In the period after Constantine, the veneration and liturgical of the sainted martyrs was a well-established part of Christian life. Constantine himself paid fair tribute to the practice by, among other things, underwriting the erection of a large basilica over the tomb of Saint Peter on the site of the shrine (tropheum) where his remains were venerated. A less-reliable tradition ascribes to Constantine the basilica of Saint Paul-outside-the-Walls over the remains of the apostle to the Gentiles.
One might well have expected the naming and veneration of saints to have ceased with the end of the Roman persecutions but an interesting shift took place. If one wanted to categorize the periods of Christian history by ideal types, then the first four centuries comprised the age of the martyrs, which was then replaced by the age of the ascetics and the monks. By the fourth century, the veneration of the martyrs had rooted itself in both the popular Christian practice of piety and in the emerging shape of the liturgical life of the church. Prayers and liturgies at the tombs of the martyrs were considered to be extremely efficacious and the bodies and other relics of the saints were thought to be loci of sacred power. The veneration of martyrs’ relics had already been noted in the second-century Martyrium Polycarpi, where the remains of Polycarp were described as more precious than gems or gold. Both Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine would later argue for the legitimacy of such veneration.
Augustine, in his Confessions, famously describes his own mother, Monica, as a regular visitor to the shrine of the third-century martyr Saint Cyprian in Carthage. When Ambrose, bishop of Milan, discouraged such practices due to excesses, Augustine noted that Monica gave up the custom and now saw “the wisdom of bringing to the martyrs’ shrines not a basket full of the fruits of the earth but a heart full of more purified offerings, her prayers” (Confessions VI: 2).
The natural successors of the martyred saints were the ascetics and monks. In his classic Life of Antony, written in the fourth century, Athanasius says that Antony, through his life of solitary prayer and asceticism, was a “martyr every day of his life.” Athanasius, of course, fully understood that the word “martyr” means a witness. Athanasius’ Life of Antony had an enormous impact on the rise of monasticism. Augustine, in the Confessions, tells us how much his Life attracted young people who sought out the ascetic life. Antony was widely venerated in the Middle Ages, becoming the subject of any number of famous paintings which delighted in depicting the demonic temptations he suffered in the most vivid fashion. Hieronymus Bosch devoted a famous triptych to this subject, while Matthias Grünewald devoted a panel of his famous Isenheim altarpiece to the same subject. In the nineteenth century, Gustave Flaubert used the struggles of Antony to fuel his imaginative fictional portrait of the saint in his novel La Tentation de St Antoine.