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Ea Superstitione: Christian Martyrdom and the Religion of Freelance Experts*

  • Heidi Wendt (a1)


This paper situates Roman actions undertaken against Christians amidst an unofficial pattern of measures employed throughout the imperial period to manage the expanding influence of freelance religious experts. Questions about the historical circumstances of martyrdom or persecution tend to proceed from the assumption that Christians were perceived and dealt with as a distinct religious community. However, the penalties alleged by writers such as Paul and Justin were more commonly issued against self-authorized individuals (magi, astrologers, prophets, diviners, philosophers, and so forth) than against undifferentiated religious groups. Thus, I propose that Roman motivations for investigating and punishing Christians, at least in the first and second centuries, are best understood in relation to the wider phenomenon of freelance expertise and the range of concerns that it engendered.


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I owe many thanks to a number of people who read and provided invaluable feedback on this article at various stages of its development. Foremost among these are John Bodel, Aaron Glaim, Lisa Mignone, Stanley Stowers, and Greg Woolf, as well as the participants in Brown University's Culture and Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean Colloquium. I am also grateful to Catherine Steel and the anonymous readers of JRS, whose insightful suggestions greatly improved the structure and expression of the piece. For the main idea I am indebted to an unlikely interlocutor, the poet Karl Kirchwey, whose tenure as the American Academy in Rome's Andrew Heiskell Arts Director coincided with the year I spent there as a pre-doctoral fellow, and whose interest in my research inspired me to expand it in new directions. Although I had not yet considered the possible implications of legislation issued against freelance religious experts for historicizing Roman actions against Christians, Karl's provocative questions about the matter continued to percolate until I arrived at an answer that I hope he will find satisfactory, if long overdue.



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Ea Superstitione: Christian Martyrdom and the Religion of Freelance Experts*

  • Heidi Wendt (a1)


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