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Asterius of Amasea, Sermons (1904). Preface to the online edition

While browsing through my copy of J. Quasten's "Patrology" (vol.3, p.300) about a year ago, I became aware that a translation existed of five sermons by the 4th century Cappadocian father, Asterius, Bishop of Amasea (not to be confused with the Arian polemicist, Asterius the Sophist).  Published in 1904 in the US as "Ancient Sermons for Modern Times," it is the only portion of his works to exist in English.

He was a contemporary of Amphilochius and the three great Cappadocian fathers.  Little is known about his life.  Like Amphilochius, he had been a  lawyer before becoming bishop between 380 and 390 AD.  Sixteen homilies and panegyrics on the martyrs are extant, which show his training in rhetoric and familiarity with the classics.  One of them, Oratio 4: Adversus Kalendarum Festum (#4 in our collection) attacks the pagan customs and abuses of the New Year feast, denying everything that Libanius had said in its favour.  It was preached on the 1st January, 400 AD.  Oration 11, On the martyrdom of St. Euphemia, is important for the history of art, as in it Asterius describes a painting of the martyrdom and compares it to pictures by Euphranor and Timomachus.  The text is quoted twice by the second council of Nicaea in 787 as evidence in favour of the veneration of images.

More sermons existed in the time of Photius, who refers to a further 10 sermons not now known in Bibliotheca codex 271.  One of these lost sermons told him that Asterius lived to a great age.  

Fourteen genuine sermons are printed by Migne in the Patrologia Graeca 40, 155-480, with Latin translation.  (Others printed there are by Asterius the Sophist).  A further two genuine sermons were discovered in manuscripts at Mt. Athos by M. Bauer, and first printed by A. Bretz (TU 40.1, 1914).  Eleven sermons have been translated into German.

The definitive edition of Asterius' first 14 sermons is by Cornelius Datema (Leiden: Brill, 1970); the edition of sermons 15 and 16 by the same editor in Sacris Erudiri. More recent English translations exist of Oration 11, the Ecphrasis of Euphemia, made by Mango and Castelli.  The ecphrasis of Euphemia as well as the sermons on Stephen the Protomartyr and on the martyr Phocas of Sinope are also translated with introduction and commentary in the notes in Leemans &c.

Physical copies of "Ancient Sermons for Modern Times" are rare.  The only copy in the United Kingdom is in the British Library, whose policies mean that photocopies cannot be had.  Libraries in the United States sometimes have copies of a micro-fiche version made by ATLA.  But a copy exists in the library of Harvard University.  A kind lady from the area, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote to me about my website.  I somewhat tentatively asked if a photocopy might be obtained.  She very kindly sent me one, so that the text might be available to all online.  I am delighted to have this opportunity to express my thanks.

6th December 2003
Updated 29th November 2005
(With thanks to Johan Leemans for the bibliography)


C. DATEMA (ed.), Asterius of Amasea. Homilies I-XIV, Leiden (1970). 
C. DATEMA (ed.), Les homélies XV-XVI d'Astérius d'Amasée, in Sacris Erudiri 23 (1978-1979) pp.63-93. 
C. MANGO (ed.), The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453: Sources and Documents (Sources and Documents in the History of Art), Englewood Cliffs (NJ), (1972), pp.37-39. 
E.A. CASTELLI (trad.), Asterius of Amasea; Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia, in R. VALANTASIS (ed.), Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice (Princeton Readings in Religions), Princeton (2000) pp. 464-469 [translation of the Ecphrasis of Euphemia].
J. LEEMANS - W. MAYER - P. ALLEN - B. DEHANDSCHUTTER, 'Let Us Die That We May Live': Greek Homilies on Christian Martyrs, London-New York, Routledge (2003), 162-194.

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