Kyle Smith has written a provocative, engaging, and elegant book. In Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia: Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity, Smith has masterfully utilized more familiar sources, such as Eusebius' Life of Constantine, as well as sources less well-known—at least to some Western scholars—such as the Syriac texts: Aphrahat's Demonstrations, The Martyrdom of Blessed Simeon bar Ṣabba‘e, and the History of Blessed Simeon bar Ṣabba‘e. Through his reading of these texts, Smith critiques previous historiography and demonstrates new possibilities and avenues for constructing the history of Persian Christians in the fourth century and their relationship to Constantine and the Roman Empire.
Smith begins his book not with the fourth century but, rather, with the twenty-first. The opening pages of Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia offer readers a brief vignette describing the 2008 kidnapping and subsequent murder of Monsignor Paulos Rahho—a Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul in northern Iraq. By weaving in the contemporary narrative with his historical reconstruction of fourth-century politics and the concomitant historiography from that moment, Smith underscores the power of historical narratives in affecting contemporary issues of identity, religion, and politics. More specifically, Smith sees the capture and murder of Rahho, one that has been understood as part and parcel with anti-Christian sentiment in the region, as the culmination of well-known and well-rehearsed tropes about suffering and faith that stretch far back to the life and reign of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. In this way, Smith cites and reminds readers of the important work on the rhetorical function of ancient Christian martyr narratives and their persistence and pervasiveness in contemporary cultures that Elizabeth Castelli introduced in her Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York, NY; Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2004). Smith quotes Rahho as claiming that “After Constantine, persecution ended only for Western Christians, whereas in the East threats continued. Even today, we continue to be a church of martyrs” (4).
Smith uses Rahho's words, followed by a description of his capture and murder, to demonstrate how a deeply embedded historical narrative can become a prominent part of the self-fashioning, self-understanding, and identity of particular communities. For Rahho, as for historians both ancient and modern such as Eusebius, Theodoret, Sozomon, Abraham Yohannan, and Timothy Barnes, the link between Christianitas and Romanitas is strong, ineffable, and so real that Christians in Persia—both ancient and modern—could be murdered for their allegiance to “the West.” The larger implications of this historiography are that Christianity is not, nor has ever been, welcomed in Persia. The most crucial primary source for this long historiographical trajectory is a letter from Constantine written to his Persian counterpart Shapur II, the content of which (as preserved in Eusebius' Life of Constantine) includes praise for the Christian community in Persia and an appeal to Shapur to protect them. Many historians have accepted and repeated the narrative that this letter was a response to, or perhaps a catalyst for, the persecution of Christians in Persia. Indeed, these same historians have linked this letter with the Roman military campaigns against Persia in the fourth century and later. Smith, however, provides readers with an alternative narrative.
After his captivating introduction, Smith divides his book into two parts with six chapters. In the first, “The Roman Frontier and the Persian War,” he argues that the dating for Constantine's letter to Shapur II (324/325 CE) is more than a decade before Constantine set off on the beginnings of a military campaign against Persia in 336/337 CE (one that he would not live to see complete). Smith's decoupling of the letter from the later military campaign allows for a new reading of this famous piece of imperial correspondence. Instead of reading the letter as a proclamation of Constantine's love for and protection of Christianity that served as a preamble to and a justification for an attack on Persia, Smith reads the letter and the military campaign as unrelated. If, then, the letter to Shapur had little to do with Constantine's political ambitions in Persia, then the military campaign that came a decade later has nothing to do with protecting persecuted Christians at the hands of the Persian emperor. Smith goes on to demonstrate that the majority of the Syriac texts describing the persecution of Christians in Persia were in fact written much later than the early fourth century. What we are left with is a history of persecuted Christians in Persia that was transposed onto the time of Constantine and Shapur II from a later period.
In the second part, “Roman Captives and the Persian Envoys,” Smith takes a close look at the Syriac sources in question. Through meticulously detailed readings, he demonstrates that some of these sources depict Persian Christians as Roman captives – in other words, prisoners of war. This is a difficult image to square with the idea that Constantine was coming to liberate fellow Christians from an oppressive Persian regime. In reality, Smith argues, the Syriac histories and hagiographies from the later fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries that worked together to construct images of Constantine were heavily influenced by earlier literary traditions. Persian Christians writing in Syriac drew upon martyr narratives and hagiographies produced in Rome in the centuries before Constantine's reign and used those sources to describe their own histories. It was not until much later—the seventh century—that the image of Constantine as liberator of the Christians of Persia was firmly established. This image, Smith convincingly argues, is one that relied on and appropriated the link between Romanitas and Christianitas and used Roman Christian sources as a basis for narrativizing its own histories.
In Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia, Kyle Smith offers readers “not a revisionist history at all but rather a critique of positivist historiography” (177). And this is the most valuable gift of the many this book has to offer. More than the translations of Syriac texts given in the appendices, or the close reading of ancient and modern sources, or a new plausible timeline of some key events in fourth-century Roman and Persian history, Smith's argument pushes at the deconstruction of positivist histories. Furthermore, Smith's connection of these histories to the self-fashioned identities of contemporary Christians like Monsignor Paulos Rahho demonstrates the power of these narratives. For a certain kind of historian there will be frustration in this—that is, the deconstruction of a particular historical narrative, without replacing it with a re-imagined or revised one or, more accurately perhaps, another positivist history. But for this reader, and I imagine for other like-minded historians, the beauty of this book and others like it is that it points to the cracks and fissures in our well-worn, long-accepted histories. By following the trajectory and implications that those histories have on contemporary communities, Smith demonstrates how much can be gained when the gaps in our narratives are highlighted and centered rather than downplayed or explained away.