How were 4th century Christian martyr shrines locations for the negotiation of power and diversity? In this interview, Nathaniel Morehouse explains the contested nature of these shrines.

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How were 4th century Christian martyr shrines locations for the negotiation of power and diversity? In this interview, Nathaniel Morehouse explains the contested nature of these shrines. With an eye to the context of the diverse Mediterranean world and its complex configuration of political and religious identities, Morehouse sees shrines as an excellent interface for understanding not only the theological issues that were paramount for Church Fathers of this era, but also the lives of worshippers. An excellent starting place for beginners looking to understand more about the world of early Christianity, this interview concludes with suggestions for further reading beyond Morehouse’s own work, Death’s Dominion and its emphasis on power, identity, and memory.

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Power and Diversity in 4th Century Martyr Shrines [transcript]

Power and Diversity in 4th Century Martyr Shrines

Podcast with Nathaniel Morehouse (3 May 2021).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Andie Alexander

Audio and transcript available at:


Christianity, Power, Identity, Shrines, Martyrdom, Saints

David McConeghy (DM)  00:04

Hello and welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today it’s my pleasure to be joined by Dr. Nathaniel Morehouse, who teaches at John Carroll University and Lakeland Community College in Ohio. He’s the author of Death’s Dominion: Power, Identity, and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine, published by Equinox press in 2016. Dr. Morehouse, thank you so much for joining me today.

Nathaniel Morehouse (NM)  00:33

Well, thank you for inviting me.

DM  00:35

I’m hoping that you’ll be able to share with our listeners today, some things that will really helped them understand what the fourth century was like for Christians that may have been traveling in the Mediterranean world, who the leaders were, why they were going to different sites, the importance of some of these different sites, and just to try to understand the landscape of spatial networks, of places that really mattered to them, and try to understand why those places mattered to them. When you think about the fourth century, what’s one of the first things that you tell your students that they really need to understand about that world? What’s the major context point that you can offer them?

NM  01:21

So, one of the first things that I tell students about the fourth century, or any time after Constantine, is that we like to imagine that it had some sort of consistency, that there was the Council of Nicea, and everybody agreed about what Christianity was, and Constantine furthered this understanding of one particular Catholic form of Christianity. When it turns out, Christians in the fourth century were tremendously divided about what it meant to be Christian and how one went about worshipping Christ and how one responded to people who had lapsed under a previous persecutions. I also have to point out that the persecutions weren’t necessarily as draconian as we frequently imagined that they were.

DM  02:14

This is the kind of myth that Christians were placed in the Coliseum with lions.

NM  02:19

Exactly, yes. There were jackbooted thugs barging down the doors, or breaking down the doors, of Christians in their homes, and they were hiding in the catacombs, because they were being rounded up and fed to lions. That simply didn’t happen.

DM  02:35

So, if that’s not what happened, the diversity that was there—this is maybe from a modern perspective, more denominationalism? Is that the kind of way that we might think of it?

NM  02:46

I think that would work. But it wasn’t necessarily denominationalism in a modern American sense, because there was with the, you know, with the blessing of Constantine, there was a tremendous amount of very real political power to be had, if you were one of the favorite groups. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Council of Nicea, one of the things that they were attempting to do was to deal with what’s referred to as the Arian heresy—that there were the Arians, who believe that Jesus wasn’t fully God, and the Nicene Christians, who believed—or what would become known as Nicene Christians—who believed that Jesus was fully God, and if you’re familiar with the Nicene Creed that many Christians recite every week, you have statements like “True God, begotten, not made, of being one substance with the Father,” etc. But there was also political divisions, and who would receive the funding and the Imperial support? And while there were many different groups in the fourth century, the Arians and the Nicenes were certainly two of the biggest contenders that would continue with through the entirety of the fourth century into the fifth century. And so, many of the things that I talk about, in my book, deal with the ways in which important individuals—men, almost exclusively—dealt with navigating these political, as well as, religious differences, because to be honest, you couldn’t really differentiate the two in the fourth century.

DM  04:20

The idea that those are two separate things is the modern invention, right? So, if…

NM  04:26


DM  04:27

… they were intimately connected, that means that the selection of a site for a new church or a new shrine, that was not just a religious decision, it was also deeply political as well.

NM  04:40

Absolutely. Shrines were typically placed—at least the martyr shrines that I’m talking about—placed, they’re related to the graves of the individual. However, if you didn’t necessarily know where martyrs were buried—and I think the most famous example of this is Peter and Paul in Rome—there’s a significant amount of debate as to where they were buried or if they were moved or where they ended up—were they together, were they apart, etc. So, if you could convince people that you had the location, and that you were the one who interceded on behalf of the martyr in the same way that the martyr would intercede on your behalf with God, then you had tremendous power that your rivals would not have.

DM  05:26

The figures of the deceased martyr were really symbolic capital, or intense measure of the power that someone could claim if they could establish a shrine for a particular person and have it be the shrine that everyone needed to go to. Is that what I’m hearing?

NM  05:45

I think that sounds, yeah, perfectly put. And there were a couple of different ways in which this played out. For instance, the bishops of Rome, often referred to as the Popes, closely guarded their martyr relics. People had to come to Rome, and Rome was important because especially Peter and Paul, but other relics as well. Whereas other bishops freely shared their relics. And maybe some of your listeners are familiar with the relic trade where bishops would send pieces of corpses to other bishops or friends, and they would be interred in their churches as a way of gaining notoriety. If you had a relic, then you could be a pilgrimage location. So, Ambrose of Milan shared widely, and then people would put his name in their church as the individual who had shared with them. So, he gained notoriety and importance for Milan, through sharing in almost exactly the same way that Rome did by not sharing.

DM  06:50

So, it works in both directions. If you’re giving, then you’re potentially gaining power. And if you’re holding the cherished items, you’re also accumulating power.

NM  07:01

Exactly. Although we don’t necessarily have precise details in every instance. Certainly, an individual by the name of Paulinus of Nola talked about, with a friend of his Severus, Severus’s having received relics from Milan, and he doesn’t say exactly what that is. In general, we have more instances of ashes being shared. Disturbing a body, as a body, was deeply taboo for a long time in the Roman world. And really, this Christian’s association with corpses, was deeply disturbing to a number of Romans. And they write about how grotesque they found this practice. And this changes over the later fourth century, you start to see more instances of martyrs being moved, and then as we were discussing right now, their relics being shared. But we have a number of times where it could have just been a bit of ash from a cremated murder. Or, likewise, it could be a finger bone, or a tooth. In many museums—the Cleveland Museum of Art here has a number of these bits and pieces. And I know the Metropolitan Museum in New York has Mary Magdalene tooth on display in a reliquary.

DM  08:24

Where I’m hearing about the treatment of the bodies brings to mind the history of cities that I’ve heard before that one of the major elements of city design in the early periods was about the location of the cemeteries, about the location of the church, about the location of the shrine, and where in relation to those things, the boundary of city walls were. Am I remembering correctly that, in this era, the cemeteries were pushed to the margins of the towns outside of the living areas of the communities?

NM  08:56

During the fourth century, this starts to change. And this is one of the things that I find tremendously interesting, because in general, in, let’s say, non-Jewish, non-Christian Gentile Roman practice, bodies were forbidden from being buried and inside. The Romans had very strict laws about when you could, how long you could have a body inside the walls of the town, and it had to be removed. And Julian, frequently known as the Apostate, even legislated that they had to be removed only at night. I believe that the Christians were having large ceremonial processions outside of the city. And Julian said, “You can’t do that. You can only do it at night because it brings bad luck, if we even see a corpse.” So yes, at the time, all burials took place outside of the city. It’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to them as a cemetery because they weren’t organized in the way that we think of it. Although the term coemeterium actually comes from “dormitory.” And so it’s, more or less, a Christian term to talk about the places where bodies are sleeping side by side that also develops in the fourth century. As things progress. However, people wanted to be buried near the relics of the martyrs because they were believed to be sacred locations, strong in the Holy Spirit, if you would. So you start seeing what’s referred to as ad Sanctos burial, that was to say burial near the saints, as an important way of maintaining one’s prominence or ensuring a better afterlife. And there’s an interesting exchange of letters between Paulinus of Nola, who I mentioned before, and Augustine about whether or not this is actually beneficial, and Augustine’s response is, “It doesn’t really do anything. But if it helps people remember the individual who’s buried near the church or near the saint, then that might help them in the afterlife. But the physicality isn’t as important.” I think Augustine was, perhaps, not as fond of it, as many others were because it was certainly a widespread practice in in the late fourth century.

DM  11:05

Are those debates occurring across the Mediterranean at that time? Or are they localized? What’s the geography of the discourse about how Christianity should treat the dead at that period?

NM  11:19

So it was certainly important in and around Rome. And Rome is, perhaps, the—they were on the vanguard of the treatment of the important dead. This may have stemmed from the Roman practice of having memorial meals for the dead. And so, some of the early, there’s early graffiti, about people going to what was believed to be the tomb with Peter and Paul, and writing on their on their tombs, essentially, “I had this meal in your honor, can you help me out.” So that was a Roman practice. But of course, they weren’t disturbing the dead at all. And, again, when the dead were disturbed, that was frequently, certainly by the non-Christian, non-Jewish community as being abhorrent. The Jewish community would also have seen that as abhorrent. In Northern Africa, this plays out in a different way, because there was a group of Christians in Northern Africa referred—who are known as the Donatists, who claimed to be the descendants of the martyrs themselves. They were persecuted by Nicene Christians after Nicene Christianity became dominant. And they identified with martyrdom in a way that was not universally appreciated by Nicene Christians in Northern Africa. Again, I keep coming back to Augustine, in part because we have so much of his writing, but he had a real problem with Donatists and their celebration of local martyrs. And he even refers to a group—that honestly, I don’t know if they existed, and I think there’s no scholarly consensus if they existed—but he refers to them as the Circumcellions, who may have jumped off of cliffs in order to prove their martyrdom, or become martyrs by suicide, or may have started fights in order to lose the fight and consequently be a martyr. And Augustine writes vigorously against these individuals. But in general, he was writing against the Donatists and their approval of local martyrs because that wasn’t Catholic enough—and Catholic as in universal. Interestingly enough when he receives his own martyrs of import, Stephen, he receives a relic from Steven, he all of a sudden promotes these more universal martyrs in a way that he downplayed the local martyrs.

DM  13:49

I’m impressed that the dialogues that the Catholic Church, or the nascent Catholic Church in this period, how similar they are to dialogues that are ongoing today. The Catholic Church continues to have debates about whether or not local shrines and local martyrs and local cults are appropriate, how far can they go? How popular can they be? And so, the Catholic churches is very wary as we discussed earlier this year in an episode about the cult of Santa Muerte, for instance, and the kind of localism embodied in Mexican and Latin American religious practices. And I’m hearing some very similar things from you about Augustine’s ideas about what was happening in the fourth century. Is this just 1000 years of the battle between the kind of universal emphasis of the church and the kind of local on the ground practice that we’re seeing?

NM  14:54

I have no way of arguing against that. It’s, you know, power and control are always important issues within any tradition. And when you have an institution as large as a Catholic Church that has as many facets as it does, there’s always going to be concern about dogma and concern about appropriate ritual. And this is definitely something that was being fought out, or fought about, perhaps for the first time in the fourth century, but has certainly continued.

DM  15:31

In recalling some of the pieces of your work that I’ve read, there was an issue that Protestants would bring up later in the universality of to whom was one’s worship directed?

NM  15:43


DM  15:44

My understanding is that Augustine was addressing these very issues in the City of God. Can you speak to that?

NM  15:52

Definitely. And I’m not sure I’ve written about Protestants being critical of this, but I certainly wrote about Christian groups again, in the fourth century, being critical of this. The Arians were quite critical of it. And the Donatists—no, I’m sorry, the Donatists were very in favor of venerating the martyrs. But there has been a need to clarify it in the minds, or write apologetic tracks about it, in the minds of Christians who were venerating the martyrs. And almost to a tee, their response was, “We’re venerating the martyr and worshiping God. The martyr might help us worship God better. But we are certainly not worshiping the martyr. And if anything is done, through the martyr, it’s always God’s power that does it.”

DM  16:46

Right. We build all altars, not to the martyrs, but to the God of the martyrs, although it is in the memory of the martyrs. It’s such a fine line that that’s being drawn there; I can understand how easy it would be for a local community, and perhaps a person who was not reading Augustine, but was going to the shrine could mess with that distinction very, very openly.

NM  17:16

Certainly. And especially when you remember that we’re talking about a group of people who were very comfortable with polytheism, they were very comfortable with different gods having different localities, different sacred spots, that you could go and visit and venerate the god there. And I think perhaps that’s one of the reasons that this became so popular within these newly converted Christians, that it didn’t look that different. And then you would have people like Augustine saying, “Oh, well, yes, we’re doing this, but we’re really worshipping this one God.” And everybody would be at the martyr fest in the martyr festival. And these were very, very popular events where people would travel, potentially great distances, to venerate at the shrine on the martyr’s feast day, that I sometimes refer to in my classes as the fourth century equivalent of a rave. They were all night, there was music blaring, at least according to some of the detractors outside of the churches, men and women were mingling, and were known to have intimate contact during the nocturnal mingling. Social barriers were broken down in a way that wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. So, these were, if not familiar, exactly, a known quantity to new converts.

DM  18:47

It sounds like appropriation. But I’m guessing that there’s a lot more going on under the surface that we, today, still struggle with all of the different kinds of elements that go into it. You mentioned that the people of the era would have been open to additional religious institutions beyond a single one, that they would have been aware of multiple kind of competing items, and that slotting these activities in alongside other competing shrines made them accessible in a way, was for many of the people in the Mediterranean that we could be speaking about. Is this still an era of competition in that way, of religious competition?

NM  19:33

Definitely competition between Christian and non-Christian, competition between different forms of Christianity. And I argue competition for power between different cities and locations. And if you read some of the Cappadocian Fathers and their criticism of place based worship, that is to say, they argued strenuously against traveling to the Holy Land, that there was no need to do that because Jesus could be worshipped anywhere. They were very happy, conversely, telling people to come and worship their particular martyrs that they had shrines to. A lot of it had to do with, again, power and authority and the way in which you could leverage what you had for that power and authority in a rapidly changing world.

DM  20:27

I can imagine the argument, you’re someone in the fourth century and you are a devout Christian, and you say, “I’m going to go to the Holy Land.” Well, that’s no small task. I can imagine that the argument coming from the local people that you might as well stay here, because this is powerful, just like that is powerful. That’s fairly convincing in this era.

NM  20:50

It is convincing. And yet, as the fourth century progresses, and into the early fifth century, you see a very quick rise in the number of people who make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And in fact, there’s debate about whether or not it’s appropriate for people. And I keep coming back to Paulinus of Nola. But there is an interesting letter between Jerome and he about whether or not pilgrimage to the Holy Land is acceptable. And Paulinus is told, “it’s not necessary for a man like yourself, a holy man.” But interestingly enough, the same Jerome writes to a number of women, and says, “You should come see the Holy Land.” And there was a surprising number of wealthy Roman women who were encouraged to and made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

DM  21:47

This is the first time that we’ve had a chance to bring up the gender element. You said at the beginning of the interview that so many of the major figures were talking about, since we’re talking about written works and church fathers, are men. But this is the first moment when women have really entered the discussion, can you talk a little bit more about what things would have been like on the ground that may explain how men and women might have interacted with these martyr shrines differently, and how that kind of connects to the ability of rich Roman women to go from Rome to the Holy Land?

NM  22:23

Sure, and one of the things that I found really quite fascinating about all of this is the number of times that women are discussed as being associated with the bones of martyrs. In the lives of the Popes, there’s a number of instances where women—there’s a woman, Lucia or Lucina—and I go back and forth on whether or not it’s the same woman, or whether or not it’s two different women, or whether it’s the same woman over the course of a couple of 100 years, or if it’s…—in any case, she convinces a pope to move the bodies of Peter and Paul, and one of them ends up on her own property. And there’s been a decent amount of work recently demonstrating how gathering bones was predominantly a feminine job or a female job. And so, once we have the martyr cult developing, these women play a disproportionate role in the development of the martyr cult, or at least to the acquisition of martyr relics. They then become instrumental in this notion of pilgrimage. And that’s, I think, perhaps not too surprising, because within the church, by this point, women didn’t have the ability for leadership within the church in the way that they might have had earlier. And so, there was a way for influential women to exert some degree of power with the martyr shrines and by traveling to them. Indeed, Paulus sets up a, in my mind, I think of it as a bit of a hostel in Jerusalem, where these wealthy Christian pilgrim women would visit and talk with each other about what shrines they were visiting.

DM  24:25

What role would you say that the women had in the preparation of the dead?

NM  24:30

Once we start seeing the development of the martyr cult as a whole, I think whatever feminine roles there may have been initially with body preparation in the care of the dead quickly, were taken over by—especially the important dead—quickly taken over by the men who could, again use their association with the martyrs as a way of asserting their control.

DM  24:57

I wonder whether this is a kind of routinization. You have something that is powerful, and then slowly the coalescing of that power into established mechanisms for distributing the power.

NM  25:13

I think that sounds fair. And maybe I’m going against what I had said just a minute or so ago. But one of the things that we need to remember, at least as—well, I think this is true for pretty much any period—is that we shouldn’t homogenize things too much. So even while power was coalescing in the hands of men, and the martyr cult was becoming increasingly established, there were certainly people who were quite skeptical about the martyr cult, skeptical about the way that the corpses were being used. And one of those being Shenute of the Red Monastery in Egypt. Well, I don’t think he was against the martyr cult, he was exceptionally skeptical about the practices associated with it. And whether or not people even knew whose bones were being venerated, or whether or not they were even human. So, it was even within the context of the late fourth century, the practices were quite varied. And their approach, people’s approach to it, was still quite varied.

DM  26:20

I think that brings us brings us full circle in a way because your opening answer to my question about what should we really know about the fourth century is how diverse it is and how it surprises us with the level of diversity that it holds.

NM  26:36

I think you’re right, I think while it was diverse in many ways, early in the fourth century, it becomes slightly more unified in some ways. But even within that unification by the end of the fourth century, divisions and struggles continued.

DM  26:52

Well, I’m so thankful for your time today to try to let us into a little bit of what it was like in the fourth century. If folks are interested in reading a bit more about this, what would you recommend would be one of their first steps apart from perhaps your book Death’s Dominion? Where would where the next step for them be?

NM  27:16

There are a number of really interesting books that have come out over honestly the last couple of decades. I think one of the great places to start is Peter Brown’s, relatively quick read, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, which, while I disagree with him in my book a couple of times, it really is the place to start, I think, for any conversation about this. Candida Moss has a number of books about Christian martyrdom, and in this time period, The Myth of Persecution, it’s a lovely book and well worth picking up especially for more popular audiences. I think that’s a popular form of some of her other work and certainly a solid scholarship. Also, Elizabeth Castelli’s Martyrdom and Memory is a great work on the way in which early Christians develop their culture. And that was tremendously influential in my own work as well.

DM  28:17

One so thankful for your expertise today, and I can’t wait to share this with our listeners and have everyone think a little bit more about the way in which the ancient Mediterranean world worked. Thank you so much for joining me today.

NM  28:32

Thank you for having me. This has been fun.

Citation Info:

Morehouse, Nathaniel and David McConeghy. 2021. “Power and Diversity in 4th Century Martyr Shrines”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 3 May 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 3 May 2021. Available at:

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