In 249 CE, the emperor Decius disseminated an edict that required inhabitants of the Roman empire to perform a sacrifice. As UNC professor James Rives has argued, this was the first Christian persecution to be instituted on an empire-wide scale. Those who completed the supplicatio (order to perform a sacrifice) needed to be certified by an imperially designated individual. We are told this story by the fourth century ecclesiastical historian Eusebius of Caesarea (HE 6.41), and a precious few papyri also record the performance of these sacrifices.
For many years, I had only viewed these papyri digitally, via the papyrological database Papyri.info, located at Duke University. As this one from Theadelphia in Roman Egypt reveals, these libelli generally resemble a Roman religious mad-lib or bureaucratic form that cites 1. the person(s) performing the sacrifice, 2. where they are from, 3. the performance of the sacrifice (which could be as little as a bit of honey or wine), 4. names of those that watched the individuals sacrifice, and 5. the date.
“To the officials in charge of the sacrifices, from Aurelius Sakis of the village of Theoxenis, with his children Aion and Heras, temporarily residents in the village Theadelphia. We have always been constant in sacrificing to the gods, and now too, in your presence, in accordance with the regulations, we have sacrificed and poured libations and tasted the offerings, and we ask you to certify this for us below. May you continue to prosper.;(2nd hand) We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing.;(1st hand) The 1st year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 23.” (trans. APIS)
I had the opportunity to go to Luther College in Decorah, IA this past week to give a talk and then to see a newly discovered Decian libellus. Only a few years ago, this rare papyrus was discovered in a folder at the College during a library cataloguing project. Orlando W. Qualley, a former professor of classics and dean of the college at Luther, had bought 9 papyri while on an archaeological dig in Karanis, in order to teach with them, and the libellus was among those bought. Immediately, I had wanted to make the trip to see it. It did not matter to me that not long thereafter, Luther College had called upon the papyrological team at the University of Michigan to analyze the papyri and help to digitize them, before putting them online. I still wanted to see that papyrus in person.
Although open-access databases like Papyri.info and Trismegistos allow me and countless others to interact with ancient objects through my computer (and in my pajamas, no less), I still wanted to see this little relic of the Decian persecution. This connection between Christian martyrdom and physical objects goes back to the world of Late Antiquity, but in many ways, it is a human desire to interact with the tactile. It is the craving for the visceral experience with an object that continues to drive museum attendance and visits to archaeological sites, even in the midst of an information age focused on 3D printing and digital resources. In many ways, the digital revolution has democratized access to museum collections, but also created a personal connection between object and internet-goer that might even motivate a pilgrimage to interact with the object one-on-one.
Since it is February 14, I will turn to Saint Valentine for some further examples of how interaction with physical objects drove pilgrimage and the trade in early Christian relics in antiquity. This late antique phenomenon is often referred to by Princeton scholar Peter Brown and others as ‘The Cult of the Saints.’ Early Christians travelled long distances to see and often to touch the various body parts and clothing of martyred saints such as Valentine, often with a belief that these objects held healing powers. As Brown notes,”The carefully maintained tension between distance and proximity ensure one thing: praesentia, the physical presence of the holy, whether in the midst of a particular community or in the possession of particular individuals, was the greatest blessing that a late-antique Christian could enjoy” (1981 [rev.2015]: 88). As documents such as the 4th c. Bordeaux Itinerary indicate, Pilgrims travelled for miles to see and to touch relics. They often took home small souvenirs (often with oil run through the reliquary) called ampullae. In other words, the exit through the museum gift shop has always been a thing.
In terms of the martyrdom of the 3rd century CE Saint Valentine, we really should refer to him in the plural. There are actually over a dozen Saint Valentines referenced in the hagiographical material. This is not so unexpected, since the names of Valens, Valentinus, and Valentinianus were common enough among Roman men; there was , for instance, a Roman emperor named Valens and another named Valentinian.
The two majors saints associated with the Feast of Saint Valentine are a priest named Valentine of Rome and a bishop named Valentine of Terni, who were both supposed to have been killed along the Via Flaminia at varying mile markers. In his study of the cult of Saint Valentine in Chaucer, Henry Kelly notes that in the 1960s, a Franciscan named Agostino Amore (I kid you not, that is really his name) proposed that while the Roman Valentine was originally a Christian patron who donated land for a basilica, the Umbrian saint was the likely martyr (1986: 48). Legend had it that Saint Valentine was martyred in 269 CE, during the reign of Claudius Gothicus, although even this is disputed depending on which Saint Valentine you are referring to.
What can be stated is that physical interaction with the remains of Saint Valentine have been in place in the city of Rome perhaps since the 4th century, when Pope Julius I allegedly built a basilica for the saint near the site of his burial. East of the Via Flaminia in Rome today, the church of San Valentino and its catacomb are opened annually only on February 14 for a mass celebrating the saint and his original burial there. Yet it is on the north side of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, where the faithful and the curious can now flock to see the alleged reliquary containing the head of Saint Valentine. The relics of Saint Valentine were translated there from the basilica dedicated to the saint in the 13th century.
As Candida Moss has written in regard to the saint, “Neither of these men fit the bill for legendary Valentine who was, according to a fifth- or sixth-century story known as the Passion of Marius and Martha, a priest imprisoned and executed by the Emperor Claudius II around 270.” However, that doesn’t really matter to the pilgrims. I have stood next to viewers of the reliquary many times. Many simply stand in wonder, while others get more emotional. As Brown stated, it is the praesentia with the object that moves believers and non-believers alike. It is this pilgrimage traffic that churches, archaeological sites, and museums have benefited from for years. A key question is: Has this new-fangled digital revolution damaged the relationship between pilgrim and object? In a word: No. It has strengthened it.
The craze over the ability to 3D print objects is similar to the late antique rush to make containers for relics and to sell souvenirs to visitors on site. Whereas pilgrims used to buy a flask or a small box to hold bone fragments, visitors to New York’s Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum can now 3D print objects in the gift shop as they leave. Just as in antiquity, it makes sure that the relationship with an object is maintained long after the individual has left the general vicinity of the artifact.
Although there is still great reluctance, particularly among some churches, to open up their collections digitally and to allow 3D modeling of their collections, I would say that giving open access to these objects not only preserves their visage and dimensions for posterity, it multiplies the number of people who create a kind of dating relationship with an object that may motivate them to make that relationship more serious, by traveling to the institution in person. Just as Kindles did not kill the small bookstore, 3D printing will not kill the museum or pilgrimage.
After I visited the Roman and early Christian site of Philippi last summer, Ryan Baumann (Duke University, Papyri.info) made a 3D model of a video I took of the site’s ancient latrines, instantly allowing viewers to be transported to a spot where Saint Paul himself walked.
As papyri, relics, and many other artifacts demonstrate, the digital can never fully replace the human desire to touch, to interact, and to connect. Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning at the Milwaukee Art Museum, put it best: “If we want our collections to be relevant and meaningful in the 21st century, we must be brave enough to open up our doors—physically and virtually—to support, encourage, and celebrate the profound and magical experiences with art that happen next, whatever they might be.” We are living in a world already moving towards open-access to information and to objects, and it is in the best interests of museums, churches, and the publishing world to embrace the digital realm. The existence of the digital will never make the physical obsolete, it will only serve to produce more pilgrims.