Did Christian Historians Exaggerate Persecution by the Romans?
Archaeological work in Jordan at the site of a mine where Christians had reportedly suffered horrific torture has uncovered some troubling information.
One of the central themes of the history of Christianity is the persecution of early Christians at the hands of the Romans. In his Church History, Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Christian historian, tells the story of the rise of Christianity from a regional Jewish splinter group to the dominant religion of the Roman empire. Eusebius wrote in the fourth century and was at least acquainted, if not actually friendly, with the Roman emperor Constantine. A main focus of Eusebius’s history was the persecution. But now, for the first time, archaeological evidence suggests that Eusebius’s story may not be entirely accurate.
Among his many claims about the persecution of Christians, Eusebius writes that Christians were sent “to the mines” at Phaeno (Khirbet Faynan) in southwestern Jordan during the early fourth century. He writes that “it was impossible to tell the incalculable number of those whose right eyes had first been cut out with the sword, and then had been cauterized with fire; or who had been disabled in the left foot by burning the joints, and afterward condemned to the provincial copper mines, not so much for service as for distress and hardship.” He later adds that 40 others were “beheaded … at the copper mines of Phaeno.” His claim that some martyrs and heretics were sent to the mines is supported by the Christian bishop Athanasius of Alexandria as well as some other early church writers.
Recent excavations at the Byzantine mining camp at Phaeno, however, have uncovered no evidence that Christians suffered in the ways that Eusebius described. Megan Perry, a bio-anthropologist at East Carolina University, has spent a number of years analysing excavated human remains from the local cemetery. The results of her analysis were recently published in a series of co-authored articles and essays (with Drew Coleman, David Dettman, Abdel Halim al-Shiyab) for, among others, the Journal of Archaeological Science and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
While the literary texts suggest that Phaeno was a state-run mining camp for martyrs and criminals condemned to the mines (damnatio ad metallum), Perry’s analysis of the skeletons suggests that the mines had a “much broader role and population in antiquity than that described by the ancient sources.” Most of the skeletons, she found, came from the local population. The isotope analysis found “no strong evidence” that people had been transported “over long distances to the mines.”
Even more suggestive was the good health that many of these individuals seemed to have enjoyed. An analysis of skeletal indicators of iron-deficiencies led her to conclude that “the general health of the Faynan population is not substantially poorer than the health of residents of a typical Byzantine agricultural village.” Her sample “also had lower-than-expected levels of bone degeneration, considering their supposedly hard lifestyle.” While this might suggest that these individuals weren’t involved with the mines, the presence of elevated copper and lead levels in some of the skeletons might lead one to the reasonable conclusion that these individuals worked in mining and smelting.
Perry’s findings are significant for the ways they potentially improve our understanding of early Christian history. Christian tradition, going all the way back to Eusebius, maintains that Christians were relentlessly persecuted by the Romans. In recent years a number of historians like Brent Shaw, James Rives, and (full disclosure), myself have questioned the extent of this persecution. These arguments, however, have largely been based on textual evidence: they appealed to things like the lack of evidence of legislation targeting Christians until the fourth century, and the fact that so many of the stories of persecution came from centuries after the events they claimed to describe.
Archaeologically speaking, however, it was difficult to analyse the evidence for widespread martyrdom because (according to tradition) the remains of Christians were often burned, thrown into rivers, and otherwise irreverently disposed of. Those remains that were collected, divided, and deposited in martyr shrines and churches are only very rarely available for scientists to study. The fact that they are such small samples made it impossible to ascertain cause of death.
Perry’s examination of remains associated with a known site of martyrdom, offers a new opportunity. When I asked Perry if she or Lotus Abu-Keraki (the first to examine the samples for her MA thesis in 2000), had seen evidence of torture or martyrdom she said that she had not. “Neither of us note evidence of beheading in the cervical vertebrae, nor evidence that eyes were removed using sharp utensils, or that feet were maimed. Cauterization [for example, of the eyes that Eusebius tells us were removed] would be more difficult to identify in skeletal remains, since it generally just impacts soft tissue.”
There was, however, evidence of a Christian presence in the area. Some of the later graves (from the fifth century) are adorned with crosses or anchors, typical Christian features on the graves. There are unexcavated churches from a later period and we know about bishops in the area from the period after persecution had ended.
Perry is careful not to overstate the significance of her findings, especially as they relate to beloved Christian history. She acknowledges that her team worked only on only 45 skeletons from the cemetery. It is therefore possible that they simply did not examine any of the “innumerable” Christian martyrs that Eusebius says were sent to the mines. As she told The Daily Beast, “While the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, no evidence for individuals subjected to bodily harm or shipped in from outside regions was found in this 4th-6th-century cemetery.”
Claims about martyrdom aside, Perry’s study challenges the conventional view that this mine was the ancient equivalent of a labor-camp. It appears that the people who lived and died at the mines of Phaeno were local, and lived lives similar to those of other fourth-century village-dwellers.