Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
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

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 15 January 2021

The Martyrs and the Catholicos: The Acts of the Symeon and Their Reinvention

The Martyrs and the Catholicos: The Acts of the Symeon and Their Reinvention

(p.52) 2 The Martyrs and the Catholicos: The Acts of the Symeon and Their Reinvention
The Chronicle of Seert

Philip Wood

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The second chapter sets out the historiographical context for the emergence of a patriarchal history. It examines the writing of stories of martyrdom in the fifth century that were set during the earlier persecutions of the fourth century. Unlike the controversial missionary martyrs of the fifth century, the ‘greatest’ of the fourth century martyrs was a bishop of Ctesiphon, Simeon bar Sebba’e. His story could represent a vehicle for discussing the relationship between the shah and his Christian subjects, and the chapter traces the shift from total opposition to admission of the shah’s authority within reasonable bounds. Yet, at the same time, the Acts of Simeon were only weakly associated with the office of catholicos, an institution that would form the centre of the patriarchal histories composed at the end of the fifth century.

Keywords:   martyrdom, Maccabees, catholicos, hagiography, Ctesiphon

The hagiographies that we examined in the previous chapter focused on very recent events. They emphasized certain patterns in the relationship between the shah and the mobads, and between Christians and the state, but also discussed events that were very public and probably widely known. Their freedom to alter the details of these stories was curtailed. However, the stories of earlier martyrs from the fourth century could be much more readily adapted, because the older stories were much less detailed and because the events they described lay far from human memory.

In this chapter, I argue that a sense of the historical succession of the martyria, and the connection between fifth-century martyria and their fourth-century predecessors, allowed hagiographers writing in Ctesiphon the freedom to develop the image of the catholicoi as successors to the martyrs. The relic cult of the martyrs itself may have strengthened the importance of the institutional church, which popularized it through episcopal hagiographies. This process was supplemented by the rewriting of important hagiographies into a collection that was built around the great martyr Symeon bar Sebbaʿe. Symeon provided a model example of martyr, priest, and catholicos, whose reputation could be harnessed by his successors. This chapter investigates the changing role of stories about Symeon and the movement of these stories from hagiography into history, which can be accessed through the early layers of the Chronicle of Seert.

The Relic Cult and the Invention of History

The codas of Abgar’s lives all continue the narrative to account for the fate of the saints’ relics. The Acts of Narsai describe how the monks took all the separate parts of the saint first to a martyrion built by Marutha and then to a (p.53) second martyrion at Lawarne.1 Tataq’s body is similarly placed next to that of Narsai ‘to cause it to increase and multiply’.2 The martyrs of Beth Garmai are ‘buried in a pure place’. A bar qyama gathers all of their blood from the trench where they were executed in his cloak, and their relics ‘smell as fragrant as spices’ and attract people ‘from all over their land’.3 Most striking of all is the account in the Acts of Jacob the Notary, which describes how the saint’s digits and limbs are amputated in turn, before being smuggled in by a barge on the Tigris to a monastery and then to a church in the suburbs of Ctesiphon.4 The texts’ focus on each of the saints’ body parts and their blood, in particular the detailed account in the Acts of Jacob,5 suggests that the relic cult already had a popular following when these lives were composed and that several places, possibly all with connections to Abgar’s monastery, had a claim on the relics of each saint.

These texts also provide a glimpse into the process of relic collection and the associated propagation of hagiography. Jacob’s mother is compared to Shmuni, mother of the Maccabean martyrs, and the text records how she told her story to one Sawmai, bishop of Karka de Ledan.6 This same Sawmai appears again in the martyr acts of the fourth-century martyr Martha, daughter of Pusai, a contemporary of the bishop of Ctesiphon, Symeon bar Sebbaʿe. She, like Symeon, was killed at Easter for refusing to renounce her faith (and, in her case, marry one of the mobads). Her bones are inherited by her nephew, but when his sons quarrel over her bones, which are kept in the house she had lived in, Sawmai intervened and ‘persuades’ them to take the bones and present them to the church of Karka de Ledan in 428.7

This Sawmai also appears as one of the allies of the catholicos in the 410 synod of Iaballaha and his role in Abgar’s hagiographies and those of the companions of Symeon provides a link between the gathering of the relics and stories of the Shapurian persecutions and those of Yazdegard I and (p.54) Vahram.8 His activities mirror those of the catholicos Ahai, who collected the legends of martyrs killed by Shapur in ‘Persia’ (which may refer to Khuzistan rather than, or in addition, to Fars).9 Even more famously, Marutha of Maypherkat was also closely associated with collecting relics in the Sasanian Empire and recording their stories, in an era when the discovery of relics, including those of the proto-martyr Stephen, was an important feature of the religious display of the court of Theodosius II.10 The Armenian Life of Marutha, a late sixth-century Armenian adaptation of a Syriac original, relates that Marutha created a martyrion in Ctesiphon and took parts of the same relics to his new city of Martyropolis (Cop‘k‘), where he also brought relics from the Roman Empire, ‘Asorestan’, Persia, and Armenia.11

The diplomatic endeavours of Marutha exposed the Church of the East to the organization and heresiology of the Roman church and to sponsorship from the shah and the Roman emperor. The description of Vahram’s persecution in the Acts of Peroz show us a church that had found recent wealth from patronage. The author laments the destruction of ‘elaborate churches, martyria, monasteries, and the dwellings of anchorites’: Mschkena was looted of the treasures of ‘Caesar’ that had been given thanks to the intercession of Acacius, and Ctesiphon of the treasures given by Iaballaha and Marutha.12 But if its recent wealth was robbed, then the pattern of commemoration, which it had also borrowed from Rome, was continued by the catholicos and his allies after Marutha’s mission and the later persecutions. And these allowed the Church of the East to emphasize a deeper antiquity, in which it had suffered the same persecutions as the Roman church and which, in time, would provide the root of an independent hagiographical–historical tradition. The indigenous activity is visible in the hagiographic tradition itself, in the recording and development of stories of the Shapurian persecutions in the course of the fifth century. Crucially, the acquisition of relics by Marutha, Ahai, Sawmai, and others was accompanied by the telling and retelling of earlier stories about the persecutions.

These hagiographies were the subject of a detailed study by Gernot Wiessner. Wiessner examined a series of manuscripts, dating from the sixth to the nineteenth century, and observed that the martyrdoms of the bishop of Ctesiphon, Symeon bar Sebbaʿe, and the martyrs of Khuzistan stood at the core of all different arrangements of these martyria, which were dated by an (p.55) ‘era of the persecution’, possibly modelled on the dating system used by Eusebius in his own account of the Martyrs of Palestine.13 Wiessner grouped these texts into two sub-collections, differentiated by plot, style, and geographical location, based respectively around Ctesiphon and Khuzistan and around Adiabene.14 Though individual texts might differ substantially in complexity, the parallel message of the accounts all emphasize the defiance of the martyrs and the refusal to worship the elements in spite of the orders of the king. They reflect, in Paul Peeters’ words, ‘the mutilated debris of a mostly vanished literature’.15 Here, following Wiessner’s work, I focus on the historiographical and cultural historical significance of the texts, viewing these texts as invented histories of the fourth-century written in the fifth and sixth.

Symeon bar Sebbaʿe: Martyr for a Christian People

The Shapurian persecutions presented the raw material from which different actors within the Church of the East could use their history to make their present, presenting themselves, in different ways and in different contexts as a ‘church of the martyrs’. The leading example of this elaboration of older martyria following later agendas are the Acts of Symeon bar Sebbaʿe, fourth-century bishop of Ctesiphon, which formed the kernel for later collections of martyria set near Ctesiphon and Khuzistan.

The story of Symeon’s death is related in two different narratives (A and B) in manuscripts dating from the late fifth and sixth centuries, but seem to originate in an earlier text (ABx) from which both derive common features. This original text told how Symeon, along with various minor characters, was captured and interrogated after quarrels over the payment of ‘tribute’ by Christians.16 The story concludes with his refusal to worship the shah and the elements and his subsequent martyrdom. Certain exact parallels between (p.56) the later versions A and B probably indicate phrases that were present in the shared source. Symeon’s martyrdom was compared to that of Jesus: like him, he was killed on the Friday before Easter.17 Symeon was accused of sorcery before the shah and refused to adore the shah, reminding him that his power was transient and ultimately came from God18 and that Jesus alone is Lord of the sun, which the shah worships.19 Both A and B also include final prayers for ‘all the peoples of the east’.20

ABx itself inspired further adaptation and reworking. In ABx, Symeon’s sacrifice was seen in terms of an imitation of Jesus on behalf of the East; a principal martyr who eclipsed all others. Symeon is seen as an inspiration for those around him at Shapur’s court. What is less clear is how far and when this idea of self-sacrifice was tied to allowing Christians freedom of worship or from excessive taxation. It is possible that references to tax reflect the realities of the fourth-century persecutions, where the shah may have indeed attempted to extract revenue from a population suspected of pro-Roman sympathies.

The first extant narrative about Symeon is the A Acts. It is distinctive for its emphasis on the defiance of the shah by the Christians as a sign of their freedom, not only from tyranny, but also from paganism and from death. Following the original account, the martyrdom of Symeon is represented as an analogue to Christ’s death and as a sign of his confidence in the resurrection. It also shows Symeon’s vision of authority, which shares much with the attitude of the fifth-century hagiography we have already seen. Here, Symeon justifies his decision not to prostrate himself before the shah, because true authority belongs to Jesus, the true king of kings.

The main body of the text, preceded by a lengthy introduction, proclaims that Symeon, bishop of Ctesiphon, ‘died for God and his people’ and was their champion, like Judas Maccabeus, in their time of tribulation. This tribulation is clearly connected to the payment of tribute: ‘Just as Juda was encouraged by El, God of spirits and removed his people’s tribute from the kings of Greece and Syria, so Symeon was made victor by Jesus, son of God, and removed tribute from the kings of Persia and Syria.’21 The narrative proper opens by describing how Symeon replied to the king’s messengers. Symeon tells them that ‘Christ has redeemed his church through the shedding of his own blood’, (p.57) and that he, Jesus, is the true ‘king of kings’. Therefore, he says, ‘it is not suitable for free men to serve a man’.22

The text is focused on Symeon as an inspiration for the whole of his church. The passages immediately before his martyrdom compare him to Simon Peter, ‘a fisherman who fished for the divine fish’, and present him as ‘an example for all the people of the east’.23 This emphasis draws us back to the original presentation of Symeon as a bishop-martyr at the start of the text, dying ‘for God and his people’ and ‘freeing the people with his blood’.24 The shah’s accusation of pride is met by a self-sacrifice on behalf of God’s people, circumventing the shah’s authority by an action that both honours God and serves his people. The response of others in joining Symeon demonstrates his mandate, as bishop-martyr, as first among equals of the Christian people of the East.

Thus the traditions that evolved around Symeon allow us to see several strands of Christian self-conception coming together. Rather than emphasizing the common nature of Christians everywhere, the people for whom Symeon suffers are his own, ‘the people of the east’. Moreover, the association between Jesus’ suffering and Symeon’s gives the bishop of Ctesiphon a position of leadership by deliberately modelling the text on the Passion narrative. In version A, we are left with a contrast between the people of God, who are led and inspired by Symeon and their priests, and the shah and his mobads, who are never named, and who always remain without personality or arguments and who have relinquished any possible claim to true authority.

Developing the Acts of Symeon: Authority and the Catholicos

The later Acts of Symeon B, is much longer than A, but is derived from the same shared source and follows many of the same points in the narrative. It considerably expands Symeon’s prayers and conversations with the shah and inserts a lengthy sermon to his followers. B also develops the issues of taxation that A had touched on and emphasizes the role of the Jews as instigators of the persecution.

Version B begins with two introductory sections that represents the latest levels added to the narrative. The first of these situates Symeon, the ‘the first of the blessed martyrs of God in the land of the east’ within a longer list of those who died alongside him, while the second provides a political context for the (p.58) martyrdom, giving Constantine’s accession in the Roman world and his death as the reason for Shapur’s persecutions. Following this, B begins the account of the narrative proper with Shapur sending out letters for the arrest of priests in Khuzistan.25

Symeon is taken to the prefect (šaliṭ ānā) after refusing to gather the double poll tax that the shah has imposed on the Christians, though he emphasizes that he still serves the shah and is prepared to pray for all people.26 Then Symeon is brought before the shah in Karka de Ledan after he refuses to enforce the tax. After being taken away along with many of his clergy, he inspires them with a sermon about the apostles and martyrs, and warns them against falling into heresy, after which they acclaim him as a new Simon Peter.27

Next Symeon is brought again before the shah, where ‘the Magians, prefects, and tyrants’ come against him to condemn him for disobedience to the shah and to the gods. Here the accusation links Symeon’s refusal to impose the double poll tax with his denial of the gods, whom the Magi invoke to justify their demands and whom they connect with the shah’s authority.28

However, even at the point of his martyrdom he promises to pray for the shah and offers a summary of his political theology and a lengthy sermon before being put to death.29 Finally, the text concludes, with Symeon asking for his spirit ‘to join the martyrs, together with the crowd [of martyrs] in West and the holy apostles and prophets’, after which the bodies of the deceased are taken away by ‘the children of the Roman captives who lived in the city of Karka de Ledan’.30

As in the A Acts, the parallel between Symeon and Jesus is connected to his death on behalf of the people of the East. In particular, it develops Symeon’s role as a model priest. The priests mourn that ‘Simon Peter is taken from us; in you we see the apostles. Who will give us such a bishop as you?…Let God’s Cross protect the people of Jesus and the peace of God be with his servants.’31 More so than in A, there is a sense of the future peace and prosperity of the church. Symeon is made an ideal bishop of the past, responsible for securing the later protection of God’s people through his moment of sacrifice.

This image of Symeon as a new Peter is much more prominent in the B Acts: he is acclaimed as such by the crowd of priests.32 On one hand, it strengthens the Acts’ role as a foundational charter for the authority of the catholicos, by showing Symeon as a touchstone of orthodoxy, whose guidance and leadership is recognized by the priests. But this version of the Acts also emphasizes (p.59) that Symeon’s story is set in the past, an age of persecution that is contrasted with later prosperity. And this idealization of Symeon may provide a benchmark by which the behaviour of later catholicoi might be judged: a perfect bishop-martyr whose memory was intended to both legitimize and constrain the actions of catholicoi at the time of writing. Symeon is not represented here in the model of Judas Maccabeus. Instead he is presented in a more passive role, quietly admitting the state’s authority in the material realm while demonstrating faith in God’s promises and His protection of the church, an image that also presents a different model of the relationship between shah and catholicos.33

Symeon’s role as an ideal bishop is further defined through the subject of his arguments with the shah. Unlike version A, these Acts treat the issue of Symeon’s obedience to the shah and the worship of the pagan gods in the context of arguments over taxation. The shah orders Symeon’s capture in order to gather a double tribute from the Christians in the context of his war with Rome.34 The prominence of the issue of tax here suggests that high taxes may have indeed represented a fourth-century grievance.35 But the B Acts’ emphasis on the role of bishops in collecting tax points to a different problem, the catholicos’ problematic role as middleman between the state and the Christian community, which may have emerged as a particularly live issue.

In his initial interview with the prefect, Symeon states that he honours the shah, but refuses to gather a tax from his people—‘my power is invisible, not visible’—and he objects that he would be unable to act as a priest if he held secular power. The prefect is initially happy with Symeon’s reply: ‘Since all authority is from God, then you are subject to Shapur, king of kings and lord of the whole earth.’ But Symeon retorts that Christians only have to give [normal] tribute to the tribute-gatherer, but not a double tax (ksep rišā ʿapipā), and that conversion or accepting the honours of the shah is not a way out of this situation: ‘We will give you our bodies, property, homes and possessions but not our souls…do not let him force us to be like tyrants or prefects over our brothers, who are God’s people, for our power is not from earthly kings but from the heavenly king.’ Symeon refuses to be ‘a tyrant over his humble people.’36 He is denounced for his refusal to ‘oppress the poor’ by the ‘Magians, (p.60) prefects, and tyrants’. In reply, he contends that he has no secular power, but that his power comes from God ‘in whom all are free’.37

The B Acts are always careful to acknowledge the shah’s authority: unlike in A, Symeon here makes obeisance to the shah and acknowledges that ‘the king of kings controls the whole world’ and that Christians must pray for him.38 This is not A’s strident assertion of Jesus, rather than the shah, as king of kings. Instead of this, B presents an image of Symeon that emphasizes his role as priest and passive martyr and sees this as the root of the catholicos’ authority. The text distinguishes this authority from other possible sources of authority, such as helping the shah to tax the Christians, which is tantamount to tyranny and apostasy. These may represent particular concerns of the author that he has picked out from his sources, details that will help us to situate the text. Discrimination in the tax laws and the involvement of the catholicos in secular government represent the anxieties of the author about the political actors of his own day, anxieties that he has projected onto his account of Symeon.

The Acts of Symeon and the Control of History

The Acts of Symeon are much more significant as examples of the historical reinvention of the Church of the East than as sources for a ‘kernel’ of fourth-century social realities.39 How we analyse these texts depends on when we date them. I suggest that the A Acts seem to fit into the context of the mid-fifth century, injecting a Maccabean emphasis on active martyrdom into the earlier emphasis on Jesus. Here Symeon’s role as a martyr is at the centre of his demonstration of freedom and his leadership of Christian people, a role that seems to present parallels to the active opposition to the Sasanian state seen in the Acts of ‘Abda.

Version B seems to be the product of a subsequent era. The sense of the renewed economic prosperity of the church in the future differs from the sense of continued struggle in A. References to obscure heretical groups such as the ‘Kaṭaye’ suggests a late fifth-century terminus post quem for the creation of the text as it stands.40 Finally, in spite of the emphasis on Symeon as a chief priest, the concerns over the catholicos’ cooperation with the shah’s government does suggest that the author has bad, ‘tyrannical’ catholicoi in (p.61) mind, even if he supported the rule of a good catholicos who followed the model of Symeon. This image might reflect the division of the catholicosate between Narsai and Elishe in the 530s. By this era, the catholicos-martyrs remained the most important symbol of the authority of Ctesiphon, but there was less of a wish to actively oppose the shah. Instead, the focus is more upon the boundaries between Christian groups and the catholicos’ cooperation with the shah. The Chronicle of Seert presents the catholicos Narsai as a pious theologian and his rival Elishe as a medical doctor with court connections.41 If this dating is accurate, then the emphasis on Symeon as a priest may be a product of Narsai’s faction in this episcopal dispute.

Both cases show us how the golden age of the Shapurian persecutions could be invoked in later eras to fit changing circumstances and attitudes to the state. The B Acts in particular show how a simple story was worked up into a much longer narrative, which established the hagiography’s connection to parallel events in the West and promoted an awareness of a relic cult based around in the saint. An assertion of the prestige of the catholicosate, as successors to the catholicos-martyr, was tied to requirements for the good behaviour of future catholicoi, where Symeon’s example provided a set of conditions for the holder of his office. And, significantly, by circulating as the first and most developed piece of a longer hagiographic collection describing the martyrs of Ctesiphon and Khuzistan, the Acts also emphasized the superiority of the catholicosate as successor to the martyrs, and transcended the fame of individual sites of martyrdom and martyrs’ relics, such as Karka de Ledan42 and Hormizd-Ardashir in Khuzistan or Karka de Beth Slouq and Arbela in the north of Iraq.43

The rewriting of the Acts of Symeon places a heavy focus on the personalities of the catholicos-martyr and the shah and presents Symeon as the lynchpin of Christian hopes and ideals, whose sacrifice is made on behalf of the whole land. The use of an era of persecution beginning with Symeon implies that other hagiographies were co-opted into this image. Many hagiographies are dated according to the year of the persecution, seeing Symeon’s death as the beginning of a defining era. However, this is not a uniform feature of all saints’ lives set in during the Shapurian persecutions. Others use Shapur’s reign or are arranged into collections dated by another saint, Mar Miles, a prominent opponent of Papas, Symeon’s predecessor as bishop of Ctesiphon.44 Various places and traditions preserved or developed (p.62) their own martyr histories without direct reference to or incorporation in these collections based around the catholicos-martyr.

Much as we recognize the importance of Symeon’s reputation for the later development of hagiographic collections in the Church of the East, we should also note that it was not all-encompassing, and that the accounts of Symeon’s successors as bishops of Ctesiphon were never developed into ideals of priesthood and martyrdom to the extant that he was. The Lives of Symeon’s successors Shahdost and Barba‘shemin follow several of the themes of the portrayal of Symeon, refusing the shah’s honours in favour of a heavenly reward and passively accepting the authority of the shah, and the latter at least seems to have been rewritten in the spirit of the B Acts. But, notably, neither text matches the Acts developed for the minor characters of Symeon’s martyrdom, such as Pusai, Martha, and Tarbo, whose lives continued to be elaborated and developed as late as the early sixth century.45 I suspect that it shows that Symeon’s reputation and prestige was only weakly associated with the office of the catholicos per se and that hagiographers and scribes did not initially draw great attention to the institutional position of Symeon and his successors as catholicoi.46

An important stage in the political representation of the bishops of Ctesiphon, with regard to other Christians, the shah and the churches in the West, was the emphasis on their connection to this line of martyred bishops as a guarantee of their prestige. As we have seen, one way of organizing the historical information to do this that we have seen was a dating system based on ‘years of the persecution’, probably modelled on Eusebius’ account of the martyrs of Palestine. Another was the production of a ‘history of the patriarchs’ that presented the deeds and education of the fifth-century patriarchs in a continuum with earlier holy men, and, most especially, the catholicoi martyred under Shapur II. This structure may be indebted to Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, which includes a great deal of material on the martyrs but places it in a broader framework that also considers the succession of bishops and of ‘schools’ of theologians.47 This patriarchal history, which will (p.63) be discussed in the following chapter, provided a framework that tied the bishops of Ctesiphon much more firmly to the golden age of the fourth-century martyrs and to other prestigious aspects of Christian culture.

Historians allied to later catholicoi produced a more radically pruned version of the Acts of Symeon. These texts, embedded in later Arabic historical compilations, render Symeon as a much less complicated figure. ‘Amr produces a particularly bland account, which emphasizes Symeon’s priesthood without making him an opponent of tyranny, and it may be most representative of the early image of Symeon in the ‘patriarchal histories’.48 Like the Syriac B Acts, the Arabic accounts emphasize Symeon’s position as priest and ‘alter Christus’, and they add comments on Symeon’s deeds as the source of a priest’s actions during the liturgy.49 They also spell out much more clearly the fact that Symeon was succeeded by Shahdost and Barba‘shemin and by later catholicoi.50

The history embedded in the Chronicle of Seert provides us with the fullest, though not the least altered, version of Symeon’s martyrdom.51 Like the B Acts it emphasizes Symeon’s passivity before the shah and his acceptance of Shapur’s right to rule. Symeon is taken for granted as a type both for priesthood and for martyrdom in general. The author re-emphasizes the primacy of Symeon’s example, briefly passing over other martyrdoms in northern Iraq, and recalls the gathering of Symeon’s relics by Greek captives at Karka de Ledan.52

Yet this version of the martyrdom has been adapted, both to fit later political concerns and its new position within a history, juxtaposed to political events that had not been considered by the hagiographic tradition. Thus the resistance of the Roman city of Nisibis to the Persians, under its famous bishop Jacob, is anachronistically seen as a cause of the shah’s anger and his persecution of Symeon, which reflects the adaptor’s awareness of West Syrian hagiography (though not of its accurate date).53 Similarly, Symeon’s demands that monks be protected from taxation probably represent an addition of the (p.64) sixth century or later, following the explosion of monastic foundations under Abraham of Kashkar (c.560).54

As we saw in the presentation of the fifth-century martyrs, the Chronicle of Seert has incorporated Symeon into its universal narrative. Symeon has a starring role in a long section that presents him as both martyr and catholicos, whose presence grants some of the prestige of the martyrs to his successors as catholicos. Yet, at the same time, Symeon’s image is altered to fit his context: not only is he relatively passive, following the example of the B Acts, he has also been used to press for monastic exemptions and connected to figures in the West. In both cases, the image of Symeon serves the agendas of sixth-century catholicoi, who presented themselves as allies of the monastic movement and as peers of the patriarchs of the West.55

If the Syriac B Acts reflect the problems of the catholicos’ role in government and of the idea of tyranny, then the abbreviated use of Symeon’s Acts in the patriarchal history may have deliberately avoided such questions and concentrated on Symeon’s role as a priest, and, by implication, on the catholicos as his successor as head of the priests.56 Most importantly, the embedding of Symeon into history based around the succession of catholicoi would attach the prestige of his memory, as an ideal martyr and priest, to the institution of the catholicosate, a memory that was not attached to the ideal relationship between catholicos and shah that is seen in the B Acts.


The inclusion of Symeon’s Acts in the medieval compilations and the form they take reflect several layers of rewriting. Symeon had been associated with the catholicoi from at least the gathering of brief lists of martyrs under Ahai and the writing of hagiography that followed it.57 Early traditions fed into our two extant Syriac Acts: A, produced in the mid-fifth century and B, produced in the early sixth. The versions found in the medieval compilations belong in tradition of the B Acts, though they may derive from texts composed before the B Acts themselves. The longer account found in the Chronicle of Seert is part of this family of narratives, but shows signs of substantial later editing.

The Acts of Symeon could serve as a vehicle for different political sentiments, both with regard to opposition to an impious state and the creation of (p.65) an ideal priestly image for the behaviour of the catholicos. Embedding this material in a history strengthened the connection to later catholicoi, and this was probably an obvious motive for the composers and compilers of later history.

This chapter and its predecessor have shown how the tensions present in the Syriac hagiographies were reworked when embedded into sequential histories. More neutral representations of the martyrs as ideal priests and passive victims suited the agenda of later catholicoi, who wished to pursue peaceful relations with the shah and stress their own authority over their co-religionists. The construction of their ‘patriarchal’ historical tradition, which had this centralizing agenda at its core, will be the focus of the next two chapters.


(1) Acts of Narsai, 180.

(2) Acts of Tataq, 184.

(3) 10 Martyrs of Beth Garmai, 187–8.

(4) Acts of Jacob the Notary, 197–200. Also note the creation of a fourth–century martyrion for Mar Miles: Acts of Mar Miles, 274–5.

(5) The torture scene in these Acts provided the core of the fictitious Acts of Jacob the Sliced: P. Devos, ‘Le dossier hagiographique de S. Jacques l’Intercis I. La passion grecque inédite (BHG, 772)’, AB 71 (1953), 157–210; P. Devos, ‘Le dossier hagiographique de S. Jacques l’Intercis. la passion grecque inédite (deuxième article)’, AB 72 (1954), 213–56; Labourt, Christianisme, 117 note 2. Jacob the Sliced is mentioned in Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXXV (332–3). On the collection of this Jacob’s ‘relics’ in the West and the translation of his Acts see C. Horn, Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth Century Palestine (Oxford, 2006), 68 and 200–1.

(6) Acts of Jacob the Notary, 199–200.

(7) Acts of Martha, 238 and 240–1. R. Payne, ‘The emergence of martyr shrines in late antique Iran’, in P. Sarris, M. Dal Santo, and P. Booth (eds.), An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity (Leiden, 2011), 89–113, at 98–9, argues for the delegitimation of the private ownership of relics in these lives, which prioritize the alliance between bishop and city in acquiring the relics of Pusai and Martha.

(8) Synodicon, 42.

(9) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXIX (325).

(10) On the popularity of martyr discoveries in this era in the West see, e.g., Sozomen, HE, VII, 10; VII, 21; VII, 29 for the relics of Meletius of Antioch, John the Baptist, and the Prophet Habbakuk.

(11) Armenian Life of Marutha (tr. Marcus, 67–8). A confused reference to Kavad I as Yazdegard I’s grandson suggests that the text as it stands is at least late sixth century, though the main body of the text may be earlier.

(12) Acts of Peroz, 256.

(13) G. Wiessner, Zur Martyrenüberlieferung aus der Christenverfolgung Shapurs II (Göttingen, 1967), 35–6. Wiessner’s work is reassessed by K. Smith, The Persian Persecution: Martyrdom, Politics and Religious Identity in Late Ancient Syriac Christianity (Duke University, unpublished PhD thesis, 2011).

(14) Wiessner, Martyrenüberlieferung, 39. His table of the saints’ lives in different manuscripts at 289 is also extremely useful.

(15) P. Peeters, ‘Le Passionaire d’Adiabene’, AB 43 (1925), 261–304, at 262. Assemani, BO, IIIa, 74, had attributed these lives to Marutha on the basis of the thirteenth-century catalogue of ʿAbdishoʿ of Nisibis. The dissimilarities between these lives and Marutha’s only known sermon suggest this attribution is a later invention. See Murray, Symbols, 34–5.

(16) Smith, Persian Persecution, 240 criticizes Wiessner’s reconstruction of ABx’s sources (the ‘Steuerequelle’ and the ‘Judenquelle’). At 251–9 he suggests that the anti-Jewish passage found in A is an interpolation based on the B tradition, rather than a reflection of a shared common source.

(17) Symeon A, 735–8/Symeon B, 814–15. This emphasis is better preserved in A and appears again in the first interrogation scene (Symeon A, 746). For the location of the events on Good Friday see Symeon A, 763–6/Symeon B, 907–10.

(18) Symeon A, 747/Symeon B, 862 and Symeon A, 750/Symeon B, 863. B’s focus here is more on the promise of eternal life.

(19) Symeon A, 746/Symeon B, 859.

(20) Symeon A, 763/Symeon B, 915.

(21) Acts of Symeon A, 731.

(22) Symeon A, 734. Cf. I Corinthians, 8:23.

(23) Symeon A, 758–9 and 763.

(24) Symeon A, 727 and 734.

(25) Symeon B, 784–91.

(26) Symeon B, 793–801.

(27) Symeon B, 815–30.

(28) Symeon B, 843–61.

(29) Symeon B, 903–50.

(30) Symeon B, 955–8.

(31) Symeon B, 830.

(32) The comparison to Peter was also present in the original Acts (cf. A, 758), but receives greater emphasis here.

(33) It is only in B that Symeon is referred to as catholicos, instead of ‘metropolitan’, suggesting a development in the authority of Ctesiphon over time, which is mirrored by the changing terminology of the synodal acts. Symeon B, 958. See further below on the dating of B.

(34) Symeon B, 790.

(35) D. Goodblatt, ‘The poll-tax in Sasanian Babylonia: The Talmudic evidence’, JESHO 22 (1979), 233–95 sees the tax as a serious burden for the Jews at this time. Smith, Persian Persecution, 152–3 and 277–9 doubts that specific religious groups were actually targeted, though there may have been war taxes of some form during conflicts in Central Asia or with the Romans.

(36) Symeon B, 799–802.

(37) Symeon B, 846–7.

(38) Symeon B, 843, 858, 922.

(39) See the comments of S. Brock, ‘Review of Wiessner’, JTS (new series) 19 (1968), 300–9.

(40) Symeon B, 824–6. On the Kaṭaye and their appearance in the heresy list see W. Madelung, ‘Abū Īsā al-Warrāq über die Bardesaniten, Marcioniten und Kantäer’, in H. R. Roemer and A. Noth (eds.), Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Vorderen Orients: Festschrift für Bertold Spuler zum siebzigsten Geburtstag (Leiden, 1981), 221–4 and W. Madelung, ‘Battai Yazdani’, in EIr. The text’s anti-Theopaschite theology also gives a late fifth-century terminus post quem.

(41) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXV (147–52).

(42) The site of Sawmai’s martyrion and source for a very early list of confessors: Symeon B, 830. See Wiessner, Martyrenüberlieferung, 74.

(43) 411 Martyrion, 23–6. See also the list of martyr sites at the end of the section on Symeon in ʿAmr, HE, 18/11.

(44) Wiessner, Martyrenüberlieferung, 34 on the use of ‘years of the persecution’; 39 on the division of the cycles into ‘episch-narrative Martyrerakte’ and ‘Martyrerkatalog’ and 276–81 on the Arbela ‘Redaktor’. See the Martyrs of Beth Zabdai for dating by the shah’s reign or the Acts of Barsaba for association with Miles.

(45) G. Wiessner, ‘Zum Problem der zeitlichen und örtlichen Festlegung der erhaltenen syro-Persichen Märtyrerakten: das Pusai-Martyrium’, in Paul De Lagarde und die syrische Kirchengeschichte (Göttingen 1968), 231–51.

(46) E.g. Barbaʿshemin is only referred to as catholicos in the title of his Syriac Acts, but not in the text itself, suggesting this is a later addition. The section on Symeon in the Chronicle of Seert (I/i, XXVII (304–5) does not mention Symeon’s immediate successors, suggesting that Shahdost and Barbaʿshemin were unknown to the author of the hagiography used by the compiler. Sections on these two men in the Chronicle must therefore come from alternative hagiographic traditions.

(47) Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History also culminated in the conversion of Constantine, providing a precedent for the incorporation of secular affairs into Iraqi ecclesiastical history in the sixth century. See further T. D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

(48) ʿAmr, HE, 16–9/10–11. All of the narratives in the medieval compilations derive from the same tradition that also gave rise to the B Acts. ʿAmr’s description of Symeon’s companions has ‘priests and deacons’, while Mari and the Chronicle of Seert adds ‘bishops and metropolitans’, which might suggest that ʿAmr reflects a tradition about Symeon that is older, or at least less comprehensively revised, than those in the other chronicles or the B Acts that survive in Syriac.

(49) Mari, HE, 17/15.

(50) ʿAmr, HE, 19–20/11–12; Mari, HE, 19–21/16–18. The sections on Symeon’s successors here are no more than perfunctory entries, vehicles for unrelated material from Roman ecclesiastical history, reflecting the paucity of the hagiographies.

(51) Chronicle of Seert, I/i, XXVII (298–305).

(52) Chronicle of Seert, I/i, XXVII (305). Wiessner (Martyrenüberlieferung, 84 note 4) suggested that this section formed the introduction to a hagiographic collection. If so, then it may have formed part of a movement to reduce the individuality of other saints’ lives and to re-present them as lesser images of Symeon’s martyrdom.

(53) Chronicle of Seert, I/i, XXVII (297–9). On the (exaggerated) representation of Nisibis as a Christian city, and its connection to the eastern persecutions in West Syrian and Greek historiography, see Smith, Persian Persecution, esp. 15.

(54) For this later expansion of ‘Abrahamic’ monasticism see chapter 6.

(55) For these trends see chapters 5–6. Also note W. de Vries, ‘The college of patriarchs’, Concilium 8 (1965), 35–43.

(56) This is especially visible in ʿAmr’s account (HE, 16–9/10–11).

(57) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, LXIX (327–8) for Ahai’s role as a hagiographer. The 411 Martyrion reflects the very low level of detail such martyr lists must have had.