Justin Martyr, First Apology LV.4-8

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The hidden symbolism in Rome’s displays of power

Name of the author: 
Justin Martyr
153 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
First Apology

For a general introduction to Justin and the Apologies, please see the commentary on First Apology IV.1-V.4.

The present extract sees Justin attempt to illustrate through a discussion of symbolism how God’s power surpasses and even infiltrates the inferior, earthly power of the Roman emperor. The passage begins with a curious description of how the features of the human face (specifically the horizontal brows and the vertical nose below) mimic the form of Christ’s cross; it is this connection to the most important symbol of Christ which Justin suggests separates human beings from other living things. The manuscript does not make this meaning quite so explicit, as the word used presumably in reference to the entire nose is “nostril” (μυξωτῆρα) in the singular, which is very rare. Minns and Parvis in their recent edition choose to translate in the plural, suggesting that it is possible some corruption has occurred in the transmission of Justin’s text. This emendation makes more sense of the symbolism, evoking the entire nose rather than just a part of it. Indeed, that the nostrils enable human beings to breathe, symbolically connects their very life force directly with the cross of Christ (Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 225). Verse 5 alludes to Lamentations 4:20 in support of Justin’s argument (“The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life,” NRSV) that by being symbolically connected to the nostrils which facilitate breathing, Christ is in a sense “before” or, more precisely part of the human face! The poetic symbolism is strange, but the proceeding discussion of Roman symbolism casts further light on Justin’s thought.

In verse 6 Justin goes on to claim that the Romans use this same “cross” pattern themselves, in vexilla and trophies which document their progress. The text in this section is corrupt, but as is argued by Minns and Parvis, the reconstruction of the term vexilla (written as οὐηξίλλων, ouēxillōn, in Greek) seems reasonable (the manuscript reads simply λλω) (see Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 224-225). A vexillum was used as a standard carried by Roman legionaries and auxiliaries, and took the form of a vertical pole, which was held by the carrier, with a horizontal crossbar at the top, from which was hung a flag/cloth, rectangular or square in shape, and often decorated with fringe on the bottom. One such example of a Roman vexillum has survived, which was found in Egypt, and is made of dyed scarlet linen cloth and decorated in gold, with scarlet fringe across the bottom (for a discussion and image of this item, see Michail Rostovtzeff, “Vexillum and Victory”). Vexilla were also used as decorations for military victory; Titus is said to have awarded his men silver vexilla after the siege of Jerusalem (Josephus, Jewish War VII.1.3) (on vexilla, see Valerie Maxfield, The Military Decorations, p. 82-84). The pole and crossbar of the vexillum is indicated by Justin to also resemble the form of Christ’s cross. The Latin word vexilla is not found anywhere else in Greek. The trophy (trophaeum) originally took the form of a tree hung with spoils from a battle, and Justin imagines the trunk of the tree and its horizontal branches as taking the form of the cross in the same way as the vexillum. A frieze from c. 20 BCE, originally from the Temple of Apollo in Rome, shows such a trophy being carried in a triumphal procession (see Yann Le Bohec, The Imperial Roman Army, plate XXXVIII.40).

The word πρόoδος (proodos) in verse 6 has traditionally been interpreted to mean a military procession (“by which your progresses [πρόοδοι ὑμῶν] are everywhere made”), but according to Minns and Parvis, this is an over-reading of the term, which generally just refers to something which goes before something else, or a procession in the musical sense. They therefore argue that it may be in reference here to a standard-bearing party which preceded the emperor in a processional (Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 227). A scene from the Column of Trajan in Rome depicts a military procession where legionary standards are carried with praetorian standards decorated with images of the imperial family (see Maxfield, The Military Decorations, plate 4b). Justin also critiques in verse 7 the deification of deceased emperors, recognised as gods “through inscriptions.” Of course, Justin’s monotheism makes him hostile to the imperial cult, but he does not elaborate on this particular theme here – his main point is in relation to visual displays of Roman power, of which images and inscriptions deified emperors are one expression. It is unlikely that by the phrase “without understanding you do this” in verse 6 Justin implies that emperors do not know that they use their insignia as symbols of their power, as has sometimes been interpreted. Rather, the text may have been corrupted, with Justin originally wanting to say something along the lines that the emperors are ignorant of the fact that their symbols of power are also representative of another authority – Christ and the power of his cross. However, now that this has been brought to their attention (Justin uses the philosophical genre of protreptic, meaning an exhortatory/persuasive speech: “having urged you on…”), in verse 8 Justin and his fellow Christians relinquish any fault if the emperor and other Roman authorities do not believe (see Minns and Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 227).

Justin’s use of vexilla and trophies, which he claims both resemble the shape of Christ’s cross (just like the human face), draws on two clear symbolic representations of Roman military power, and ultimately, this passage is an interesting comment on the symbolic representations of this military and political dominion, which for Justin, is yet inferior to that of God (see also First Apology XVII.1-XVIII.3), so much so that the symbolism of the cross permeates Roman displays of power and dominion without them even realising it. Indeed, the underlying suggestion is that through Roman power, God’s greater plan is at work, regardless of whether the Romans acknowledge Him or not.

Bibliographical references: 

“Justin Martyr”

Parvis, Paularticle-in-a-journal53-61120“Justin Martyr” Expository Times2008

“Vexillum and Victory”

Rostovtzeff, Michail article-in-a-journal92-10632Vexillum and Victory”Journal of Roman Studies1942
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Justin Martyr, First Apology LV.4-8
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Tue, 05/29/2018 - 16:44
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/justin-martyr-first-apology-lv4-8
Visited: Mon, 04/15/2024 - 15:50

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