Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations

  Johnson, Aaron, and Jeremy Schott, eds. 2013. Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations. Hellenic Studies Series 60. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

3. Mothers and Martyrdom: Familial Piety and the Model of the Maccabees in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History [1]

James Corke-Webster

Stories concerning family relationships in life-or-death situations possess both a peculiar magnetism and a surprising longevity. This is nowhere more true than the martyrdom of the Maccabean mother and her seven sons, which became a favorite literary motif of later Christian authors. This essay will explore Eusebius of Caesarea’s use of this story in his Ecclesiastical History, written in the first quarter of the fourth century. It will compare his use with Origen of Alexandria’s strikingly different treatment in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, written a century before in 235–236. Where Origen asserts the importance of renunciation for aspiring martyrs, Eusebius emphasizes instead the value of family unity. It is of particular literary interest that Eusebius counters Origen’s use of this motif precisely when composing his own narrative about Origen’s early life. Their varying use of Maccabean imagery is linked to the different circumstances in which Eusebius and Origen wrote, and the different attitudes they wanted to encourage in their readers. This case study should not only alert us to the depth of literary sophistication in Eusebius’ narrative writing, but also contribute more broadly to our appreciation of the extraordinary significance of literature and rhetoric in forging attitudes and values in the Roman Empire. The Ecclesiastical History, like other imperial literature, must be understood as participating in this high-stakes landscape of literature and loyalty.

The Maccabean Family and Christian Storytelling

This article will assess Eusebius’ use of one literary motif, that of the Maccabean mother and her children. The Maccabean story was a much-repeated Jewish tale. It tells how nine Jews refused to eat pork when commanded to do so by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC), and were consequently tortured and killed. Eleazar, an elderly man, is hauled before the ruler, resists and is killed first. He is followed by seven anonymous brothers, who are tortured and die in descending age order in front of their mother (also anonymous) who encourages them in their suffering. Finally, the mother too is killed.

As far as I am aware, Eusebius’ use of Maccabean motifs has never been addressed. [15] This is in part because there persists within late antique scholarship an unflattering assessment of Eusebius’ literary sophistication. [16] Recently however Eusebius’ narrative abilities have begun to be appreciated. Doron Mendels’s 1999 study The Media Revolution of Early Christianity, though its conclusions might be questioned, did much to highlight the care Eusebius takes in constructing narratives and his remarkable awareness of audience. [17] More recently in an under-appreciated article Erica Carotenuto has clearly demonstrated how Eusebius fabricated a story in The Martyrs of Palestine using material and motifs taken from elsewhere (including, significantly for this paper, Origen’s On First Principles 4.3.6–8). [18] Joseph Verheyden’s survey article on The Martyrs of Palestine does not go quite so far, but nevertheless highlights the text’s rhetorical aspects. [19] Marie Verdoner’s 2011 Narrated Reality: The Historia ecclesiastica of Eusebius of Caesarea has applied the principles of narratology to Eusebius’ writing to afford it attention as text, rather than simply as a more or less reliable historical document. [20] A recent collection of essays on Eusebius can therefore claim in its introduction that, “The influence of post-modern studies has contributed to see Eusebius as an active participant in the construction of late antique history, theology and literature.” [21] There is however significant scope for more extensive studies into the sophistication of Eusebius’ compositions.

One area in which Eusebius’ capacity for narrative composition has been appreciated is in his biographical material, in particular the stories he tells about Origen’s childhood at the start of Book 6 of the Ecclesiastical History, which I will address in detail below. Doubts about the accuracy of these stories were raised as early as Eduard Schwartz, who thought Eusebius’ picture of Origen was warped by apologetic concerns. [22] While many subsequent scholars were more trusting, [23] fresh skepticism from scholars of the caliber of Henry Chadwick has allowed consideration of this material as more than just an authentic record of Origen’s childhood. [24] Recent scholars of ancient biography in particular see in these passages a prime example of sophisticated and politically motivated writing. Patricia Cox Miller’s essay on Eusebius’ “Life of Origen” represents a fresh approach, noting the parallels between Eusebius’ enterprise and comparable ancient biographies. She concludes: “As Eusebius himself stated, the biographer was free to use exaggeration in developing his portrait so long as he maintained at least the semblance of historical truth.” [25] Simon Swain too, in the initial contribution to a collection of essays on ancient biography, notes that “Eusebius’ portrait of Origen . . . is not about Origen, but uses him to present to us the history and doctrine of the Church through the times he lived in and the events he experienced (as these are seen by Eusebius in his time).” [26] A number of extremely recent publications have continued this trend, arguing that the stories about Origen tell us as much about their author as their subject. [27] Joseph Verheyden labels his contribution to the latest edition of the Origeniana series “a modest contribution to the somewhat hesitant revival of a more positive appreciation of Eusebius’ qualities as an author.” [28]

Origen, Martyrdom, and the Maccabean Family

I suggest that Eusebius’ use of Maccabean motifs in the early fourth century is a response to his own intellectual predecessor Origen’s comparable use of them a century before. Origen makes extensive use of the Maccabean mother and her sons in his Exhortation to Martyrdom. This text was written in 235–236 as an encouragement for two of his associates in Caesarea, Protoctetus, a presbyter of that city, and Origen’s own patron, Ambrose. The catalyst for writing was the accession of Maximin in 235 and, according to Eusebius, the ensuing persecution (HE 6.28.1). Encouraging the two to stand firm, the Exhortation discusses the requirements of successful martyrdom, and uses the Maccabean martyrs as a key case study between chapters 23 and 27.

There has been some debate over which written narratives of the Maccabean story Origen used. Winslow’s treatment of Origen’s discussion of the Maccabees refers throughout to 2 Maccabees alone, and the accuracy of Origen’s quotations demonstrates that he certainly had a copy of that text. [33] But did he have more than one version? Origen indicates that his subject matter is “described in the books of Maccabees (δὲ ἐν τοῖς Μακκαβαϊκοῖς ἀναγραφέντες)” (Exhortation 23). [34] In addition, numerous similarities of language, phrasing and structure indicate that the Exhortation is also influenced, directly or indirectly, by 4 Maccabees. DeSilva notes that when Winslow attributes Origen’s athletic imagery to 2 Maccabees but identifies as original his emphasis on the martyrs’ freedom, he is missing that athletic imagery and freedom were already combined in 4 Maccabees. [35] Metcalfe had listed other such parallels as early as 1921, including the phraseology τὸ μητρικὸν . . . πῦρ and τὸ πρὸς θεὸν φίλτρον, found in Origen and 4 Maccabees but not in 2 Maccabees 6–7. [36] Perhaps most importantly, the language of piety in Origen’s Exhortation, in particular the term εὐσεβεία, is found throughout 4 Maccabees, but not at all in 2 Maccabees 6–7. [37] Townshend calls this term “the keynote of his [the author of 4 Maccabees] whole book;” [38] it appears more times in 4 Maccabees than the entire rest of the Septuagint. Particularly striking is the phrase “athletes of piety (τῶν τῆς εὐσεβείας ἀθλητῶν)” (e.g. Exhortation 23). Structurally, too, Origen’s use of the Maccabean family climaxes in a lengthy discussion of the mother in chapter 27. 4 Maccabees dedicates far more time to the mother than 2 Maccabees, and it too builds to a triumphant discussion of her. [39] It therefore seems likely that Origen had both 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees in mind when he wrote his Exhortation.

Origen’s use of Maccabean motifs in the Exhortation is determined by that text’s emphasis on renunciation. One of Origen’s key points is the importance for the martyr of rejecting those things that concerned him most in life. In a list of conditions for Christian martyrdom, Origen includes the renunciation of all worldly ties, including those to friends and family. He says that “we have fulfilled the measure of the confession (ἐπληρώσαμεν τὸ μέτρον τῆς ὁμολογίας)” (Exhortation 11) [40] only when we are “not distracted or held even by affection for our children or for their mother or for one of those whom we regard as our dearest friends in this life (ὑπὸ τῆς περὶ τὰ τέκνα ἢ τὴν τούτων μητέρα ἤ τινα τῶν νομιζομένων εἶναι ἐντῷ βίῳ φιλτάτων φιλοστοργίας), so as to value their possession and to prize our earthly life.” The successful martyr must “turn away from these ties (ταῦτα ἀπὸ στραφέντες) and become wholly dedicated to God and to living in his company and presence.” This point is reiterated throughout the Exhortation, [41] and family is repeatedly the prime example of such ties. In chapter 15, true martyrs are described as those who can set aside “their normal attachment to the material world and for this life (τῷ φιλοσωματεῖν καὶ φιλοζωεῖν)” and thus “have cut free from very strong worldly ties because of their profound love for God (τοὺς τοσούτους κοσμικοὺς δεσμοὺς διὰκόψαντες καὶ διαρρήξαντες).” The family unit is for Origen a hindrance to martyrdom that must be overcome.

Origen’s purpose is particularly apparent in his climactic eulogy to the Maccabean mother in Exhortation 27, where he declares:

Firstly, we must note Origen’s distinctive phraseology here, which will become important when we turn to Eusebius later. The unnamed mother is the object of divine inspiration rather than an active agent. It is “the dew of piety (δρόσοι . . . εὐσεβείας)” and “the cool breath of holiness (πνεῦμα ὁσιότητος)” which “did not allow to be kindled (οὐκ εἴων ἀνάπτεσθαι)” her maternal instinct. This phrasing gives prominence to divine action. I will return to this when looking at Eusebius’ similar language below. Secondly, and more immediately important, the father of the Maccabees is completely absent here. Origen ignores him. Thirdly, as noted by a number of authors, this description of the Maccabean mother is closely modeled on 4 Maccabees. [
46] We read in 4 Maccabees 16:3–4 that:

Again, Origen has foregrounded the theme of renunciation. DeSilva notes but dismisses a difference between 4 Maccabees and Origen’s Exhortation here: “There is a significant difference in that Origen claims that piety prevented the maternal fire from being kindled in the mother, while the author of 4 Maccabees speaks of the mother feeling the pain of this fire fully, but nevertheless ‘quenching it by means of pious reasoning.’ This difference, however, pales before the commonalities . . .” [48] This merits more attention, however, since Origen’s changes indicate his priorities in the Maccabean story. Where in 4 Maccabees reason triumphs over the fire of parental love, in Origen that same love is not even permitted to begin burning. Elsewhere in 4 Maccabees the author actually emphasizes the strength of the mother’s love for her children (e.g. 4 Maccabees 15:9–10). The mother’s enthusiasm for her sons’ martyrdoms is not a rejection of her love for them, but a further demonstration of that love and concern for their future. Hence, in 4 Maccabees 15:3, we read: “She loved piety more, the piety that preserves them for eternal life according to God’s promise (τὴν εὐσέβειαν μᾶλλον ἠγάπησεν τὴν σῴζουσαν εἰς αἰωνίαν ζωὴν κατὰ θεόν).” Her encouragement of their dying is part and parcel of her continued affection, since eternal life will be superior to temporary deliverance. [49] For Origen, though, family affection must be completely renounced.

Origen’s innovative use of 4 Maccabees is still clearer when we consider the interactions of the Maccabean brothers. 4 Maccabees repeatedly emphasizes their solidarity. The first (9:23), third (10:1–3), fourth (10:15), sixth (11:13–16), and seventh (12:16) brothers all either exhort the others to follow their lead or state that they were educated with and share the values of their siblings. The first brother’s words in particular bear repeating: “‘Imitate me, brothers (μιμήσασθέ με ἀδελφοί),’ he said. ‘Do not leave your post in my struggle or renounce our courageous family ties (τὴν τῆς εὐψυχίας ἀδελφότητα).’” The brothers are repeatedly said to be linked by shared upbringing and education, and to be dying with and for each other. This mutual encouragement has disappeared in Origen’s retelling. The solidarity of the family in martyrdom was, I suggest, counterproductive for Origen’s purposes. But it was not for Eusebius, as we will see below.

That Origen makes no mention of the Maccabean mother’s own demise also illustrates his priorities. In his telling, the mother’s role is simply to encourage her children’s deaths and separation from herself. In both 2 and 4 Maccabees, though, her own death is a prominent feature. In 2 Maccabees 7:41 the mother’s death is simply recorded; in the longer discussion of 4 Maccabees 17 her voluntary death upon a pyre is discussed at greater length. The subsequent discussion again emphasizes the solidarity of this family fatality (4 Maccabees 17:1–24). Origen omits this.

Origen’s central theme in the Exhortation is renunciation, illustrated primarily in the insistence upon severance of family ties. He uses the story of the Maccabees to this end, against the intentions of the author of 4 Maccabees. Eusebius’ use of the Maccabean motif can be read as reacting against this use of Origen’s. It is precisely the theme of renunciation with which Eusebius, I suggest, is uncomfortable.

Eusebius, Martyrdom, and the Maccabean Family

The key concern of Eusebius’ anecdote is family solidarity. In stark contrast with Origen, Maccabean imagery is used to emphasize that the integrity of the family unit is preserved even in death. The girls die having listened to the advice of their mother, who dies together with them. The mother is said explicitly to have “brought up in the principles of piety (θεσμοῖς εὐσεβείας ἀναθρεψαμένη)” (HE 8.12.3) her two daughters. Eusebeia here seems to refer both to divine and familial piety, conforming to that definition which D’Angelo marks as characteristic of 4 Maccabees, but which Origen had rejected. The girls are martyred on the basis of their piety, but their piety also means that the family unit is not renounced, and they all die together. Eusebius’ use of Maccabean imagery thus differs from that of Origen.

As in book 8, mothers, sons, and martyrdom together would itself have been evocative of Maccabean traditions. But again, Origen’s mother, in stark contrast to his father Leonidas, remains unnamed, like the Maccabean mother. Even more striking is Eusebius’ passing remark that after the death of his father Origen “was left destitute with his mother and six smaller brothers (μητρὶ καὶ βραχυτέροις ἀδελφοῖς τὸν ἀριθμὸν ἕξ), when he was not quite seventeen” (HE 6.2.12). A single mother and seven sons in the context of martyrdom is a clear allusion to the Maccabean story. Moreover, it is linguistically clear that Eusebius is referring specifically to 4 Maccabees. In the very first sentence of book 6, for example, Eusebius uses the phrase “athletes of piety (τῶν ὑπὲρ εὐσεβείας ἀθλητῶν)” (HE 6.1.1), characteristic of 4 Maccabees. Structurally too Eusebius’ story echoes 4 Maccabees, as I will discuss below. All this flags for the alert reader this intended inter-text.

However, Eusebius is not simply evoking 4 Maccabees. More interestingly, I suggest he calls to mind here too a second inter-text, namely Origen’s own previous use of 4 Maccabees in his Exhortation. This is most apparent in their treatments of the mother figures. As with Origen’s discussion of the mother of the Maccabees, Eusebius paints Origen’s mother as the subject of divine agency. When Origen desires martyrdom, Eusebius states that it was prevented because “the divine and heavenly Providence, acting for the general good through his mother, stood in the way of his zeal (τῆς θείας καὶ οὐρανίου προνοίας εἰς τὴν πλείστων ὠφέλειαν διὰ τῆς αὐτοῦ μητρὸς ἐμποδὼν αὐτῷ τῆς προθυμίας ἐνστάσης)” (HE 6.2.4). Eusebius’ story about Origen and his mother not only appeals to Maccabean imagery, but alludes to Origen’s own story about the Maccabean mother.

As in both the original Maccabean story and Origen’s retelling, in Eusebius’ story the mother figure remains the heroine. But now it is for acting in an exactly opposite manner to the Maccabean mother. Whereas the latter encourages her children’s martyrdoms, Origen’s mother prevents his death and is unambiguously praised by Eusebius for doing so. Where in Origen’s Exhortation divine agency enabled the Maccabean mother to overcome her “maternal instinct (τὸ μητρικὸν),” here Origen’s own “mother’s feelings (τῆς . . . μητρικῆς διαθέσεως)” are supported by divine agency in preventing the boy’s martyrdom. Eusebius in fact seems closer to the original intentions of 4 Maccabees. In 4 Maccabees 13:19, for example, we read: “You are not ignorant of the affection of family ties (τὰ τῆς ἀδελφότητος φίλτρα), which the divine and all-wise Providence (ἡ θεία καὶ πάνσοφος πρόνοια) has bequeathed through the fathers to their descendants and which was implanted in the mother’s womb.” In both 4 Maccabees and the Ecclesiastical History, divine Providence (τῆς θείας . . . προνοίας and ἡ θεία πάνσοφος πρόνοια, respectively) supports maternal affection and strengthens family ties. This is in direct contrast to Origen’s insistence on the renunciation of family ties. We can clearly observe Eusebius picking up different elements of 4 Maccabees from Origen.

Indeed, while his mother’s actions are providential, Origen’s own desire for martyrdom is conceived by Eusebius as impetuous and even rash. In emphatic language, we are told that “Origen’s soul was possessed with such a passion for martyrdom (ἔρως τοσοῦτος μαρτυρίου), while he was still quite a boy, that he was all eagerness to come to close quarters with danger (ὁμόσε τοῖς κινδύνοις χωρεῖν προπηδᾶν), and to leap forward and rush into the conflict (ὁρμᾶν ἐπὶ τὸν ἀγῶνα προθύμως ἔχειν)” (HE 6.2.3). The term erōs is rare in the Ecclesiastical History, and is not the term normally used there when Eusebius talks about the passion of martyrs. [65] In fact, Origen’s enthusiasm for martyrdom is conceived by Eusebius similarly to his ill-advised subsequent self-castration. His abortive martyrdom is “the first proof of Origen’s boyish readiness of mind (τοῦτο πρῶτον τῆς Ὠριγένους παιδικῆς ἀγχινοίας . . . τεκμήριον)” (HE 6.2.6), and his castration “a thing which gave abundant proof of an immature and youthful mind (πρᾶγμάτι . . . φρενὸς μὲν ἀτελοῦς καὶ νεανικῆς . . . μέγιστον δεῖγμα περιέχον)” (HE 6.8.1). That his mother can prevent him only with a gesture as ridiculous as hiding his clothes lends the episode an unexpected farcical element and hints that Origen’s intentions are themselves faintly laughable. Eusebius therefore seems to implicitly criticize Origen’s desire to renounce his family and be martyred, and praises his mother as a rational heroine when she prevents him. [66]

Eusebius’ sparing use of the term eusebeia here also deserves comment. This language, distinctive of 4 Maccabees, is also a common Eusebian term found in its various cognate forms exactly one hundred times in the Ecclesiastical History. We have already encountered the phrase “athletes of piety (εὐσεβείας ἀθλητῶν)” in Eusebius’ introduction to the story. Leonidas, Origen’s father, is one of these athletes. But then, tellingly, Eusebius refrains from using euseb– language for the remainder of the story, returning to it only in a later discussion of Origen’s own pupils’ martyrdoms (HE 6.4.3). Eusebius seems to avoid thus describing Origen, whose desire to abandon his family does not conform to the familial loyalty that 4 Maccabees and Eusebius both understand as integral to the term. In other words, Eusebius steps back from Origen’s contrary use of the term and reimbues it with the familial implications it originally had in 4 Maccabees.

In a fascinating passage, Eusebius seems to acknowledge Origen’s own opinions on martyrdom and the role of the family, while distancing himself from them. Eusebius recounts that, clothes hidden and unable to venture outside, “since there was nothing else he could do (ὡς οὐδὲν ἄλλο πράττειν αὐτῷ παρῆν)” (HE 6.2.6), Origen wrote to his father “a letter on martyrdom most strongly urging him on (προτρεπτικωτάτην περὶ μαρτυρίου ἐπιστολήν).” In this he advises him “‘Take care not to change your mind on our account (ἔπεχε μὴ δι’ ἡμᾶς ἄλλο τι φρονήσῃς).’” This cannot fail to recall Origen’s actual Exhortation (ΕΙΣ ΜΑΡΤΥΡΙΟΝ ΠΡΟΤΡΕΠΤΙΚΟΣ), which contains precisely this advice on family renunciation. Eusebius states: “This may be recorded as the first evidence of Origen’s youthful wisdom (τῆς Ὠριγένους παιδικῆς ἀγχινοίας) and of his genuine love for piety (τὴν θεοσέβειαν γνησιωτάτης διαθέσεως)”. Eusebius’ construction of this passage is very interesting. Firstly, Origen’s advice is born of the fact that: “his rising zeal beyond his age (τῆς προθυμίας ὑπὲρ τὴν ἡλικίαν ἐπιτεινομένης) would not suffer him to be quiet.” We have already been told that Origen’s youthful zeal was somewhat intemperate. Eusebius’ unambiguous support of Origen’s mother in opposing her son’s zeal, and his unwise castration attempt, are fresh in the reader’s mind. Secondly, “piety” here is not eusebeia but the variant theosebeia, indicating a piety specifically towards God. That is characteristic, as we have seen, of Origen’s attitude to martyrdom in his own writings. Eusebius here qualifies his praise of Origen by his careful use (or here avoidance) of Maccabean imagery and language.

In telling this unparalleled story, Eusebius uses Maccabean imagery in a context where neither mother nor son are martyred, and where the mother is even praised for actively preventing martyrdom. The effect, I suggest, is to question Origen’s principle of renunciation. Thanks to the actions of the mother in Eusebius’ story, the family unit is not broken. In smothering her impetuous son’s desire to leave his family and die, Origen’s mother acts exactly as Eusebius himself does symbolically here, in constructing a picture of Origen using a Maccabean motif that “smothers” how Origen himself had used it. There is no overt criticism of Origen here, nor does Eusebius inaccurately record his opinions. But the whole passage is constructed so the reader knows that Eusebius questions Origen’s views on the topic, and to cause the reader to doubt them too.

Eusebius’ motivations are revealed by the second part to this childhood anecdote. The real climax of the story is a surprisingly lengthy description of Origen’s relationship with his father Leonidas. The first point of note is that Leonidas’ relationship with his son is remarkably affectionate. In a touching tableau, Eusebius paints a portrait of a dutiful father, describing how Leonidas “would stand over the sleeping boy and uncover his breast, as if a divine spirit were enshrined therein, and kissing it with reverence (φιλῆσαί τε σεβασμίως) count himself happy in his goodly offspring (τῆς εὐτεκνίας μακάριον ἑαυτὸν ἡγήσασθαι)” (HE 6.2.11). This portrait of a loving father is reminiscent of Richard Saller’s picture, described above, of the ideal relationship between Roman father and son, characterized by love and reciprocity rather than discipline. Eusebius constructs this passage carefully to deliberately create this impression.

The second point of note is that this affection is directly linked to Leonidas’ education of his son. Eusebius tells us that Origen “had been trained in the divine Scriptures from the time that he was still a boy (ταῖς θείαις γραφαῖς ἐξ ἔτι παιδὸς ἐνησκημένος)” (HE 6.2.7) because “his father, in addition to the customary curriculum, took pains that these also should be for him no secondary matter (τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτῷ πρὸς τῇ τῶν ἐγκυκλίων παιδείᾳ καὶ τούτων οὐ κατὰ πάρεργοντὴν φροντίδα πεποιημένου).” Invariably, we are told, before Origen’s normal lessons his father “kept urging him to train himself in the sacred studies (ἐνῆγεν τοῖς ἱεροῖς ἐν ἀσκεῖσθαι παιδεύμασιν)” (HE 6.2.8) and kept “exacting from him each day learning by heart and repetition (ἐκμαθήσεις καὶ ἀπαγγελίας ἡμέρας ἑκάστης αὐτὸν εἰσπραττόμενος).” When Origen asked questions inappropriate to his age, his father would “ostensibly rebuke him to his face (τῷ μὲν δοκεῖν εἰς πρόσωπον ἐπέπληττεν αὐτῷ)” (HE 6.2.10) but “secretly in himself he rejoiced greatly (ἰδίως δὲ παρ’ ἑαυτῷ τὰ μεγάλα γεγηθὼς), and gave profound thanks to God, the Author of all good things, that He had deemed him worthy to be the father of such a boy (αὐτὸν τοιοῦδε πατέρα γενέσθαι παιδὸς ἠξίωσεν).” Leonidas’ parental authority and affection are tied to the successful education of his son.

In fact, 4 Maccabees has a strong focus throughout on the impact of shared upbringing and education on the family’s behavior in this crisis. We read in 4 Maccabees 13:24, for example: “Since they had been educated by the same law and trained in the same virtues (νόμῳ γὰρ τῷ αὐτῷ παιδευθέντες καὶ τὰς αὐτὰς ἐξασκήσαντες ἀρετὰς) and brought up in right living (τῷ δικαίῳ συντραφέντες βίῳ), they loved one another all the more.” Family solidarity, crucial in 4 Maccabees, derives from shared education. When Origen used 4 Maccabees, he ignored the father, and the family history, both of which were for him simply hurdles to be overcome. Eusebius, however, highlights these elements of 4 Maccabees. Where Origen focuses on the renunciation of the family, Eusebius highlights its lasting value, not least as a locus for education.

Christian History, Martyrdom, and the Role of the Family

Within second sophistic literature, treatments of the family are particularly important. The family was both the key unit of Roman society and a common literary metaphor representing the “state” itself. Eve Marie Lassen notes that: “. . . since the family formed an important social unit and held a prominent place in Roman tradition, metaphors of the family had the capacity to form very powerful, and to the Romans meaningful, images.” [73] In the Greek second sophistic novels, for example, the eventual reunion of the protagonists with their families has been read as a symbolic affirmation of that family’s worth and thus, for Greek provincial readers, of the worth of the Roman administration. [74] D’Angelo reads 4 Maccabees along these same lines. She suggests that this text, written from a provincial Jewish perspective, affirms and presents as imitable the values of the Roman hegemony. 4 Maccabees paints the nine Jewish martyrs as exemplifying a mode of piety (eusebeia) aligned with post-Augustan Roman imperial values. As such, the text adopts and recommends the virtue central to the Roman ideal, and so aligns itself with that Roman reality. D’Angelo states that: “The display of familial orthodoxy, particularly as incumbent on women, offers a guarantee of the moral and religious excellence of the [provincial Jewish] community, and a basis of apologetic appeal to emperors, governors and all in authority.” [75] 4 Maccabees is a concrete example of the second sophistic principle in action. It both represents and constructs provincial Greek culture.

Eusebius is attempting to realign his readers’ sympathies to match the church’s new situation via literary means. It is important to appreciate the real-life importance of such rhetoric. Kate Cooper has suggested that the public/private divide imposed by modern scholars on late antiquity masks a reality where much of what we consider “public” actually came within the purview of the “sphere of private influence.” This is crucial to understanding exactly how rhetoric and imagery worked in the Roman Empire. Since Fergus Millar’s famous 1977 work The Emperor in the Roman World, scholars have largely agreed that concrete Roman administration in the provinces was thin on the ground. The Empire’s continuation relied on the construction and persistence of ideologies that favored its hegemony. As a result of this, literary constructs impacted society. This is nowhere more true than with representations of the family. For example, while the ideology of the ideal Roman father that Richard Saller has traced was rooted in the household, it actually had a concrete effect on public life and the running of the Empire, since Roman men were judged worthy of public office on the basis of their perceived behavior within the household. What Cooper evocatively calls “the threatening vitality of private power” was the key means by which the Empire was governed. [85] The inherited ideal of pietas was the key means by which Roman families, with their “core activities of production and reproduction,” were practically regulated day by day. [86] Celebration of this ideal in provincial literature had concrete effects.

Eusebius’ literary “sophism” must therefore be read with an eye to the potential “real-life” effects of his writing. Eusebius was attempting to renegotiate the relationship between the church and the Roman administration, and to realign his Christian readership’s attitude towards the latter. The significance of the Roman domus to the Empire’s self-understanding and operation means that renegotiating Christian attitudes to the family unit was central to that process. In narratives of martyrdom, Eusebius demonstrates the abiding importance of the family unit, since he asserts that family is not to be discarded even in the moment when divine loyalty is most pressing. It is no coincidence that Eusebius’ picture of Leonidas (tenderly kissing his son’s forehead, and gently disciplining while diligently educating his son) fits Richard Saller’s ideal of the sympathetic Roman pater. The antagonistic Roman pater of texts like The Martyrdom of Perpetua, of whom many Christians were deeply suspicious, is replaced by a sympathetic and affectionate Christian father demonstrating those attributes that characterize the good Roman pater. The stress on the father’s educative role only demonstrates further that Eusebius is concerned to enable the process of social reproduction. [87] In Eusebius’ complex narratives, his audience encounters Christian heroes imagined in traditional Roman terms. This encourages a new sympathy with the imperial institution in whose circles the Christian church was starting to move.

In fact, Eusebius goes so far as to suggest that Christians can be the best representatives of true Roman values. [88] Elsewhere in the Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius portrays renunciation of one’s family as a characteristically “un-Christian” action, characteristic of both Jewish and pagan behavior in times of crisis. Eusebius’ quotation of Josephus’ account of Jewish misfortunes during the Jewish War focuses on poor family relationships. [89] We read how in the accompanying famine “wives would snatch the food out of the very mouths of their husbands, children from their fathers, and—most lamentable of all (τὸ οἰκτρότατον)—mothers from their babes (μητέρες νηπίων)” (HE 3.6.5). More dramatically still we read that: “there was no pity for grey hairs or for babes (οὐδέ τις ἦν οἶκτος πολιᾶς ἢ νηπίων), they lifted up the little children as they clutched their scraps of food, and dashed them to the ground” (HE 3.6.7–8). Relatives were not buried, partly from physical weakness, partly from fear (HE 3.6.14). In addition, “neither weeping nor wailing accompanied these calamities; but famine stifled the affections (ὁ λιμὸς ἤλεγχε τὰ πάθη)” (HE 3.6.15). The horrific climax comes in the lengthy tale of the Jewish mother also “distinguished for birth and wealth (διὰ γένος καὶ πλοῦτον ἐπίσημος)” (HE 3.6.21) like the Maccabean mother and the mother of the two daughters in book 8. But this Jewish mother does not echo their piety. Instead, she “took Wrath and Necessity as her fellow-counselors, and made an onslaught upon Nature (ἐπὶ τὴν φύσιν ἐχώρει)” (HE 3.6.23), and roasted and ate her own child. When Jewish rioters discover her, demand to share her food, and then balk when they discover its origin, she mocks them for their piety (εὐσεβεῖς) (HE 3.6.26). This sick joke rests upon the familial connotations of εὐσεβεία. This outrage to piety provides “the final piece of the disasters of the Jews (ὁ μόνος ἐλλείπων ταῖς Ἰουδαίων συμφοραῖς)” (HE 3.6.24). This criticism of Jewish behavior presents a disregard for family ties as characteristic.

Eusebius’ selective quotations from a letter of Dionysius of Alexandria describing a plague in Alexandria apply the same stereotype to “pagans.” Their behavior is also condemned precisely because they reject the ties of family and community that the Christians revere. Christians “in their exceeding love and affection for the brotherhood (δι’ ὑπερβάλλουσαν ἀγάπην καὶ φιλαδελφίαν) were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another (ἀλλήλων ἐχόμενοι), visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger” (HE 7.22.7). Many Christian leaders died this way, a mode of death which Eusebius says came from “much piety and strong faith (διὰ πολλὴν εὐσέβειαν καὶ πίστιν ἰσχυρὰν)” (HE 7.22.8). We find εὐσέβεια here again, clearly referring to care and duty towards those around one, rather than simply towards the divine. Against this, “the conduct of the heathen was the exact opposite (τὰ δέ γε ἔθνη πᾶν τοὐναντίον).” Dionysius states how “Even those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away, and fled from their dearest (ἀπέφευγοντοὺς φιλτάτους).” They would even cast them in the roads half dead, and treat the unburied corpses as vile refuse (HE 7.22.10). It is precisely a concern for the ties of family and friendship that distinguishes Christian over against non-Christian behavior.

Eusebius is thus not simply seeking in his presentation of the family to align his Christian audience with the Roman administration. He is also presenting the Christians as true exemplars of classic Roman familial piety. Eusebius wrote at a transitional period in the history of both the church and the imperial institution. As these slowly came into alignment, Eusebius is visibly exploring the possibilities presented. In his narratives about martyrdom and family, as well as turning away from the ideologies of resistance and renunciation which had characterized earlier treatments, he also seems to suggest that the future of the Roman Empire is with the church, since it is in the church that classic imperial virtues are now best represented.

Eusebius, the Family, and Christian Authority

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[ back ] 1. Versions of this paper were given at seminars in Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, and Berkeley, to the participants of all of which I am grateful for corrections and suggestions. I am also grateful to the editors and the anonymous reader both for the invitation to contribute and for their helpful comments. Above all thanks are due to Kate Cooper, whose support has been, as ever, immeasurable.

[ back ] 2. The bibliography on the origins, dating, and sources of both 2 and 4 Maccabees is vast and need not overly concern us here, since our interest is almost entirely in their later reception. But for introductions and/or summary on these issues see: van Henten 1997; deSilva 1998 and 2006. For a particularly detailed summary of scholarship on the dating of 4 Maccabees, see Moore and Anderson 1998:251n4.

[ back ] 3. “I could prove to you from many and various examples that reason is dominant over the emotions, but I can demonstrate it best from the noble bravery of those who died for the sake of virtue, Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother” (4 Maccabees 1:7–8). NRSV translation used throughout.

[ back ] 4. For a useful summary of work done prior to 1998, see deSilva 1998:143–155. The most important additions are Hilhorst 2000 and deSilva 2009.

[ back ] 5. DeSilva 1998.

[ back ] 6. See e.g. Staples 1966; see also D’Angelo 2003.

[ back ] 7. Frend 1965; van Henten 1986; see also Perler 1949.

[ back ] 8. It is intriguing that both are preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, the latter exclusively so.

[ back ] 9. Townshend 1913, see in particular 658–660.

[ back ] 10. Metcalfe 1921.

[ back ] 11. Winslow 1974. See also Ziadé 2007.

[ back ] 12. E.g. Hartmann 1958:776–779.

[ back ] 13. DeSilva 2009.

[ back ] 14. J. W. van Henten is engaged in a longstanding project on the interaction of Jewish and early Christian martyrologies, which includes a survey of quotations and allusions to the Maccabean story in early Christian literature, but his final results are as yet unpublished. See e.g. van Henten 2012:118.

[ back ] 15. Hilhorst mentions Eusebius’ Martyrs of Palestine simply as one example of post-Diocletianic Christian texts, in which he sees a particular feature of 4 Maccabees (the characterization of persecutors as tyrants) repeated. See Hilhorst 2000:112.

[ back ] 16. See for example the dismissal of Eusebius’ style in Andrew Louth’s introduction to Geoffrey Arthur Williamson’s popular translation of the Ecclesiastical History (trans. Williamson 1965:xiii): “Such writing is enormously valuable to have, though tedious to read.” This stems from Photius’ dismissal of Eusebius in the ninth century: “his style is neither agreeable nor brilliant, but he was a man of great learning” (Photius Bibliotheca 13, trans. from Henry 1959:11).

[ back ] 17. Mendels 1999.

[ back ] 18. Carotenuto 2002.

[ back ] 19. Verheyden 2010.

[ back ] 20. Verdoner 2011.

[ back ] 21. Inowlocki and Zamagni 2011:ix.

[ back ] 22. Schwartz 1909.

[ back ] 23. De Faye 1923–1928; Foakes-Jackson 1933; Cadiou 1935; Daniélou 1948.

[ back ] 24. Chadwick 1966. For subsequent cautious treatments, see in particular Nautin 1977; and in English, Trigg 1983.

[ back ] 25. Cox Miller 1983:18. See though the critique of Dillon 2006.

[ back ] 26. Swain 1997:18.

[ back ] 27. See e.g. Markschies 2004 (and other essays in that volume), Ferguson 2005 and Penland 2010.

[ back ] 28. Verheyden 2011:725n31.

[ back ] 29. See e.g. Carriker 2003; Grafton and Williams 2006.

[ back ] 30. See e.g. Kannengiesser 1992; Grafton and Williams 2006.

[ back ] 31. See e.g. the debate between Barnes 1981 and Vivian 1988. See also Ferguson 2005:22–29 on Eusebius’ inheritance of disputes concerning Origen, although he too concludes that Eusebius simply defends Origen.

[ back ] 32. Some recent work has demonstrated Eusebius’ willingness to stray from or ignore Origen’s intentions when discussing similar material elsewhere. See e.g. Johnson 2006.

[ back ] 33. Winslow 1974; cf. also Hartmann 1958.

[ back ] 34. For discussion of this point, see deSilva 2009:342–343.

[ back ] 35. DeSilva 2009:340.

[ back ] 36. Metcalfe 1921:269.

[ back ] 37. Noted, for example, by Ziadé 2007:96n182.

[ back ] 38. Townshend 1913:663.

[ back ] 39. Having summarized all the evidence available, deSilva concludes: “While the value of any one of these pieces of evidence could be disputed, the accumulation of data strongly suggests that Origen read both 2 and 4 Maccabees, and that he incorporated a substantial amount of vocabulary, imagery, and thought from the latter both in his retelling of the story of 2 Maccabees 6–7 in particular and in his exhortation to Ambrose and Protoctetus in general.”

[ back ] 40. All translations of the Exhortation are taken from Oulton and Chadwick 1954 (suitably modified); Greek from Baehrens 1925; online at

[ back ] 41. See e.g. Exhortation 14–16, 50.

[ back ] 42. See deSilva 2009:350, where he notes that by picking up this point about the family’s potential for distraction: “Origen thus uses a topic highlighted by the author of 4 Maccabees in regard to the general ethical achievement of the Torah-observant, and the Maccabean martyrs in particular, to speak of an essential obstacle to be overcome by Christian martyrs . . .”

[ back ] 43. Winslow in his brief treatment of the Exhortation agrees for example that “His [Origen’s] conclusions are simple: love for God and human weakness cannot dwell together, while true piety and devotion are the equal of any adversary.” See Winslow 1974:78.

[ back ] 44. Metcalfe 1921:269.

[ back ] 45. Ἦν δὲ τότε τὴν μητέρα τῶν τοσούτων ἰδεῖν „εὐψύχως“ φέρουσαν „διὰ τὰς ἐπὶ τὸν θεὸν ἐλπίδας“ τοὺς πόνους καὶ τοὺς θανάτους τῶν υἱῶν· δρόσοι γὰρ εὐσεβείας καὶ πνεῦμα ὁσιότητος οὐκ εἴων ἀνάπτεσθαι ἐν τοῖς σπλάγχνοις αὐτῆς τὸ μητρικὸν καὶ ἐν πολλαῖς ἀναφλεγόμενον ὡς ἐπὶ βαρυτάτοις κακοῖς πῦρ . . .

[ back ] 46. See e.g. Ziadé 2007:99; deSilva 2009:348–349.

[ back ] 47. καὶ οὐχ οὕτως οἱ περὶ Δανιηλ λέοντες ἦσαν ἄγριοι οὐδὲ ἡ Μισαηλ ἐκφλεγομένη κάμινος λαβροτάτῳ πυρί ὡς ἡ τῆς φιλοτεκνίας περιέκαιεν ἐκείνην φύσις ὁρῶσαν αὐτῆς οὕτως ποικίλως βασανιζομένους τοὺς ἑπτὰ υἱούς ἀλλὰ τῷ λογισμῷ τῆς εὐσεβείας κατέσβεσεν τὰ τοσαῦτα καὶ τηλικαῦτα πάθη ἡ μήτηρ . . .

[ back ] 48. DeSilva 2009:349.

[ back ] 49. This is in fact noted in deSilva 2006:260: “The actions of the mother thus embody not the neglect of love for offspring, nor its negation, but its perfection and fullest fruition.”

[ back ] 50. See also 4 Maccabees 17:5. DeSilva comments on this in e.g. 2006:266.

[ back ] 51. D’Angelo 2003:150.

[ back ] 52. See e.g. Saller and Shaw 1984; Saller 1984; 1986; 1988; 1999b.

[ back ] 53. Saller 1988:395.

[ back ] 54. Severy 2003:61; see also 158–186.

[ back ] 55. See famously Price 1983.

[ back ] 56. D’Angelo 2003:140 notes that this is the standard use of eusebeia in contemporary Greek texts.

[ back ] 57. Origen’s other uses of the term are found in chapters 5 (x3), 23 (x3), 27 (x3), 25, 29, 42, and 47. This data was based on an online search of the TLG.

[ back ] 58. For Eusebius’ collection of Origen’s works (though without explicit discussion of the Exhortation), see Carriker 2003:235–243; also 308.

[ back ] 59. In HE 3.10.6–7, while listing Josephus’ work, he states that “he has composed another, and no unworthy, work, On the Supremacy of Reason, entitled by some Maccabaicum, because it contains the conflicts of those Hebrews who contended valiantly for piety towards the Deity, to be found in the books of the Maccabaica, as they are in like manner called.”

[ back ] 60. Carriker 2003:162 notes that in HE 6.25.2 in a list of canonical Hebrew Scriptures inherited from Origen: “The last work in the list is τὰ Μακκαβαικά, probably 1 Maccabees, though it is evident that Eusebius also knew the other Maccabean books, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, and 4 Maccabees.”

[ back ] 61. All translations of the Ecclesiastical History taken from Lawlor and Oulton 1927 (suitably modified); Greek from Bardy 1952; 1955; 1958; online at

[ back ] 62. Tessa Rajak attributes this anonymity to a desire in Jewish martyrology to “curb the cult of individuals,” and through the example of the martyrs encourage a focus on Israel as a whole; see e.g. Rajak 1997:57–58. The mother acquired the name “Maria” or “Miriam” in some later Rabbinic literature, and “Hannah” in Spanish versions of the mediaeval writer Josippon. The sons do not acquire names until Erasmus provides them in the sixteenth century; see also Townshend 1913:660–662. I note too, though, that traditionally in Greek prose, and in the Attic Orators especially, proper Greek women were unnamed. See Schaps 1977.

[ back ] 63. For a summary of scholarship on this idea, see e.g. deSilva 1998:19.

[ back ] 64. Eusebius’ interest in Origen’s early life is noteworthy in itself. Gregory Thaumaturgus in his comparable Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen states specifically that he will not discuss Origen’s youth or education: “And it is not his birth or bodily training that I am about to praise”; trans. from Coxe, Roberts, and Donaldson 1971.

[ back ] 65. Ἔρως and its declinable forms appear only three other times in the Ecclesiastical History: once as a proper name (HE 4.20.1), and twice as passion for philosophy, of which one refers again to Origen and his teaching of pupils (HE 6.30.1), and one to the early disciples leading up to Clement (HE 3.37.2).

[ back ] 66. Swain 1997:10, for example, briefly mentions the entertainment value of the second sophistic novels.

[ back ] 67. On the sudden appearance of the father and his role as educator, see in particular D’Angelo 2003:156.

[ back ] 68. The authenticity of 4 Maccabees 18 has provoked debate precisely because it breaks the chronological sequence (also because of the patriarchal and moderating limits placed on the mother). For a summary of the literature surrounding this speech, see Moore and Anderson 1998:270. Current consensus supports the passage’s authenticity, though this need not concern us here. As D’Angelo 2003:152n51 says, even if it is not original, “the speech deserves attention as a very important reading of the work of the whole . . .”

[ back ] 69. Swain 1997:1.

[ back ] 70. Winslow 1974:79. Winslow says little though about these authors’ attitudes to the family in the context of martyrdom.

[ back ] 71. Whether Eusebius can be read as a sophistic author has been much debated, with the central question being his disputed authorship of the Against Hierocles, which if he did write it, would establish his knowledge of the second sophistic. Barnes 2001 and 2009 continue to assert that Eusebius of Caesarea was not the author, citing Hägg 1992. However, Jones 2006 and Borzi 2003 have established Eusebian authorship.

[ back ] 72. Whitmarsh 2001a:273. See also Whitmarsh 2001b.

[ back ] 73. Lassen 1997:110.

[ back ] 74. Cooper 1996:21–44.

[ back ] 75. D’Angelo 2003:141; see also 145–147.

[ back ] 76. See e.g. Tilley 1991; Perkins 1995 and 2009. See also Shaw 1996; Cooper 1998.

[ back ] 77. See in particular Cooper 2011a.

[ back ] 78. For a survey and discussion of anti-family sentiments in martyr narratives, see Bradley 2003; with supplements and corrections in Bremmer 2006.

[ back ] 79. Cooper 2007:8. “Rival cognitions” are defined here as “interpretations of hierarchy favoring the subject position of the subordinate.”

[ back ] 80. For a selection of views on Origen’s attitude to martyrdom see e.g. Trigg 1983; Crouzel 1989; Bright 1988; Heisey 2000; Weidmann 2004; Rizzi 2009. The most comprehensive linguistic assessment is Smith 2008.

[ back ] 81. One might question how great the threat to Christianity posed by Maximin actually was; see e.g. Trigg 1983:163. Regardless of the reality however, Origen writes rhetorically as if there were an immediate threat, and the tone of the work clearly envisages would-be-martyr readers. See also deSilva 2009:337–338.

[ back ] 82. For the debate over dating and editions of the Ecclesiastical History, see Burgess 1997, whose suggestions are currently widely accepted. The literature here is extensive; key contributions include: Lawlor and Oulton 1927:1–11; Barnes 1980; 1981:148–150, 154–158; 1984; 2009 (accepting Burgess’ suggestions); Louth 1990.

[ back ] 83. I have addressed elsewhere other ways in which Eusebius re-appropriates the martyr topos; see e.g. Corke-Webster 2012.

[ back ] 84. Though Mendels 1999 argues that Eusebius is writing for a sympathetic pagan audience, the evidence of the Ecclesiastical History itself indicates clearly that Eusebius is writing for an “internal” Christian audience (e.g. HE 8.2.3; 7.18.1). See further Verdoner 2010.

[ back ] 85. Cooper 2007:22–23; see also Cooper 2011.

[ back ] 86. Cooper 2007:26; though Cooper notes too the legal safeguards regulating the domus.

[ back ] 87. Like 4 Maccabees, Eusebius does not unduly upset gender hierarchies here. There the mother’s final speech submits her to her husband. Here Origen’s mother fails to persuade her son by normal means; Leonidas as father and tutor remains the dominant authority figure. Origen’s parents also conform to the traditional Roman family’s division of labor, with mother concerned for cura and father for tutela. In book 8, the two daughters’ mother’s concern for sexual honor was also a key attribute of the Roman mater familias; see e.g. Saller 1999a:193–196.

[ back ] 88. See also Corke-Webster 2012. D’Angelo 2003:157 suggests that 4 Maccabees too demonstrates “a familial piety that fulfills and surpasses Roman standards.”

[ back ] 89. For more on Eusebius’ use of Josephus see e.g. Mendels 2001; Inowlocki 2006.

[ back ] 90. It is interesting that both Origen and Eusebius found a suitable source of imagery for very different purposes in 4 Maccabees. A comment of D’Angelo 2003:157 is evocative here: “One of the reasons that 4 Maccabees is so difficult to date is that it might equally well rally the Jews against imperial force during the crisis of 41 or 117–118, or help them appeal to a more complaisant gentile world in less turbulent periods.” 4 Maccabees seems a particularly multivalent text.

[ back ] 91. I note that the upshot of Origen’s abortive martyrdom attempt is his first pastoral epistle, written to his father. The rest of book 6 focuses above all on Origen’s intellectual, literary, epistolary, and pastoral abilities.

[ back ] 92. I am not suggesting that Eusebius did not ascribe any value to martyrdom; numerous examples make it clear that he did, including that of the mother and her two daughters discussed here. But it is noteworthy that the gender of those martyrs might well have diminished their intellectual and literary value to the church in Eusebius’ mind. I hope to discuss this issue in more detail elsewhere.