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Travels with Martyrs: Epic Journey Motifs and Sacred Landscapes in Late Antique Poetry

Laura K. Roesch

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Late antique Christian poets did not reject the language of epic, nor did they merely parrot their Classical predecessors, forcing an epic heroic model onto new subjects. Rather, they worked to adapt creatively conceptions of ritual sacrifice, sacred landscapes, and epic journeys in relation to the new epic hero: the martyr. In my paper, I will argue that through variations on the epic journey motif, the Christian poets Prudentius and Paulinus of Nola sought to sacralize landscapes through textual depictions of movements of dying and dead martyrs across the physical world. In so doing, I will engage with larger scholarly questions on the impact of Classical literary traditions on the Roman Christian imagination post-Constantine, as well as shed light on connections between ritual, landscape, violence, and martyrdom in late antique poetry (Cameron 2011). I will insist that we remember that Roman Christians were, in fact, Romans, who adapted Classical literary heritage as vigorously and creatively as their “pagan” counterparts.

As new epic heroes, martyrs acted like their classical counterparts through their journeys across a variety of landscapes. From wilderness to countryside to cities, martyrdom for both Prudentius and Paulinus frequently involved movement, often dramatized to an epic scale. Drawing on both Biblical and Classical allusions and metaphors, both authors’ works trace the dynamism of the epic martyr, whose travels in effect sacralized the landscapes which they traversed. For example, Paulinus’ recounting of the confessor-martyr Felix’s journeys across multiple Italian landscapes helps in part to set the stage both for his torture, essential for his qualification as a confessor, and for his continual, postmortem involvement in the ritual sites associated with his life and relics. Thus crucially, as befitting the concept of martyrdom, such movements did not necessarily occur only when the martyr was physically living. Rather, as in the case of the martyr Hippolytus, dramatized by Prudentius in his Liber Peristephanon, both the martyr’s physical body and his immortal reputation traverse different interlocking, overlapping Italian landscapes both during dying and after death. In this way Prudentius, like Paulinus, plays upon and expands the epic journey motif, where heroic corpses continue their movements past their physical demise to create sacred places. I will explore and closely analyze examples like these throughout my paper to illuminate the importance of martyrial epic journeys in poetic transformations of landscapes.

Further, as scholars have noted, poets often transformed martyrdom into an epic ritual sacrifice, where the martyr literally and symbolically took the place of the sacrifice he or she was supposed to offer, thereby subverting the “pagan” ritual as well as the display of imperial authority (Castelli 1996). The martyrs I will discuss became both living and dead sacrifices in the space of the poems, adding another dimension to their epic journeys. As traveling sacrifices as well as epic heroes, these martyrs embodied Classical epic characteristics while simultaneously destabilizing and challenging them. Their nature as heroic ritual sacrifices further helps to (re)create and magnify the landscapes which they navigate, imbuing the physical world with an epic, sacred quality both Classicizing and Christian.

These literary interplays between epic, violent martyrdom, ritual sacrifice, and sacred landscapes help shed light on late antique Roman Christian adaptation, innovation, and intertextuality in poetic form. Set against the historical backdrop of post-Constantinian Rome, Prudentius and Paulinus both worked to reimagine the culturally potent language of epic in the service of exploring Christian landscapes and identities. Throughout my paper, I will argue that these poets reveal a concern with establishing a Roman Christian imaginary of epic sacralized landscapes, in large part by transforming ritual sacrifice and the epic journey into vital moments in martyrdom.

Session/Panel Title

Epic Gods Imperial City: Religion and Ritual in Latin Epic from Beginnings to Late Antiquity

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