2003: 7). The Great Persecution was traumatic indeed. In hagiographical literature, Christian writers memorized heroic Christians who had defied capture, torture, and eventually even death in front of evil emperors. In canons of church councils, church fathers decided about celebrations of these martyrs and about what to do with those who had lapsed from faith. And finally, theologians tried to explain why the Christian god had let this horrible period happen.

Scholars have done fascinating and insightful research focusing on famous Christian writers. In this thesis, however, I will turn my attention to the experiences of ‘the man in the street’. This brings me to Egypt, where the dry sands do not only provide us with inscriptions and archaeological remains from Late Antique and Byzantine cities, but also with numerous papyri – private letters as well as official correspondence – mentioning martyr shrines and festival days in honour of martyr’s anniversaries. The regionality and locality of the voices of ancient Egyptian men and women enable us to see the reverberations of and, later, the memories to the Great Persecution from nearby.

Today as well as in the ancient world, societies are characterised by a high degree of relatedness to the past. However, people’s reflections on their past change when time passes and family history becomes the heritage of local communities, and eventually even leaves long-term impact on society. More than 1700 years after the event, thousands of books, paintings, and performances in film and theatre have memorized the Great Persecution. Furthermore, politicians, church leaders, and the media still refer to what ranks as one of the most traumatic experiences of the early Christians. In this project, I will use the rumours of everyday life from people who do not normally figure in histories of early Christianity to confirm, supplement, and sometimes even dramatically alter the picture painted by hagiographical sources – and by our modern media.