Marciana of Caesarea and Toledo
Like her sister-in-faith Salsa in Tipasa, Marciana in the neighbouring Caesarea too toppled a pagan idol in the heat of religious fervour. Did one of these approximately contemporary tales perhaps serve as the model for the other, especially as both cities were competing to put the stories of young female martyrs to use? That question we may leave aside. Yet an interesting detail remains: Visigothic Toledo later venerated Marciana not just on the 9th of January, but the 11th and 12th of July as well. How did a young and chaste iconoclast from the Dioecesis Africae also gain a certain fame in the interior of the Hispania Carthaginensis?
Marciana’s mobility was certainly an advantage. The clerics of the Early Middle Ages, searching to link the saints venerated as early as the 4th century in Mauretania to the Iberian Peninsula, faced several possible approaches. After all, the recluse’s Passio testified that she had already travelled from her hometown of Rusuccuru to the provincial capital of Caesarea, the site of her martyrdom – a journey of roughly 175 kilometres. Did she have access to the sea route? Rusuccuru as well as Caesarea – today’s Dellys and Cherchell, both in Algeria – sported Mediterranean harbours and had enjoyed the classis Mauretanica’s protection since the late 2nd century AD. Although this regional navy had its main bases in the Mauretania Caesariensis, securing the Strait of Gibraltar necessitated its use beyond the North African coast. With sufficient means, Marciana could therefore alternatively have hailed from the Late Antique Toletum – as the Spanish legend composed at a later date suggests – and managed a safe journey to Caesarea. And perhaps her relics, evacuated in the context of one of the port city’s subsequent sieges, even found their way (back) to the upper Tajo by the same route.
It is surely no accident that the place in which Marciana, enmeshed in her period’s context of Diocletian persecution, became a standard-bearing champion of the Christian faith remains the Colonia Claudia Caesarea in all versions of the tale. The provincial capital used its generously developed port to export not just grains, but especially exotic live sacrifices for use in the Roman Empire’s amphitheatres. And after it had augmented its theatre, the city of Caesarea itself possessed two adequate playing grounds for munera and venationes – as an older amphitheatre with room for around 14,000 spectators had already existed since Augustan times. What place could be more suitable for a governor to condemn Marciana to damnatio ad bestias by wild beasts in the arena? As the saint’s Passio relates, once she had proved herself with divine help in gladiatorial combat and survived a lion untouched, she was forced to endure the attacks of an ox and a leopard. The choice of this last pairing of two animals from different habitats, interpreted for its Christian signficance in the execution scene, may bear a reflex to a programme feature entirely typical and popular for an arena spectacle of the imperial period. One could easily visualise the corresponding scenario in any amphitheatric city of the Latin West. And it would have been no less plausible for Late Antique depictions to turn the animals unleashed on her into Marciana’s satellites or attributes. Incidentally, archaeological evidence has recently emerged of a corresponding arena in Toledo.
More significant for the saint’s career in the centre of Visigothic Spain, however, may have been a narrative detail of the Passio assigning an inglorious role to a Jewish resident of Caesarea at Marciana’s execution. The sizeable Jewish community of 7th-century Toledo was repeatedly forced to defend itself against the councils’ and kings’ anti-Semitic decrees. In such circumstances, the divine punishment of the Caesarean Jew as narrated in Marciana’s story may have offered Toledo’s Christians a welcome argument for a pogrom or two.
However and whenever the link between the two cities and regions may have formed in Marciana’s case, her story serves as a proxy for other saints’ vitas to show that possibilities of adaptation or even instrumentalisation were a factor in dissemination and longevity that we discount at our own risk.
Dominik Kloss, M.A. (Universität Hamburg)