The Traffic in Relics: some Late Roman Evidence (E.D. Hunt, 1980)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Byzantine saint: University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies:


As the controversial monk Pelagius was defending his views before a synod of bishops in Palestine in December 415, news arrived of miraculous events at the village of Caphargamala in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem.1 Impelled by a series of dream-visions of the New Testament rabbi Gamaliel, the local presbyter Lucianus had unearthed three burials – of Gamaliel himself, his fellow-rabbi Nicodemus, and (the real prize) of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen (whose place of burial had been unknown since the time of his death). The bishop of Jerusalem and others hurried to the scene to preside over the revelation of Stephen’s remains: Lucianus (to whose first-hand account we owe our knowledge of these events) describes the fragrance that filled the air as the tomb was opened, such that ‘we thought we were in paradise’. In this heady atmosphere seventy-three people (it is asserted) were cured of sundry ailments, before the martyr’s body was solemnly laid to rest in the great basilica on Mount Sion in Jerusalem, on his feast day of 26 December.2

"Hair Relic" of St. Stephen Protomarty @ St. Stephen Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Hair Relic” of St. Stephen Protomarty @ St. Stephen Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

The interment of Stephen’s remains in Jerusalem is far from the last word in the story. For, after his rediscovery, the first martyr was to become one of the most widely-travelled of Christian saints. According to a fifth-century sermon in praise of Stephen (attributed to bishop Basil of Seleucia) ‘every place is glorified and hallowed by your remains; your protection shines out overall the earth’. 3 Certainly it was not long before some of the relics reached Constantinople and the pious court of Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria.4 The saint made a journey even further afield by the hand of the Spanish presbyter Orosius, on his return to Augustine in north Africa after the vindication of Pelagius by the Palestinian bishops;5 through this channel of distribution relics of Stephen were circulated among Christian congregations in Africa, where he effected miraculous cures and was believed to intervene in the life of the community in a variety of ways to alleviate day-to-day hardships (whether the consequences of nature or the Roman government).6 Orosius, unable to reach his native Spain, also deposited relics of Stephen on the island of Minorca, where the saint inspired the local congregation to an onslaught against their neighbouring Jewish population, and achieved a mass conversion.7

Relics of St. Stephen Protomartyr @ St. Andrew Memorial Church, South Bound Brook, NJ)
Relics of St. Stephen Protomartyr @ St. Andrew Memorial Church, South Bound Brook, NJ)

The distribution of relics

The widespread distribution of Stephen’s relics, and the miraculous achievements associated with them, illustrate what has become a ‘fact of life’ in the Christian Roman empire of the early fifth century. Christian saints escape from their tombs to become the possession of congregations far and wide.8 Churches denied traditions associating them with apostles and martyrs could acquire such pedigree by the import of relics, to lend authority and prestige: by such means, as is familiar, the city of Constantinople sought to make up for its lack of Christian history.9 In the era of St Ambrose, new churches were dedicated at Milan and elsewhere in northern Italy over the shrines of apostolic relics which had become the prize of eastern pilgrimages.10 So Gaudentius, bishop of Brescia, housed relics which he had himself acquired on such a journey;11 while the Holy Land pilgrim Silvia (whom tradition also associates with Brescia) is said to have promised her friends in the West that she would return with the remains of ‘many martyrs from the East,12 This traffic was predominantly, but not exclusively, from east to west – there was a ‘counter-flow’, for instance, in the sample of the remains of the three Christian missionaries martyred in 397 by the pagans of the Val di Non which was sent to John Chrysostom in Constantinople;13 or the Roman relics of Peter and Paul which Theodosius I’s praetorian prefect Fl. Rufinus (brother-in-law, incidentally, of the pilgrim Silvia) transported to grace his new church across the Bosphorus at Chalcedon.14 Clearly there was already a considerable One final example befits a symposium on the Byzantine saint: chief among the remains which Gaudentius carried back to Brescia were those of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, which he had acquired from the family of bishop Basil at Caesarea – both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, in their sermons on these martyrs, acclaim the ubiquity of the soldier-saints: ‘they are offered hospitality in many places, and adorn many lands’.15

L-R: Relic of the True Cross from Mt. Athos. Relic of 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. Relic of St. Necktarios (oval box). These relics are located at St. Anthony's Monastery, Florence, AZ.
L-R: Relic of the True Cross from Mt. Athos. Relic of 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. Relic of St. Necktarios (oval box). These relics are located at St. Anthony’s Monastery, Florence, AZ.

Concern about translations

It is not self-evident why this distribution and proliferation of relics should have arisen in the later fourth century, especially in view of the long-standing assumptions of antiquity about not interfering with the dead in their tombs. Laws continued to be issued in the late empire reaffirming the traditional prohibitions against tampering with the dead,16 and in 386 this was specifically applied to the martyrs; in a law addressed to the eastern praetorian prefect Theodosius ordered ‘no person shall transfer a buried body to another place [by the time of Justinian’s Code the clause ‘except with the permission of the emperor’ is added] ; no person shall sell the relics of a martyr; no person shall traffic in them […] ‘.17 Not only the powers of the state were marshalled to preserve the body in peace; on occasions the saints themselves communicated their wish not to be disturbed. As early as 259, at Tarragona in Spain, bishop Fructuosus made a post mortem appearance to prevent the separation of his ashes and to secure proper burial;18 while, in their so-called ‘Testament’, the Forty Martyrs leave specific directions against any division of their remains. 19 Delehaye long ago observed a difference of practice here between East and West, and that Western Christendom (far less richly endowed with tombs of apostles and martyrs) was reluctant to sanction the disturbance of precious remains: the Roman Church in the time of Gregory the Great was still affirming that the saints’ bodies were inviolable (though promoting sacred objects which had had contact with the remains as substitute relics).20 Not long before the bishop of Jerusalem was enthusiastically transferring Stephen’s newly-discovered relics into the basilica on Mount Sion, Exsuperius, bishop of Toulouse in Aquitania, had reluctantly contemplated the removal of the body of the local martyr Saturninus to a new church – he needed to be reassured by a dream, and by imperial authorisation.21 But if Ambrose’s energetic excavations of martyrs’ remains are any guide, not all western bishops were so particular in respecting the peace of the dead.22

Some church authorities strove at least to contain the enthusiasm for relics pervading their congregations. As the shrines and miraculous accomplishments of Stephen proliferated in the African province, Augustine instituted the practice of publicly authenticating and documenting the martyr’s achievements, both to give the miracles currency and also to guard against fraudulent claims23 he warned against bogus monks going the rounds with relics for sale, alleged to be those of martyrs.24 Similarly a council at Carthage in 401 had urged congregations against shrines and relics which were not authentic but merely the result of ‘dreams and empty revelations.’25 The search for authenticity and the acknowledgement of the possibilities of fraud only emphasise the degree to which the movement of relics was now incorporated into the life of the Church; as does its emergence as a subject of ecclesiastical debate. Jerome’s defence of the cult of relics against Vigilantius’ attacks on the veneration of mere ‘scraps of dust’ is perhaps the classic contemporary statement:

“While the devil and the demons wander through the whole world and present themselves everywhere, are martyrs after the shedding of their blood to be kept out of sight shut up in a coffin from whence they cannot escape?”26

Relics of St. Ambrose of Milan
Relics of St. Ambrose of Milan

Later Theodoret was to parade before pagan critics the salutary deeds of martyrs achieved through their scattered remains.27 One theme is common to all such treatises and sermons – and fundamental to the thinking behind the spread of relics: that the saint is indivisible and omnipresent, and wherever the smallest portion of his remains is to be found he is there in his entirety. Thus Gaudentius on his fragments of the Forty Martyrs, ‘pars ipsa, quam meruimus, plenitude est,.28 With such an argument the Church came to terms with the increasing dismemberment of its treasured saints.

The influence of the pagan past

We may wonder, with Vigilantius, what was the attraction for pious individuals and congregations in the possession of these bones and ashes. In some respects it seems to represent only the thinnest Christian veneer veiling the traditional practices of pagan antiquity. When St Makrina, for example, like many others, kept by her precious fragment of the wood of the Cross, it functioned much as a pagan talisman – a good luck charm to keep misfortune at bay.29 Superstition knew no religious boundaries. Similarly, relics deposited in churches afforded potent collective protection for congregations, even (of course) whole communities. 30 Yet there was more to this than institutionalised superstition. The saints who were present in diverse places through the mobility of their remains turn out to be late Roman patroni par excellence; their intercessions would vanquish the influence of earthly potentes. The language of patronage pervades our accounts of the accomplishments of saints and martyrs through their relics: so Gervasius and Protasius in Milan would overwhelm the forces of the Arian court of Valentinian II;31 so, too, Stephen, in effecting the conversion of the Jews in Minorca, outclassed the worldly standing and aristocratic prestige of the Jewish leaders.32 The record, furthermore, of Stephen’s interventions at Uzalis in north Africa is that of the patronus communis of the Christian congregation, behaving as a leading local citizen protecting the interests of his clients in the community.33 Not for nothing is emphasis placed on the relics representing the physical praesentia of the saint in the earthly community – access to his influence and patronage demanded that he be present in their midst, and not confined in a distant (and unknown) grave.

Relic of St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church with original authentics dated 1766 signed by Domenico Giordani.
Relic of St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church with original authentics dated 1766 signed by Domenico Giordani.

The relics of the Holy Land

The experience of these late Roman congregations may be illuminated by reference to a specific group of relics which came to the fore in the fourth century those from the holy places of Palestine.34 St Makrina’s fragment was only one of the many pieces of the wood of the Cross scattered, according to bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, all over the Mediterranean world.35 The enthusiasm to possess a portion of the sacred wood is vividly glimpsed in the story, told to the pilgrim Egeria in Jerusalem, of the worshipper who had bitten off a piece as he knelt down to kiss the relic.36 As with the remains of apostles and martyrs, so the wood of the Cross came to adorn the foundation of new churches: a martyrium at Tixter in Mauretania, for instance (359), or Sulpicius Severus’ new basilica at Primuliacum in Gaul (c.400).37 A close second in popularity to the True Cross was the earth from the Holy Land on which Christ had walked – St Augustine knew of an ex-official in his diocese who had a lump of Holy Land earth hanging in his bedroom.38 The favoured quarry for such soil was the spot at the summit of the Mount of Olives said to have borne Christ’s last footprints on earth before the Ascension (the footprints, like the True Cross in Jerusalem, were miraculously preserved despite the depradations of the relic-hunters).39 Another increasingly popular Holy Land relic (or very nearly a relic) was a small flask of oil from the lamps which burned at the Holy Sepulchre – the same variety of memento was favoured by devotees at the shrines of saints.40

06_08_28_relic_monica 06_08_28_relic_Augustine

We are in a position to understand something of the kind of devotion which surrounded the acquisition of these Holy Land relics thanks to the record of the early pilgrims at the holy places in the years after Constantine.41 There is already a clue in the ampullae, the oil-flasks mentioned above: surviving examples are distinguished by the realistic representations of the shrines at the holy places as they appeared to contemporary pilgrims – they give us an idea of what the holy places actually looked like.42 Pilgrims, we are reminded, went to the Holy Land not just to be there, where Christ had been, but also to see the evidence of his presence on earth before their eyes.43 For Jerome, it was the ‘eyes of faith’ which revealed to the pilgrim Paula the whole biblical scene in all its detail at the sites she visited – the Bethlehem manger and the surrounding characters assembled (even the star shining above), the Cross with Christ hanging upon it, and so on.44

Throughout her travels in the Holy Land hers was an essentially visual experience, conjuring up to a vivid imagination the biblical past in the Palestine of the present. The pilgrims’ experience was not confined to the New Testament: others, like Egeria, saw (for example) in the Sinai desert the very bush from which the Lord had spoken to Moses out of the fire, or saw in the sand on the shores of the Red Sea the tracks of the Egyptians’ chariot wheels disappearing into the waters.45 The imagination came to be aided not only by the constant reading of the appropriate biblical passages in situ but also, in Jerusalem, by the development of a distinctive church liturgy designed to re-enact, in strongly visual terms, the events of Christ’s life at the places where they had occurred.46 Egeria’s description of the round of worship in Jerusalem captures the immediacy and visual realism of experiences such as accompanying the bishop from the Mount of Olives into the city on Palm Sunday – a direct echo of Christ’s own entry into Jerusalem – or hearing the Passion narratives read at Golgotha on Good Friday: ‘you could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps during the three hours, old and young alike, because of the manner in which the Lord suffered for us.’47

The characteristic pilgrims’ response at the holy sites was thus, with the ‘eyes of faith’, to recreate the biblical past as a present reality; and to come away from the Holy Land with relics from the holy places, wood of the Cross, a portion of earth, was to enable that present reality to be recreated wherever the relics might come to rest. The experience of pilgrims in the Holy Land might thus become the experience of congregations far and wide, and of those who had never been anywhere near the holy places. The point is discussed by Paulinus of Nola in a letter he wrote to Sulpicius Severus to accompany a fragment of the Cross which he was sending for the dedication of Sulpicius’ new church at Primuliacum.48 All that Severus will see with the naked eye is a few scraps of wood: but his ‘interior eyesight’ will be stimulated to behold the whole series of biblical events surrounding the Crucifixion and their implications for belief – he will see ‘the whole force of the Cross in this tiny fragment’. Paulinus is sending the relic, he urges, so that Severus may possess the physical reality of the faith which he has long adhered to in the spirit. There seems little reason to doubt that Severus’ ‘interior eyesight’ here and the pilgrims’ ‘eyes of faith’ are one and the same; and that, through the medium of the relic of the Cross, the immediacy and vividness of the pilgrims’ experience is being reproduced far away from the Holy Land. The Cross and its implications are to be as present to the community in Aquitania as they are on Golgotha.


The part and the whole

Against this background the ubiquitous presence of the saint or martyr through the distribution of his remains becomes, I believe, less of an abstraction. Picture the scenes described by Jerome, as the remains of the prophet Samuel were transported from Palestine to the court of Arcadius at Constantinople: as the relics made their journey the route was lined by the faithful, linking the Holy Land to the Hellespont (so he asserts) in a unison chorus of acclamation; they were welcoming, not a casket of dust and ashes, but the prophet himself as though he were still among them ‘quasi praesentem viventemque’.49 The fragmentary relics were the visible testimony of the prophet’s continued presence. The same kind of language will be found characterising the devotion to martyrs and their relics. Asterios of Amaseia pictured the tomb of the martyr Phokas as evoking a vision of the saint’s life and martyrdom – and he has an explicit parallel with pilgrims at the Holy Land site of Mamre visualising the biblical history of Abraham and the patriarchs which the shrine commemorated so Gregory of Nyssa portrays the faithful approaching a casket of relics of the martyr Theodore:

“Those who behold them embrace them as though the actual living body, applying all their senses, eyes, mouth and ears; then they pour forth tears for his piety and suffering, and bring forward their supplications to the martyr as though he were present and complete” […J. 51


Victricius bishop of Rouen, an enthusiastic collector of relics, justifies the practice in similar terms: the physical remains, the ‘blood and gore’ (‘cruor et limus’) are what the eye sees; yet through this visual experience the ‘eyes of the heart’ (another variant of the ‘eyes of faith’) are opened to apprehend the presence of the saint himself – ‘where there is any part, there is the whole’.52 Victricius’ relics of saints have the same capability as Sulpicius Severus’ fragments of the Cross: to engender the effective presence of the saint in the Christian community which possessed his relics.

France's Amiens Cathedral contains a preserved skull (facial bone sans lower jaw) which is supposedly St. John the Baptist.
France’s Amiens Cathedral contains a preserved skull (facial bone sans lower jaw) which is supposedly St. John the Baptist.

The traffic in relics, then, may be seen to have originated from a species of devotion which hankered after physical objects and remains which could be seen to embody, for individual and community, the saint and his powers. That there were many whose piety had this concrete, visual propensity may be established from the evidence of pilgrims’ reactions to the holy places, and the evident reality, for them, of the biblical past which they commemorated. For the Church at large, the age of the martyrs was past; but that did not mean that their presence could not be revived (on a much more widespread scale than their previous earthly existence (through the circulation of their remains. It may be supposed that St Stephen was as real a presence to the Christian community in Minorca or to the congregations in north Africa as were the living holy men of Syria or Egypt – and his impact on local life comparable to theirs.

The purported head of Saint John the Baptist, enshrined in its own Roman side chapel in the San Silvestro in Capite, Rome
The purported head of Saint John the Baptist, enshrined in its own Roman side chapel in the San Silvestro in Capite, Rome


  1. For a recent summary of the political background, see J .N.D. Kelly, Jerome: his life, writings and controversies (London 1975), 317ff.
  2. The text of the Epistultz Luciani (Avitus’ Latin translation of the presbyter’s account) is to be found in PL 807ff.
  3. Basil Seleuc. 42 (PC 85. 469).
  4. Chronographia, s.a. 420 (ed. de Boor, 86-7): a fragment of Stephen’s right hand in return for Theodosius’ gift of a gilded cross for Golgotha.
  5. For Orosius as the bearer of the relics, see Aviti, PL 41. 805-8.
  6. For the arrival of the relicli in Africa, see Augustine, 317-8 (PL 38. 1435ff.), and the record of miraculous cures in Civ. Dei xxii.8. For incidents at Uzalis, De Miraculis S. Stephani (PL 41. 833ff.).
  7. The events are described in the Letter of Severns, bishop of Minorca, PL 82Iff.
  8. The classic study remains H. Delehaye, Les origines du culte des martyrs (SubsHag 20 (1933]), ‘Developpements du culte des martyrs’.
  9. g. Philostorgius, HE iii.2 (Andrew, Luke, Timothy); cf. Jerome, Chron. (ed. Helm) s.a. 356, with G. Dagron, NaiSSllnce d’une capitale (Paris 1974), 409.
  10. See E.D. Hunt, ‘St Silvia of Aquitaine’,JTS 23 (972),370-1.
  11. Gaudentius, xvii. 14ff. (ed. Glueck, CSEL 68).
  12. Not. Ep. 31.1. On Brescia, see iTS 23 (1972), 362ff. and P. Devos, ‘Silvie la sainte pelerine II’, AnalBolln (1974), 321ff.
  13. Trident. Ep. 2 (PL 13. 552ft).
  14. Callinicus, Vita Hypatii, 66 (ed. Bartelink [SC 177),98); on Rufinus, see John Matthews, Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court (Oxford 1975), 134ff.
  15. The story of the Forty Martyrs (its first appearance in the West) is the theme ofGaudentius, xvii (loc.cit); cf. Basil Caesar. at PC 31.521, and Greg.Nys. at PC 46. 784.
  16. CTh 17, passim; e.g. ix.17.4 (356): ‘nothing has been derogated from that punishment which is known to have been imposed on violators of tombs’.
  17. CTh 17.7, with Cl iii.44.14.
  18. Martyrium Fructuosi, 3 (H. Musurillo, The acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford 1972], 182).
  19. Testament of the Forty Martyrs, 3 (Musurillo, 354).
  20. Delehaye, Les origines,
  21. , 67 (citing the Acta Saturnini)
  22. In addition to Sts Gervasius and Protasius, Ambrose brought to light Sts Vitalis and Agricola, and Sts Nazarius and Celsus; cf. F. Homes Dudden, The Life and Times of St Ambrose (Oxford 1935), 316ff., and Delehaye, Les origines, 75-80.
  23. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (London 1967), 414-5, based on fundamental studies by Delehaye. For the text of a libellus documenting authentic cures, see August. Serm. 322 (PL 38. 1443).
  24. De opere monachorum, 36.
  25. Carthag. 13 Sept 401 (CChr 149, 204)
  26. Contra Vigil. 6; on the treatise in general, Kelly, Jerome, 286ff.
  27. Theodoret, Cure of Pagan Ills, lO-ll (ed. P. Canivet [SC 57]): ‘no one grave conceals the bodies of each of them, but they are shared out among towns and villages, which call them saviours of souls and bodies, and doctors, and honour them as founders and protectors [… )’.
  28. Tract. xvii.35-6; cf. Theodoret, loc.cit., with Chromat. Aquilei. (ed. J. Lemarie, SC 164) Sermon 26.1 Paul.Nol. Corm. 27.440ff., Victricius, below, 179.
  29. Nys. Vita Macrinae, 30 (P. Maraval [SC 178], 240ff, with notes). Cf. Jerome, Comm. in Matt. iv, 23.5 (CChr 77.212), on the phylactenes carried by ‘superstitiosae mulierculae’.
  30. As at Primuliacum: Paul.Nol. 31.1
  31. g. Ambr. Ep. 22.10
  32. At Severi 4 (PL 41. 823).
  33. De miraculis Stephani, iLl (PL 41. 843); cf. P. Brown, Augustine ofHippo, 413.
  34. For a catalogue of Holy Land relics, see B. Bagatti, ‘Eulogie Palestinesi’ OCP 15 (1949), 126-66.
  35. Cyril, Catecheses, 10, x.19, xiiiA. For testimonia of the fragments of the Cross, see A. Frolow, La relique de la vraie croix (Paris 1961), 155ff.
  36. Eg. 37.2.
  37. Tixter: MEFR 10 (1890),440-68 (=CIL viii, suppl.iii, 20600]; cf. similar dedication at Rusguniae, CIL viii, 9255 (with J.F. Matthews, CR 88 (1974],104). Primuliacum: Paul. Ep.31.1.
  38. Civ. Dei, xxii.8 (CChr 48. 820); cr. the Donatists who venerated earth from the Holy Land, id. Ep. 52.2.
  39. Sev. Chron. ii.33.8; cf. Paul.Nol. Ep. 31.6 (on the Cross)
  40. On these flasks, cr. Anton. Placent. 20 (CChr 175. 139). Martyr-shrines: Joh.Chrys. Hom. in Martyres, PC 50. 665: ‘Lobe efaion hagion (…J’.
  41. For the texts, see ltineraria et alia geographica (CChr 175 (1965]), and translations by J.D. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels (London 1971) and Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (Warminster 1978).
  42. See A. Grabar, Ampoules de Te”e Sainte (paris 1958). For their use in reconstructing the original building at the Sepulchre, cf. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, , and ‘The Tomb of Christ’, Levant 4 (1972), 83-97.
  43. Nol. Ep. 49.14
  44. Jerome, 108.9ff; cf. Kelly, Jerome, U8ff., on Paula’s ’emotional transports’. For Jerome’s more succinct version of his own experience, see Apol.c.Ruf iii.22
  45. Burning Bush: Eg. 4.6ff., Chariot tracks: Pet. Diac. (deriving from Egeria) Y5 (CChr 175. 100-1); Orosius, Hist. i.10.17, knew they were still visible.
  46. The liturgy is described by Egeria, Eg, 24ff.; cf. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, 54ff. The best modern study is A. Renoux’s introduction to his edition of the Armenian Lectionary, PO 35 (1969). For Bible-reading, cr. It.Eg. 4.3 (10.7.
  47. Palm Sunday: Eg. 31 (ND 31.3) Good Friday: ibid. 37.7.
  48. Nol. Ep. 31.lff.; the fragment had been brought from Jerusalem by Paulinus’ kinswoman, Melania the elder.
  49. Vigilant. 5. For Samuel’s arrival in Constantinople, cf. Chron. Pasch. s.a. 406 (ed. Dindorf,569).
  50. ix, PG 40. 301-4: the worshippers become ‘spectators’ of the biblical record.
  51. in S. Theod. PG 46. 740B.
  52. De Laude Sanctorum, 10.
Relic of the skull of Saint John the Baptist in Munich.
Relic of the skull of Saint John the Baptist in Munich.