Constantine's Dream: Belonging, Deviance and the Problem of Violence in Early Christianity

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


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Title "I Died in Hawara" 
Description Short film about religious tensions and family relationships in Roman-period Egypt, produced in the context of workshops with the sixth-form pupils of the Thomas Whitham Sixth Form in Burnley, Lancashire. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact I have had the opportunity to show the film to a number of workshops at universities and faith communities, including to a workshop on "Religion on TV" chaired by Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC Commissioning Editor for Religion (Lancaster University, 20 July 2012). It always provokes marvellous discussion. 
Description The most valuable contribution of the project has been engineering a shift away from the dominant essentialist understanding of early Christian martyrdom as a psycho-social expression of a distinctive early Christian fascination with death. Martyria (literally, 'witness') was a broad concept, and 'dying for God' was not the only form of martyria proposed by early Christian writers. A communicative approach shows that a number of different kinds of 'witnesses' or martyrs were put forward as privileged spokespeople for the movement. Nonetheless, the 'dying for God' variant gained disproportionate traction, generating what became a 'viral' discourse in the century and a half before Constantine.

Undertaking this work has required an eclectic approach, involving both document-based social history and theoretically-informed discourse analysis. The household-based approach to the social-historical aspect turned out to be surprisingly fruitful. Historians have tended accept the claim of Constantine's fourth-century contemporary Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, author of the first Ecclesiastical History, that the early fourth-century churches were highly developed institutionally. But the evidence arguably suggests that at the beginning of Constantine's reign, institutionally speaking, the Christian churches were no more than Roman households with a tradition of hosting modest and prayerful ritual meals, and the Christian bishop had no legally enforceable powers beyond those of a Roman paterfamilias. Beyond this, his powers depended on personally cultivated relationships. This 'minimalist' reading of the institutional arrangements for the fourth-century Church is quite a radical departure from the established wisdom.

The 'minimalist' approach gives greater importance to understanding the persuasive dynamic of Christian power relations is all the more important. Key aspects here included the role of religious leaders as disciplinarians and protectors in a violent society, and the role of Christian martyrs as guarantors for the moral authenticity of the movement.

PDRA Dirk Rohmann's monograph, Christianity, Book-Burning, and the Culture of Censorship in Late Antiquity (under review with a major university press at the time of writing) argues that there was a 'dark side' to this rhetoric, and that the legacy of Christianity as an embattled minority group gave rise to a Christian 'culture of censorship' from the late fourth century.

At the same time, it becomes possible and even necessary to get 'behind' the editorial decisions of Eusebius, who seems to have 're-written' the history of martyrdom to reflect the concerns of his own generation. Project PhD student James Corke-Webster's thesis makes a contribution here, showing how Eusebius' view of martyrdom was coloured by the experience of the Great Persecution (AD 303-311). Since Eusebius' own Ecclesiastical History is the main ancient narrative source for early Christian martyrdom, a clearer understanding of his editorial 'shaping' makes it possible-and urgently necessary-to re-assess the more fragmentary evidence for martyrdom which has come down to us independently. Thus we can to judge how our understanding has been distorted by Eusebius's interpretative biases. Framing out an approach to this problem has been one of the critical gains of the Constantine's Dream project, but it is a very large problem, and the follow-on Leverhulme project will tackle it head-on.
Exploitation Route The communicative approach to religious violence (as a driver of 'viral' communication) has the potential to sharpen our analysis of modern conflicts which use the techniques first developed in remembering the early Christian martyrs.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

Description Findings have fed into Kate Cooper's numerous media appearances on BBC2, Radio 4, CNN, and National Geographic Channel (see for links). Cooper has also drawn on this research in writing for various popular, trade, and church print and web publications, including The Guardian, History Today, Huffington Post, TLS, and the Literary Review. The Exhibition at the John Rylands LIbrary which Cooper co-curated as part of the project, 'Faces and Voices: Identity, Culture, and Artefacts from Roman to Contemporary Egypt', contributed to that institution's winning the 'Large Visitor Attraction of the Year' Award for 2012 from the Manchester Tourism Board. Cooper was also consulted during the prepration for the British Library's "Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs" exhibition (2015/16).
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural

Description Cognitive violence and social reproduction in late ancient Christianity : a preliminary study
Amount £7,087 (GBP)
Funding ID SG111637 
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2011 
End 01/2012
Description Constructive Empathy and Creative Encounters: Bringing to Life the Politics of Identity in Roman-period Egypt, North Africa, Syria, and Turkey
Amount £1,011 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2013 
End 07/2013
Description Perpetua and Augustine
Amount $3,100 (USD)
Organisation NEH National Endowment For The Humanities 
Sector Public
Country United States
Start 05/2010 
End 08/2010
Description The early Christian martyr acts : a new approach to ancient heroes of resistance
Amount £152,920 (GBP)
Funding ID MRF-2011-056 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2012 
End 06/2016
Description Conflicting Identities: Religion, Race and Belonging in a Changing World 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Horizon-Scanning Workshop
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2013
Description Faces and voices : identity, culture and artefacts from Roman to contemporary Egypt 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An Exhibition held at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, from 19 July-26 November, 2012. Faces & Voices contributed to the John Rylands Library's winning the 'Large Visitor Attraction of the Year' at Manchester's annual tourism awards in November of 2012. The assessment was conducted during the Faces & Voices exhibition, and the assessor highlighted the exhibition and attended one of the creative workshops which was part of the exhibition's public engagement program.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012