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The Chronicle of SeertChristian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq$

Philip Wood

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199670673

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199670673.001.0001

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Collaborators and Dissidents: Writing the Hagiographies of the Fifth-century Persecutions

Collaborators and Dissidents: Writing the Hagiographies of the Fifth-century Persecutions

(p.31) 1 Collaborators and Dissidents: Writing the Hagiographies of the Fifth-century Persecutions
The Chronicle of Seert

Philip Wood

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the political context for the first moment of centralization in the Church of the East and the emergence of a patriarchal history. Using the evidence of the synodica (church councils) and the hagiographies (saints’ lives) of prominent martyrs, it examines how there were winners and losers from the close relationship between the shah and the bishop of Ctesiphon. The catholicos’ wish for recognition by the state may have been seen by some as an act of collaboration with a pagan king, and the period was characterized by aggressive Christian proselytism and the destruction of Zoroastrian cult sites. This in turn prompted a substantial counter-reaction by the Sasanian state and a series of small-scale persecutions. But even if the image of a centralized catholicosate was not true at the time it was made, it bequeathed an ideal to his successors that they would attempt to turn into reality.

Keywords:   synods, persecution, East-West contact, Zoroastrianism, proselytism, hagiography, Sasanian

The fourth century saw a series of persecutions against Sasanian Christians by their temporal rulers. Though these demonstrations of public violence may have only been directed against a small number of prominent trouble-makers, the deaths of men such as the bishop of the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon, Simeon bar Sebba‘e, provided the core of a later martyr literature that made the Church of the East a church of the martyrs.

However, we should also be aware that the bishops of Ctesiphon had no continuous history as rulers of the Church of the East. This impression, which is created by later medieval compilations such as the Chronicle of Seert, is, in effect, a retrojection of a situation that only arose in the fifth century, when bishops of Ctesiphon asserted their importance as servants of the shah and as beneficiaries of a special relationship with the Christian Roman Empire. The peace negotiations between Rome and Iran at the beginning of the fifth century presented an opportunity for Ishaq, bishop of Ctesiphon, to assert his importance as ‘catholicos’.

Ishaq’s coup is visible from the Syriac Synodicon Orientale, a compilation of the synods of Ctesiphon. The Synodicon allows us an insight into the ambitions and limitations of the Church of the East as an institution. But it also shows us the existence of a dissident tradition, of bishops who were excluded from the court influence that the catholicos and his allies claimed for their own. In addition, the martyr acts composed around contemporary holy men show that many did not respect the ranks of clerical hierarchy or the spirit of cooperation with the state that Ishaq emphasized at his synod in 410. The religious vandalism of these holy men, coupled with the dissatisfaction of many bishops, underlay the disintegration of catholical authority under Ishaq’s successor Dadishoʿ, when the Sasanian state removed its support for an ineffectual institution and returned to the persecution of the Christians.

(p.32) These events provided the context and the inspiration for the rival constructions of history in hagiographies set in the fourth and fifth centuries. These hagiographies gave in turn the raw material for the subsequent re-inventions of the patriarchal chronicles. There are several important points of contrast between them and the Chronicle of Seert, especially in their depiction of conflict between recalcitrant martyrs and the Sasanian authorities. Firstly, they allow us to see how the Chronicle has altered the version of events found in these hagiographies, to present a more irenic model of relations between Christians and fifth-century shahs. Secondly, the hagiographies presented here provide an example of an older strand of historiography, one that was essentially subverted and replaced by the histories of the catholicoi.

The 410 Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon

The first synod of the Church of the East was held in Ctesiphon in 410.1 It was convened under the auspices of the shah Yazdegard I (399–420), the Roman emissary Marutha of Maypherkat, and Ishaq (399–410), ‘grand metropolitan’ of Ctesiphon, and sought to transform the Church of the East along the same lines as the Roman church.

This synod was also convened in the context of broader Persian–Roman diplomacy, which sought to scale down confrontation on Rome’s eastern border. After an initial treaty in 399, Marutha made a first visit in 402, in the context of diplomatic overtures between the court of Arcadius (395–408) and the Persians, which was followed by Yazedgard’s declaration of religious toleration. This was succeeded by a second visit in 409, which probably followed internal strife within the church in Iraq, to confirm Ishaq’s prominence.2

The initial session of the synod articulated the relationship between the shah, the Church of the East and the other dignitaries. Yazdegard is called ‘the victorious king of kings, on whom the churches rely for peace’; and he is praised for putting a stop to the persecutions of earlier years. Ishaq is honoured as catholicos (the first use of the title), ‘judged by God worthy of (p.33) the gift (mawhabtā) of all the East’ and Marutha is called ‘the mediator of peace between East and West’.3 The text also notes the presence of the bishops of Antioch, Aleppo, Edessa, Tella, and Amida, that is, of a sizeable delegation from the Syriac-speaking sections of the Roman world, and that of the metropolitans of Nisibis, Adiabene, Beth Garmai, Khuzistan, Maishan, and Kashkar: the leaders of the church in Iraq (though not of Christian leaders further to the east).4

The opening text goes on to demand that each city should only have a single bishop and that all should have the same sacred days that were established in the Nicene canons, ‘as was established under the just and God-loving emperor Constantine’. This text ends with a prayer for the king and for all the notables ‘who wish to live in peace with the church of God’.5

The synodical record presents an image of unity between the Church in the East and in the Roman Empire, accentuated by the physical presence of the Roman bishops and employs the rhetoric of peaceful co-operation while presenting Yazdegard’s involvement in the synod as a sign of his ‘victory’, on the model of Constantine. Constantine’s claim to rule over all Christians had been seen as a threat in the previous century during the Shapurian persecutions, so the presentation of Yazdegard as ‘a new Constantine’ and the shah’s self-presentation as a ‘ruler over the whole world, East and West’ can be seen as the adoption of Constantinian claims to universal rule by a Persian shah. Shapur I had claimed on his inscriptions to be ruler of ērān and anērān, an idea that carried a claim to universal rule, but here we have Yazdegard making these claims, and having claims made for him, in the context of a Christian synod. Shapur I’s inscriptions had been addressed to Iranian elites and carried a sense of ethnic difference, but Yazdegard’s claims are aimed towards, and re-echoed by, a new interest group, whose declarations were also heard by the Roman delegation.

The image of Yazdegard’s victory may have also been important in the context of the need of both Rome and Persia to re-orientate themselves away from war with one another and towards the Huns. This diplomatic re-orientation may explain both the Romans’ willingness to allow Yazdegard to employ the terms of Constantinian universal rule and the emphasis on Yazdegard the peacemaker as victorious. This image was also intended for the shah’s notables, who are one of the principal objects of the magnification of the shah and who also are enjoined, at the end of the preamble, to align themselves to the shah’s policies and not adopt ‘a high and stubborn (qašyā) attitude before the people and church of God’.6

(p.34) This initial session was followed by an agreement on the creed and on the disciplinary canons of the Roman world of the fourth century (Ankara, Neocaesarea, Antioch, Gangra, and Laodicaea). The Western disciplinary canons included bans on heresies never known in the East: the issue at stake was uniformity as part of a universal communion, rather than the actual function of the canons per se.7

The final session of the synod issued the new disciplinary canons of the Church of the East. They show that, while the hierarchy of a church existed, and that its delegates could agree on a single creed, there were few norms about the ‘abuse of office’, the election of bishops or the relationship between bishops and institutional property. These canons of the final session articulate the need for a centralized church, where all elected bishops must be ‘perfected’ by the catholicos in a secondary ordination and be gathered at a biannual synod at Ctesiphon to ‘honour the [catholicos]’.8 Bishops could not ordain one another alone, nor could an anathemized bishop be replaced without the agreement of the catholicos or a metropolitan. Additionally, it was the catholicos who could determine the liturgical year.9

The canons present the image of a clergy and episcopate that had been unregulated and that lacked guidelines for ‘proper behaviour’: they legislate against dishonest and illiterate clergy, against the ordination of deacons who do not know the psalms and against violence between bishops.10 These declarations on ‘proper behaviour’ flow from the general prescriptions of the first canon, which sets out the qualities of a bishop: to receive strangers, feed the poor, aid the oppressed, nourish orphans, refuse presents and to meditate on the scriptures.11 But as much as this image of a disorganized church probably does reflect the pre-410 reality, we should remember that it was also an opportunity for the council’s conveners to abrogate great powers to themselves, an alliance between the catholicos and his metropolitans that was confirmed by the presence of the Westerners and the power of the shah, rather than being a ‘bottom-up’ wish for the regulation of the church. The shah himself asserted that the wishes of the catholicos were to be regarded as laws, and he personally claimed the right to summon bishops, enforce church discipline and to nominate the catholicos, theoretical powers that he would try to use in future years.12 Similarly, the bishops of the major sees of Iraq benefited from their (p.35) status as the great men of the church, while the bishops of congregations further east, including the leaders of prestigious communities of Roman exiles in Gundishapur and elsewhere, gained no such recognition. Before we accept too readily the claims of Ishaq as ‘grand metropolitan and head of all bishops’,13 we should remember how much the shah, the Roman bishops, and the six metropolitans of Iraq stood to gain from such an arrangement.

One example of how the ‘reform’ of ecclesiastical organization might have benefited the catholicos is provided by the canon against multiple holders of sees: the synod demanded in these instances that there could only be a single bishop. Yet only two bishops, Batai of Meshmahig and Daniel, were removed from their sees. In the province of Khuzistan, which seems to have had many more than its fair share of incumbents, four bishops were all allowed to retain their positions simultaneously as long as the catholicos could appoint their successor. As Labourt observed, this may reflect their influence at court, but the actions of Ishaq and the synod also show their wish to centralize decision-making on the person of the catholicos, rather than leave the decision to local election.14

Ishaq’s successors Ahai (410–14) and Iaballaha (415–20) benefited from this period of entente between the shah and the Romans. The Chronicle of Seert reports that Ahai was selected by Yazdegard to investigate false claims by his nephew Nahrouz in Fars that a state shipment of pearls via India and China had been captured by pirates. It also informs us that Iaballaha was chosen to make diplomatic overtures to the Romans after receiving a Roman embassy from one Acacius of Amida, where he was given impressive presents at the court of Theodosius II, which he used to build and restore churches.15 Iaballaha received, in turn, a second visit from Acacius in 420, when he convened a synod to hear his letter of greeting and to reaffirm the disciplinary canons of the Anatolian councils.16 The traditions embedded in the Chronicle seem to reflect a close relationship between shah, catholicos, and the Romans, where peace negotiations opened the potential of charitable donations from the Roman church and where a catholicos based in the shah’s Iraqi capital could monitor his relatives in the original Sasanian military heartland of Fars.

However, the profitable relationship did not imply that the rest of the ecclesiastical hierarchy was complicit with the behaviour of the catholicoi. Quarrels over the treatment of religious minorities in both empires and the Christian self-representation of the Theodosian court led to a brief war in 421–2 and a renewed spell of persecution under Yazdegard I and his (p.36) successor Vahram V.17 The acts of the synod of 424, held under the catholicos Dadishoʿ, give a different perspective on the stability of the reigns of Ishaq, Ahai, and Iaballaha, as the smokescreen of earlier rhetoric is blown away to reveal the weakness of Ctesiphon’s authority over other bishops.

The 424 synod follows the theme of earlier synods by issuing a preamble in which the signatories profess their loyalty, but it also reveals the existence of a party of dissidents, of which eleven are named, who, it is now revealed, were condemned by both Ishaq in 410 and by Iaballaha at a second synod in 420.18 These men include Batai of Hormizd-Ardashir, possibly the same Batai who was condemned by Ishaq, and one Pharabokht of Ardashir-Khurrah, who had previously been nominated as catholicos.19 Among these dissident sees were major cities such as Dastgird, Belashparr, Darabgerd, Hormizd-Ardashir, and Ardashir-Khurrah. At least one of the dissident bishops, Abner of Kashkar, seems to have been a ‘dual-incumbent’ displaced from his see by an alternative line of episcopal succession.20 These bishops are said to have accused the catholicos of not being properly ordained or educated, and of denying the authority of the catholicosate before the Zoroastrians and being an apostate.21

Thus, the impression of unity and centralization that we receive from the synods of Ishaq and Iaballaha is, in part, an illusion, aimed to impress the dignitaries who were present. The catholicoi desired short-term diplomatic gains from the upper echelons of Roman and Persian administration, but ignored grievances and alternative lines of patronage in the provinces, even if we cannot reconstruct these in detail.22 If the decade of 410–20 had brought the rewards of high-level cooperation, then the final year of Yazdegard’s reign would bring an end to ‘the peace of the church’ and to peace with Rome.

(p.37) The War of 421 and the New Persecutions

The end of Yazdegard’s reign saw a major volte-face by the shah in which he resumed the periodic persecution of Christians. This change in policy was prompted in part by Christian vandalism of fire temples and the shah’s need to distance himself from his Christian clients. Yazdegard seems to have initially attempted to install Persian Christians, Maʿna and Pharabokht, as catholicoi, and accepted the intercession of major bishops on behalf of the wider Christian community.23 This desire by the shah to exercise closer control over Christians through the catholicosate helps to explain the accusations against Dadishoʿ in 424, who was said to have denied to the authorities that he held any position of leadership and apostatized, which may reflect real attempts to deny responsibility for Christian vandalism.24

However, Yazdegard’s actions did not prevent the shah’s loss of prestige, and he went on to make examples of certain prominent apostates from Zoroastrianism. Yazdegard’s religious and political experimentation seems to have drawn the anger of a number of notables at court, including the Magian priest Mihr-Narseh. These men were not satisfied by Yazdegard’s attempts to control the situation and ultimately arranged his assassination and killed his son Shapur. The throne was initially given to Shapur’s cousin, Khusrau, until he was challenged by another son of Yazdegard, Vahram, who ruled as Vahram V.

The Persian royal tradition, which is elaborated in later extant Arab histories such as al-Tabari and in the New Persian Shahnameh, may illustrate some of the distrust of Yazdegard’s behaviour. Al-Tabari reports that Yazdegard was known as ‘the sinful one’, a criticism that may reflect his support for Christianity. The histories complain that he did not trust those who spoke out for the oppressed, putting his trust only in foreign ambassadors and imposing monetary penalties and physical punishment on aristocrats. In this tradition, Yazdegard was killed by being thrown from a white horse, symbolizing his failure to fulfil his divine mandate for kingship.25 By contrast, Vahram Gur denounces his father’s evil and is crowned by the chief mobad, proving his right to rule through displays of heroism and his adventures in India.26 Much of this material is legendary, but it does suggest that the attitudes of Persian elites towards the shahs differed greatly and that they expressed this in terms (p.38) of heroic myth and Zoroastrian mythology. Importantly, Yazdegard is portrayed rejecting the advice of his aristocrats and using the state’s power against them, while Vahram is praised for lowering taxes and courting the mobads, especially his chief mobad Mihr Narseh, who, the tradition reports, acquired extensive landed property during his reign.27 Though our sources are late, they indicate that Yazdegard’s murderers used Zoroastrian ideas to legitimate their actions, and criticized of his attempts to broaden his pool of advisors, and that certain Zoroastrian clergy benefited greatly during the reign of his successor.

The analogue to these accusations is provided by the Christian historical traditions. Yazdegard used Ahai and Iaballaha to monitor his relatives and conduct diplomacy. And Greek ecclesiastical history also accentuates the proximity of Marutha to Yazdegard. Socrates Scholasticus, writing in the 430–40s, narrates that ‘the king loved Marutha’ and that Marutha detected the tricks of the Magi, who claimed that their god could speak to the king out of the flames, and that Marutha expelled demons from the king’s son.28 While neither the Roman ecclesiastical history nor the Arabic recensions of the Persian royal annals are a precise source, they present a relatively unified image here of a shah content to use foreign advisors, to create institutions, and to challenge the governance of local aristocrats.

Scott McDonough has usefully placed both Yazdegard’s reign and that of his ‘persecuting’ successors Vahram Gur and Yazdegard II into the context of the reform of the Sasanian state, where the personal rule of earlier shahs was gradually and experimentally replaced by more stable structures. The period 350–480 saw the replacement of regional sub-kings with government-appointed marzbans; the centralization of silver manufacture (an important vehicle for royal propaganda); the issuing of mint-marked coins; and an appeal to ‘ancient’ Kayanid myths as part of royal self-presentation.29 McDonough’s observations build on earlier studies of the government seals by Rika Gyselen that saw the fifth century as an era of bureaucratic expansion in the Sasanian world and as the period when mobads were regularly given government functions.30

(p.39) This focus on the creation of more permanent institutions is important because it allows us to understand the experimentation of Yazdegard and later shahs with Christian structures in terms of the Sasanian state, rather than purely from the perspective of churchmen. What Yazdegard shared with his successors was the creation of institutions that bound specific groups within the empire to the shah, using these institutions to balance different interests while allowing the shah to retain control over appointments and the fiscal–military apparatus. We should remember, of course, that three of Shapur II’s immediate successors had been assassinated at the end of the fourth century. The use of the catholicoi as spies and diplomats, diplomatic recognition by the Roman bishops, Kayanid ideology, bureaucratic reform, and the institutional reform of the Magi were all experiments aimed at creating long-term legitimacy for the shahs and engendering loyalty and an ability to intervene in different localities.

Therefore, the centralization of the church that Yazdegard promised was important for Christians because it offered great power to those who were willing to cooperate with the shah and successfully act on his behalf. But it also threatened tension, both with other competitors for the shah’s favour and with other Christians, who stood to lose out in various ways from the relationship between shah and catholicos. The relationships between the catholicos and the shah, and between the catholicos and his bishops, were closely connected to the relationships between Persians and Romans and between the shah and the Magi. It is with this nexus of patronage in mind that we should analyse the persecutions of the reigns of Yazdegard and Vahram and the controversy about loyalty that was associated with these events.

The Martyrs of Yazdegard and Vahram

The Roman ecclesiastical historian Theodoret of Cyrrhus reports (c.440) that one Abdas, ‘adorned with virtue and stirred by undue zeal to destroy paganism’ tore down a fire temple in Khuzistan. He reports that Yazdegard made moderate requests to Abdas to restore the temple, but that these were refused and that Yazdegard responded by having him killed and the churches destroyed. He goes on to describe the death or imprisonment of other martyrs under Yazdegard: Hormisdas ‘an Achaemenid and the son of a prefect’, Suenes ‘master of a thousand slaves’31 and Benjamin, a deacon who refused to renounce proselytism. He adds that ‘just as Diocletian destroyed churches in (p.40) the Roman Empire on the day of our saviour’s Passion’, he, like Yazdegard, ‘perished in iniquity’.

Theodoret’s report suggests that Yazdegard’s chief concern was the conversion of high-ranking Persians and the destruction of Zoroastrian shrines, and that Christian churches presented a suitable target to threaten Christians into greater obedience. Theodoret was clearly anxious about the wisdom of Abdas’ actions: he notes that ‘not even [Paul] destroyed the altars of the Athenians’, though he agrees that it is ‘honourable to seek a martyr’s crown and to refuse to rebuild a temple of paganism’.32 This account inspired Neusner’s observation that Christian expectations of imminent conversion generated tension with the Magi that led to persecution.33 Van Rompay has noted in turn that this ignores the emphasis on loyalty and obedience in many of the contemporary Syriac hagiographies, especially those produced by the monk Abgar, from a monastery close to Ctesiphon.34 I suggest here that, instead of looking for a single Christian pattern of behaviour, we must read the Syriac martyrologies alongside the Synodicon to reveal the contradictory tensions within the Church in the East and its recent institutional framework.

The first of these martyrologies is a fragmentary account of the same ‘Abda of Hormizd-Ardashir that Theodoret reports.35 The text is dated to the 22nd year of Yazdegard, and it purports to describe the beginning of Yazdgerad’s persecution of the Christians. It begins by telling how the Magi went to the king, warning him that ‘in the lands of your dominion, these Nasarenes, who are called bishops, priests, deacons, and bnay qyama, transgress your command and disobey your kingship: they disgrace your gods and mock fire and water and overturn the fire temples, the buildings where we worship, and greatly disobey our laws’. Next the king gathered all the nobles (rawrbāne) of his dominion and asked them whether the things he heard were true. ‘Then the nobles and the Magi oppressed our people and prevailed [in argument] and from this time a harsh order went down from the king that the churches and monasteries should be uprooted in all the lands of his dominion.’36

‘Abda and his companions37 are brought before the king, where he asks them, ‘why don’t you follow [lit. ‘lower yourselves before’] the teaching that we (p.41) received from our fathers [and] follow a wandering path (urḥā d-tawšā) according to the will of your own hearts?’ The Christians reply that it is senseless to worship created things, such as the stars and the elements, instead of the creator.

Next Yazdegard proceeds to criticize ‘Abda’s style of government, implying that it is a kind of democracy: ‘Since you are the shepherd and governor of these men, why do you neglect them so much that you disobey our kingship and neglect our command and govern according to their will?’ His specific objection, it transpires, is to ‘Abda’s destruction of a fire temple: ‘For we have received places of worship and fire temples that have been glorified from the time of our fathers’ fathers, but you have overturned them and uprooted them!’ ‘Abda’s defence is simply that this is a false accusation: the Magi have lied against the Christians at court, though the king denies this strenuously.38

The issues of ‘Abda’s debate with Yazdegard, of church ‘democracy’ and the accusation of the destruction of a fire temple, remain the focus of the debate when ‘Abda’s deacon Hosea (Hašu) enters the debate:

Then Hosea the priest took up the power of God and said, ‘We did not attack the building of God and we did not go against a holy altar.’ Then the king said, ‘I did not speak to you but to your leader and it is he who must give me a reply.’ Then the blessed Hosea said, ‘Our teaching commands thus: that great and small should not be ashamed of the word of God when speaking before the king. Also our Saviour told us, “I have brought you speech and wisdom that your persecutors will not be able to withstand.”39 And because of this, our words are true whether they come from great or small.’ Then the king said ‘What is your teaching, o bold one (marāḥ ā), That you should speak instead of your leader and that you should be clothed in zealotry (ṭnānā) on behalf of your people?’ Then the holy man said, ‘I am a Christian, a servant of the living God and I cannot blame my own hand and say “what are you doing?” Then the king said, ‘Is it true that you attacked the fire and quenched it and transgressed our command.’ Then the holy Hosea said, ‘I did attack a building and quench a fire because it is not a house of God and fire is not the daughter of God, but it is a servant, which serves both kings and paupers, both the rich, the poor and the beggars, and is generated from dry wood.’40

The text then presents an environment where the Magians have challenged Christians at court for their role in religious vandalism. Other hagiographies set in the reign of Shapur II often include a topos of false accusation by Zoroastrians and Jews against Christians, but here the denunciation is specific and is only denied in part: Hosea admits to destroying the temple, but not that it is a ‘holy thing’.41 The hagiographer intends the Acts to seem provocative, to (p.42) remind audiences accustomed to hagiography that the Magi will denounce them, but also that it is Christian norms, rather than Zoroastrian ones, that are a true criteria for judgement. Moreover, by emphasizing this distinction he shows that, while the shah is controlled by the Magi, Christians are only bound by a higher law. Yazdegard’s objection that he can rely on his trustworthy advisors may well reflect the self-presentation of the court, especially given Yazdegard’s conscious promotion of Christians and Jews and the notables’ complaints of interference in local governance, and this policy may have involved statements that all were equal before the law and that all might seek his ear at court. But ‘Abda refuses to participate in this invitation: following another topos of the martyria, the inversion of social norms, he denies the testimony of the Magi, because it involves a category error (i.e. that they do not understand what is really holy), rather than because they did not really destroy the fire.42

Similarly, the Acts reflect a second aspect of Yazdegard’s self-presentation in his appeal to Zoroastrianism as an ancestral religion, the religion of ‘our fathers’. This presentation shows the ethnic language that had been employed by earlier shahs that connected ērān with the religion of the ‘Mazda-worshipping shahs’, an image that Yazdegard and his successors would extend with their propagation of an ancient Kayanid history for their dynasty.43 Importantly, Yazdegard appeals to ‘Abda to respect this ancestral religion, perhaps implying that ‘Abda and Hosea are also bound by this inheritance from the past and that they were identified as ‘Iranians’.

Thus, the Acts of ‘Abda rejects Yazdegard’s attempts to include Christians in a political framework or to get them to respect the bonds of common ancestry. Instead, Hosea repeats the most popular defence of Christianity against Zoroastrianism, which may be copied from defences against idolatry in older martyr literature: it is better to worship the creator than created things. Indeed, by following the topoi of Magian accusation, subversion of earthly justice, and the attack on Zoroastrianism as idolatry, the Act’s protagonists act out the hagiography of earlier martyrs to show that Christians of all kinds, laymen as well as priests, owe no allegiance to the false justice of a government that remains inclined towards idolatry.

This resistance is most strikingly seen in the shah’s criticisms of church government. Yazdegard asks ‘Abda why, as ‘leader of the men’, he ‘neglects them so much that you disobey our kingship and neglect our command and govern according to their will (i.e. the will of the mob)’. Yazdegard envisions a tripartite model of authority, where ‘Abda’s role is to serve as conduit for royal (p.43) authority, being obedient to it himself and encouraging obedience in others. Instead, ‘Abda is behaving at the behest of the mob. This issue is pursued in Hosea’s reply, which is phrased in terms of parrhesia, the bold speech of a martyr before his accuser, modelled on that of Christ before Pilate.44 Hosea presents his ability to speak before the king as a sign of his God-given reason, his freedom to act outside the confines of ceremony, while to Yazdegard his act of ‘boldness’ is a subversion of the proper chain of authority: Hosea speaks instead of his leader and has taken on the ‘zealotry’ of the crowd. Hosea’s reply returns to the topos of justice: his act of vandalism was caused by God and it illustrates the flaw in Yazdegard’s model of authority.

In this highly hierarchical environment, the egalitarian protestations of Hosea are shocking.45 Where the shah had imagined that authority ought to flow through the bishop ‘Abda to his men, and that ‘Abda and Hosea had subverted this by taking on the behaviour of the mob, Hosea emphasizes instead that authority flows from God to all Christians, and that he is as capable of speaking before the shah as any bishop. Finally, Hosea incorporates fire itself into this debate, while fire is an object of worship for the Zoroastrians; Hosea calls it ‘a servant of kings and paupers’. Ultimately, Hosea draws a parallel between the shah’s false chain of authority, leading to himself, and the Zoroastrian elevation of fire into an object of worship, which also underlines the Zoroastrian nature of government, even by a shah who had made efforts to include Christians in governance.

This text is only a fragment, but, given its opposition to the powers that be, it seems that scribes and patrons would have had many incentives not to copy such a text during the rapprochements between the shah and the Church of the East at the end of the sixth century. Moreover, it is significant that Theodoret’s account of Persian converts and controversial proselytism makes ‘Abda’s behaviour the major trigger for persecution. I suggest that the Acts of ‘Abda reflects wider sentiment that opposed the inclusion of some high-ranking Christians into government patronage. Given the adversarial attitude taken by the Christian protagonists in this text, it may have been composed during the lacuna in the authority of the catholicos in the middle of the fifth century.

The text’s geographical location in Khuzistan becomes significant when we read it alongside the Synodicon and the East Syrian ecclesiastical histories. As we have seen, Hormizd-Ardashir was a centre of resistance to the catholicos in 424, at a time when Dadishoʿ stood accused of usury, the closet practice of (p.44) Zoroastrianism, and inciting the shah to persecution.46 We are never told explicitly about the saint’s attitude to the catholicos, but it is plausible that ‘Abda’s hagiographer intended to evoke a contrast between the democratic behaviour of the saintly heroes and the catholicoi who were patronized by the shah. The hagiographer encouraged instead a continued conversion from Zoroastrianism.47 As the shah struggled to find a catholicos who was both pliable and effective, the public connection between the upper echelons of the church and a persecuting state must have tarnished the catholicosate in the eyes of its Christian critics.

Abgar’s Cycle: Loyalty and Persecution

Four saints’ lives, the lives of Narsai, Tataq, the ten martyrs of Beth Garmai, and Jacob the notary, were all composed in a monastery near Ctesiphon around the middle of the fifth century and recount the events that are similar to those in the Acts of ‘Abda.48 They retain its emphasis on the justice of the king, but lack its concern for the inversion of hierarchy, focusing instead upon the connection between the martyrs under Yazdegard and Vahram and their predecessors under Shapur II. Paul Devos notes that all of these lives were composed by the same hagiographer, a monk named Abgar, who lived in a monastery near Ctesiphon. All these texts share the same site of martyrdom, the field of ‘Sliq harubta’ outside the city of Ctesiphon itself, from which the monks of Abgar’s monastery gathered the relics of the slain.49

In the first, and most famous50 of these accounts Abgar describes how Narsai, a priest of Rayy in northern Iran, whom we have already encountered in the patriarchal histories, and his friend Shapur acquires a land title from a Zoroastrian convert, Adarparwa, and uses this land to build a church. This convert is then persuaded to recant by a local mobad, Adurboze, and, while (p.45) Narsai is absent, the church he had built is transformed into a fire temple. On his return, Narsai throws out the sacred objects and puts out the fire: ‘should I leave these impure objects in God’s house?’ Then a crowd is raised in the village and Narsai is brought before Adurboze in Ctesiphon. The mobad asks him, ‘Do you have no fear of the king’s judgement?’, to which he replies, ‘Who should I fear more: God who gave the king his crown and who has authority over all created things, or an ephemeral king (malkā ʿāborā), who lives today but who will give his kingdom to another?’51 At this, Adurboze asks Narsai to repair the shrine, but Narsai refuses, saying that he did not enter the house of a man, ‘but that of God,…who called it a house of prayer and a place of atonement (ḥusāyā) for all the nations, and nothing unclean (ṭanputā) shall enter it’.52

Narsai is then ransomed, but is brought back later to answer the questions of a marzban, who is under orders from Yazdegard to release Narsai if he denies putting out the fire or is willing to replace it. The marzban tells him that he knows he did not put out the fire, but Narsai replies ‘I was interrogated in the criminal court by the mobad Adurboze and told the truth: I did put it out. Should I now deny (kpar)53 this before you?’ The marzban repeats the king’s orders, but Narsai refuses to apologize and declares that ‘a death for God’s sake is better than living wrapped up in sin’. He is then condemned to death.54

As he is taken to the place of execution, he passes the monastery [of Abgar] and the monks offer him water, but he refuses, asking instead that they pray for him. The Magians are initially concerned that Narsai will be rescued by the large crowd come to see his execution, but the crowd reassure them that they would not disobey the king, but wish to receive a blessing from the martyr. First a ‘lictor’, a Christian apostate, goes to kill Narsai, but he is struck down by God before he can strike Narsai. Eventually Narsai allows himself to be struck by a Magian, and is ‘crowned by the blood of his neck’.55

Finally, the Christians take Narsai’s head, body, and blood to ‘the place built by holy Mar Marutha, bishop of Suf [Sophanene i.e. Maypherkat], the companion of the martyrs’ for the 118 martyrs killed under Shapur II. Later, Abgar adds, ‘when the present persecution occurred, we removed his bones lest the Magians despoil them and took them to the martyrion of Lawarne, for the people’s benefit and healing’. The life concludes by asking Christ ‘lord of the martyrs’ to grant us an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven alongside the martyrs ‘who were crowned with his love’.56

The Acts of Narsai, like the hagiographies that succeed it, address the issue of loyalty to the shah and the origins and limitations of his authority. Obedience to the shah and avoidance of punishment are represented as the prime reason (p.46) given by the Magi to convert, both in the lives of the Shapurian martyrs and in these lives.57 These texts admit that the shah’s authority comes from God, but they also articulate the conditions for the shah’s just rule. Unlike the Acts of ‘Abda, Narsai’s vandalism of the fire shrine is justified as the restoration of a church that had been expropriated unfairly. Likewise, Tataq, explaining his conversion, tells his interrogators that ‘I was not neglectful of anything during my service for the king and also his kingdom did not persecute the Christians, but was given succour by Christ, because of the vision and knowledge of his great honour, which exceeds all honours, and the exalted greatness of his kingdom, which exceeds all kingdoms.’58 Passages in the Acts of Narsai also suggest Christian obedience to the shah or an idea that his authority comes from God, such as the crowd’s placid behaviour at the execution or Narsai’s conversation with the shah.

However, such ‘loyalist’ expressions must be read alongside the text’s differentiation of the Magi and Zoroastrianism from the shah. The Acts of Narsai present the shah as forgiving, possibly reflecting a real attempt by the authorities to diffuse religious tension, and Narsai himself observes the contrast between the justice of the mobad and the marzban. This contrast evokes the Gospels’ contrast between the justice of the Jews and that of Pilate, and may be intended to identify the mobads as the cause of Narsai’s death, with the marzban as a mere agent of the law.59 This contrast may also show us that the Magi’s jockeying for institutional power within the Sasanian political system was visible to Christian commentators and that the hagiographer sought exploit the distinctions between the shah and the Magi, i.e. to criticize Zoroastrianism while proclaiming loyalty to the state. Like Hosea in the Acts of ‘Abda, Narsai refuses to acknowledge that the fire temple is holy, calling it ‘the house of a man’: the chief objection is to the practice of Zoroastrianism and to a state that recognizes this as holy.

Thus, the hagiographer was attempting to drive a wedge between the legitimate state and the Magi whom it supports and who advise the shah. This contrast is heightened in the final life of the collection, that of Jacob the Notary. Here, in the final interrogation scene, Jacob tells Vahram that ‘Yazdegard ruled for twenty-one years in peace, but his life ended when he became a persecutor’.60 We have already seen the idea of persecution removing the shah’s divine mandate in the Acts of Tataq, but here the hagiographer provides a Christian retelling of the story of the death of Yazdegard: instead of dying for an impiety against Zoroastrianism, here the impiety of Yazdegard that causes (p.47) his death is his persecution of the Christians.61 Abgar gives a conditional authority to Yazdegard, which he relinquishes when he follows the dictats of the Magi and is then punished by God.

The near-contemporary Acts of Peroz, composed by a different hagiographer, provides a parallel criticism of the connection between the shah and the Magi. Here the mobad Mihr-Shapur is explicitly labelled as the murderer of Yazdegard and called an ‘enemy of the Christian people’.62 This accusation shows that some Christians, were aware of the role of the Magi in the removal of the shah.63 The same knowledge may also underlie the criticism of the Magi placed into the mouths of the saints by Abgar the monk.

We should be wary, therefore, of accepting Van Rompay’s presentation of fifth-century hagiography as straightforwardly ‘loyalist’. The deal that had been struck between Yazdegard and the catholicoi had never included a large number of Eastern sees. And there remained groups of Christians, of whom ‘Abda and Narsai are examples, who rejected the authority of the shah and deliberately disobeyed the law by destroying fire temples and recruiting converts of high status. We cannot measure such incidents beyond noting that it was these more violent actions that were observed by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in the West. Yazdegard’s failure to control the Christians prompted his own persecution (probably on a limited scale) and eventually contributed to his assassination. And the role of high-profile mobads such as Mihr-Shapur encouraged his successor Vahram to give greater institutional powers to the Magian priesthood and to prosecute a war with Rome as a demonstration of his strength to the aristocracy.

The hagiographer, Abgar, was placed near the capital, and possibly, therefore, more connected to the catholicos and his interests. He asserted that Narsai and his supporters had been obedient to the king and the role of the Magi in the persecutions. Devos dated Abgar’s writing to the 420s, since he was able to differentiate between different phases of the persecution and claims to be a eyewitness to the events, but it is possible that he wrote several decades later.64 Abgar may have known several shifts in royal policy in his lifetime and this may have shaped his hopes for more sympathetic government.

Sections of Narsai’s life, especially his refusal to rebuild the fire temple, show stark similarities to the Acts of ‘Abda. These similarities may suggest that (p.48) Narsai’s legend, at one time, presented a hero as recalcitrant as ‘Abda and Hosea, and that his behaviour did not reflect well on the ability of the catholicos to keep order. Abgar’s greater acceptance of the shah’s government, when compared with the Acts of ‘Abda, may reflect a wish for peace, where the Christians of Ctesiphon preferred to emphasize the suffering of the martyrs and the machinations of the shah’s Magian advisors over the shah’s personal initiative as a persecutor. Abgar’s hagiography deliberately avoids the immediate confrontation of the Acts of ‘Abda, where the saint engages in much more explicit criticism.

The Vandals Remembered

The reigns of Yazdegard and Vahram witnessed attempts by bishops and churchmen to set out the position of Christians within the Sasanian world. These included acts of religious vandalism that refused to accept the legitimate presence of non-Christian religion and the limits of acceptable proselytism. The deeds of these vandals were even seen by external Christian observers as the triggers for persecution.

There were multiple Christian reactions to these events and some, such as the monk Abgar, sought to place the focus on Christian suffering during the shahs’ backlash against prominent apostates such as Tataq or descendants of Greek captives such as Jacob the notary. However, it seems highly probable that the withdrawal of royal approval led to sudden loss in the authority of the catholicosate, as witnessed by the shrill complaints of Dadishoʿ, at a synod held in exile outside Ctesiphon. It would not be until the end of the century that a synod could be convened again.

The medieval compilations devote a substantial sections to these persecutions, which conclude their dense, detailed treatment of Ishaq’s successors. These descriptions occur shortly before a major lacuna in their coverage events in the Church of the East: no events are recorded between Dadishoʿ’s 424 synod and the death of Babowai in 484.65 The high level of detail in the report of the Chronicle of Seert suggests that later historians were able to draw on a ‘patriarchal history’ written immediately before this lacuna.

The Chronicle of Seert’s account of the persecution is especially interesting for its alternative presentation of the martyrs Narsai and Hosea and their relationship to shah and catholicos. The Chronicle places an initial persecution at the end of the reign of Iaballaha, which is terminated when the catholicos cures the shah of a headache. After this Iaballaha prays for an early death, to (p.49) avoid the sight of Christian blood. Following Iaballaha’s death, Yazdegard begins a second persecution, which is caused by the destruction of the fire temple by Hosea. This second persecution is terminated at the intervention of Ishaq, patriarch (fatrīq) of Armenia.66

The shah’s ‘general’ Mihr-Shapur67 suggests the election of the Persian Maʿna as catholicos, possibly leaving a brief interregnum after the death of Iaballaha. However, the shah is said to seek another excuse to persecute the Christians, and demands that he be accorded the same rights as Caesar within his own territory. The Chronicle of Seert reports that a priest, Narsai, replied on Maʿna’s behalf, saying that the shah could indeed demand that Christians pay tax or fight the shah’s enemies but not deny their religion. The shah responded by attempting to force Narsai’s conversion, before ultimately ordering his execution, and by banishing Maʿna to Fars, where he died.68 Other sections of the Chronicle, which are less immediately focused on the catholicoi, describe how, after these events, Yazdegard was killed by a demon that had long been suppressed by the ministrations of the Christians and was succeeded by Vahram, under whom there was a general persecution of the church.69

The patriarchal histories have been garbled in the different medieval compilations: the close succession of shahs and patriarchs means they have placed the persecution of Christians at different points, possibly influenced by a later impression of Yazdegard as a protector of the Christians.70 Their narrative produces two features that accord with the material in the Synodicon and the saints’ lives. Firstly, the shah selected two catholicoi from Fars, emphasizing the importance of relations with Christians in this, the home province of the Sasanians. Secondly, two figures, Hosea and Narsai are identified as troublemakers, even though the tradition has smoothed over their departure from the diplomatic policies of catholicoi. Hosea is named a ‘priest of ʿAbda of Ahwaz’ during the reign of Iaballaha. He vandalizes a fire temple after a persecution of Christians by the shah’s general ‘Shapur’, and this prompts a wider persecution by the shah.

Narsai appears as a religious vandal in his Syriac saint’s life, but this is not mentioned in the Chronicle of Seert. Instead we see him speaking out against (p.50) the shah: when Yazdegard claims ‘the rights of Caesar within his own domain’, Narsai speaks up in place of the catholicos Maʿna and tells the shah that ‘Caesar does not have the power to force his subjects to change their religion’.71

The image of a sequence of escalating acts of persecution by the shahs that we receive from the Chronicle has the ring of truth to it, and the presence of a series of minor characters in this account also suggests that early sources have been deployed in the sections on Iaballaha and Narsai. But at several points we can identify important points of difference with the hagiographic tradition, though we cannot necessarily tell when these changes were introduced. Most notably, the image of Hosea’s vandalism as a response to earlier persecution, of which there is no indication in the Acts of ʿAbda, seems to be an attempt to exonerate Christians from triggering the persecutions themselves. The Chronicle’s report of Narsai’s interruption of Maʿna seems to imitate that of ʿAbda by Hosea in the Acts, which may suggest that the two tales of religious vandalism exchanged material before becoming embedded in the patriarchal history.

The narrative, which may have been included in the patriarchal history at the end of the fifth century, changes several of the features of these stories that conflicted with the authority of the catholicoi. Iaballaha is made to pray for his own death before persecution starts again after Ishaq’s intervention, which is probably an invention to preserve the reputation of a famous catholicos and absolve him of any blame for the persecution.72 Moreover, by placing a persecution of Christians before Hosea’s vandalism, the saint’s extreme actions, which produced mixed responses in both Iraq and the Roman world, were rendered more palatable. Similarly, Narsai is relocated from Rayy to Ctesiphon and his own vandalism is replaced by a more reasonable appeal to the equal treatment of religions. Even if Narsai’s interruption of the catholicos is based on the Hosea’s interruption in the Acts of ʿAbda, it is not given any of the egalitarian subtext that we see in the Syriac text.

Thus the Chronicle of Seert reflects a later rewriting of these events, in which the volatile actions of two famous holy men were made to accord with the political positions of later catholicoi. Earlier hagiographies were co-opted into a history centred in Ctesiphon.


The career of Maʿna, together with the rebellious factions in the synod of Dadishoʿ and the Acts of ʿAbda, point towards the existence of groups of Christians east of Iraq who refused to accept the authority of the shah or to (p.51) curtail proselytism. Perhaps like the Donatists of late Roman Africa they used the language of earlier martyrdoms to continue to accentuate the differences between themselves and the ‘secular’ society.73 This analogy might also extend to their opposition to the catholicos, implied in the ‘democratic’ language of the Acts of ʿAbda and explicit in the rebel faction of 424. The shah’s attempt to use men like Maʿna to control these troublemakers failed, possibly because of the involvement of court figures in selecting unsuitable proxies who were rejected by the rest of the church.

The persecutions unleashed in this era suppressed effective central leadership within the Church of the East: there were no central synods between the years of 424 and 485. However, the restoration of an influential catholicosate under Acacius in 485 rested on the earlier reforms of Ishaq, not least for the very idea of an Eastern catholicos. The restored catholicosate of the sixth century and beyond would remember a sanitized version of its own history, preserved in the Chronicle of Seert, continuing a trend already seen in the works of Abgar. Here the saint Narsai was reinvented as an ally of the catholicos, which expunged many of the political complexities of the relationship between the shah and the Christians, rewriting history to suit a later era of compromise and cooperation. At the same time, the very idea of forging a history around the person of the catholicos demonstrates a different kind of focus to the hagiographies of the martyrs: the histories of Ishaq and his successors used in the Chronicle of Seert stem from the early fifth century and mirror the centralized image of the church portrayed in the Synodicon. We have seen here that this centralized image was a smokescreen, which obscured real divisions over episcopal authority and the relationship with the state. Yet this mirage would, in time, start to turn itself into a reality: the self-representation of Ishaq’s generation would be confirmed by their successors and placed into an imagined lineage that stretched back into the fourth century.


(1) Synodical records were compiled under the ninth-century patriarch Timothy I. Though the titles of earlier bishops of Ctesiphon were inflated to match ninth-century expectations, these alterations were both inconsistent and do not seem to have involved alteration of the rest of the text. S. Gero, ‘The status of the patriarchs of Seleucia-Ctesiphon’, in N. Garsoïan, Th. F. Mathews and R. W. Thomson (eds.), East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period (Washington 1982), 45–51. V. Erhart, ‘The development of Syrian Christian canon law in the Sasanian Empire, in R. Mathisen (ed.), Law, Society and Authority in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2001), 115–30 provides an introduction to the Synodicon.

(2) M. Higgins, ‘Metropolitans of Seleucia-Ctesiphon’, Traditio 9 (1953), 46–99, at 77–83 reconstructs the events, which have been compressed in the sources. The references to internal strife come from the 424 synod of Dadishoʿ, but are have been suppressed in the earlier synodica.

(3) Synodicon, 18–19.

(4) Synodicon, 18 and 34.

(5) Synodicon, 20–2.

(6) Synodicon, 22. Yazdegard is also called the ‘peacebringer’ (rāmšahr) in the Middle Persian inscriptions of his coins. T. Daryaee, ‘History, epic and numismatics. On the title of Yazdegard I’, American Journal of Numismatics 16 (2004), 89–92.

(7) The Synodicon reports that the agreed formula for the creed was the Nicene creed, but texts of the Synodicon preserved in the western Syrian tradition show that another older creed was employed at this stage: Marutha and his companions seem to have judged this orthodox, and it was only later generations’ concern to demonstrate their own unimpeachable orthodoxy that caused this later alteration. W. Baum and D. Winkler, The Church of the East: A Concise History (London, 2003), 16.

(8) Synodicon, 23–5 (Canons 1 and 6).

(9) Synodicon, 26–30 (Canons 11, 17, and 13).

(10) Synodicon, 24 and 32 (Canons 4, 16, and 19).

(11) Synodicon, 23 (Canon 1).

(12) Synodicon, 32–3 (Canons 20, 21, and 25).

(13) Synodicon, 33 (Canon 21).

(14) J. Labourt, Le christianisme dans l’empire perse (Paris, 1904), 98–9.

(15) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXIX (324); LXXI, (326–7).

(16) Synodicon, 39–40.

(17) For this war and its causes see O. Schrier, ‘Syriac evidence for the Romano-Persian War of 421–422’, GRBS 33 (1992), 75–86, who emphasizes that the Romans only declared war after Vahram’s succession and that conciliatory diplomacy was still attempted by Acacius in 420. Also see K. Holum, ‘Pulcheria’s crusade A.D. 421–2 and the ideology of imperial victory’, GRBS 18 (1977), 164–71 on the treatment of Zoroastrian minorities in Anatolia and G. Greatrex, ‘The two fifth-century wars between Rome and Persia’, Florilegium 12 (1993), 1–14 on the course of the war.

(18) Synodicon, 44. 11 dissidents are named compared to 36 signatories at the council of 424, though there were only 12 signatories at its predecessor in 420.

(19) Pharabokht is mentioned in Mari, HE, 36/31.

(20) The ‘loyalist’ incumbent was Mari of Kashkar (Synodicon, 43). Kashkar’s central location and its position in the catholicos’ own see might have made it easy for such bishops to generate influence at court. The ‘loyalist’ sees of Karka de Ledan and Beth Lapet, capital cities that are associated with Ctesiphon in the Acts of Symeon, are absent from this list.

(21) Synodicon, 45.

(22) A parallel is offered by Armenian objections to interference by ‘Syrian’ bishops, who seem to have been supported by political authorities (both Persian and Armenian) against the line of Gregory the Illuminator. See the comments of D. Winkler, ‘An obscure chapter in Armenian church history’, Revue des études arméniennes 19 (new series) (1985), 85–180, at 96–104.

(23) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXXI–II (327–9). Also note Mari, HE, 36/31, who provides the description of the short-lived Pharabokht. The description of Maʿna as a translator may stem from a confusion of the catholicos with the sixth-century translator Maʿna of Rev-Ardashir. S. Gero, Barsauma of Nisibis and Persian Christianity in the 5th Century (Louvain, 1981), 21 and 43, note 96.

(24) Synodicon, 45.

(25) Al-Tabari, I, 847–50.

(26) Al-Tabari, I, 855–68. The discussion of Vahram Gur in the Persian tradition is also concerned with proving Sasanian legitimacy even after the disastrous reign of Yazdegard.

(27) For tax relief under Vahram see al-Tha‘alibi, 555. For Mihr Narseh’s wealth, al-Tabari, I, 869–70.

(28) Socrates, HE, VII, 8.

(29) S. McDonough, Power by Negotiation: Institutional Reform in the Fifth-Century Sasanian Empire (UCLA, 2002, unpublished PhD thesis), 136–65. Also see R. Gyselen, ‘New evidence for Sasanian numismatics’, in R. Gyselen (ed.), Contributions à l’histoire et géographie historique de l’empire sasanide (Bures-sur-Yvette, 2004), 52–67, at 52–62 for the dating of mint marks.

(30) R. Gyselen, La géographie administrative de l’empire sasanide (Paris, 1989), 30–5 on the development of the mobads and the office of ‘mogbed’ as a land administrator for the Magi and R. Gyselen, ‘Empreintes des sceaux sasanides’, StIr 93 (1992), 49–56, at 53 for the association of Magi with specific towns and provinces. However, this was only the beginning of this process: E. Venetis ‘The Zoroastrian priests and the foreign affairs of Sasanian Iran and the Later Roman Empire (5th Cent.)’, Nāme-ye Irān-e Bāstān 3 (2003), 47–78, esp. 52 over-emphasizes the effects of these reforms, which we cannot assess at this early date.

(31) This may reflect the Sasanian title ‘hazarbandag’, also ascribed to Mihr narseh (al-Tabari, I, 868).

(32) Theodoret of Cyrrhus, HE, V. 38. A very similar account, stripped of Theodoret’s observations of the wider political context, is preserved in Armenian: P. Peeters, ‘Une passion arménienne des SS Abdas, Hormisdas, Šahin (Suenes) et Benjamin’, AB 28 (1909), 399–415.

(33) Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, V, 8.

(34) L. Van Rompay, ‘Impetuous martyrs? The situation of the Persian Christians in the last years of Yazdegard I (419–20)’, in M. Lamberigts and P. van Deun (eds.), Martyrium in a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective: Memorial Louis Reekmans (Louvain, 1972), 363–75, at 372–3.

(35) For a description of the text see F. Jullien, ‘La passion syriaque de Mār ‘Abdā: quelques relations entre chrétiens et mazdéens’, in R. Gyselen, C. Jullien, and F. Jullien (eds.), Rabban l’Olmyn: Florilège offert à Phillippe Gignoux pour son 80e anniversaire (Leuven, 2011), 195–205.

(36) Acts of ʿAbda, 251.

(37) There are seven companions, including two priests, a deacon, and ʿAbda’s brother Papas.

(38) Acts of ʿAbda, 252.

(39) Luke 21:15.

(40) Acts of ʿAbda, 252. The manuscript breaks off shortly afterwards.

(41) For Jewish accusations, a feature of the fourth-century lives, see Acts of Tarbo, 254; Acts of Symeon A, 740.

(42) E.g. Gushtazad’s audience with Shapur II in Acts of Symeon A, 756.

(43) T. Daryaee, ‘History, epic and numismatics: on the title of Yazdegard I’, AJN 16 (2004), 89–92; T. Daryaee, ‘Kingship in early Sasanian Iran’, in V. Curtis and S. Stewart (eds.), The Sasanian Era: The Idea of Iran vol. III (London, 2008), 60–6.

(44) G. Bartelink, ‘PARRHESIA’, Greacitas et Latinitas Christianorum, supp. 3 (Nijmegen, 1970), 5–57, esp. 12–14 and 35–44 summarizes the models of ‘positive parrhesia’, based on Christ’s relationship with God, and ‘negative parrhesia’, based on Christ before Pilate.

(45) P. Brown, ‘The study of elites in late antiquity’, Arethusa 33 (2000), 321–46, at 331 contrasts the blood aristocracies of Armenia and Iran with the relative social mobility of the Roman elite, with their emphasis on education and office-holding.

(46) Synodicon, 45.

(47) Another rebel see, Belashparr, was the site of a later hagiography, the Acts of Yazdin, Adur-Hormizd, his daughter Anahid and Pethion, composed c.500, that celebrated conversion from Zoroastrianism, even imagining the conversion of a famous magus and his daughter. This text is highly sensitized to Iranian language and Zoroastrian ideas: see R. Payne, Christianity and Iranian Society 500–700 CE (unpublished PhD thesis, Princeton, 2010), 38–70.

(48) A general summary is provided in Labourt, Christianisme, 106–12.

(49) P. Devos, ‘Abgar: un hagiographe perse méconnu’, AB 83 (1965), 303–28 who summarizes and translates large sections of these lives. See esp. 325–6 for his list of stylistic parallels. J.-M. Fiey, ‘Topographie chrétienne de Mahoze’, OS 2 (1967), 407–19, at 418 identifies the convent as Mar Sergius at Mabraktha or Kokhe, suburbs of Ctesiphon beyond the city walls.

(50) In addition to the references in the ecclesiastical histories, Narsai is seen as an antecedent for the Acts of Tataq and the Acts of Mihrshapur. The latter is set during the same persecutions but is probably written later in the century.

(51) Acts of Narsai, 173.

(52) Acts of Narsai, 174.

(53) This verb is also used in the martyrologies for the denial of Christ by an apostate.

(54) Acts of Narsai, 175–6.

(55) Acts of Narsai, 178–9.

(56) Acts of Narsai, 180.

(57) E.g. The 10 Martyrs of Beth Garmai, 185.

(58) Acts of Tataq, 182. Also note the examples and comments of Devos, ‘Abgar’, 323.

(59) The mobad Mihr Shapur is a recurrent persecutor in these hagiographies.

(60) Acts of Jacob the Notary, 195–6.

(61) This may underlie the idea in Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXXIV (331–2) of Yazdegard’s murder by a demon.

(62) Acts of Peroz, 254 and 258.

(63) Peroz’s hagiographer is highly sensitized to distinctions of rank and lineage. Note the description of Peroz’s origins in Acts of Peroz, 257.

(64) Devos, ‘Abgar’, 326 identifies Dadishoʿ’s 424 synod as a terminus ad quem, but I see no reason to see the synod as the start of a rapprochement between Christians and the shah, or, necessarily, to situate Abgar’s writings in a period of royal favour.

(65) This observation is based on Mari, ʿAmr, and Bar Hebraeus, since the manuscript of the Chronicle of Seert is missing for much of the middle of the fifth century.

(66) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXI (327–8).

(67) This may be the same individual as the mobad Mihr-Shapur who appears in the hagiography of Abgar.

(68) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXII (328–30); Mari, HE, 33/29. Maʿna’s successor Pharabokht is only given a brief note in Mari HE, 36/31.

(69) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXXIV (331–2). This section may be influenced by the Persian royal tradition, since it shares its focus on the objections of the mobads to Yazdegard.

(70) On the later image of Yazdegard see S. McDonough, ‘A second Constantine? The Sasanian king Yazdegard I in Christian history and historiography’, JLA 1 (2008), 127–40, at 133–4. ʿAmr, HE, 27/16 shifts the persecution to the reign of Iaballaha, Mari, HE, 33–4/29 places the persecution under Maʿna.

(71) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXXI–LXXII (327–9).

(72) See further discussion in chapter 3.

(73) P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London, 1967), 216–19.