Volume 5, Issue 3, 2017
Religion and Struggle
Appearance and Blasphemy in the Ancient Christian Martyr Texts
In conversation with recent scholarship on Roman physiognomy, dress, and imperial prose fictions, this article traces the way in which ancient Christian martyr texts participate in broader Roman discourses of appearance and status in their construction of the Christian and the non-believing, apostate, or blaspheming other. After introducing the nexus between appearance, status, and identity in Roman society and culture more generally, this article considers the way in which these physiognomic and sartorial conventions function in two imperial prose fictions—Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and Apuleius’s Metamorphoses—before turning to a similar consideration of two Christian martyr texts, namely, the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity and the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons. The article contends that the martyr texts, like the imperial fictions, construct the other, in part by appealing to long-standing Roman physiognomic and sartorial expectations. The non-believers, apostates, and blasphemers are visibly conspicuous for their non-elite deportment and slave-like physical features—features which, in a Roman context, mark their bodies as legitimate objects of violence. The Christians, in contrast, showcase a posture befitting the elite (those safeguarded from licit violence), not that of slaves or low-status damnati/noxii (those condemned to violent death in the Roman arena). In so doing, these martyr texts literarily reimagine Roman social strategies of violent humiliation as celebrations of honorable Christian identity, while they simultaneously deploy characteristically Roman discursive strategies to construct a humiliated, blaspheming other.