The First Miracles
The First Miracles
Abstract and Keywords
In the first half of the fourth century Christians did not expect to see miracles in their lifetimes. This chapter explains how this attitude changed throughout the following decades. Above all, it emphasizes the importance of the newly created infrastructure of Christian sanctuaries owing to which they developed into healing centres. It discusses their monumental architecture, the teeming crowds of pilgrims, almsgiving practised in martyria, and the presence of the sick in sanctuaries. Also, it sets the belief in power of relics against the wider background of Christian thaumaturgy and addresses the question of how the belief in the power of relics spread throughout the Mediterranean.
In Late Antiquity many relics, though by no means all, were famous for the miracles they performed. These miracles were not just proofs of the authenticity of the bodily remains of saints. They were paving the way for the success of the cult of relics and constituted the distinctive feature which set this cult apart from the earlier forms of veneration of the martyrs’ graves. The thaumaturgical (miracle-working) power of relics manifested itself in a number of ways: they were believed capable of expelling demons, curing diseases, revealing hidden things, and defending cities from enemies. They also brought help in the other world to the dead buried ad sanctos. All these aspects of the belief in the power of relics will be addressed in the chapters that follow. I will focus first on how people came to expect relics to exorcize evil spirits and heal the sick.
Historians usually find it awkward to talk about ‘real’ miracles. Admittedly, the only miracles that are wholly accessible to our inquiry are literary miracles, episodes which served authors to express their vision of the world, history, man, and God,1 and we certainly should not yield too easily to the temptation to explain what really happened during exorcisms and healings described in hagiography. Yet this question cannot be entirely evaded in any study on the origins of the cult of relics, because the miracles featuring in late antique sources cannot be dismissed as mere literary phenomena. Of course, the explosion of the miraculous in the second half of the fourth and in the fifth century results, up to a point, from the emergence of the new literary genre, namely the lives of saints. Still, the evidence of the belief in miracles found in non-hagiographical sources is ample enough to prove that people actually came to believe in the healings obtained through the agency of saints, dead or alive. Nor can the surge in miracles, noticeable in our sources from the second half of the fourth century, be explained as merely one aspect of the wider phenomenon, namely an evolution of the religious vision of the world which took place in the post-Constantinian period. It is not only a change in the (p.28) vision of reality that we see in that period; it is reality itself that changed: I think that the abundance of miracles in late antique Christian literature results, at least in part, from the fact that something actually began to happen at the tombs of the saints. This change is well illustrated by the case of Augustine. In the 380s, he wrote that the era of miracles had ended and that at present one could admire only the marvels of nature.2 But thirty years later, in Book 22 of The City of God, as well as in a number of sermons from the same period, he argues that healings happen hic et nunc, in the shrines of martyrs, and suggests that the testimonies of the healed should be collected so that they can be made widely known.3 The reason for the evolution of Augustine’s opinion was not his readings, reflections, or pastoral considerations; it was rather the observation of what was happening in Africa in the early fifth century, especially in Hippo and Uzalis, after the arrival of the relics of Gervasius and Protasius and those of St Stephen.4
Christianity Without Miracles (Or Almost)
It may seem understandable that the miracles enumerated by Augustine or the anonymous contemporary author of the Book of the Miracles of St Stephen somehow reflect what really happened in the cities of Hippo and Uzalis. Where hundreds of people, many of whom are sick, are expecting a miracle to happen, a miracle probably will happen sooner or later. Of course, the nature of this phenomenon is not easy to grasp and, as I have already pointed out, historians feel somewhat uneasy about approaching it. Miraculous healings used to be explained in one of two ways: either quite simply as the healing of a psychosomatic disease or, when considered in a more sophisticated manner, as a ritual of reintegration of people excluded from the community due to their illness (or rather because of their sins which were believed to have led to that illness).5 In both cases, however, the healing implies the belief that there is a power residing in the sanctuary, capable of bringing help to the sick. Therefore, the belief in the power of relics must precede the healing. Interestingly, in the middle of the fourth century such a belief was not evident.
There is no doubt that the belief in miracles was strong and important in primitive Christianity. Suffice it to mention the New Testament narratives (p.29) describing the healings performed by Christ and the Apostles, and, even more importantly, the Pauline letters and various second-century writings suggesting that miracle-workers were normally expected to be found in Christian communities.6 Yet it seems that this belief had dramatically weakened over the course of the third century.7 The reasons for this are not entirely clear, although it is possible that the essential role was played by the process of the ‘rationalization’ and professionalization of the Christian leadership. In the Church, bishops and exegetes displaced miracle-workers and prophets. This process was probably reinforced by the anti-Montanist reaction, which made all charismatic activity look suspicious, and, even more importantly, by the accusation of sorcery made against Christians from the second half of the second century on.8
Be that as it may, the Christian authors of the third and early fourth centuries seem to regard miracles as belonging rather to the distant past of biblical Israel and the history of the early Church. They do not doubt the signs and the wonders performed by Moses, Christ, the Apostles, and their immediate followers. Indeed, the apocryphal acts of the Apostles abound in wonders far more spectacular than those that can be found in the New Testament. But several authors of this period maintain that the era of spectacular miracles has ended, and that no extraordinary manifestations of God’s power can be expected any longer. Such things will no longer happen, because they are not necessary. This conviction was to change once again over the course of the fourth century, but still in the 380s Augustine wrote that, as far as miracles were concerned, his contemporaries had to content themselves with the wonderful rising and setting of the sun.9 Ambrose, according to whom the miracles of Gervasius and Protasius re-enacted those of ancient times, seems to think that before the discovery of the Milanese relics there was a time when such marvels did not happen.10 That is what other writers too, such as Victorinus of Poetovio or Eusebius of Caesarea, had asserted before. Certainly, it would be rash to attach too much weight to the opinions of those intellectuals. The simple people, not necessarily all that simple, could still have believed in God’s direct interventions in the course of human lives. Christians, after all, did not live in a bubble and we know that the belief that miracles were happening ‘here and now’ is well attested in the Roman world in the second and third centuries. Suffice it to mention Lucian of Samosata’s mockery of people’s credulousness, the testimonies of healings happening in Asklepieia, or (p.30) the miraculous stories told in the earliest Neoplatonic biographies.11 We should also remember that results very similar to those which people associated with the agency of saints were associated with the power of magic—and it does not seem that the belief in magic weakened in any way in the third or early fourth century. Moreover, given that health is one of the most basic human needs and that it can deteriorate so rapidly, one can suppose that even people who did not expect to see anything like the parting of the Rea Sea in their lifetimes did not altogether give up hope for a God-sent restoration to health. The tradition of miraculous healing certainly did not disappear altogether from the Church directly after apostolic times; it was still quite vigorous in the second century. Later on, however, testimonies to the belief in healing miracles become very scattered. To be exact, the available sources—narrative, theological, and polemical writings—still give evidence of the belief that the possessed could be exorcized; they even describe, although rarely, specific exorcisms and give the names of those who were healed. But healings of bodily diseases, if mentioned at all, are presented in very vague terms and it is difficult to say whether those who refer to them are thinking about contemporary or biblical miracles.
No doubt, it is possible that, contrary to what Eusebius and other learned authors say or fail to mention, there were, in the very same period, Christians who believed that miracles still happened in their days. But even if this was the case, they certainly did not believe in the thaumaturgical power of the bodies or graves of the saints until as late as the second half of the fourth century.12 It is symptomatic that Eusebius of Caesarea does not attribute any special power to the remains of the martyrs that he admired, and that in AD 333 the only healing places found in Palestine by the anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux were miraculous springs.13
When did this attitude change? What gave rise to the new belief, which, once it became firmly established, fuelled a massive increase in the phenomenon? Certainly, we are facing here a wider problem, because in Late Antiquity miracles were believed to occur not only at the tombs of the martyrs, but also in the cells of monks and in other special places, and relics were not the only objects whose power could be transmitted in a physical way. The aim of this chapter, however, is not to explain the general phenomenon of the emergence of Christian thaumaturgy in Late Antiquity, but to answer the more specific questions of why, when, and how relics began to perform miracles, or rather came to be expected to do so.
Let us begin with the question of chronology. As has been demonstrated in Chapter 1, the interest in and transfers of relics did not begin before the translations of the Apostles Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to Constantinople, and the martyr Babylas to (and then from) Daphne.14 Nothing suggests that any of these translations was organized with the express purpose of harnessing the power which might have resided in the saints’ bodies. If the expectation of miracles had already existed at that time, it would have become manifest during the very transfer of the relics: in the evidence from the end of the fourth century onward we can observe that relics do perform miracles during their translations,15 and this should not be seen as a mere literary convention. Yet we find nothing like that in the contemporary evidence of the transfers mentioned above. It is true that, according to the church historian Philostorgius, Babylas’ coffin had miraculously outrun the procession in 362, but Philostorgius wrote about it only in the 420s.16 John Chrysostom, who delivered his sermon on Babylas about 378, was convinced that the power (energeia) of the saint had not left his tomb after the removal of the body, but did not mention any extraordinary events accompanying the transfer. Rufinus, referring to this translation in his Ecclesiastical History at the very beginning of the fifth century, did not do so either. As for the Apostles’ relics carried to Constantinople, no contemporary sources mention anything miraculous about this episode. To sum up, just before or during the first transfers of saints’ bodies we do not see any expectation of miracles produced by relics.17
However, shortly after the remains of the Apostles had been carried to Constantinople, in the late 350s, Hilary of Poitiers wrote On the Trinity and Against Constantius, two treatises providing the earliest testimony to the belief in the power of relics, if we disregard the highly suspect passage at the end of the Acts of Thomas discussed in the first chapter. Hilary was expelled from his episcopal see by the Emperor Constantius in 356. The details of his itinerary are difficult to determine, but we know that he stayed in Phrygia, visited Constantinople, and took part in the synod of Seleucia in Isauria before coming back to Gaul in 360.18 The two works named above were written (p.32) towards the end of his exile. The first passage of interest for the cult of relics runs as follows:
Yet it cannot be denied that Christ was Christ. It cannot be that He was unknown to mankind. The books of the prophets have set their seal upon Him: the fullness of the times which waxes daily witnesses of Him: by the working of wonders the tombs of Apostles and martyrs proclaim Him (hunc apostolorum et martyrum per uirtutum operationes loquuntur sepulchra), the power of His name reveals Him, the unclean spirits confess Him, and the demons howling in their torment call aloud His name. In all we see the dispensation of His power.19
The second passage comes from the invective against the Emperor Constantius. According to Jerome this pamphlet was published only after the death of the Arian emperor, in 361 (Hilary was brave, but not reckless), but it must have been written before. The author compares Constantius to the emperors who persecuted Christians, and in doing so (quite contrary to their intentions) rendered a service to the Church—by producing martyrs. He says:
We owe even more to your cruelty, Nero, Decius, Maximianus. The blood of the holy martyrs was shed everywhere, and every day their reverend bones bear testimony (Sanctus ubique beatorum martyrum sanguis exceptus est et ueneranda ossa cottidie testimonio sunt), for in their presence the demons groan, the diseases are chased away and marvellous things are admired: bodies are hauled up without ropes, women are suspended by their feet, but their clothes do not fall over their faces, spirits burn without flames, the tormented confess their crimes without interrogation, and all of this provides no less benefit to the investigator than to the increase of the faith.20
This captivating image of demoniacs suspended in the air, which will become remarkably popular in later Christian literature, is certainly far from being a photographic record of reality.21 However, it brings to mind modern descriptions of fits of hysteria; and since there is no obvious literary source for this scene, we may suppose that Hilary described, certainly in a highly rhetorical manner, what he had actually seen.22
The first questions are these: where did he see it and what sort of tombs is he talking about? The martyrs mentioned in the two passages quoted above are not easy to identify, as the tombs of martyrs in the East were plentiful. A tentative identification is nonetheless possible considering that Hilary seems to be referring to a large-sized martyrium rather than an ordinary burial place: given our knowledge that he visited Seleucia, we may assume that he had in mind the nearby sanctuary of St Thecla, located close to that city.
(p.33) Luckily, only a few graves of the Apostles were known at that time. His itinerary suggests that he may have visited the tomb of John the Evangelist in Ephesus, that of Philip in Phrygian Hierapolis, and, finally, the newly built church of the Apostles in Constantinople. There is no other possibility, except for the resting places of Peter and Paul in Rome.23 Owing to recent excavations we know that the tomb of Philip, mentioned by Eusebius, gave rise to a monumental complex, the first elements of which appeared already in the fourth century.24 The shrine of St John in Ephesus, which was probably even more famous, was built during the reign of Constantine, as we may learn from a recently reconstructed inscription.25 It attracted visitors (Egeria visited it in 384), and came to be known as a place of miracles by the end of the fourth century. In 396, Victricius of Rouen expressed his belief in the power of St John’s relics, which had just been brought to his city, but were known to have healed the sick in Ephesus.26 The church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, in which the bodies of Luke, Andrew, and Timothy had been deposited no earlier than a year or two before Hilary visited the city, was also greatly esteemed, perhaps even more so than St John’s shrine. I am not sure if the plural in Hilary’s remark is to be taken literally: ‘by the working of wonders the tombs of Apostles and martyrs proclaim Him’ (hunc apostolorum et martyrum per uirtutum operationes loquuntur sepulchra), but it suggests either at least two distinct martyria of the Apostles or the Apostoleion in Constantinople. Be that as it may, the relics kept in Constantinople were very well known in the late fourth century, especially among Westerners: Jerome mentioned their transfers in his Chronicle and their miracles in Adversus Vigilantium, Egeria visited them, Ambrose brought their alleged fragments to Milan and had them distributed among some Western bishops, John Chrysostom spoke about the pain inflicted by them on demoniacs, while Paulinus of Nola believed that they were as powerful as those of Peter and Paul.27
At some point, people began to believe that those places possessed a miraculous power. When did it happen? Hilary wrote his treatises around 360, but we should note that the passages quoted above were not written in order to give information about miracles happening at the tombs of the saints. On the contrary, it seems that Hilary, who used them to prove the divinity of Christ in De Trinitate and demonstrate the futility of Arian persecutions in Contra Constantium, assumed that his readers must have known about them already. If this was the case, the phenomenon must have already been in place (p.34) for some time, but certainly not a long time. Since there is no trace of such belief in the accounts of the translations organized by Constantius, it appeared probably after rather than before them, and so not long before Hilary’s stay in Constantinople. Whichever supposition is correct, the following question remains: what gave the impulse for this belief to emerge?
Before addressing this question, we should return to pre-Constantinian Christianity, a Christianity (almost) without miracles. It has to be said that the third century knew a literary genre from which contemporary miracles were not entirely absent. The genre I am referring to is passiones, or martyr stories, which depict Christian heroes who having given testimony during interrogation do not suffer when they are flung into the arena: fire will not touch their bodies, swords will fail to cut their necks, and wild beasts will stay aloof from them.28 Eventually, the heroes die (otherwise they would not have been recognized as martyrs), but before their deaths the onlookers witness the miraculous power of God revealed in his servants. Even if these descriptions never suggest that it manifested itself also after the executions, it remains possible that martyr stories contributed to the emergence of the belief in the power residing in the relics of Christian martyrs. More importantly, the underlying conviction that martyrs were ‘chosen vessels’ of the Holy Spirit could have provided a sound theological justification for the belief in the power of their bodies.29 Still, it seems that theological reflection, although undoubtedly essential for intellectual acknowledgement of the phenomenon and important for its further development, was an outcome, not a cause, of the experiences of contact with the miraculous power of relics.30 Besides, the miracles observed at the death of a martyr described in third-century texts differ from the miracles happening at the tombs of the martyrs in the fourth century: in the early passiones, martyrs are only the objects of miracles; their role is always passive. In addition to that, even if we assume that people actually believed in the reality of the extraordinary events which were said to accompany the dying hours of some martyrs, they certainly did not expect that such things would happen in their own lives. Also, there is one other reason why the appearance of miracles in martyr stories fails to provide a full explanation of the belief in the power of martyrs’ bodies: it does not explain why this belief did not appear two centuries before Hilary wrote his works, in the time of such martyrs as Polycarp or Perpetua.
For the above reasons, we should probably look elsewhere for the ultimate causes of the emergence of miracle-working relics. A good starting point is to analyse what exactly, according to Hilary, happened at the graves. In De Trinitate, he first refers to some miracles occurring there, but leaves them unspecified; when he begins enumerating them, he explicitly mentions only confessions, the howling and suffering of evil spirits who cry from the mouths of demoniacs. In Contra Constantium he says that martyrs’ bones ‘expel diseases’, but he describes merely various torments inflicted by unclean spirits. These are not even proper exorcisms, for no demons are expelled; they reveal their identity and evildoing, but persist in the bodies of the possessed. It seems that Hilary describes the following situation: people who are considered and who consider themselves demoniacs stay in a sanctuary. They can be seen screaming that they are demons, they cry out their names, and confess their sins.31 They are not actually healed by the relics, they are still possessed and do not stop yelling, but the witnesses interpret all of this as a sign of a power which tortures unclean spirits, because according to the then common conviction demoniacs did not feel the pain inflicted on demons which remain in their bodies.32 These scenes do not represent fully fledged miracles, but they do testify to the conviction that some sort of miraculous power resided in relics. I think that this conviction was derived in part from the observation of what was happening in some martyria in the years of Hilary’s exile.
It was probably this conviction that subsequently gave rise to the belief in and expectation of miraculous cures; but in the beginning these were probably not so much healings of physical diseases as of demoniac possession. The miracles produced by relics which we can see in the sources up to the beginning of the fifth century are mostly various sorts of manifestations of their power over demons. In 370, Athanasius, in his Festal Letter 42, which is extant in a Coptic translation, condemns Melitians, a rival Christian group in Egypt, who reputedly steal the bodies of martyrs from cemeteries:
If they object, saying that many possessed by unclean spirits have been cured in the martyria, that is only a pretext. Let them listen and I will answer them by saying that they are not healed by the martyrs coming upon the demons, but they are healed by the Saviour, the one Whom the martyrs confessed. And the demons (p.36) cry out because they are being tortured by Him, just as those in the Gospel cried saying: ‘I beg you, do not torture us!’ But they seek to see the demons that are destroying them.33
It is far from certain that all those who sought after martyrs’ bodies were actually Melitians, but whoever they were, they did it because of the power of relics over evil spirits—the letter does not suggest that martyrs’ bodies were efficient in healing other maladies.
In 384, the presbyters Marcellinus and Faustus, authors of the Libellus precum, a plea addressed to the Emperor Valentinian II, while describing the horrors of Arian persecution in Italy, say that:
Rufininus, however, a man of marvellous simplicity, and still more admirable because of the constancy of his faith, forestalled exile by spilling his blood … All that is known to the people of Naples in Campania, where the relics of his blood (reliquiae cruoris eius) bind demons in the possessed bodies: certainly by the grace of the very faith for which he shed his blood.34
The saint’s blood expels demons; as in Athanasius, there is not a word about healing physical illnesses.
Similarly, Jerome of Stridon, writing in 404 about his friend Paula’s visit to the martyrium of John the Baptist in Sebaste in Palestine, which took place in 385, recalls only tormented demoniacs and does not mention any healings:
for she saw demons screaming under different tortures before the tombs of the saints, and men howling like wolves, baying like dogs, roaring like lions, hissing like serpents and bellowing like bulls. They twisted their heads and bent them backwards until they touched the ground; women too were suspended head downward and their clothes did not slide down to cover their faces.35
This description is certainly inspired by the passages from the treatises of Hilary quoted above, but it had to be in line with what, according to Jerome, used to happen at the tombs of the saints. Similar scenes can be found in other authors. At about the same time, John Chrysostom, with a view to convincing his audience of the power of the saints, depicts howling demoniacs in the Apostoleion in Constantinople; so does, without mentioning any particular place, Maximus of Turin.36 According to Sozomen, who writes in the 440s, the power of John the Baptist manifested itself in 393 in the ordeal which the saint inflicted on a demoniac in the sanctuary in Hebdomon, where the head of the saint had been deposited shortly before that by the Emperor Theodosius.37 The torments inflicted by martyrs on demons were seen as retribution for the (p.37) persecutions inspired by the latter.38 That is why the sufferings of evil spirits described in the fourth- and fifth-century literature resemble those of the martyrs in the passiones and, consequently, their literary picture cannot be treated as an accurate description of the behaviour of the possessed. But this is not to say that we must doubt that the tormented ‘demoniacs’ were really there.
The descriptions of physical healings appeared slightly later and initially were rare and more discreet. Gregory of Nazianzus mentions healings at the tombs of martyrs, but in doing so he is as vague as Hilary: all he says is that the bodies of the saints cast out demons and diseases alike.39 The earliest securely dated specific scenes of miraculous healings effected by relics can be found about twenty years after Hilary’s De Trinitate and Contra Constantium. In 379, Gregory of Nyssa mentions a soldier whose leg was healed by the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the martyrium built by his family on their estate of Ibora in Cappadocia; Ambrose, writing to his sister in 386 about the discovery of the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, mentions the healing of a blind man which accompanied this event.40 Yet most Milanese miracles described by Ambrose and his hagiographer are still tortures inflicted on demons. When Augustine recalls this episode in his Confessions, written c.397, he emphasizes that in Milan not only evil spirits were expelled (which seems to be for him quite a normal phenomenon), but, for good measure, a man regained his vision, and it is this unusual fact that he describes in greater detail.41 And even if from this moment on healings at martyrs’ graves become more numerous, they are still not as numerous as exorcisms. It is only in the fifth century that the former become more abundant, and in some texts outnumber the latter.42 That is why I am inclined to think that at least in the first decades of the development of the cult of relics the most common and visible signs of their power were the cries of demoniacs, which impressed visitors to martyria and were interpreted as echoing the sufferings of evil spirits. This interpretation was quite natural on two counts: first, because of the long-standing literary tradition of describing the fight against the devil led by the Apostles and martyrs; secondly, as has been said already, the decline in the belief in contemporary miracles in the (p.38) third and early fourth centuries did not include exorcisms—even at that time nobody doubted the possibility of punishing and expelling demons, a possibility which, incidentally, was considered accessible, at least in theory, to any Christian and was known to pagans as well.43
Subsequently, the conviction developed that relics were also capable of healing physical illnesses. This conviction was entirely comprehensible, since if Jesus had expelled demons and healed maladies,44 relics which became known for their ability to make demons suffer could have been expected to have power over diseases too, especially considering that the distinction between physical illnesses and diseases resulting from demonic possession was far from clear. I suppose that Hilary must have already reasoned in this way, for he maintains that relics can drive away both demons and diseases, even if he is not specific about what he means by the latter. Elsewhere, namely in his Commentary on the Psalms, when discussing the gifts of the Holy Spirit which every Christian receives with baptism, he enumerates in one breath ‘the charisma of healing and the power to tame demons’, directly after mentioning the gift of prophecy.45 Thus, all these three gifts belonged to the same pattern which had been well known before the belief in the power of relics came into existence. However, if we are to trust the evidence, people first became convinced of the power of relics over demons, and it was only later that they started to expect and look for healing from the bodies of the saints.
This came about swiftly. To the evidence quoted above we can add a testimony of Victricius of Rouen, who in his sermon, preached in 396, on the arrival of relics of various Apostles and martyrs in his town, tells that:
John the Evangelist cures at Ephesus, and many other places besides; we are told that he did not leave Christ’s breast even before his sanctification, and that the same healing power is here with us. Proculus and Agricola cure at Bononia, and here too we observe their majesty. Antonius cures at Placentia. Saturninus and Troianus cure in Macedonia. Nazarius cures at Milan. Mucius, Alexander, Datysus, Chindeus pour out the favour of health with generous virtue. Ragota, Leonida, Anastasia, Anatoclia cure, as the Apostle Paul says.46
Certainly, this does not mean that people in Rouen would actually come to the relics collected by Victricius when they were ill, but it proves that their bishop expected his congregation to do so. The same is true of Sozomen, who wrote at (p.39) the end of the first half of the fifth century. Almost all the miraculous shrines presented in his Church History are famous because they are places in which both demons are cast out and the sick are healed.47 In the same generation, Theodoret of Cyrrhus testifies to the custom of offering ex-votos in the shape of healed body parts to the saints.48 At that time, asking for a miraculous cure in a martyr’s sanctuary was already a well-established practice. Other hopes appeared probably at the same time: relics came to be seen as means of divination and a guarantee of success in war, but these two spheres of their activity will be described in separate chapters.
What were the Demoniacs looking for at the Tombs of the Martyrs?
I think that the growing expectations with regard to the power of relics began with the demoniacs. It was probably their cries and their overall behaviour in the martyria of Apostles and martyrs that came to be regarded as the effect and the proof of the power of relics. At this point, however, the question arises: if at the beginning people did not expect miracles to happen at the tombs of the saints, why were all those unfortunates coming there?
We do not know whether in Hilary’s days demoniacs were subjected to any rituals taking place at the martyria. Some time later, in the fifth-century churches of the West, we find personnel devoted to their care. They were overseen by exorcists, a minor order of the clergy, attested already in the middle of the third century.49 The exorcists laid their hands on them, provided them with food and drink, and even organized their work (demoniacs were to sweep the church). All of this is well documented in a Gallic collection of ecclesiastical canons, datable to the second half of the fifth century (although the canons themselves may be older) known as Statuta ecclesiae antiqua.50 In his Dialogues, written about 404, Sulpicius Severus claims that clerics usually would touch the energumens and ‘speak many words’, this expression most probably referring to long formulas of exorcism.51 Such rituals were possibly known already in the middle of the fourth century. It is difficult to say (p.40) whether they were carried out not only in episcopal churches, but in martyria as well. But even if this was, the case the exorcisms were certainly not the only and, most probably, not the main reason for the presence of the demoniacs at the tombs of the saints.
What the demoniacs were looking for in the martyria was, most probably and above all, alms and shelter. We know little about how the poor and the sick, deprived of the support of the family, gained their bread and where they lived in the ancient city. The evidence, scanty and dispersed, shows us that beggars could be found in the agora, near the city gates, or at the entrance to the baths.52 None of these places seems to have provided a safe refuge from the rain, wind, and cold. Moreover, the usual visitor to the baths was not necessarily inclined to support the needy. It would be unfair to say that almsgiving did not exist in Roman society, but it certainly played a special role among Jews and Christians. In Christian communities, charitable work was one of the primary responsibilities of bishops. It might seem then the poor and sick were attracted by ecclesiae, ‘episcopal’ churches, or xenodochia, hospices run by the bishops, rather than by basilicae constructed over the tombs of the martyrs.53 In reality, they could be found fairly often in martyria, perhaps for a simple reason: the bishop was not the only person to support the poor. Large private donations were dispensed daily by rich Christians;54 and it was done mostly in the martyria. There is good evidence for this from the middle of the fourth century on. We see it in Antioch, Edessa, Tipasa, Nola, and in Rome, where it was at St Peter’s that rich Christians distributed alms—not on the Lateran Hill, the seat of the bishop.55
For the above reasons, the famous martyria which attracted pilgrims (and those referred to by Hilary mentioning the graves of Apostles and martyrs certainly belonged to that category) also attracted the poor and the sick. Among the latter were the energumens, who at first came not necessarily in order to be healed or freed of evil spirits,56 but just to find alms, food, and shelter. These people did not come to the martyria only for a short while, just to receive alms or to pray: they would spend there entire days, and sometimes (p.41) perhaps nights as well.57 The demoniacs were in fact inhabitants of, not mere visitors to, the shrines.58
It is worth noting that the Gallic church canons draw a distinction between the demoniacs and the other poor and sick who used to fill the churches. The former certainly constituted a distinct group, very conspicuous because of how they behaved. After all, some of them came to the martyria in order to be seen—it is easily observable that certain mental diseases are characterized by the need for spectators. In Warsaw, where I live, one can sometimes find mentally disturbed people in certain churches, but these are always churches in the historical part of the city, visited by large numbers of the faithful and tourists. And the fourth-century martyria did attract people. First, because they were new and beautiful. The Cappadocian Fathers, Paulinus of Nola, and Asterius of Amasea describe them with admiration and pride. Secondly, because they housed the graves of those who did not agree to recant their faith in the hour of trial and made the persecutions fail.59
Places which provided shelter, food, and audience were not easy to find in the Mediterranean before the tombs of saints began to grow monumental. The process of constructing large martyrial shrines began in the East only after Constantine’s victory in 323 and took some time. The Martyrium in Jerusalem commemorating the passion of Christ was dedicated in 335, but that was still the very beginning of the process. No sizeable martyr’s shrine in the East can be securely dated to the years preceding the construction of St Babylas’ in Daphne and the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, both in the 350s. In Rome too, the Basilica of St Peter was completed only after 354, for the calendar composed in that year mentions only the celebration Petri in Catacumbas et Pauli Ostense, and is silent about the Vatican basilica.60 It seems then that the belief in the power of martyrs’ graves, as we remember attested for the first time c.360, appeared just a few years after the first monumental martyria in Constantinople, Antioch, and Rome were completed.
Non-Christian Thaumaturgy and Miracle-Working Monks
The explanation presented above emphasizes the link between the re-emergence of the belief in miracles in Late Antiquity and the construction programme of Constantine and his heirs. At first sight, this sort of explanation (p.42) might seem similar to the attempts to look for a ‘rational’ explanation of such biblical miracles as the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea or the tumbling down of the walls of Jericho. Consequently, it may rightly seem a superfluous task to look for natural causes of episodes which in fact are merely literary fiction. The difference between the belief in biblical, as opposed to contemporary, miracles is nevertheless important. The former resulted directly from the place of the miracles in the Holy Scripture, while the sudden emergence of the latter is easier to explain if we admit that people actually saw or experienced something that they found new and puzzling.
Another issue is that the explanation proposed above seems to omit two important chronological elements of the miraculous in Late Antiquity, namely the existence of non-Christian and the rise of monastic thaumaturgy. Christians were not the first to have healing sanctuaries. Temples of Asklepios still functioned for most of the fourth century and one might ask whether the miracles happening at the tombs of the martyrs were not inspired to some extent by the healings which occurred in pagan shrines. The antiquated argument that the cult of Asklepios was the most important rival of Christianity is certainly oversimplified, but there is no doubt that this particular cult aroused anxiety and irritation among Christian writers.61 And that for good reason, for we know that the sick were often tempted to look for a miraculous cure in shrines of other religions.62 Thus one could suppose that bishops simply decided to take over their rivals’ practice in order to beat them at their own game. The second chronological issue consists in the fact that, at about the same time as Hilary of Poitiers was writing his On the Trinity and Against Constantius, Athanasius of Alexandria published his Life of Antony, the earliest testimony to monastic miracles. In consequence, when the new era of Christian miracles began, was it with the belief in the power of relics or with the appearance of charismatic ascetics?
The pagan background of Christian miracles was certainly important. It is worth emphasizing yet again that before the first sanctuaries were built in the fourth century there were no Christian holy places which could have played a role comparable to that of the pagan healing shrines. The churches of the earlier period were no more than gathering places for the community. But this does not mean that the miracle-working in the Christian martyria was merely copied from pagan thaumaturgy, which came to be replaced with Christian miracles when pagan temples were closed down during the reign of Theodosius I, or perhaps even earlier than that (if we take into account the attempts of Constantius). Moreover, even if this was indeed the case, one can hardly imagine that one day people found the gate of an Asklepieion closed and decided to look for a healing dream in a martyrium if nobody had believed (p.43) beforehand that any special power dwelt in that place. Yet one can imagine very well that incubation, or the practice of sleeping in shrines, was indeed taken over once the belief in the healing power of relics appeared. As a result, I am inclined to think that the influence of non-Christian methods can perhaps explain certain traits of Christian healing practices, but not the rise of the belief in miracles itself.
The question of the beginning of monastic thaumaturgy is a complex matter. The protagonists of the five fourth-century lives of saints, namely Antony, Macrina, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Hilarion, and Martin, are presented in their literary portraits as miracle-workers. Yet this element of the literary image of the saint is evidently constructed upon the model of Christ and other biblical figures, and so the miraculous episodes in the lives of famous ascetics do not prove that those ascetics were actually considered to be miracle-workers in their lifetime. In the middle of the fourth century, several monks were certainly treated as clairvoyants and exorcists; we know this, because the lives of Antony, Pachomius, and Martin of Tours demonstrate that the belief in their visions, prophecies, and fights against demons sometimes met with scorn, doubts, concern, and criticism, which implies that this belief really existed.63 However, it is much more difficult to find convincing evidence that the holy monks also had the reputation of healers and were actually treated as such by their contemporaries, at least before the fifth century, when the relics were already widely reputed for their miracles. Even in the case of Martin, whose vita pre-dates his death, we cannot be sure that his image as a healer was not a literary creation of Sulpicius Severus. The hostile reaction to his thaumaturgy was provoked by his Life rather than by his activity.64 All that may suggest that the monastic thaumaturgy followed rather than preceded the belief in the miraculous power of relics.
The question of whether it was relics or monks that first gained a reputation for performing miracles is of secondary importance in relation to the fact that the belief in thaumaturgy re-emerged suddenly, in more or less the same period, in two distinct spheres of religiosity. This fact shows that the ground for Christian thaumaturgy was already there, and that the expectation of miracles was in the air. Therefore, the reconstruction of the reasons and chronology of the belief in the power of relics which I have proposed above cannot be treated as a complete explanation of the general revival of the belief in miracles in Late Antiquity. Still, it answers two questions: first, why the remains and the tombs of the martyrs became so swiftly and broadly recognized as efficient thaumaturgical objects, and secondly, why it happened in the mid-fourth century.
(p.44) Can we then fix the chronology of the Christian miraculous in Late Antiquity? That would be risky, because the earliest testimonies appear so close in time to one another that their order of appearance in our sources may be accidental. Still, we can say that in the middle of the fourth century people who observed what was going on in the martyria began to believe in the power of relics over demons. At that time, the great ascetics were already consulted as clairvoyants, but possibly not yet as miracle-workers. Once the demon-expelling power of relics and the prophetic power of monks had been recognized, it was quite easy to widen its limits, after the image of Christ and the Apostles who were able to predict future events, drive away demons, and heal diseases. This example helped to shape first the literary representation of miracle-working monks and healing relics and then, just a few decades later, the actual practice of looking for a cure at the tombs of martyrs and in the cells of monks.
The conviction of the powerful presence of the saints in their relics did not go unchallenged. It raised certain theological problems: can the saints, who are in heaven, remain at the same time in their bodies buried in earth? If so, where do their souls abide? If not, whose power performs miracles at their graves? The controversy raised by these and other questions will be discussed in Chapter 10.
Spreading the Belief in Miracles
There is not much doubt as to where in Christendom the belief in the power of relics emerged. The authors named above, who are the first witnesses of this phenomenon, came from various parts of the empire, but for some time, up to the 380s, the miracles about which they wrote always took place in the East. In Rome, Pope Damasus (366–84), who did much to promote the cult of local martyrs, was silent about their miracles. At about the same time in Africa, Augustine repeated the old conviction that the era of miracles was over, and only then did he begin to gradually change his opinion.65
The change in Augustine’s views was perhaps later than that of most of his contemporaries. As we have seen above, the first miracles were reported in the West in the 380s, in Naples and Milan.66 Then, in the 390s, Victricius of Rouen mentioned the miracles at the tombs of saints which occurred regularly in Milan, Bologna, and Piacenza, and expressed his hope that the same power (p.45) would manifest itself in his own city. Shortly after that Paulinus started writing his annual hymns in praise of St Felix, whose tomb in Nola was said to perform miracles. And finally, after 420, Augustine and the anonymous author of the Book of Miracles of St Stephen enumerated the healings obtained through the power of that saint in Africa.67
The fact that the belief in contemporary miracles re-emerged in several places distinctly later than in others leads us to ask another question: how did the new belief spread around the Mediterranean? How did people in Italy, Gaul, or Africa learn that miracles started to occur again? What made them think that the stories of miracles were true, and what made them think that miracles could also change their own lives? Of course, it is not so very difficult to persuade the sick that they should try some new methods of treatment if the old ones did not work. But this does not mean that people will always happily embrace all new practices for their sheer novelty.
There is a strong possibility that the start of the belief in miracles in some regions was influenced by the news about exorcisms and healings coming from other parts of the Mediterranean. The earliest surviving collections of Eastern miracles, performed in the most famous sanctuaries of saints, appeared only in the late fifth century, and most of them probably remained unknown to the Latin-speaking audience,68 but miracles which occurred in specific Western sanctuaries started to be collected quite quickly. According to Augustine, such collections were made in Calama, Hippo, and Uzalis shortly after the arrival of the relics of St Stephen in those cities, that is, in the 420s.69 In addition, Augustine publicized miracles occurring in Hippo in his sermons and so, most probably, did other bishops. Finally, the news about miracles was transmitted in pilgrims’ tales, letters, and other writings which mentioned them incidentally.70 We do not know how efficient those texts were in the propagation of the belief in miracles, but Augustine was convinced that they might have helped this cause.71
Interestingly, the expectation of miracles was not associated with all relics. Many old graves, even those of famous saints, did not attract people looking for miraculous healings. In Africa, for instance, the sources are silent about miracles at the tombs of local martyrs, even of those of such renown as St Cyprian or St Perpetua. The relics had to be newly discovered or acquired, or rather something new had to happen in order to make people believe in their power. In northern Italy it was the discovery of the bodies of Gervasius, Protasius, and Nazarius in Milan, and those of Vitalis and Agricola (p.46) in Bologna;72 in Africa, the arrival of the relics of St Stephen. Only rarely did an old relic manage to gain a reputation for being miraculously powerful. According to Augustine, a stone from the stoning of St Stephen started to be considered to have a miraculous power by the 420s in Ancona, even though it had been enshrined in that Italian city for a long time. Yet this happened only after the body of St Stephen had been discovered in Palestine in 415 and the story of this finding, translated into Latin, started to circulate throughout the Mediterranean.73
In several places a new start was marked by a ceremony of translation, or transfer of relics. In Africa, the relics of St Stephen, the first miracle-working relics, were introduced to several towns on the initiative, or at least with the support, of local bishops: Evodius of Uzalis, Praeiectus of Aquae Tibilitanae, Lucillus of Sinitis, Possidius of Calama, and Augustine of Hippo.74 Even if the bishops were not the only people who moved relics from one place to another, their role as the organizers of ceremonial translations was matched only by that of the emperors. These translations, resembling the imperial adventus, engaged the entire population: everybody was expected to be there and await the arrival of the saints. We can see this in 396 in Rouen, where Bishop Victricius preached a sermon about the miracles performed by the relics of the saints in other places and encouraged people to believe in their power.75 It certainly mattered how the relics arrived and who carried them. It seems that on Minorca, where the relics of St Stephen were brought by Orosius in 418 without much ado, nobody expected them to heal the sick or expel demons.76 The ceremony of the transfer and deposition of relics helped a lot in making the belief in their power emerge, but it was not indispensable. The tombs of John the Evangelist in Ephesus and the place in which St Thecla was swallowed by the earth in Seleucia in Isauria gained celebrity status owing to their miracles, although the bodies of both saints were not transferred anywhere.
In some places, like Rouen, there was also another factor which could have played a role in making people believe in the power of relics—a newly built and large church in which they were deposited.77 We do not know whether that shrine eventually came to be known as a sanctuary renowned for its miracles, but this was obviously Victricius’ intention, and we have seen the importance of the new martyria for the emergence of the phenomenon in the East. The construction of a new church could perhaps kindle the belief (p.47) in the power of saints even in places where neither new relics nor new stories arrived. This could have been the case with the sanctuary of St John in Ephesus and that of St Thecla in Seleucia.
To conclude, there were several factors which played a role in bringing the belief in miracles to new places. The first of these was the stories told by pilgrims and visitors to famous shrines renowned for their miracles. These stories, however, would not have been enough to trigger a new belief if they had not been accompanied by certain vehicles for the miraculous power. It was thus the new relics, either transferred from afar or discovered locally, which were the second factor contributing to the emergence of the new belief. The third factor was the solemn ceremonies which advertised the power of the newly acquired relics. Finally, the fourth factor was the construction of new buildings, large sanctuaries, which attracted pilgrims, almsgivers, beggars, and above all the sick and demoniacs, and provided the necessary conditions for the relics to display their power—a stage, actors, and audience.
(3) For the written testimonies (libelli), see Augustine, Sermones 94; 286.5–7; 319.6; De civitate Dei 22.8–10.
(4) See above and the Liber de miraculis s. Stephani 1.1.
(7) Van Uytfanghe 1981, 210. See also the evidence collected by Daunton-Fear 2009, 68–131. The material presented in his book supports the thesis of the direct continuation of exorcistic practices and beliefs from apostolic times to Late Antiquity, but at the same time shows that the belief in bodily healings at least radically diminished in the third and early fourth centuries.
(9) Augustine, De utilitate credendi 34.
(10) Ambrose, Epistula 77.9.
(13) Itinerarium Burdigalense 585, 589, 596; see also 592. Incidentally, it has to be noted that the belief in the power of these springs most probably was not of Christian origin.
(15) Gervasius and Protasius: Ambrose, Epistula 77.2; Hymnus 11.17–20; Augustine, Confessiones 9.7; Paulinus of Milan, Vita Ambrosii 14.2; Nazarius: Vita Ambrosii 33.3–4; Stephen: Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.8.265–78; Liber de miraculis s. Stephani 1.1–3.
(16) Philostorgius, Historia ecclesiastica 7.8a (Passio Artemii 55).
(17) People certainly believed that it was Babylas’ presence that had silenced Apollo’s oracle in Daphne, but this idea was invented not by Christians advertising the power of Babylas’ body, but by pagans maintaining that the neighbourhood of the sanctuary was polluted by the cadaver; see p. 186.
(19) Hilary, De Trinitate 11.3.
(20) Hilary, Contra Constantium 8.
(25) Feissel 2014.
(26) Egeria, Itinerarium 23.10; Gregory of Nazianzus, Contra Iulianum I 69; Victricius, De laude sanctorum 11 and possibly Jerome, Epistula 109.1.
(27) Egeria, Itinerarium 23.9; Jerome, Chronicon XXXV 19 and 20 (AD 356/7 and 358/8) and Adversus Vigilantium 5; John Chrysostom, In II Epistulam ad Corinthios 26.5. For Ambrose’s transfers and distribution, see p. 162
(28) Later on, the miraculous resistance to tortures will become a leading trait of the so-called passions épiques, but the motif is well established already in second- and third-century literature: Martyrium Polycarpi 15–16; Acta Pauli et Theclae 22 (fire); Passio Perpetuae 21.7–10 (sword); Acta Pauli et Theclae 28 and 34–7; Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica 5.1.42 (wild beasts).
(29) See e.g. Constitutiones Apostolicae 5.1.2.
(30) In 422 Augustine, writing to Paulinus, wonders whose power makes demons suffer in the bodies of the possessed. The torments inflicted on evil spirits are for him an observable fact which he cannot yet explain theologically in a satisfactory manner. See p. 199.
(31) Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.6.4; Jerome, Vita Hilarionis 13.7; Victricius, De laude sanctorum 11; Constantius, Vita Germani 7 and 13; Vita patrum Jurensium 42; Theodoret, Historia religiosa 9.9–10; 13.10–11; Vita Danielis Stylitae 59; Vita Theodori Syceotae 18, 35, 38, 84, 92; Cyril of Scythopolis, Vita Euthymii 24 (27.2) and 56 (77.1); Vita Abramii 8 (235.1); see Wiśniewski 2005, 129–30.
(32) See e.g. Paulinus of Nola, Carmen 23.61–81.
(33) Athanasius, Epistula festalis 42. The translation follows that of Camplani.
(34) Faustinus and Marcellinus, Libellus precum 26.
(35) Jerome, Epistula 108.13. Translation Wallace (slightly changed).
(36) John Chrysostom, In II Epistulam ad Corinthios 26.5; Maximus of Turin, Sermo 12.2.
(37) Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica 7.24.8.
(39) Gregory of Nazianzus, Contra Iulianum I 69.
(40) Gregory of Nyssa, Homilia in sanctos XL martyres II, pp. 166–7; see also De sancto Theodoro, p. 69 (a general remark about diseases healed and demons expelled by Theodore’s relics); Ambrose, Epistula 77.2 and 17.
(41) Tormented demons: Ambrose, Epistula 77.2, 16 and 20–2; Paulinus of Milan, Vita Ambrosii 16.1–2; 21.3; 29.2; 33.3–4; 48.2; demons expelled: Ambrose, Epistula 77.9; Vita Ambrosii 14.3; 28.1; 43.1–3; Augustine, Confessiones 9.7. Later on, presenting examples of contemporary miracles in Africa in De civitate Dei 22.8, Augustine emphasizes physical healings and seems to find them more spectacular than exorcisms.
(42) See e.g. Liber de miraculis s. Stephani. It is difficult to say whether exorcisms of demons did not happen in Uzalis or the author considered them less spectacular and so not worth describing.
(44) It is interesting to note that in late antique iconography, which played an important role in directing the reading of the Gospels, the earthly Jesus is represented above all as a healer.
(45) Hilary of Poitiers, Tractatus super psalmos 64.15. See also Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 2.32.4; Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 39. The same pattern is explicitly referred to relics by Gregory of Nazianzus, In sanctum Cyprianum 18 and Contra Iulianum I 69.
(46) Victricius, De laude sanctorum 11.
(47) Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica 7.27.1 (tomb of Epiphanius of Salamis), 3.14.26 (tomb of Hilarion), 4.3.2 (tomb of the ‘notaries’), 7.5.2 (the church of Anastasia), 2.3.8–13 (Michaelion in Anaplous), 5.21.5–7 (a spring in Emmaus).
(48) Theodoret, Graecorum affectionum curatio 8.63–4.
(50) Statuta ecclesiae antiqua 62–4; see also Concilium Arelatense secundum 38/9 and 39/40; Concilium Arausicanum a. 441 13/14 and 14/15.
(51) Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.6.3.
(53) For xenonochia in Constantinople, see Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica 4.20.2 (Marathonius) and Palladius, Dialogus de vita Iohannis Chrysostomi 5.133–4 (John Chrysostom); Sebaste in Pontus: Epiphanius, Panarion 75.1; Caesarea: Basil, Epistula 176 and 142 (other towns); see: Finn 2006, 82–8. For the sudden emergence of the ‘hospital’ in the East, see Horden 2005, 367–8.
(55) Tipasa: CIL VIII 20906. Rome: Jerome, Epistula 22.32; Ammianus, Res gestae 27.3.6; Antioch: Constantine, Oratio ad sanctos 12; John Chrysostom, Homiliae de statuis 1.9; Edessa: Vita Rabbulae 6; the less clear evidence from Nola: Nola: Uranius, De obitu Paulini 3; see Finn 2006, 102–3.
(57) Even if normally martyria and churches were closed for the night, beggars could sleep in porticoes, as in the story concerning Ancyra, told by Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 68.2–3.
(63) Athanasius, Vita Antonii 33; Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi 3.15.4; Vita Pachomii G1 112.
(64) Wiśniewski 2018.
(65) Augustine, De utilitate credendi 34 (no miracles today); Epistula 78.3 (no miracles in Africa).
(67) Victricius, De laude sanctorum 11; Paulinus of Nola, Carmina, especially 14, 18–21, 23 passim; Liber de miraculis s. Stephani, passim; Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.8.
(68) The only exception is the Latin collection of the miracles of Sts Cosmas and Damian, the critical edition of which is being prepared by Anna Rack-Teuteberg.
(69) Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.8.339–454.
(70) Egeria, Itinerarium 20.13.
(71) Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.8.160–71.
(72) Paulinus, Vita Ambrosii 15–16 (Gervasius and Protasius), 29 (Vitalis and Agricola) and 32–3 (Nazarius).
(73) Augustine, Sermo 323.2.
(74) Uzalis: Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.8.360–2 and Liber de miraculis s. Stephani prol.; Aquae Tibilitanae, Sinitis, Calama, Audurus, Hippo: Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.8.265–323; for Hippo, see also Augustine, Sermo 318.1.
(75) Victricius, De laude sanctorum 11.
(76) Severus of Minorca, Epistula 4 and 20.
(77) Victricius, De laude sanctorum 12.