Prof. Kyle Smith has just published a new book Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia: Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity with University of California Press.
Using Greek, Latin, and Syriac sources, Smith’s book explores the relationship between Constantiane’s Christian Roman Empire and Persian Christians. As he explains:
Everyone knows one thing about Constantine: he was the first Christian Roman emperor. His decision to embrace Christianity certainly had a profound effect on the history of western Europe. But how did it affect Christians living outside of the Roman Empire?
Many believe that Constantine’s conversion in the early fourth century politicized religious allegiances, that it divided the newly Christian Roman Empire from the Zoroastrian Persian Empire. Some think that it even led to the persecution of Christians in what is now Iraq and Iran and that this, in turn, sparked a war between Rome and Persia.
Although we do indeed have a lot of stories about the persecution of Persian Christians, we need to radically revise how we read these texts and, with that, how we understand fourth-century history. There was no religious war between Rome and Persia. There was no persecution either.
Upon closer inspection, the many ancient texts that claim otherwise present an evocative and evolving portrait of the first Christian emperor. The literary memory of Constantine was undoubtedly very useful for shaping the political and religious identities of ancient Christian communities, but these texts have wrongly cast how we have understood the waning years of Constantine’s reign and, indeed, the emperor’s subsequent legacy.
Adam H. Beckler, Associate Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at NYU, argues that Smith’s book is “wholly innovative, it dismantles much of the stage and script upon which the fourth-century history of the Roman-Sasanian frontier were thought to have been acted out. More significantly, Kyle Smith’s deft readings lead ultimately to a new vision of the fifth and sixth centuries, when the paradigms that affected modern scholars’ understanding of the fourth century emerged.”
Smith’s other major scholarship includes Syriac Encounters: Papers from the Sixth North American Syriac Symposium (2015, Co-edited with M. Doerfler and E. Fiano), The Martyrdom and the History of Blessed Simeon bar Ṣabbaʿe.Persian Martyr Acts in Syriac: Text and Translation (2014), and The History of the Great Deeds of Bishop Paul of Qenṭos and Priest John of Edessa (2010, Co-edited and trans. with H. Arneson, E. Fiano, and C. Luckritz Marquis).