‘A dove came out and an abundance of blood’

Sorry I haven’t returned to the Laodicean water law yet – examining season in Oxford and depressing situation in the UK seem to have got most of my energy. In the meanwhile, something shorter: a side-note, really, from a paper I’m giving in Vienna later this week at what promises to be a rather exciting workshop on Roman Court Proceedings.

I’ll be talking there about two early and (very probably) largely authentic accounts of Roman trials in Christian martyr acts, both coming from the city of Smyrna – the Martyrdoms of Polycarp (in ca. AD 155-157) and Pionius (AD 250). One passage in the former that incidentally captured my attention has little to do with legal history, but can serve as a good illustration of why we shouldn’t be locked into narrowly defined sub-disciplines.

The moment of Polycarp’s death is described in the martyrdom thus: ‘Eventually, when the lawless one saw that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner who had approached him to plunge a dagger. And when he had done this, a dove came out and an abundance of blood, so that it quenched the fire. And the whole crowd marvelled at such a great distinction between the unbelievers and the elect’ (M.Polyc. 16.1, in the most recent translation by Paul Hartog).

The mention of the dove seems to have caused considerable difficulty to editors and commentators: it is omitted in Eusebius’ retelling of the story (Hist. eccl. 4.15.39), and accordingly it is often emended away or simply deleted (for instance, in H. Musurillo’s widely used The Acts of the Christian Martyrs). Some ascribe it to a manuscript corruption, some to ‘an editor fond of the supernatural’, some think it was a misunderstood natural phenomenon: ‘perhaps a bird flew out of (or near) the wood in the pyre at that moment’ (a survey of more influential views in P. Hartog, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Oxford 2013, 313-5).

Rather more interestingly, the great J.B. Lightfoot (The Apostolic Fathers, Pt. II: S. Ignatius. S. Polycarp, 2nd ed., London 1889, i.606-7) in the nineteenth century noticed a parallel with the vulture emerging from the pyre on which Lucian’s Peregrinus immolated himself, and suggested that Lucian might have been an influence (an idea not mentioned by Hartog):

‘Whenever I noticed a man of taste, I would tell him the facts without embellishment, as I have to you, but for the benefit of the dullards, agog to listen, I would thicken the plot a bit on my own account, saying that when the pyre was kindled and Proteus flung himself bodily in, a great earthquake first took place, accompanied by a bellowing of the ground, and then a vulture, flying up out of the midst of the flames, went off to Heaven, saying, in human speech, with a loud voice:

“I am through with the earth; to Olympus I fare.”

They were wonder-struck and blessed themselves with a shudder, and asked me whether the vulture sped eastwards or westwards; I made them whatever reply occurred to me’ (Lucian, Peregrinus 38, tr. by A.M. Harmon [Loeb]).

What doesn’t seem to have been noticed in this connexion, however, is the obvious parallel with the Roman imperial apotheosis, which might have served as an inspiration. both for the author (or editor) of the Martyrdom and for Lucian: at the emperor’s funeral, to symbolize the ascension of his soul into heaven, an eagle was released  from the funeral pyre. Cassius Dio describes the ceremony in almost the same words in his narrative of the funeral of the emperor Augustus in AD 14, paradigmatic for later imperial cult (Cass. Dio 56.42.3), and of the emperor Pertinax in AD 193, which he witnessed himself (detailed and fundamental analysis by Simon Price, in Cannadine and Price, Rituals and Royalty, with the discussion of the eagle at pp. 94-7). The latter account is slightly fuller: ‘The magistrates and the equestrian order, arrayed in a manner befitting their station, and likewise the cavalry and the infantry, passed in and out around the pyre performing intricate evolutions, both those of peace and those of war. Then at last the consuls applied fire to the structure, and when this had been done, an eagle flew aloft from it. Thus was Pertinax made immortal’ (75.5.5, tr. by E. Cary [Loeb]).

The similarities – and the interplay between Christian ideas of sanctity and Roman ideas of apotheosis, on which Lucian’s parody also plays – are very obvious. They seem, however, to have escaped the world of patristic scholarship.




3 thoughts on “‘A dove came out and an abundance of blood’

  1. Thanks a lot for the pertinent note on the parallels to the symbolism in the scene. As far as I know, it has not been noticed in discussions of the MPol. At the same time, similar (anti)-imperial emphases in the imagery of the dove have been pointed out for the baptism episode in the Gospels. Do you have plans to develop the point of this blog post into a publication of any sort?


    1. Thanks for your comment! I didn’t know about the baptism episode discussion. Not sure whether I’ll publish this – will probably mention it in the book (it is of some significance for understandiing the acta as the source for Roman conventus, actually), but I might not be up to the task of going through everything relevant on the patristic side.


  2. With no intention of adding more strain on your academic agenda, which must be already packed with plans, I will only mildly suggest that, on the front of early Christian studies, the (anti)-imperial emphasis in the MPol, which is apparent in the symbolism you have exposed, would be a significant addition to the scholarship on the ideology of the early acts (particularly seen against the background of the NT rhetoric). In case you might be interested in pursuing the ideas of this post any further as an independent publication, that would make a valuable contribution to the study of early martyrdom.


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