Perhaps the most delightful and startling of the ancient stories that rocked my world when I was a student was the second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla, a novelistic romance which re-tells the story of the Apostle Paul’s missionary activity from the point of view of Thecla, a teen-aged girl from the town of Iconium (now Konya in Western Turkey). The story turns on Thecla’s reaction when she hears the Apostle’s preaching in the neighbour’s court-yard as she is sitting in an upstairs windown on a warm evening. She finds him spell-binding and decides to run away from home in order to follow him when he travels on to the next town. This causes tremendous anxiety to her mother and her fiancé, who seem to have her life all planned out for her.
This is a very different angle on Paul’s preaching than the one familiar to readers of the Acts of the Apostles in the canonical New Testament, which sees Paul as a man’s man who preaches in public places and synagogues rather than to adolescent girls in private houses. The runaway Thecla encounters miraculous and sometimes ghastly adventures as she travels alongside Paul. But where most ancient novels end with the marriage of hero and heroine, the Acts of Paul and Thecla end with the two parting. Paul gives her permission to preach the Word of God before going off to his martyrdom, while Thecla lives to a ripe old age as a Christian prophetess.
But what about Thamyris? I have always wondered how things turned out for Thecla’s fiancé. This week, I had a chance to return to the story from Thamyris’ point of view.
One of the delights of my post at the University of Manchester is that I sometimes have the opportunity to work with students in the ancient collections of the Manchester Museum, and this week, I found myself hosting a workshop for Sixth-form pupils from Burnley and Liverpool exploring how looking at ancient portraits and artifacts could allow them to think differently about ancient texts.
My colleague James Corke-Webster and I chose The Acts of Paul and Thecla as one of the texts for the experiment, partly because we love it and partly because it is a story of domestic conflict that involves three very different points of view: that of Thecla, of her fiancé Thamyris, and her mother Theocleia. We asked for volunteers to re-tell part of the story from the point of view of different characters, and in particular we asked them to think about how looking at the museum’s Roman-period mummy portraits changed how they ‘saw’ the characters. (The portraits were painted between the time of Paul’s preaching in the 50s and 60s of the first century, and the time when the story was written, a little over a century later.) One of the things we wondered was whether what the characters looked like would make a difference. Would it have made a difference to Thecla if Thamyris was young and handsome or ugly and old? Probably!
Below are two evocative soliloquies for Thamyris which were written during the workshop by pupils from Thomas Whitham Sixth Form, Burnley.
Alicia McLean (Thomas Whitham Sixth Form, Burnley) imagined Thamyris as a rich and ugly fifty-year old, reacting when Theocleia threatens to have her daughter burned at the stake for disobeying her mother and dishonouring the gods: ‘Burn that wicked wretch, after all I went through to help her mother; she should be grateful that I am willing to shower my riches upon her. Yes, I am an older gentleman, but I was ready to help her mother out of poverty. Thecla and I would have bought every property in the land and enhanced our riches. How dare she suddenly object after she had confirmed that she would marry me? Paul is to blame; she had no objections before he came along preaching nonsense. When Thecla and I met she seemed fine about the whole idea, like she wanted to help her mother out, yet suddenly turned and declined my offer of affection. Let the wicked wretch burn.’
Chloé Flynn (Thomas Whitham Sixth Form, Burnley) imagined Thamyris as younger and a bit confused, but rich enough to be a good ‘catch’ from the mother’s point of view – and possibly a bit taken with the mother!: ‘I don’t want Thecla to burn like her mother does. I’m obviously upset and disappointed, but she shouldn’t burn. Well, maybe she should. She shouldn’t have gone to listen to Paul preach in the church. He filled her head with religious thoughts and made her not want me anymore. Why would she choose Paul over me? Over her family? What does he have that I don’t? I had a feeling she didn’t want the marriage but she never said anything. I tried to make her happy. I took her on strolls and showed her my property. Her mother liked me, agreed it was a good match. I could have made her a very happy wife, if she’d have let me. I could have solved all her mother’s problems, if Thecla had let me.’
In a future post I will report on what the students made of Thecla and her mother. (To see what I made of them myself, look at Chapter 4, ‘The God of Thecla’, in Band of Angels.)