The dominion of the dead: power dynamics and the construction of Christian cultural memory at the fourth-century martyr shrine

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Morehouse, Nathaniel J.
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This thesis is aimed at addressing a lacuna in previous scholarship on the development of the martyr cult in the pivotal fourth century. Recent work on the martyr cult has avoided a diachronic approach to the topic. Consequently through their synchronic approach, issues of the early fifth century have been conflated and presented alongside those from the early fourth, with little discussion of the development of the martyr cult during the intervening decades. One aim of this work is to address the progression of the martyr cult from its pre-Christian origins through its adaptations in the fourth and early fifth century. Through a discussion of power dynamics with a critical eye towards the political situation of various influential figures in the fourth and early fifth centuries, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which Constantine, Damasus, Ambrose, Augustine, and others sought to craft cultural memory around the martyr shrine. Many of them did this through the erection of structures over pre-existing graves. Others made deliberate choices as to which martyrs to commemorate. Some utilized the dissemination of the saints’ relics as a means to expanding their own influence. Finally several sought to govern which behaviours were acceptable at the martyrs’ feasts. In nearly every instance these choices these men advanced their own agendas. In many cases the martyr cult was a decisive tool for the augmentation and solidification of civil and religious authority. Despite their goals these men were unable to create the uniformity they desired within the martyr cult. The meaning associated with the graves of the saints could never be determined unidirectionally. Meaning and the power to influence others through the martyr cult was the product of a dialogue. That dialogue included the leaders and the laity in the Christian community as well as a new group: pilgrims. Pilgrimage created a network within Christianity which ultimately led to a catholic Christian cultural memory surrounding the martyrs’ graves. This homogenized understanding of the martyr cult enabled it to become one of the most identifiable features of Christianity in subsequent centuries.
Relics, Patristics, Power, Memory