The empress Eudocia’s De martyrio sancti Cypriani is a curious and rare cultural artefact. It is a versification in Homeric hexameters and combination of various Christian hagiographical accounts on St Cyprian that was written by a pagan convert caught up in the culture wars of the 5th century CE about paideia. At the same time it is a novelistic account written by an elite woman about the competing desires of Cyprian, a man who begins as a pagan magician and ends up a Christian martyr, and Justina, a young girl who falls for Christianity when she hears a sermon through her window and then converts Cyprian to Christianity by her resistance to his attempts to seduce her.
In this paper, I argue that Eudocia creates a triumphalist Christian narrative characteristic of her period (in the sense of Brown 1995: 3-26) that is however undermined by the poem’s Iliadic intertext and its novelistic focus on desire and visuality, a focus that is at once condemned and embraced as pagan. First, I establish how Eudocia constructs her proem through allusion to the Iliad in a way that focuses on the voice of the divine and its human interpretation as central themes in the poem. I then survey how these issues are expanded via the poem’s dialogue between Cyprian’s desire to see (linked to his paganism and pact with Satan) and the virgin Justina’s righteous desire to hear the word of God. I establish that this dialogue draws on the poetics of vision and hearing in one of Eudocia’s explicit models, the Acts of Peter and Thecla (APT), as well as on the sophistic novel (Berranger-Auserve 2001; Sowers 2008 and 2012). Drawing on this diverse intertextual apparatus, I show that Eudocia’s proclaimed denunciation of vision and emphasis on the triumph of the word is, paradoxically, set in motion in narrative terms by Eudocia’s own lengthy preoccupation with visual narrative. This is evident in the way the first-person confession of Cyprian, in book 2, re-narrates the conversion story of book 1 from Cyprian’s perspective, as well as in the spectacle of the martyrdom, in book 3 (lost, but cf. Photius, Bibl. 184). I find external evidence for this kind of reading of the Cyprian narrative in the way Gregory of Nyssa delivers it in 379 CE (Or. 24; PG 35.1170-94, esp. 1181).
In previous scholarship, the main focus on the poem has been text-critical (Delehaye 1921; Sabattini 1973; Jackson 1988; Bevegni 1982, 2006a and 2006b), or used it as a source for reconstructing the political history of Eudocia’s time (Cameron 1982; Holum 1982: 118; Burman 1994) and religious realia (Nock 1927; Nilsson 1947). Given the poor assessment of Eudocia’s poetic talents in older scholarship (Van Deun 1993), attention to the literary aspects of her poem has been scant (Lamirande 2001; Van Mal-Maeder 2004; Sowers 2008 and 2012). The cultural consequences of Homeric intertextuality have been left unexplored, despite their programmatic significance for Eudocia’s proem. For example, the second line of Eudocia’s proem (ἀνδρῶν θεσπεσίων δ’ ἐτελείετο κρήγυος ὀμφή, 1.2) paraphrases the prologue of Eudocia’s exemplar about the Christian fullness of time; but its Homeric intertext also implicates the programmatic aspects of Il. 1.5 Διὸς δ’ἐτελείετο βουλή and its ambiguities about the closural point of the Iliad (Murnaghan 1997). The final, triumphal reading of Eudocia’s poem is rendered precarious by the proem, and further undermined by the connection of the Homeric hapax κρήγυος to Agamemnon’s abuse of Calchas’ prophecies in Il. 1.106, and the ὀμφή of Agamemnon’s false dream (Il. 2.41). The Iliad is then mobilised to create a sense of openness about the narrative’s conclusion that is fused with Eudocia’s novelistic poetics of deferral (in terms of Whitmarsh 2011: 139-213) that allow Cyprian’s satanic vision to become the main aesthetic focus of the poem.
Homeric Poetics at the Dawn of Christianity