Numen 62 (2015) 169–196

brill.com/nu

Religious Violence and Hagiography in
Late Antiquity
Mar Marcos

University of Cantabria, Departamento de Ciencias Históricas,
Edificio Interfacultativo, Cantabria, Santander 39005, Spain
maria.marcos@unican.es

Abstract
Sanctity is in many ways a social construct, and hence the profile of saints and the practices that qualify them as such change with the passing of time. The destruction of
temples and idols as a way to signal sanctity is a good example of this. The subject came
to form part of hagiography in the late fourth century, reached its peak in the Theodosian
period, and fell off in the sixth century when Christianization was believed to be complete. Hagiography made iconoclasm one of the most extraordinary expressions of
divine power, adding it to the saint’s repertoire of miracles and ascetic virtues. The aim
of this article is to study the origins and early development of this motif, which legitimated — and subtly encouraged — the use of violence in the conversion process. It is
within apologetic and polemical contexts that the episodes of the violent destruction of
late antique paganism have to be assessed.

Keywords
religious violence – iconoclasm – hagiography – Late Antiquity

In antiquity, both pagans and Christians believed in the capacity of daimones
to foresee the future, but they did not agree on which ones truly possessed this
ability. In De divinatione daemonum (On the Divination of Demons), w
­ ritten at
* This paper has been written with the financial support of the Spanish Ministerio de
Economía y Competitividad (MINECO, Research Project HAR-HAR2012–35185 Universidad
de Cantabria).

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���5 | doi 10.1163/15685276-12341362

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the height of the campaign to suppress paganism in North Africa (ca. 406–411),
Augustine of Hippo recalled a debate on that matter that he held one Easter
morning with a group of laypeople.1 The issue arose from the news that the god
Serapis, who was renowned for his prophetic powers, had foretold the destruction of his temple in Alexandria shortly before it actually happened in 391/392.2
The destruction of the Serapeum, regarded as one of the greatest wonders
of the world,3 caused a deep psychological effect amongst both pagans and
Christians, who regarded it as a symbol of traditional religion.
The people Augustine was debating with wondered if prophesies of that
kind were not displeasing to God. Augustine responded that God tolerates religious practices that he dislikes. In fact, God commands and permits the demolition of the temples and the prohibition of pagan sacrifices (De div. 1.3–2.4).
The time had now come for the fulfillment of biblical prophecies announcing
that the God of Israel shall be worshipped by all nations, and that false gods
will be ousted both from their shrines and from the hearts of their worshippers
(Isa 19.1; Zeph 2.11; Zech 13.2). Augustine’s conviction about a dramatic end of
paganism, as it had taken place in Alexandria, was shared by other Christians
at the time. Commenting on the Book of Isaiah (in 408/409), Jerome also
considered the destruction of the Egyptian temples to be the manifestation
of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (Comm. in Isaiah 7.2–3). The
Theodosian Age, in which Augustine and Jerome were writing, was perceived
by Christians as the start of a new era in the economy of salvation, a providential time in which destroying the idols contributed to building the kingdom of
1  Ed. G. Bardy, Beckaert, and Boutet 1952:654–693. Augustine deals with the theme of demons
also in the City of God, especially 8–10.
2  The attack on the Serapeum was headed by Bishop Theophilus who later used the finely
carved stones to build a Christian church (Eunapius Vitae Sophistarum 474). The most
detailed description of its destruction is given by Rufinus Historia Ecclesiastica 11.22–23. See
further information in Socrates Scholasticus Historia Ecclesiastica 5.16–17; Sozomen Historia
Ecclesiastica 7.15; and Theodoret Historia Ecclesiastica 5.22. A law of 16 June 391, sent to the
comes of Egypt and to the praefectus augustalis, to be applied in all Egypt, forbade sacrifices
with punishments of large fines for offenders (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.11). However, it does
not contain any instructions about the destruction of temples or other places of worship. For
the demolition of temples in Alexandria under the leadership of Theophilus, see Trombley
1995, 1:129–145. For the history and archaeology of the Serapeum, see McKenzie, Gibson, and
Reyes 2004; Hahn 2008.
3  Ruf. HE 11.23, assumes that everyone had heard about it and that many had visited it. To
Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae 22.16.12, who visited Alexandria before its destruction, the
Serapeum was the most important building in the Roman Empire after the Capitol. Cf. also
Expositio totius mundi et gentium 34–36.

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God.4 The demons’ resistance to their eviction would justify the severe antipagan legislation issued by the Emperor Theodosius and his sons,5 as well as
other forms of religious coercion, including physical violence.
Although violence was not an agreeable practice for God, as Augustine
points out,6 the obstinacy of the demons and the blindness of their worshippers made violence a necessary means. Anyone who faced the dangerous
task of combating idolatry showed himself as a true holy man. Late antique
Christian literature, hagiography in particular, made acts of iconoclasm an
expression of divine will and power. The aim of this paper is to study the origins and early development of this hagiographical motif, which legitimated —
and subtly encouraged — the use of violence in the conversion process.

Sacred Violence: A Note on History and Historiography

The Serapeum is a paradigmatic example of the ways in which the Christians
were ready to collaborate in fulfilling the divine plan. The demolition of
the temple was not an isolated event, but formed part of a wider campaign
against shrines in Alexandria. A tumult in the city gave the Bishop Theophilus
a pretext to intervene, sack the building and reveal the tricks that, according
to the Christians, the priests had devised to make Serapis look like a true god.
The adyta were profaned and the god’s statue was beheaded and burned in the
amphitheater for general ridicule. The temple was set on fire, the ornaments
and images of worship were confiscated, and the building was finally turned
into a church.7 The disappointment of the pagans with the impotence of their
god led to the conversion of many, while the Christians who died in the riots
were acknowledged as martyrs (Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica 8.15).
Indeed, sacred violence had spiritual advantages for those who heroically
carried it out. This is well illustrated by the case of the bishop Marcellus of
Apamea in Syria. A divine man with a burning spirit (Theodoret, Historia
Ecclesiastica 5.21.6), Marcellus was murdered (in 386) while he supervised from
4  Cf. Ruf. HE 11.19 and Theod. HE 5.21. See Thelamon 1993.
5  Anti-pagan legislation of Theodosius in Cod. Theod. 16.10.10–12 (in the years 391 and 392); of
Honorius and Arcadius in Cod. Theod. 16.10.15, 16.10.16 and 16.10.18 (399), 16.10.19 (ca. 407/408)
and 16.10.25 (435).
6  De div. 2.4. Cf. also Augustine Sermon 62.11.17; 302.23.21. Augustine’s attitude to the use of
coercion is ambiguous and changes with the circumstances. He appears to be more in favor
of it when it refers to heretics. See Brown 1964; Marcos 2013.
7  See n. 2 above.

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a distance — for he was afflicted with gout and was therefore unable to fight —
the destruction of the temples in his city, which he had ordered, suspecting “that it would not be easy otherwise for them [i.e., the heathens] to be
converted from their former religion” (Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica 7.15).8
When Marcellus’ sons wanted to avenge his death, the council of the province prohibited them from doing so with the argument that they rather should
give thanks to God for having considered Marcellus worthy of dying for such a
cause (Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica 7.15; cf. Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica
5.21). Temple destruction also had material advantages for the Church. The
places snatched from the demons were Christianized and occupied, both symbolically by purifying them, and materially by turning them into churches.
Various cases are known of the demolition of temples and statues in the
last decades of the fourth century and the early fifth century (the crucial time
in the anti-pagan offensive), and much scholarship has dealt with the topic in
recent decades.9 However, as a historical phenomenon, “sacred” violence
should not be overestimated. Without denying the fact that several forms of
coercion did form part of late antique religious confrontation, recent historiography has reassessed Christian narratives on violence, looking into their
rhetorical dimensions and the impact their authors wanted to achieve with
them (Saradi 2008), concluding that there was not a systematic policy of coercive eradication of paganism either by the Church or by the state, and that
physical violence was more limited than what Christian sources would have
us believe (Sotinel 2004; Salzman 2006). Other aspects, such as the decline of
pagan piety, disaffection, and abandonment may have played a more important role in the end of paganism than coercion and violence.10
If iconoclast actions do not form an intrinsic part of the Christianization
process, then we may still wonder why Christian literature emphasizes these
episodes and the function they play in the economy of the accounts (see
Fowden 1978; Marcos 1998). Whereas, officially, the Church prohibited the
destruction of idols, Christian intellectuals defended persuasion instead of
8  Trans. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. II.
9  The destruction of pagan temples and their conversion into churches has been thoroughly
studied. See Deichmann 1939; Spieser 1976; Fowden 1978; Hanson 1978; Trombley 1985,
1995; Saradi-Mendelovici 1990; Marcos 1998, 2002; Grossmann 1994; Klein 1995; Beatrice
1996; Buenacasa Pérez 1997; Foschia 2000; Bayliss 2004; Caseau 2001, 2004; Sotinel 2000,
2004; Ward-Perkins 2003; Gaddis 2005; Zimmermann 2006; Drake 2006; Hahn, Emmel,
and Gotter 2008; Hahn 2008; Shaw 2011; Lavan and Mulryan 2011; Busine 2013. A recent
issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity (vol. 6.2, 2013) dedicates a dossier to the topic.
10  Caseau 2001; Sotinel 2004. This was, for instance, the case with the end of ancient Egyptian
cults, as has been demonstrated by Dijkstra 2008.

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coercion, and imperial legislation tried to avoid vandalism (Kunderewicz 1971;
Lepelley 1994), hagiography makes iconoclasm one of the most extraordinary
expressions of divine power, adding it to the saint’s repertoire of miracles and
ascetic virtues. It is within this apologetic and polemical context that episodes
of the violent destruction of late antique paganism have to be assessed.

Dominating the Demons: The Fantastic Deeds of Gregory
Thaumaturgus

The motif of the saint who heroically combats the (pagan) demons appears
for the first time with all its symbolic, evocative potential in Gregory of Nyssa’s
Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus (ca. 380).11 The extant text is a development of an
oration, probably given in the Church of Neocaesarea in Pontus (Asia Minor),
where Gregory Thaumaturgus had been bishop one century earlier (ca. 240–
270). In the opening words, Gregory of Nyssa explains its aim (skopos):
Both my speech and the congregation gathered here have one purpose,
to reflect upon the great Gregory. As far as I am concerned, I think it is
best to describe the strength of his virtue and his wonderful deeds and
to ask for his help, so that such a sublime example may help us to know
how to lead our lives . . . Listening to this speech is like having a torch to
guide lost sailors over the dark sea, a torch that lights our souls through
his memory and which offers upright men a way towards good. We want
everyone to wish to achieve such laudable and honourable behavior.
(PG 46.893)
Among the miraculous deeds attributed to Gregory, who was converted to
Christianity from philosophy after hearing the teachings of Origen, Gregory
of Nyssa recalls the purification of a temple that was famous for its oracles.
Significantly, this was Gregory’s first thaumaturgical action. According to his
panegyrist, the motive which led him to Neocaesarea was in fact to rid the city
and its region of temples and idols, for which he trained “like an athlete ready
to fight in combat” (PG 46.913). The biography gives a detailed account of the
episode, which is similar to many others in later hagiographical texts. Gregory
arrived in the city in the evening and a heavy storm made him seek shelter in
a temple, one whose daimones had oracular powers. When he entered with
11  Vita Gregorii Thaumaturgi in PG 46.893–957. For the limited historical value of Gregory of
Nyssa’s account, see Van Dam 1982.

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some companions, the demon was brought to a halt on hearing the name
of Christ. Gregory purified the air by making the sign of the cross and spent
the night praying and singing hymns, and thus the temple was turned into a
place of prayer. At sunrise, when the custodian came to make the usual rites,
he could not go on because Gregory had “blocked the way.” He tried to call
the gods to the temple but they did not respond. The custodian then began to
insult Gregory, tried to hit him, and threatened to take him before the authorities for profaning the place. Gregory confronted him, and in the end, the guardian was convinced of his divine power, which he recognized as superior to that
of the demons, and he converted to Christianity.12 Gregory performed some
other miracles (such as moving and carrying some huge stones), which made
the custodian of another temple convert, too, together with all his family, his
friends, the temple priests, and all their assistants (PG 46.915–920). Gregory of
Nyssa concludes the story of Gregory’s iconoclast miracles by adding:
Thus this great man overcame the power of the daimones and exhibited
the temple guardian like the trophy of a victory. With faith and courage he entered triumphantly in the city, not with chariots and horses,
with the ostentation of a large number of followers, but enveloped by
his numerous virtues. The whole city came to know more about the new
prodigy and they all wanted to see the man called Gregory. They regarded
him as a god, full of authority and capable of doing all he wanted against
the daimones to dominate them. Having submitted their patron (the god)
to his authority and appropriating the honour that had previously been
attributed to him, Gregory changed the way of life (of the pagans) and
everything that involved. (PG 46.920)
The story continues with the massive conversion of the population of
Neocaesarea and its region to “the God of Gregory.”
Like most of Gregory of Nyssa’s narrative in the Life, these episodes of exorcism are fiction. Gregory Thaumaturgus could hardly have carried out such a
deed, which is unimaginable in the third century. His panegyrist was projecting anachronistically an attitude that was acceptable and praiseworthy by the
last decades of the fourth century.
12  The episode of Gregory’s aristeia against the demons is narrated in the Latin, Syriac, and
Armenian Lives as well. It is also mentioned by Rufinus, who added it to his translation
of Eusebius’ Church History (Ruf. HE 6.30). Basil of Caesarea De Sancto Spiritu 74 says that
Gregory had tremendous power over the demons. For the several accounts of Gregory’s
life and miracles, see Mitchell 1999; Clausi and Milazzo 2007.

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Between Legality and Autonomy: The Iconoclast Actions of Martin
of Tours and Porphyry of Gaza

Two biographies, The Life of Martin of Tours (V. Mart.) written by Sulpicius
Severus around 397–400 and The Life of Porphyry of Gaza (V. Porph.) written
by Mark the Deacon soon after Porphyry’s death in 420, depict the enthusiasm for iconoclasm of two holy men who were at one time ascetics and
bishops. However, they differed in their methods. While Martin acted on his
own accord in a personal crusade on the fringes of the law, Porphyry moved
within the bounds of legality by obtaining edicts from the imperial court in
Constantinople. The comparative study of the two cases can reconstruct a picture of the difficult balance between legality and autonomy in the campaign to
eradicate paganism in the Theodosian age.
After a variety of ascetic experiences, Martin became bishop of Tours in 371,
acclaimed by the people.13 As a bishop, he continued to follow his old ascetic
habits and settled in a monastery outside the city in an isolated and wild location at Marmoutier. Although life at the monastery was devoted to prayer and
manual labor, Martin sometimes went out for missionary purposes accompanied by some of his monks. These were occasions for him to perform numerous
miracles, the most spectacular of them associated with combatting idolatry.
Three chapters of the twenty-four in the Life are devoted to describing these
heroic deeds that the hagiographer places among the excellences that Martin
displayed as a bishop (V. Mart. 13–15). In all of the episodes, the saint risks his
life and then saves it at the last moment, proving his divine favor once again.
He started by destroying an ancient temple in a village without encountering
any opposition. However, when he attempted to fell a sacred pine near the
shrine, the priest and heathens tried to stop him, challenging him to hold it up
when they cut it down themselves, which Martin did. Astonished at the miracle, nearly everyone there converted. Thanks to Martin’s miracles the region
was Christianized, “because where he had demolished temples, he immediately built there churches and monasteries” (V. Mart. 13).
Other iconoclast miracles followed this. In a village, Martin had set fire to
a popular ancient shrine, and the flames began to spread towards a nearby
house; he climbed onto the roof and stopped the fire (V. Mart. 14.1–2). In a
place called Leprosum (Lévroux), when Martin tried to pull down an opulent
temple, a crowd of pagans protested and their violence made him cease his

13  For Martin’s biography, see Stancliffe 1983, as well as the extensive introduction and notes
to Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin by Fontaine 1967.

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attempt.14 For three days, he fasted and prayed, imploring God to demolish
the temple. Comforted by two armed angels who offered to help him, Martin
returned to the place, pulled down the temple to its foundations, and smashed
the altars and images. As a result, most of the witnesses acclaimed the saint
and abandoned the idols, who appeared unable to help themselves (V. Mart.
14.3–7). Finally, in the land of the Aedui, a furious crowd threw themselves
upon Martin when he was demolishing a temple. One of them attacked him
with a sword, and when Martin was about to be stricken, the attacker fell backwards onto the ground and began to ask for pardon (V. Mart. 15.1–2). Similarly,
when Martin was destroying some idols, someone wanted to wound him
with a knife; as he did so the weapon slipped from his hands and disappeared
(V. Mart. 15.3).
In the third of the Dialogues (dated to 403/404), Sulpicius Severus mentions two more of Martin’s iconoclast attacks. In the village of Amboise, an
old fortress occupied by numerous monks, there was a splendid pagan temple
endowed with many treasures. Martin had asked the local priest, Marcellus, to
destroy it several times, but he had not done so, claiming that such a massive
building could not be pulled down, not even by soldiers and the villagers, and
that it was an impossible task for harmless clergymen and feeble monks. Thus,
Martin resorted to divine help. He spent the whole night in prayer and the
next morning a storm destroyed the temple. Sulpicius cites Marcellus himself
as a witness to this (Dial. 3.8.4–7). On another occasion, Martin tried to pull
down a large column with an idol at the top. Since he himself did not achieve
this, he turned to his habit of prayer. A large column fell from the sky over the
first one and smashed it to pieces. Here Sulpicius mentions another eyewitness
(Dial. 3.9.1–2).
However, despite Martin’s numerous acts of iconoclast violence, propitiated
by divine support, Sulpicius recalls that the holy bishop always preferred persuasion to violence: “Often, when peasants opposed him and asked him not to
destroy their shrine, he appeased their pagan spirit with his holy preaching, so
that by showing them the light of truth, they pulled down their temples themselves” (V. Mart. 15.4).
The historical value of these narratives has been questioned,15 and it has
been noted that Martin’s violent attacks against paganism should not be
14  This was probably the most important shrine of the Bituriges, located about eighty kilometers southeast of Tours. The importance of the temple explains Sulpicius’ precision in
locating it.
15  See, most recently, Barnes 2010:233, who denies that Martin was ever a soldier as Sulpicius
states, and consequently wonders if the rest of the Life is not equally fictitious.

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o­ verestimated. Including the episode when he stopped a funerary cortege
by mistake, thinking that it was a pagan procession (V. Mart. 12), there were
only a total of nine incidents during the twenty-six years of his episcopate and
none of them involved physical violence against people. It has also been highlighted that, as his biographer states, Martin preferred persuasion to coercion
(Salzman 2006:281–282). However, there is nothing to make us believe that his
iconoclast acts did not really take place. On the contrary, the Life was written
soon after Martin’s death when witnesses to the events were still alive, which
strengthens the hypothesis of its veracity.
Whether nine episodes of violence in twenty-six years of his episcopate is a
small or large number, taking into account that there could have been more,16
is a matter of opinion. However, there can be no doubt about Martin’s violent and provocative attitude towards paganism at a time when legislation did
not authorize the destruction of temples. Martin’s status as ex-soldier and the
numerous violent situations mentioned in the Life (bandit attacks, robberies,
physical threats) might help to put his iconoclast actions into context. In any
case, what counts for our purpose here is that the hagiographer considers iconoclasm as one of Martin’s most relevant virtuous actions, worthy of admiration
and of being emulated. As we shall see below, Martin’s example spread in Gaul,
where he had a large number of imitators.17
The contemporary experience of Porphyry, bishop of Gaza between 395–
420, is an exceptional example of the methods, difficulties, and progress of
personal crusades against paganism. His Life, a first draft of which was written shortly after his death by the deacon Mark, an eyewitness to the events,
provides a great deal of historical information, with unusual precision for this
literary genre. The oldest version that has reached us is not the original, but the
work of a later writer who nonetheless preserved the genuine core.18 This later
16  Sulpicius mentions in general terms that Martin built churches and monasteries wherever he destroyed temples, without specifying which; V. Mart. 13.
17  Martin’s iconoclastic actions are the best documented ones in the West for his time.
However, other similar acts may have occurred, even earlier in time. Gregory of Tours
Gloria confessorum 77 mentions the case of Simplicius, named bishop of Autun in 364.
When he saw a procession of the goddess Berecynta (another name for Cybele) in which
the idol was transported by oxen and cart with a large number of followers he prayed to
God for Him to knock the statue down. That is what happened and caused the conversion
of four hundred people.
18  The date of the Life of Porphyry has been extensively discussed. A Greek and a Georgian version exist, the latter of which is based on a shorter Syrian text. There is general agreement
that the Greek version is the original, although the one that is extant is a later text. The
historical value of the Life has also been questioned, although there is also agreement that,

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author was very selective in the events he chose to relate: most of the extant
Life (eighty-nine of the one hundred and three chapters) is about Porphyry’s
deeds as a bishop, focusing on a few years at the start of his episcopate when
he succeeded in obtaining the recognition of the inhabitants of Gaza, an eminently pagan city; this was thanks to his ability to do miracles and, above all, to
his obstinacy and efficiency in fighting the gods and temples.
In the prologue, which was added by the later author, it is made clear that
it was Porphyry’s “ardent love of Christ,” as expressed in his obsessive fight
against idols, which made him a man of extraordinary sanctity, a new apostle
worthy of remembrance:
What punishment shall I not justly suffer, if I commit not to writing the
life of a man, so beloved of God, that may teach us to love wisdom through
him, who strove zealously after the heavenly life? We shall tell the history
of his wars and his standing up not only against the leaders and champions of the madness of idols, but even against a whole people filled full of
all madness. For he remembered the words of the blessed apostle, hereby
he saith: ‘Take up the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the terrible day, and having overcome all to stand’ [Eph. 6.13],
having put on this whole armour the said apostle went in unto the fight;
but Porphyry also, having like adversaries, and as mighty, and being set to
a conflict like unto the apostle’s, was crowned with an equal victory, and
did raise up a trophy in the midst of the city of the Gazaeans, even that
holy church of Christ which he did found. But that which gave him the
victory was not his human nature, but his purpose, which drew unto itself
the divine grace: for the love of Christ being exceeding hot within him,
he had power to suffer and to do all things. How many warlike onslaughts
did this man abide at the hands of his adversaries; how many plottings
and mockings did he endure! (V. Porph., prol. 2)19

despite containing some inaccuracies, it provides reliable data. See Grégoire and Kugener
1930; Trombley 1995, 1.188–282; Teja 2008; Sfameni-Gasparro 2009:210–221; Barnes 2010.
Surprisingly, Porphyry is not subject matter in the most recent book on Christian Gaza
in Late Antiquity, a collection of essays edited by Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky 2004, in
which the discussion about Porphyry’s Life and mission is confined to a footnote (p. 7 n. 12).
19  Trans. Hill 1913. The prologue was borrowed from Theodoret’s Religious History, which was
published in 444–445.

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Porphyry’s iconoclast vocation manifested itself earlier in his ascetic career.
Coming from a noble family in Thessalonica, he felt the attraction of a m
­ onastic
life in his youth. He traveled to Egypt first and, around 377, he went to Palestine,
where he met Mark. In the Church of the Anastasis in Jerusalem, Porphyry had
a vision that revealed his mission of becoming a combatant against idolatry.
He saw Christ on the cross, telling him, “Take this wood and keep it for me.”
When the Bishop of Jerusalem made him a priest and gave him the duty of
looking after the relic of the cross, Porphyry understood the reach of this mission (V. Porph. 10). An additional sign strengthened this call: the Bishop of Gaza
had died and the Gazaeans, who disagreed about his successor, had asked the
metropolitan of Caesarea to give them “a priest who should be able by deeds
and by speech to withstand the idolaters”; the metropolitan had a vision that
that man would be Porphyry (V. Porph. 12).
Porphyry’s journey to Gaza was full of obstacles and humiliations. The
pagans in the villages near the city filled the path with thorns, spread rubbish,
and burned smelly substances that were dangerous to the eyesight (V. Porph. 17).
Once in Gaza, he had his first tour de force with the god Zeus-Marnas, whose
temple, the Marneion, was one of the most magnificent in the East. During
a drought, while Marnas was unable to provide rain, Porphyry managed to
do so easily in the course of an ostentatious procession. This brought as a
result the first of several massive conversions (V. Porph. 19–21). After enduring abuse and attacks from the pagans, Porphyry decided to send Mark to the
court in Constantinople (ca. 398) to ask the Emperor Arcadius for the temples to be destroyed. What Mark got was a decree to close them. An assistant
of the magister officiorum (master of offices), Hilarius, was put in charge of
enforcing this order (V. Porph. 26–27). Mark arrived in Gaza accompanied by
two commentarienses (officials responsible for policing and legal functions),
who were at the service of the governor of Palestine with numerous assistants and officials from other cities in the province. Hilarius informed the city
notables about the order and “he overturned all the idols in them and shut
them up,”20 although he allowed the Marneion to remain standing after a bribe
(V. Porph. 27). Impotent against the idolaters, who continued abusing Christians
and stopped them from carrying out public duties, Porphyry, with the metropolitan of Palestine, went to Constantinople to ask the emperors “with the
approval of the King of Heaven, for the destruction of the temples of the idols”
20  This statement is rhetorical, since the next chapters say that later the temples remained
standing. This is, in any case, what might be expected as the imperial orders referred to
closing the temples, not to demolishing them.

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(V. Porph. 32). After numerous contacts at the Court, they obtained the order to
demolish all of them to their foundations and put them to the fire (V. Porph. 51).
Meanwhile, the Empress Eudoxia made a large donation to build a church and
a hostelry in the midst of the city (V. Porph. 53).
The iconoclast offensive began as soon as Porphyry arrived in Gaza. A marble statue of a naked Aphrodite, placed in one of the city’s entrances, was exorcized with the cross and, once the demon had run away, pulled down. It fell
upon two pagans, breaking the head of one of them and the back and hand
of another (V. Porph. 59–62). After ten days, the imperial envoy, headed by
Cynegius, who had been chosen because of his Christian zeal, arrived in Gaza
with the army and some civil officials. The city counted eight public temples
and many more shrines in houses and in the nearby villages (V. Porph. 64). The
soldiers began with the Marneion, but the priests, who were ensconced inside,
obstructed their path. They then attacked other temples, pulling them down,
setting fire to them, and taking the sacred objects. Porphyry had forbidden
the Christians to take any sacred objects,21 and they abstained from doing
so. The campaign lasted ten days. After some uncertainty about how to destroy
the Marneion (some said it should be demolished, others that it be burned,
and yet others that it should be purified and turned into a church), a clairvoyant child announced that the temple should be set on fire from inside, and
he even gave details of the flammable material that should be used. After this
fire, the temple was to be purified and turned into a church. The temple was
destroyed in accordance with the child’s instructions (V. Porph. 66–70). Then,
the houses were inspected in search of idols, which when found were burned
or thrown in the mud; books with magic formulae were also confiscated and
burned. Many pagans converted, some from fear and others out of repentance
for their previous life (V. Porph. 71–72). Some Christians thought that they
should not accept people who converted through coercion, but Porphyry justified this practice by arguing that:
There be also virtues which come by chance unto men from circumstances. For even as a man who hath gotten a froward servant first admonisheth him by all means to behave himself wisely and to serve him with a
simple heart, but when he findeth him nowise obedient unto his admonition, then thereafter of necessity he layeth upon him fear and blows
and bonds and other such things, desiring not to destroy him but that he
21  Several constitutions issued by this time establish the prohibition of temple pillage: Cod.
Theod. 16.10.12 (8 Nov. 392); 10.18 (20 Aug. 399); 10.20 (30 Aug. 415). See n. 5 above.

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should be saved and acknowledge that which behoveth him; even such
may ye suppose God to be, enduring our frowardness with long suffering,
and oftentimes persuading us for our profit both through the scriptures
and through other holy men; but when we are not persuaded, desiring in
all things like a good and merciful master to keep us and not to thrust us
away, he layeth upon us his fear and his teaching, calling us of necessity
to acknowledge that which behoveth us. Therefore the divine scripture
saith: “When he slew them, then they sought him, and they returned and
inquired early after God” [Ps 78.34 (77.34)]. And again it saith concerning them who behave themselves unruly and stiffen their necks against
God: “With muzzle and bridle ye shall hold in their jaws lest they come
nigh thee” [Ps 32.9 (31.9)]. It is needful therefore, my children, that mankind be admonished by fear and threats and discipline. Therefore again it
saith: “It is good for me that thou hast humbled me, that I may learn thy
statutes” [Ps 99.71 (98.71)]. These things have I said because of those who
desire to come unto our holy faith. For even if they come doubting, time
is able to soften their hearts, if Christ consent. But, that I may tell you yet
another thing, even though they be not seen to be worthy if the faith, having been already in a state of evil, they that are born of them can be saved,
by having converse with the good. (V. Porph. 73)
In place of the Marneion, a church was built with the money donated by the
Empress, in a cross shape which she had designed. When the area of the temple was cleared, marble plates that had belonged to it were reused to pave the
square, so that they could be walked upon not only by men, but also by women,
dogs, pigs, and wild animals. This greatly offended the pagans, especially
the women who never set foot again upon those marbles (V. Porph. 75–76).
The story in the Life practically ends with the consecration of the church,
which was given the name of Eudoxiana, in 407. Such a sudden end (it concludes around 410, ten years before Porphyry’s death) suggests that the later
author removed part of the original text. The part he wanted to highlight
was the time of the crusade against the idols, when Porphyry won his prestige as a holy bishop. The final chapter, describing the saint’s death, thus
concludes:
(he died) having held his bishopric four and twenty years and eleven
months and eight days, and fought the good fight unto the end against
the idolmadmen until the day of his falling asleep. And now he is in the
Paradise of delight . . . (V. Porph. 103)

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Iconoclasm as Hagiographical Leitmotiv: East and West

The destruction of idols became a leitmotiv of hagiographic literature in the
first half of the fifth century and declined later, when paganism was in decline
and most temples had been abandoned. In those areas in which the conversion process had not been accomplished, iconoclasm appears in Christian
rhetoric as an efficient instrument in the suppression of paganism. This is
particularly well attested in Egypt (see Frankfurter 2000, 2008). The iconoclast
saint already appears in the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Hist. Monach.),
written in Greek around 395, and soon translated into Latin by Rufinus
of Aquileia (see Festugière 1961). After living in solitude for forty years,
Apollonius of Hermopolis received divine instructions to leave the desert and
move to populated places to combat pagan philosophy and idols. On one occasion, together with a group of monks from the monastery that he had founded,
Apollonius interfered with a pagan procession. While he kneeled and prayed,
he kept numerous participants and the priests carrying the wooden statue of
the idol from being able to move, only letting them go later.22 This resulted in
the conversion of many worshippers, who proceeded to burn the statue themselves. A large number of the converts went with Apollonius to his monastery.
“His fame and influence was so great that no pagans were left in the region,” the
hagiographer concludes (Hist. Monach. 7).
Iconoclast miracles have an important place in the biographies of the Coptic
saints, beginning with the Life of Shenoute (V. Shenut.). The Life of Shenoute
of Atripe (ca. 350–465), the archimandrite of the White Monastery (from 385
until his death), has been attributed to his disciple and successor as head of
the monastery, Besa.23 Shenoute, the nephew of the founder of a monastery
the impressive remains of which can still be found in the proximity of modern
Akhmim, was a man of outstanding culture and evangelizing zeal, who guided
the monastery to its greatest splendor and wealth. Shenoute’s authoritarian
character and strong Christian convictions drove him to start a violent offensive against heresy and paganism.24 An extensive corpus of Shenoute’s writings
survive in fragmentary copies, which include sermons against the pagans in an
aggressive language, and record several of his anti-pagan actions in Atripe and

22  The episode is very similar to Martin of Tours’ encounter with the funeral procession; see
V. Mart. 12. See this episode above.
23  For the Life, which survives in Coptic as well as in Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic, see
Lubomierski 2007.
24  For Shenoute’s anti-pagan offensive, see Emmel 2008.

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the surrounding areas, that Shenoute deems to have been carried out in an
orderly fashion:
For I have done nothing in a disorderly fashion: neither the time we burned
the pagan temple in Atripe; nor the time we went with the Christians
who were taken before the judge in Hermopolis and Antinoopolis when
the priests lodged a complaint against them because of the other (?) temple that they had destroyed in their own village. Or again: how many men
besides seven monks did I take with me the day I removed the idols from
that man’s private chamber.25
The Life raises Shenoute’s violent actions to the rank of encomiastic deeds. It
describes Shenoute’s visit to the village of Pnueit with the purpose of casting
down the idols there. When the pagans heard about this, they tried to stop him
by burying some magic spells in the road to the village. The saint, however,
detected these spells since the mule he was riding stopped each time he had
to pass over one of them. In Pnueit, Shenoute went into the temple, piled up
the idols, and smashed them (V. Shenut. 83–84). On another occasion, he went
to Panopolis for the purpose of taking away the idols that the crypto-pagan
landowner and ex-governor Gesios was hiding in his house. Accompanied by
two monks, he left the monastery and crossed the river at night without needing a boat. When they arrived, the doors of the house opened up and the way
towards the place with the idols was left clear. Shenoute gathered them up
with the assistance of his companions, took them to the river, broke them into
pieces, and threw them in. They then returned to the other side of the river,
once again without the need of a boat (V. Shenut. 125–127).
Other later Coptic Lives include episodes of a similar kind to these. The
Panegyric on Macarius, Bishop of Tkow (Paneg. Mac.), attributed to Dioscuros
of Alexandria (444–451),26 tells how the saint desired to end the worship of
an idol called Kothos, so he went to the temple on the outskirts of a village,
accompanied by some Christian notables. When they arrived, the worshippers
of the idol captured him, and Besa, Shenoute’s disciple, and a group of monks
who freed him then set fire to the temple. The temple priest was burned to
death, along with the idols. As a consequence of this, many pagans converted,
25  Quoted in Emmel 2008:162–163. The list may be not complete, as the manuscript breaks
off here. Shenoute remembers his anti-pagan activities in other works of his, compiled in
Emmel 2008:182–197.
26  Although the extant text is dated to the fifth or the sixth century, it contains an older core;
Johnson 1980 (ed. and trans.).

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and three hundred and six idols were thrown into the fire (Paneg. Mac. 5.1–11).
The Life of Moses (ca. 465–550), Bishop of Abydos, written shortly after his
death, attributed several deeds of this kind to its hero: the destruction of a temple of Apollo and four other temples, the death of thirty priests together with
their children, and the conversion of many. He is also attributed with putting
an end to the oracular worship of Bes. The Life ends when Moses encourages
his monks to go inside the temple (see Dijkstra 2005:87). The Life of Aaron
contains rich information about the monastic occupation of the island of
Philae and its first bishops, with many details about the destruction of its temples
(ca. 535–537).27
Actions taken against pagan worship are described in several other Greek
hagiographical works. Hypatius, the first hegoumenos in the Monastery of
Rufinianae near Chalcedon (ca. 406–446),28 was, according to his biographer,
obsessed with idols.
Driven by his zeal for God, he cleansed many places in the Bithynian
region of the mistaken worship of idols. As soon as he heard that a tree
or any other similar object was worshipped somewhere, he went to the
place immediately. He took the monks with him, his disciples, he cut it
down and set fire to it. In this way, (these people) were gradually made
Christian. In fact, saint Jonas, who had been his spiritual father, had civilized Thrace in this way and had made it Christian. (V. Hypat. 30)29
The offensive against pagan worship seems to have been a part of the teachings
and ascetic practice at Rufinianae. For a time, one of the most popular and controversial ascetics of the time, Alexander Akimetes (“the sleepless one”), stayed
there.30 From an island in the Aegean, Alexander had followed ascetic practices first in Syria and later in Mesopotamia, where he founded a monastery on

27  See Dijkstra 2008: 225–270, with a discussion about the Life of Aaron as a historical source.
28  The Monastery of Rufinianae had been founded in 393 by Flavius Rufinus, Praetorian
Prefect of the East, on his land on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Monks were brought
from Egypt to establish this first foundation. After Rufinus’ death, by order of the Emperor
Arcadius, it was ruled by Hypatius, a monk from Phrygia, who made the monastery a center of attraction for ascetics; there were fifty in Hypatius’ lifetime. The Life of Hypatius, by
his disciple Callinicus, must have been written shortly after the saint’s death; see Bartelink
1971:912.
29  The translation is my own from Bartelink’s edition. As far as I know, there is no English
translation of the Life.
30  Alexander’s Life is translated in Caner 2002:249–280.

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the banks of the Euphrates that welcomed monks of various cultures. It was
said that four languages were spoken in the monastery: Syrian, Coptic, Greek,
and Latin. The founder achieved great fame for his ascetic rigor, his devotion
to prayer, and his missionary zeal. The monks under his supervision, who were
able to move around in groups of over a hundred (perhaps the figure is exaggerated), were feared in the cities around the monastery because of the disturbances and violence they caused; a form of apostolate that, according to the
Life, succeeded in converting several Arab tribes. Alexander was once arrested
as an agitator, but he managed to escape and fled to Constantinople where he
founded a monastery some fifteen miles from Rufinianae, which soon gathered
about three hundred monks. When they were accused of heresy and persecuted, Alexander and some of his disciples sought refuge in Rufinianae, from
where they undertook the foundation of other monasteries. The most famous
of these, known as the monastery of the Acoemetae, became an important
center of spirituality and culture in the Constantinopolitan area through the
work of his disciple, Marcellus (see Marcos 2003: 664–666).
Syrian monasticism, which was so rich and varied in its forms, also provides
some examples of iconoclast saints. Their missionary methods ranged from
the eradication of idolatry by symbolic violence (the saint shows his power
by defeating the demons in a spiritual combat, ousting them from their
abode and occupying it himself ) to physical attacks, demolitions, and fires.
A good illustration of the first method is the experience of Thalelaeus, told
by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (ca. 444–445) in his Philotheos Historia, who claims
to have seen the “prodigious spectacle” with his own eyes (28.1). Thalelaeus
settled down by a temple near the village of Gabala, where worshippers made
numerous offerings to placate the cruel demons by whom the population
was being terrorized. Thalelaeus built a small hut there. The demons tried
to frighten him away by blowing gales (over five hundred trees were blown
down by a single gust) and also by making night-time noises and lights. When
these had no effect on Thalelaeus, they finally left him alone. Theodoret visited
Thalelaeus some years later, when he was living in a small cylinder hung in the
air, where, because of the saint’s large size, he always had to remain seated with
his head between his knees. Thalelaeus’ ascetic rigor and his miracles made
him a celebrity among the people in the area. Theodoret finishes his hagiographic portrait:
With their (the newly converted) assistance he has demolished the precinct of demons and erected a great shrine to the triumphant martyrs,
opposing to those falsely called gods the godly dead. May it be that by
their intercession this man too may with the same victory reach the goal
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of the contests (agones), and that we, aided by both them and him, may
become fervent lovers of the contests of philosophy. (Hist. Phil. 28.5)31
Among the several iconoclast monks in the Syrian region, the most outstanding is Barsauma (or Bar Sauma), of whom a biography written by Samuel, one
of his first disciples, is extant.32 Although novel-like in many ways, the Life contains a reliable historical core in regards to the numerous episodes of violence
against pagans and Jews (Acerbi 2007:278–279, 284). Barsauma and his monks
alternated their anchoritic or semi-anchoritic life in the Taurus Mountains
with evangelizing expeditions to the Holy Land, undertaken outside any control by civil or ecclesiastical authorities. Around 420, he went to Jerusalem,
accompanied by forty followers behaving like a ravaging militia. On the march
towards Jerusalem, Barsauma
entered the land of the Phoenicians, the Arabs and the Palestinians. He
began to subvert the Jewish synagogues, destroy the meeting places of
the Samaritans, and burn the temples of pagan idols. After praying in
Jerusalem and going to the mountains of Sinai, he walked along the desert road. At that time, the pagans were still powerful in those places; they
were the owners of the land and the cities in the region. The city gates
closed on his arrival. Sometimes they passed by, other times they insisted
and forced open the city gates and entered. On one occasion they reached
a large city in that land called Requem de Gaïa (Petra), which closed its
gates. (Barsauma) was surprised by the citizens’ fear, as there were only
forty men with him. He threatened to declare war on them and burn the
city down if they did not let him enter. He entered. It had not rained for
four years and he announced rain for them. So much rain fell that the city
walls collapsed. The priests of the idols converted.33
31  Trans. Price 1985. Nothing is left of this martyrium. Theodoret mentions other cases of
supplanting similar cults of Maron in Cyrrhestique (Hist. Phil. 16.1) and of Abraham in a
Lebanese village (Hist. Phil. 17.2).
32  The version of the Life of Barsauma that has reached us, in Syriac, dates from the sixth
century. It has been partially edited and translated into French by F. Nau in several issues
of the Revue de l’Orient chrétien: (1913), 18:272–276, 379–389; (1914), 19:113–114, 278–279,
414–440; (1915–1917), 20:3–32. Although the figure of Barsauma has been studied, as far as
I know, his biography has not been written. The best account of his activities, both against
paganism and in ecclesiastical politics, always marked by his extremist and violent temperament, is in Acerbi 2007.
33  Based on a translation in Acerbi 2007:283.

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From Petra, they walked on towards the Port of Maan along the Roman road
to the east of the Dead Sea, burning down synagogues and destroying temples
as they went. Accompanied by a hundred men, Barsauma undertook another
journey to the Holy Land, where he met the Empress Eudocia, Theodosius II’s
wife, who had exiled herself in Bethlehem. The Empress was fascinated by
Barsauma’s deeds and asked to see him and took him under her protection.
In a new expedition to the Holy Land in 438, Barsauma went to the temple of
Jerusalem, where numerous Jews had gathered because of the imperial offer
of re-establishing it, and he started a great riot. The Life doubtlessly exaggerates the figures: over a hundred thousand Jews were gathered for the feast of
Sukkoth; they began to stone Barsauma and his monks who, despite being outnumbered, won the day. There were some deaths, and the monks were tried
by the Roman governor and found guilty. An earthquake occurred during
their arrest, and Barsauma succeeded in persuading the governor, by this and
other miracles, that the Jews’ deaths were due to divine will. This earned him a
redoubled reputation as a holy man. He was invited by Emperor Theodosius II
to take part in the Second Council of Ephesus in 449, where he represented
Eastern monasticism against the Nestorians and played a prominent and violent part. But his luck changed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and he was
condemned after being accused of killing Bishop Flavian of Constantinople,
who had died as a result of physical violence at the Council of Ephesus.
Barsauma was then dispossessed of his post as archimandrite, although he was
later rehabilitated and allowed to return to his monastery, where he lived at
least until 457 (Acerbi 2001).
The motif of the iconoclast saint endured in later Byzantine hagiography.
Although it goes beyond the chronological limits of this paper, it is worth taking a brief look at the figure of John, monophysite Bishop of Ephesus, who was
known for his evangelization crusade in the rural areas of the western provinces of Asia Minor in the mid-sixth century (Trombley 1985). The progress of
his campaign is described by himself in his Church History:
In the year 542, the kindness of God visited Asia, Caria, Lydia, and
Phrygia, thanks to the zeal of the victorious Justinian and by the activity of his humble servant (John of Asia) . . . When God opened the minds
(of the pagans) and made them know the truth, he aided us in destroying their temples, in overturning the idols, in eradicating the sacrifices
which were offered everywhere, in smashing their altars defiled by the
blood of sacrifices offered to pagan gods, and in cutting down the numerous trees which they worshiped, and so they became estranged from all

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the errors of their forefathers. The saving sign of the cross was implanted
­everywhere amongst them, and the churches of God were founded in
every place. (see in Trombley 1985:333)
John claims to have saved many thousands of people of the error of idolatry in
the mountains of Caria, near the city of Tralles, an area that he says was completely pagan. A temple there was consecrated to the goddess Dareira (probably the temple of the goddess Mother Isodromia, mentioned by Strabo in
Geography 9.5.19), on which fifteen hundred smaller temples depended. With
the approval of the civil authorities, John ordered the destruction of the temple
and the construction of a monastery in its place, which received large donations from the Emperor Justinian. The Dareira monastery held jurisdiction
over fourteen churches and seven monasteries in John’s lifetime. In another
of his works, The Lives of the Eastern Saints, a dossier with brief biographies
of John’s collaborators in Asia, he gives some figures about their evangelizing
achievements: eighty thousand conversions, ninety-eight churches, and twelve
monasteries built between 536–566.34 John benefitted from the collaboration
of several monophysite bishops, priests, and monks, who complained about
the hardship of their mission, for which they had to climb mountains and enter
rugged rural areas. Their mission was largely funded by imperial resources,
private donations, and a tax paid by Christians. All John’s collaborators had
been monks, in the present or in the past; and most of them were Syrians apart
from some Armenians and Persian Arameans. Similar evangelizing actions
in Asia Minor are attested in the Life of Nicholas of Sion, hegumen of Hagia
Sion monastery in Lycia (sixth century),35 and of the Life of Theodoret of Sykeon
in Galacia (seventh century).36 Despite all the rhetoric on massive conversions associated with these campaigns, paganism survived in the East until the
Arab conquest.
Western hagiographic tradition is less rich in recounting iconoclast deeds,
with the notable exception of Gaul, where the historical and hagiographic profile of Martin was very influential (Caseau 2001:83–84). In Merovingian Gaul,
the best example of an emulator of Martin in the physical combat against idols
is Vulfilaic, a radical ascetic who received Gregory of Tours in his monastery
for a short time (ca. 585). It is Gregory who narrates the story in his Historia
Francorum, which he was told directly by Vulfilaic as part of the account of
his ascetic conversion (8.15). Vulfilaic felt devotion to Martin when he was a
34  Figures that Trombley 1985:330–331 considers realistic.
35  Ed. and trans. Sevcenko and Sevcenko 1984.
36  There is a partial translation in Dawes and Baynes 1977:88–192.

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boy from only hearing his name and without knowing any more about him.
When he was an adult, being instructed by Abbot Avidius, he visited Martin’s
tomb in Tours, from where he took a little earth. This was the cause of a miracle which made Vulfilaic become faithfully devoted to the saint’s memory. He
moved to Trier and built a monastery there with his own hands and a church
which became famous for its relics of Martin as well as other saints. Vulfilaic
achieved his prestige as an ascetic with the destruction of a statue of Diana
that no one else had been able to pull down before. He went up a column
next to the statue and stayed there and prayed repeatedly until he obtained
from God the strength to overturn it. When it was on the ground, he broke
the statue into pieces with a hammer. The demon inside it took revenge by
filling Vulfilaic’s body with boils, which he cured with holy oil brought from
St. Martin’s church. The local bishops finally managed to persuade Vulfilaic to
stop emulating Simeon Stylites, to leave his column, and to go live with the
monks in his monastery. This episode, full of picturesque details, is reminiscent of the story that Sulpicius tells of Martin’s fight against the statue on a
column (Dial. 3.9.1–2).
The Life of St. Gall by Gregory of Tours also contains an episode of iconoclasm. When Gall was travelling with King Theodoric to Cologne, he saw a
temple full of religious objects, where it was said that the barbarians carried
out their rites and orgiastic banquets and left votive offerings to acknowledge
the healings performed by the god. Gall went with a companion and set fire to
the temple, while no devotees were inside. When the heathens saw the smoke,
they chased Gall with their swords. The king calmed them down and Gall’s
life was saved. His hagiographer concludes, “(Gall) would often shed tears
when he told this story and say, ‘Oh, how wretched I am for not losing my life
then’ ” (Vitae Patrum 6.2). Other Merovingian saints, like Queen Radegund, the
founder of a monastery in Poitiers, included the destruction of idols amongst
their evangelization work.37
The evocative power of Martin’s iconoclast miracles reached well into the
Middle Ages. A Romanesque capital in the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene in
Vézelay, a major pilgrimage center in the Middle Ages, shows the saint in the
act of cutting down the pine tree. The Romanesque artist, however, turned the
pine tree into a palm tree. The fact that the image of Martin is part of a series of
37  Radegund, the founder of a women’s monastery in Poitiers in 544, who died in 587, was
praised in two Lives. One was written by her friend and protégé, the poet Venantius
Fortunatus shortly after her death (Vita Radegundis I; see Krusch 1888) and the other is a
continuation of the first, by an abbess at her monastery, Baudovinia, written in the early
seventh century (Vita Radegundis II).

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hagiographic capitals, which represent Anthony and Paul the hermit, among
others, must have confused the artist, who placed Martin in scenery reminiscent of the Egyptian desert.
Conclusion
Sanctity is in many ways a social construct, and hence the profile of saints
and the practices that qualify them as such change with the passing of time.
The destruction of temples and idols as a way and sign of sanctity is a good
example of this. The subject came to form part of the hagiography in the late
fourth century, reached its peak in the Theodosian period (late fourth through
early fifth centuries), the time of an increase in the legislation and fight against
pagan worship, and fell off in the sixth century when Christianization was
believed to be complete. Even so, later accounts describe holy acts of iconoclasm in rural areas, which were more vulnerable to abuse. The destruction
of idols, which is categorized within either the virtues or the miracles of the
saints, fulfills several functions in the Lives. It is a form of sanctification and an
ascetic exercise, a way to court martyrdom, and a manifestation of divine will
and omnipotence. All this is given a triumphal touch to show God’s superiority
over polytheistic gods, now reduced to the category of demons, and encourage
conversions.
Each story of the destruction of a pagan holy place is followed by an episode
of conversion en masse. As an instrument of conversion, the smashing of idols
had, however, only limited success. Where it is possible to make a statistical
study of the results of these miracles of conversion, as it is in the case of the
Life of Porphyry, the figures are poor. However, the figures are not what count in
sanctity, nor even the absolute accuracy of the stories. In fact, many of the Lives
we have examined here are far from being completely reliable from a historical
point of view. What counts is their function as examples to be followed, as it
is invariably read in the prologues; that is what makes them relevant for Late
Antique history.
Hagiography provided role models and acted as a guide for the construction
of Christian identity. The destruction of sacred places was one of the virtues
worthy of being admired and emulated. The iconoclast saint, in single combat
against the demons, exemplified the victory of true religion over the falsity of
polytheism and showed God’s power over the daimones. Once the latter had
been turned into “demons,” the encounter became a fight between God and
the devil. The violence is thus justified as a necessary means because of the

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resistance of the gods to being removed from their abodes, and as manifestation of the struggle against the demon.
Hagiography reached an extensive audience, including the illiterate, as
these texts were read in churches on the saints’ anniversaries. Furthermore,
they were frequently translated, making it an “international” literary genre
that contributed towards shaping the behavior of Christians in very different
cultural traditions. During the crucial years of the offensive against paganism,
hagiography was a vehicle for the call of ecclesiastical hierarchy to demolish
and desacralize the temples and reuse them as churches.
Finally, although the function of hagiography was not to construct a historical account but to evoke the actions that led to sainthood and its manifestations so that they might be imitated, a historical reality lies behind these
narratives. Hagiography thus comprises the richest source about the destruction of idols and the Christianization of pagan sacred places. Therefore, from
two viewpoints, symbolic and historical, hagiography is relevant for the study
of religious violence in Late Antiquity. It provides data which should be
assessed within the conventions of the genre, and informs us about a model
of religious behavior that, traveling in the popular vehicle of hagiography, subtly invited violence into a society prone to violence, where spiritual and nonspiritual interests overlapped.
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