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Augustine, in his first homily on 1 John has a phrase that reads:

ut passiones martyrum imitetur, non eos calcibus persequamur!

Online it is translated:

that we should imitate the sufferings of the martyrs, not persecute them with our cups!

What is the background to the statement "persecute them with cups"?

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“Calcibus” is the ablative or dative plural of calx, which means “limestone” (from which we get the term “calcium”) or, alternatively, “heel.”

I believe the translator mistook “calcibus” for “calicibus.”

If we take the “limestone” meaning, based on the context, the phrase almost certainly refers to the fact that many prophets were stoned to death because what they preached was uncomfortable. (See, e.g., Mt. 23:37.)

Hence,

ut passiones martyrum imitetur, non eos calcibus persequamur!

would be rendered

In order that the sufferings of the martyrs may be imitated, let us not persecute them with stones.

If we take calx to mean heel, we would have:

In order that the sufferings of the martyrs may be imitated, let us not persecute them with [our] heels [i.e., let us not tread them underfoot].

Although the translation is uncertain, it certainly does not involve cups (calices, with an extra I).

Some other translations

A survey of translations favors the “heel” interpretation:

The English translation by Boniface Ramsey reads

And would that it might also dwell in our hearts such that we may imitate the martyrs’ sufferings and not trample them underfoot!

Likewise, the Italian translation on augustinus.it has

Potesse quel nome stabilirsi anche nel cuore, tanto da farci imitare le sofferenze dei martiri e non metterle invece sotto i piedi.

May that name be established also in the heart, so as to imitate the sufferings of the martyrs and not to tread them, instead, underfoot (a rather loose, but valid, translation, as can be seen).

The Spanish translation on the same site makes the same choice:

Y ¡ojalá habite también en el corazón de tal modo que, en vez de ponerlos bajo nuestros pies, imitemos sus pasiones!

May [the word martyr] live in your heart un such a way that, instead of putting them under our feet, we may imitate their sufferings!

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    Thanks for the update. +1. Now I wonder how permeated translations with "cups" is. How many have made this mistake? Did it originate with an ancient scribal error? – fredsbend Dec 22 '16 at 20:48
  • @fredsbend I don't have the Corpus Christianorum (the critical edition) on hand, but I will check it when I get a chance. – AthanasiusOfAlex Dec 23 '16 at 7:46
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I found an interesting explanation which makes some sense:

St Augustine, in saying we should imitate the sufferings of the Martyrs, not persecute them with out [sic] cups! seems to have in mind those Christians who were using the memorial day's of the Martyrs to engage in "wantonness".
St Augustine’s Homily on 1 John 1:1-4 - Note

Augustine certainly seems to be saying that "witness" is more than seeing; it is doing and being. Simply celebrating on the feast days doesn't make you a proper witness.

  • With our cups or with out cups? – Kris Dec 22 '16 at 2:52
  • @Kristen I think the author meant to say "with our" not "with out". – fredsbend Dec 22 '16 at 3:06
  • Witness etymology: From old English "Witnes": attestation of fact, event, etc., from personal knowledge;" also "one who so testifies;" (Etymology online), I don't know if in modern English it has more the meaning of "seeing" (I'm not a native). – Quidam Dec 22 '16 at 3:12
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    So he is saying we in effect persecute the martyrs when we fail to imitate their faithful course in our everyday lives but make a big show on the holy days set aside to honor them? – Kris Dec 22 '16 at 3:54
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    @Kristen Yes, I think so. – fredsbend Dec 22 '16 at 17:18

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