Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum: A Literary Commentary

Vincent Hunink, Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum: A Literary Commentary. Giornale Italiano di Filologia Bibliotheca 24 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2021). 9782503590950.

Reviewed by Jared Secord, University of Calgary,

The Acts of the Scilitan Martyrs (henceforth ASM) has traditionally been regarded as one of the earliest works of Christian Latin literature. It narrates the encounter between a group of Christians from the North African town of Scili and the Roman proconsul Saturninus, with this meeting dated by the text to the summer of 180 CE, a few months after the death of Marcus Aurelius and the accession of Commodus. Despite its brevity, and the lack of any secure evidence to date its composition, the ASM has been the subject of an immense and still-growing body of scholarship, to which Hunink’s commentary now adds.

Hunink offers primarily a literary commentary, with its scope intentionally limited in matters related to history, textual criticism, and theology. Hunink approaches the ASM in terms of how the work “functions on both the dramatic and narrative levels” (p. 21). The drama and excitement of the ASM, Hunink argues, depend on the misunderstandings and miscommunication in the dialogue between Saturninus and the Christians in front of him. Hunink also seeks to demonstrate that the ASM is more neutral than commonly believed in its presentation of Saturninus and the Christians. This argument fits in with Hunink’s secondary, and problematic, claim that the bulk of the ASM closely preserves the Roman court records of the martyrs’ trial.

Hunink’s aim to explore the drama and excitement of the text comes through clearly in the translation he offers of the ASM. The feature that will stand out immediately to readers is that the translation is printed as if it were a drama, with the names of speakers italicized and parts of the text transformed into what amounts to stage directions. This is a substantial departure from previous English translations of the ASM. The example below (ASM 13) reveals how Hunink has diverged from the versions of Herbert Musurillo and Éric Rebillard:

Proconsul Saturninus (to the whole group)
Have a delay of thirty days and think about it.

Speratus (for a second time)
I am a Christian.

And all agreed with him.

“The proconsul Saturninus said: ‘You are granted a reprieve of thirty days: think it over.’
Once again Speratus said, ‘I am a Christian!’ And with him all the others agreed.”[1]

“The proconsul Saturninus said: ‘You are granted a reprieve of thirty days: think it over.’ Once again Speratus said, ‘I am Christian.’ And all agreed with him.”[2]

Saturninus’s speech begins here with the Latin phrase Moram XXX dierum habete, making Hunink’s rendering more literal and livelier than “You are granted a reprieve.” The result of this style is a translation that should be appealing and readable, especially to students.

In the commentary that follows the translation, Hunink offers fine-grained analysis of the Latin text, often devoting lengthy discussions to the meaning of a single word or construction. The commentary, for instance, includes several paragraphs discussing the phrases huius… persuasionis and huius dementiae (ASM 7 and 8), with Hunink persuasively arguing that these should be rendered not as simply “this persuasion” and “this madness,” but rather as “this man’s persuasion” and “this man’s madness.” Hunink’s interpretation of these parallel phrases adds a new dimension to the text here, demonstrating that they reveal a sign of Saturninus’s growing irritation with the Christian spokesperson Speratus. As Hunink argues, the repeated use of huius functions as a sign that Saturninus has by this point in the dialogue begun passing over or ignoring Speratus’s responses to his statements and questions. Small challenges or corrections of this sort appear frequently in the commentary, always based on careful attention to philological details. Hunink offers no radical reinterpretations of the text, but readers of the commentary will surely notice features in the ASM that they had previously missed.

The commentary also makes comparisons between the Latin text of the ASM and its ancient Greek translation, using this to highlight points of emphasis in the former. Many of the comparisons are obvious, such as the Greek translator’s choice to use a greater range of verbs of saying to render the Latin’s repeated use of the word dixit. A significant point emerging from the comparisons is that the Greek translation often lacks the brevity and subtlety of the original Latin. The Greek, for instance, expands on the deliberately ambiguous phrase spoken by Speratus (ASM 2), propter quod imperatorem nostrum obseruamus (“because we respect our Emperor”), transforming this into ἐπειδὴ τῷ θεῷ ἡμῶν καὶ βασιλεῖ δουλεύομεν (“because we serve our God and King”). This comparison shows that the Greek translator grasped the ambiguity in the phrase imperatorem nostrum, but evidently decided to gloss this point, doing away with the text’s key theme of misunderstanding here. Comparisons of this sort ultimately highlight the greater literary quality of the Latin version, while also providing insight into the methods of the unknown Greek translator.

Overall, the commentary effectively highlights the importance of misunderstanding and miscommunication in the ASM, though I often wanted more context to explain the significance of these moments. Hunink simply notes that misunderstandings of this sort are common in other texts about martyrdom and that they serve to emphasize a gap between Christians and the Roman world. More content about misunderstandings in ancient literature may well have gone beyond the scope of this literary commentary, but some additional comparisons between the ASM and other texts, Christian and non-Christian, would have been welcome. If the ASM is really a work of the later second century, how does its use of miscommunication and misunderstanding compare to that of other works from the same time period, both Christian and non-Christian? Hunink’s expertise in Apuleius and a range of related works certainly could have allowed for a commentary that was more generous in citing literary parallels, besides occasional references to other acts of martyrdom, Tertullian, and the Younger Pliny.

Similar concerns apply to the commentary’s arguments about the text’s neutral presentation of Saturninus and the Christians. Saturninus does appear to be, as Hunink says, “fundamentally moderate and rather lenient” (p. 20). But insufficient context is provided to explain how common or significant this depiction is. The prevailing assumption in the commentary is that other Christian martyr acts are less neutral in their presentations. Though this may be the general pattern, the commentary never acknowledges the traces of neutrality in some accounts. Justin Martyr, for instance, says nothing negative about the city prefect Q. Lollius Urbicus, who sentenced three Christians to death.[3] Justin simply notes that Urbicus had been suborned by “wicked demons” to kill Christians, a claim that seems to absolve him of most of the blame.[4] Even Tertullian pointed out the unwillingness of the Roman proconsul Arrius Antoninus to put more Christians to death, saying to them: “Wretches! If you want to die, you have precipices or nooses!”[5] The depiction of Saturninus’s hesitancy to put Christians to death consequently may be less unusual and significant than the commentary suggests.

The neutrality Hunink detects is also insufficient to support the suggestion that the ASM is a lightly edited transcription of Roman court records. Hunink’s argument on this point depends in large part on the claim that all Christian martyr acts “are commonly considered” (p. 16) to be based on publicly available transcriptions of court records. The passive language here ignores a great deal of scholarly controversy, on which readers should now consult Rebillard’s recent monograph.[6] Other support for Hunink’s suggestion comes from the relative lack of scriptural references and Christian moralizing in the ASM. But the argument here verges into circularity, with the commentary seeking to minimize the number of allusions to scripture in the text. Hunink denies, for instance, that readers should detect an allusion to Phil. 3.20 (ἡμῶν γὰρ τὸ πολίτευμα ἐν οὐρανοῖς ὑπάρχει, “For our citizenship is in the heavens”) in the phrase “Today we are martyrs in the heavens” (Hodie martyres in caelis sumus, ASM 15). The justification for this doubt rests on the claim that the Christian who spoke the phrase was “quite possibly a simple, uneducated man from the African countryside” and thus not capable of a learned reference of this sort (pp. 111–12). If we question the foundation of Hunink’s claim about Roman court records, the grounds for this denial become extremely tenuous.

The commentary also glosses over how much our extant manuscripts of the ASM underwent wholesale editing. Readers of the commentary will frequently encounter references to the ASM “as we have it” (pp. 20, 45) and “as it is” (pp. 22, 23, 105, 115), phrases that ignore the substantial differences in the manuscripts of the ASM. Rebillard’s “Materials for a Synoptic Edition of the Acts of the Scilitan Martyrs” reveals well how the ASM has served as a “living text,” with scribes and preachers introducing changes to make the work more meaningful for their purposes.[7] The claim that we possess in a modern critical edition the ipsissima verba spoken by Saturninus and the Scilitan Martyrs simply cannot be sustained.

Readers of this commentary will consequently want to have other sources at hand if they wish to undertake serious study of the ASM. Hunink notes as much, recommending that readers keep at hand a copy of the earlier commentary by Fabio Ruggiero.[8] This is sensible advice. Hunink uses, with very minor changes, Ruggiero’s critical editions of the Latin and Greek texts, but without including a critical apparatus. But, besides Ruggiero’s commentary, readers should also consult Rebillard’s monograph, especially for its more skeptical review of the ASM’s textual history and date.[9] Finally, a recent contribution by Jan Bremmer includes a new critical edition of the Latin text, together with arguments that plausibly link the Greek translation to Byzantine North Africa of the sixth or seventh centuries.[10] Readers of this commentary should consequently be aware of the ongoing flood of new publications relating to the ASM.

Overall, Hunink’s commentary achieves its literary goals, though its secondary argument regarding the ASM’s relationship to Roman court records is unconvincing. The commentary is easy for readers to use, with the Latin and Greek printed together, chapter by chapter, followed by a complete English translation of the Latin. In the commentary on individual chapters, the Latin and Greek are reprinted, with English translations of both. Back-to-back printing allows for easy comparisons, while the translations make the commentary relatively accessible to readers who have little to no Latin or Greek. There are occasional typos and errors, including in the translation.[11] But the bibliography is impressively polyglot, with thorough coverage of recent scholarship on the ASM. Though readers will want to consult the volume alongside more recent works, Hunink has succeeded in producing a useful literary commentary on the ASM.

Table of Contents

Introduction (7–26)
Texts (27–38)
Commentary (39–123)


[1] Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

[2] Éric Rebillard, Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[3] Justin, 2 Apol. 1.1.

[4] Justin, 2 Apol. 1.2.

[5] Tertullian, Ad Scapulam 5.

[6] Éric Rebillard, The Early Martyr Narratives: Neither Authentic Accounts nor Forgeries, Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), 21–36.

[7] Rebillard, Early Martyr Narratives, 93–123.

[8] Fabio Ruggiero, Atti dei martiri Scilitani: Introduzione, testo, traduzione, testimonianze e commento, Atti della Accademia nazionale dei Lincei. Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche 9.1.2 (Rome: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1991).

[9] Rebillard, Early Martyr Narratives, 34, 52–56.

[10] Jan Bremmer, “Imitation of Christ in the Passion of the Scilitan Martyrs?,” in For Example: Martyrdom and Imitation in Early Christian Texts and Art, ed. Anja Bettenworth, Dietrich Boschung, and Marco Formisano (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2020), 143–69.

[11] E.g., the adjective ἅγιος is not translated at ASM 8.

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