‘Do not uproot the tree and save its fruit’: the Moral Autonomy of Children in Versions of the Martyrdom of Cyricus and Julitta



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For early Christians, martyrs were the moral models par excellence. Hundreds were venerated and remembered in hagiographic narratives told and retold throughout the centuries. The martyrdom of the three-year-old Cyricus and his mother Julitta, killed in Anatolia in the early 4th century, is exemplary. While varying stories are told about many saints, Cyricus and Julitta’s competing narratives are unusual in that there are two versions of their martyrdom with almost no overlap in their plot. In Version 1, Cyricus is the protagonist, engaging the governor in clever arguments and enduring extensive torture along with Julitta. The climax of the narrative comes when the martyrs are led to a cauldron boiling with tar. Julitta is frightened and shrinks from the cauldron, until Cyricus prays and God removes the fear from her, allowing her to enter the cauldron. This version was condemned as apocryphal in several Greek sources. In Version 2, which is first found in a letter written specifically to condemn Version 1, the governor holds Cyricus on his lap and does not include him in the torture. When he sees his mother being beaten, Cyricus bites and kicks the governor, who is enraged and throws the infant down the stairs to his death. Julitta is tortured further and is eventually beheaded. This project examines the attitudes towards children found in these versions in the larger context of early Christian debates over the nature and characteristics of children. Children’s moral autonomy was a contentious issue for early Christians, as can be seen in writings on infant baptism, Christian parenting, and the Holy Innocents. Two general strands of thinking emerge from these writings. In one conception, children are seen as generally innocent, inclined towards moral behavior, and capable of religious participation and choice. These characteristics make them models of behavior for adults. In the other, children are either neutral or sinful, incapable of becoming moral agents on their own, and must be formed into good Christians by their parents. This difference of opinion informs the topoi in the martyrdoms of children, which present a range of attitudes towards the moral autonomy of children reflecting the ongoing debates. In some martyrdoms, like those of Agnes and Ṭalyā’ of Cyrrhus, children can articulate Christian doctrine, choose to be martyrs, and endure torture without help from an adult. In other martyrdoms, influenced by the story of the mother with seven sons in 2 and 4 Maccabees, mothers encourage their children to endure martyrdom without hesitation and are praised for raising martyrs. A close reading of the texts of both versions of the Martyrdom of Cyricus and Julitta shows that Cyricus’s moral autonomy was a central concern for both texts, despite their plot differences. I conclude that the portrayal of children and mother-child relationships in Version 1 was a major factor in why it was condemned as apocryphal. In the context of the contemporary debates over children and how other martyrdoms engaged with these debates, Version 1 simply went too far in presenting children as moral agents. Version 2 was written specifically to replace Version 1 and to assert the attitude that children are not independent moral agents and are merely as good or bad as their parents molded them to be.



Christianity, Religion, Hagiography