***So, some of you guys are clearly illiterate and seem to be thinking the take away is that you can be mean to transpeople/old women/whatever. No. Treat human beings, whoever they are, with the same dignity that you yourself would want. This is not, should not be, a difficult concept to understand. You can’t harass people for looking different. You can’t harass people for something they have not said.***

Was S. Severus a persecutor of Christians?[1] You see I write this on the cusp of the Ανάσταση and, as always during this time of year, the role of suffering in faith and the development of Christianity under the Roman boot/aegis (delete depending on the century of your reading) is much on my mind. Though we debate the frequency, severity, timbre, and cause, persecutions were a major part of Christianity’s entstehung. If anything, such things are still a part of Christianity. In large swathes of the world Christians are still persecuted and, indeed, there have been periods (are still periods?) where the Christians were the ones doing the persecuting. Who now, after all, remembers the Albigeois? The women of Salem and elsewhere we reduce to a meme or a tourist attraction, and it seems that only a few dictionary botherers care for the summary extinction of Baltic paganism nowadays. The foot in the boot has changed, the kickings remain the same.

Which brings us back to Severus, whom later Christian tradition sometimes remembers as one of the persecutors along with Decius and Diocletian.[2] One of the people persecuted and martyred during his reign was a young noblewoman called Vibia Perpetua. How do we know this? A text survives from the period which details her suffering. Called the Passio Perpetuae, the bulk of the text is seemingly her own prison dairy with some sort of homily appended to the beginning and an account of her death and that of her maidservant affixed to the tail. I think the little work has become something of an internet sensation. Certainly, I had never read it until a few years ago. Along with Sulpicia’s poetry, it must be amongst the earliest female authored Latin texts that we now possess. It is an interesting read and well suited to current tastes.[3] Anyway, in the text Vibia Perpetua, along with her maidservant Felicitas, are apprehended by the authorities and put into prison, awaiting execution.  Vibia Perpetua’s father is evidently a man of note and tries to intercede on her behalf, but she is intransient:

Parce, inquit,[4] canis patris tui, parce infantiae pueri. fac sacrum pro salute imperatorum. et ego respondi: Non facio. Hilarianus: Christiana es? inquit. et ego respondi: Christiana sum. et cum staret pater ad me deiciendam, iussus est ab Hilariano proiciet uirga percussus est. et doluit mihi casus patris mei quasi ego fuissem percussa; sic dolui pro senecta eius misera. tunc nos uniuersos pronuntiat et damnat ad bestias; et hilares descendimus ad carcerem.

“Spare” he said “your father’s grey hairs, spare the infancy of the boy.[5] Make sacrifice for the wellbeing of the Emperors”. And I responded, “I shall not”. Hilarianus asked “you are a Christian?” and I responded, “I am a Christian”. And then, when my father stood by for the casting down [of my faith], he was ordered thrown down and beaten with a staff by Hilarianus. The fall of my father saddened me as if I myself were beaten and I was saddened too by his miserable old age. Then he passed sentence on all of us: we were damned to the beasts, and happily went down to the prison.

Passio Perpetuae 6.

There are two relevant bits of the text to the current Mary Beard situation (and I swear, they are relevant)[6]: The command to just sacrifice to the emperors and Perpetua’s absolute stubbornness in both proclaiming her Christianity and refusal to perform a simple gesture. This little scene, the exasperated Roman governor, the fanatical Christian, is repeated across our sources and is misunderstood as often as it is commented upon.[7] “You see!” says the modern commentator “this is proof that the pagan Romans were orthoprax as opposed to orthodox!”. In other words, believe what you like, just behave like we do. How cosmopolitan and modern! They probably voted Liberal Democrat in the local elections, too. Utter fucking nonsense. If there was no belief in the efficacy of ritual, they would not be at such pains to ensure it done. In addition to the religious, there was also a transparently secular motive, the kind we can recognise in any imperial project. The Romans knew, as we have forgotten, that orthodoxy follows orthopraxy.

Arch of Trajan, Beneventum: sacrifice (detail)
Arch of Trajan, Beneventum. Photo by Roger Ulrich. The scene is one of sacrifice, presumably for the health of the Emperor.

Perpetua’s refusal to sacrifice (non facio), her repeated confession of her faith (Christiana sum) is a powerful gesture, again, not well understood in the modern world. We talk endlessly of inclusivity, but such things always by definition exclude someone or thing. In an environment where there are competing group interests, signifying your status vis a vis in and out groups can be costly, as poor Perpetua found out. Again, our modern society is anodyne. If I ask you to picture someone with tattoos you are much more likely to picture some risible hipster or even somehow you know rather than a hardened lifer. You, presumably, do not need to worry whether your shirt and tie combo signifies membership of a rival gang when walking to your office. Not so for much of human history.[8] “Conform” says Hilarianus, “show us that you belong, submit to our power structure, or…”. Just burn a little incense. Just bow your head. Just say the words. Go on, go on. And what does Perpetua say? Christiana sum “fuck off”.

This, then, is not an example of two groups speaking across one another. Both are speaking the same language: power.[9]

“The Discourse”

Which brings us, finally, to Mary Beard. A few days ago, someone traduced Beard as a transphobe. Well, not exactly. Someone noted that Beard follows or is followed by transphobes. This certainly should cause eyebrows to raise. Not because Beard is above reproach (who could or would vouch that?) but because there is something inherently distasteful about guilt by association – especially when phrased in such a weaselly way. Anyway, surely something so basic could be quickly cleared up? Of course. Not

et intelleximus passionem esse futuram, et coepimus nullam iam spem in saeculo habere.

And we knew the future to be a passion [lit: a suffering], and we began to have no hope in this age.

Passio Perpetuae 4.

To bewildered onlookers, I suggest that the power dynamics present in the Passio Perpetua help you make sense of all that is happening. I am focusing on power, which always seems venal, because the go to defence of people called on their bullying on twitter (and it is bullying) is always that you should be more mindful of power structures. One, in other words, should not punch down. Just what is up and what is done is highly contentious and amorphous. Schrodinger’s cardinal direction if you will. Miraculously, people in the accuser’s in group are always being punched down and always punching up. As an outsider of no account, I often look upon this with a mixture of sadness and bereavement. I much rather nobody punches anyone, but ok, fine.

So, what ought Beard to have done when faced with this accusation? Certainly not write a TLS piece defending herself (“wielding institutional power”) or try to explain herself (“a nopology”) to the twitter mob. Even so much as addressing her accuser was taboo (“punching down”; “orchestrating a pile on”).

She stands accused (esne Christiana?) and she has two options. Either she affirms the charges and damns herself to the beasts or she gives in to the demands, makes the sacrifice, says the words, bows her head (fac sacrum pro salute imperatorum). Those were apparently the only options. The power dynamics were naked for all to see. You would have to be an academic to miss them. Beard, however, did the equivalent of ignoring the procurator and walking out of the courtroom. The fallout from this has been the predictable thunderstorm in the tea-cup that erupts over #ClassicsTwitter every fortnight or so. There are several accounts signalling their own in group status apropos of seemingly nothing with all the forcefulness of Perpetua’s Christiana sum.

Make no mistake, Perpetua, Euplus et al who affirmed their faith did so in an environment which meant they would at the very least face censure and most likely death. They were purposefully doing the equivalent of wearing the wrong gang colours in the wrong area,[10] all these accounts are doing is forming a mob. The equivalent of the imperial functionary and his cronies. There is no faith, no virtue, in these demands on Mary Beard. Just power. What must this look like to outsiders, I wonder? Certainly not support of trans people. For that one might look to various practical measures such as this support meeting (I don’t see the link, so I will post the tweet for any of my trans readers interested in joining).

Instead, to outsiders and quasi(?)-outsiders like myself, the current kerfuffle looks like a lot of bullying of one elderly professor and a lot of status-signalling from people who are otherwise untouched. It also stinks of envy and a complete lack of charity to one of your own.

Which leaves us to wrap up this short piece. I am sorry for the clumsiness, but for a while now it has increasingly seemed to me that the kind of behaviour we see our corporations, universities, and governments behave is religious in nature and I thought that parsing this through the lens of a religious text and the model of intra-religious conflict might prove, if not elucidating, interesting.

Is Beard a transphobe? I would like to think such an eminent Classicist does not have it in her to set her face against anyone based on their personal characteristics. But who can read the heart of another? Who should? Who is entitled to know? Certainly twitter seems to think itself entitled to judge. I, like many others, am sick of all this performative virtue from a group of people who would step over the still twitching corpses of their friends for a shot at a TT job. I am sick of the Spanish Inquisition like nastiness. The lack of grace, the base meanness. I do not know if Beard is a transphobe, but I do know that she is brave[11] Let the incense remain unburnt. Let the creed remain unspoken. Let us have good deeds rather than pretty words. Hilarianus can go fuck himself.  

Τί οὖν; προεχόμεθα; οὐ πάντως…καθὼς γέγραπται ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν δίκαιος οὐδὲ εἷς.

What then? Are we better? Not at all…as it is written that there is no one just, not one.

Romans 3:9-10


[1] imperator, not potions master, you fucking millennial.

[2] Decius has suffered the impotent ignominy of being completely forgotten by any public, Diocletian had his body turfed out of his own palace in Spalatum. A crime of which many of the modern inhabitants with whom I have spoken are proud. I do not doubt that Christians were persecuted under Severus, but I could say not off the top of my head whether he took a more Trajanic or a more Decian involvement.

[3] Perhaps not really the place, but for anyone looking for more female authored Latin texts, @SkyeAShirley has set up a group which is worth checking out: https://www.lupercallegit.org/ go read some Latin! By tastes I mean both the attempt to diversify and extend our cannon and in the increasing integration of Christian/Late Antique texts into mainstream curricula.

[4] The speaker is one Hilarianus, a procurator. The title is quite general. Think of him as a minor functionary who did not himself wield imperium. He does seem a right shit, however.

[5] Both Perpetua and Felicitas had recently given birth, the former is still nursing and has her baby with her for a good part of the text. In jail. Yes…

[6] They are probably not relevant. Shhh. Just keep reading.

[7] The locus classicus optimus is Pliny Epistulae 10.96-97. The first of these is Pliny’s lengthy description of the procedures he uses to deal with Christians, the second is Trajan’s reply. Also, the Jewish writer Philo has an interesting account of an embassy to Gaius Caligula which underlines how threatening this demand can be. Jews (despite getting off to a rocky start with the Romans, thanks Pompey!) were often otherwise exempted from these trials, but then the sovereign is he who decides when, where, and how falls the exception.

[8] As you can tell from my examples, not so for a good part of modern society either once you step outside that middle class bubble.

[9] This may not be the tweed and ivy girt analysis you are used to, but it comes from the experience of both the slums and the boardroom and I dare say it is indeed the correct one.

[10] This is an Americanism that I may not entirely be getting right. From my own background one tended to get jumped for a) being of the wrong ethnicity or b) from the wrong post-code. Americans, a post-code is like a zip-code but more functional and sensible.

[11] Seriously. Bigger fish than her have been, er, scalped. Look at the current kerfuffle over Richard Dawkins and J. K. Rowling. Classicists routinely overestimate their own importance at a time when entire departments are disposable.

[13] Congratulations. You have found the secret 13th footnote. Tomorrow morning you will wake up to find $3 underneath your pillow.

One thought on “Passio Mariae Barbae

  1. Excellent take! And kudos to the analogy; I thought it was very apt and very well argued. Glad to see some proper, academic take on this whole thing.

    Like

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