This is the feast date of early Christian martyr St. Euphemia.
Euphemia the “All-Praised” (that’s an Eastern construction; both east and west honor her martyrdom on September 16) died in the Asia Minor city of Chalcedon around 307. That would place her at the tail end of the Diocletianic persecutions, the part that actually came after said Diocletian retired to his cabbages and left the care and feeding of the eastern empire to Galerius.
Euphemia is said to have been the daughter of a senator, but went off and took vows of chastity and avoided sacrificing to Ares. Like many early martyrs, she is supposed to have survived various creative Roman execution attempts thanks to angelic protection, before the pagans just gave up and pitched her into the arena for the classic Christians-vs.-Lions showdown.
Euphemia would be credited with a supernatural intervention of her own a century and a half after her death.
The 451 Council of Chalcedon, meeting at a cathedral consecrated to St. Euphemia in her native city, featured orthodox Christianity attempting to bring to heel the “heresies” disputing the eminently disputable nature of Christ.
God + man? How does that work?
Monophysites, a substantial minority in the east at that time, took the position that Christ had only one single nature, rather than the view still mainstream to Christianity that Christ had both divine and human natures simultaneously. Among well-educated people sensitive to historicity, it’s the sign of a gross prejudice towards the secular and the modern to consider it absurd that humans spent decades at one another’s throats over this sort of hairsplitting, but seriously … humans spent decades at one another’s throats over this sort of hairsplitting.
But memo to Monophysites: do not get Saint Euphemia involved unless you’re ready for a faceful of hypostasis all up in your christology.
The story goes that at Chalcedon, two quarrelsome prelates representing the orthodox and Monophysite positions submitted the matter to the holy martyr’s adjudication by each leaving an apologia in her tomb. Three days of fasting and praying later, they opened the tomb and found the orthodox manifesto in Euphemia’s right hand, and the heretical manifesto at her feet. As the synod gloated to the (very orthodox) Pope Leo I,
it was God who worked, and the triumphant Euphemia who crowned the meeting as for a bridal, and who, taking our definition of the Faith as her own confession, presented it to her Bridegroom by our most religious Emperor and Christ-loving Empress, appeasing all the tumult of opponents and establishing our confession of the Truth as acceptable to Him, and with hand and tongue setting her seal to the votes of us all in proclamation thereof.
Euphemia’s relics today rest in Rovinj, Croatia, and are not available for settling metaphysical debates.
Christmas Day is all about that Jesus fellow, but for a break from the usual gold, frankincense, and myrrh, spare a thought for St. Anastasia of Sirmium — whose feast date and purported execution date December 25 also is. She’s the only Christian martyr with a Christmas celebration,* and an apt choice for the depth of winter since her name means “dawn” or “rebirth”.
Byzantine icon of St. Anastasia from the Hermitage, holding a vial that alludes to her antitoxin powers.
Centuries of namesakes have shared that moniker, like the youngest daughter of the executed Romanov family, on the basis of the Great Martyr’s having died during the persecution of Diocletian; though this circumstance scarcely makes her unique, no less a source than the Catholic Encyclopedia avers that the ancient martyrology linking her to St. Chrysogonus “is purely legendary, and rests on no historical foundations.” (It’s possible that multiple historical Anastasias were conflated into a single legendary person.)
Despite later generations’ ignorance of what this early keeper of the faith was really about, she became associated — again, possibly thanks to nothing more sharing the same name as the facility’s local Roman matron — with an early church in Rome, the “titulus sanctae Anastasiae.” Today ruined, this was an important church in the capital of the faith during late antiquity, and helped vault St. Anastasia into the first rank of holy intercessors. She’s even mentioned by name in the Canon of the Mass.
Her celestial department protecting against potions and poisons has, today, a distinctly retro vibe about it; “the last remnant of the former prominence enjoyed by this saint and her church” is the Christmas Dawn Mass, likely the day’s most lightly-attended service at your local Catholic or Anglican parish, wherein Anastasia is invoked by name.
They are firing, we are falling, and the red skies rend and shiver us,
Barbara, Barbara, we may not loose a breath—
Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.
Although the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic church has booted her from the liturgical calendar as a probable legend, this is the feast date of still-popular early Christian martyr St. Barbara.
There are a million fishy details of the story: nobody’s clear on which anti-Christian persecution claimed her; nobody’s clear on where in the Roman Empire she died; and it’s hard to keep a straight face at the clincher that her unsympathetic pagan father gets struck by lightning after her execution.
Actually, the story is practically straight out of a fairy-tale reader: nasty rich dad Dioscurus locked her up in a tower like Rapunzel, but flew into a rage when he discovered she had secretly become a Christian, and dragged her to the Roman prefect to be tortured and, eventually, beheaded. There are any number of further variations, like that mean old dad personally gave her the chop.
As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christianity’s all-star team of divine intercessors, Barbara was big on both sides of the east-west schism. She’s got saintly portfolios of special relevance to this site: she’s the patron saint of prisoners and of everyone who risks violent death at work, a rare but real occupational hazard for executioners. (We also think that her gig protecting against lightning storms might qualify Barbara for safekeeping people sentenced to die in the electric chair: maybe she saved Willie Francis.)
She’s best known as the guardian of miners and artillerists — folks who work around explosions, like Guy Fawkes — and the word santabarbara denotes a powder magazine in both Spanish and Italian.
Philotas was one of Alexander’s “companions”, the elite cavalry who joined Alexander personally in battle. He had fought by Alexander’s side in the epic Battle of Gaugamela, which brought down the Achaemenid Empire and opened Persia to the legendary conqueror.
A year later, Alexander, and therefore also those companions, were winding down campaign season all the way on the other side of the late empire they had so stunningly dismantled. It’s the region of Drangiana on the present-day Iran-Afghanistan frontier. The Macedonians would name the city Prophthasia, Anticipation, in recognition of their chief’s narrow escape; we know it today as Farah, Afghanistan.
Unlike many of the “companions” who joined the young Macedonian king, Philotas wasn’t a bosom buddy of Alexander.
He was, instead, a bit of a political appointee who owed his position to the fact that his father Parmenion, a great Macedonian general, had backed the disputed succession of Alexander. Parmenion continued as one of Alexander’s generals; his kid — not particularly popular of himself but nevertheless a loyal and competent officer — got a plum gig in Alexander’s vanguard.
In this capacity so close to the royal person, Philotas was warned by a conscientious slave of an assassination plot going against Alexander. And rather incredibly, he didn’t bother to pass it on.
When the slave realized, a couple of days on, that the conspiracy hadn’t been busted, he proceeded to tell somebody else … and Philotas had some explaining to do.
For posterity, it’s as open a question as it was then: Philotas initially convinced Alexander that he had merely considered the whole thing so insubstantial as not to merit the king’s attention — but by the next day, Alexander had better inclined himself to the more damning reading, that Philotas was perfectly amenable to seeing Alexander eliminated.** If that were the truth, it would herald a conflict that would soon come to define the Macedonian’s coruscating and paradoxical career: the army’s rising discontent with its march so far from home, and its leader’s ever more visible habit of arraying himself in the alien habits of oriental despotism.
Philotas got a “proper” if farcically rigged trial before fellow-generals who were all too happy to be rid of him, and was tortured into confessing. He was executed either by stoning (actually the traditional Macedonian execution method, even for the likes of generals) or spearing.
(The scene is dramatized in the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander; the relevant bit can be viewed here.)
Parmenion, a greater character than his son, would also pay the forfeit of his son’s alleged misprision.
At the time of Philotas’s execution, Parmenion was commanding a large army several days’ ride from Alexander. Fearing that the torture and execution of his last remaining son (the other two had also died on campaign) might inspire the august general to do something rash, Alexander dispatched a few trusted officers to outrace the news: they murdered an uncomprehending Parmenion as soon as they reached him. Whatever one makes of the child, the father’s loyalty both to Alexander and his predecessor Philip II had never previously been impeached in a long and brilliant career. Alexander ought to have counted himself fortunate to have avoided any wider disturbance in the army from the rough handling of this beloved general.
The whole affair was sufficiently distasteful that it remained a sensitive matter of state security hundreds of years and hundreds of miles distant: An Elizabethan play about Philotas by Samuel Daniel earned its author some uncomfortable official scrutiny for its perceived commentary on the contemporaneous execution of the Earl of Essex … the fallen courtier whose prosecution of a Jewish doctor arguably informed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
* The other — later and greater — crime was Alexander’s drunken murder of his friend and loyal commander Cleitus. (He’s the guy shown stabbing Parmenion to death in the clip from Alexander, a circumstance that plays better as drama than history.)
** It doesn’t help anyone’s fact-finding that the main alleged plotter committed suicide when they came to arrest him.
(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)
While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.
This is the feast date, and the traditionally-ascribed execution date in 303, of St. George — legendary dragon-slayer and patron saint of half the world and darn near everything that the original apostles didn’t nail down.
Saint George is supposed to have been a well-favored officer in Diocletian‘s army who suicidally announced his Christian faith during the latter’s persecutions, and refused every sop and entreaty to renounce it. He was martyred at Nicomedia.
Pretty standard persecution fare — and there’s next to nothing that can be reliably verified about his life — but George did well by his future cult to get into the martyr’s game right before Christianity’s official triumph. Still, at the end of the day, it’s one of those unaccountable accidents of history that this particular fellow ended up as perhaps Christendom’s most widely venerated champion.
He’s most immediately recognizable for the story of having slain a dragon, a plain metaphor for paganism (and usable metaphor for anything and everything else) that’s been depicted in all its scaly corporeality by innumerable artists.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
But George gets around, and England has to share him.
That St. George’s Cross also adorns the flag of Georgia (the country, that is: it’s so hard core that it’s named for the guy), and he’s claimed as a sponsor throughout Orthodox Christendom: the city of Constantinople and its heir, the city of Moscow, and Russia generally; Serbia (which celebrates a major holiday when April 23 hits on the Julian calendar); Bulgaria; Greece; and also Ethiopia.
George is big in Spain, and even bigger in Portugal; through its Portuguese heritage, he’s also venerated in Brazil, where he’s the patron saint of the Corinthians football club. He’s the sponsor (via that dragon connection) of the snaky Hungarian military order that gave Vlad the Impaler the immortal sobriquet of Dracula.
There are other countries and any number of cities who also trust the dragon-slayer’s patronage; George accepts the further devotions of saddle-makers, lepers, animal husbandmen, shepherds, Crusader knights, butchers, the Maltese, gypsies, farmers, archers, syphilis-sufferers, cavalrymen and therefore also armored tankmen, Palestinian Christians, and the Boy Scouts of America. He’s generally got a stupendous worldwide collection of churches, art, legends, and devotional rites dedicated to his name.
It was perhaps on this date, that the prophet Mani — he of Manichaeism — underwent his Passion at the hands of the Sassanid Empire in a Gundeshapur prison.
The actual date of this event is an Aramaic (lunar) date whose year is unrecorded, so it attaches only uncertainly to the Julian calendar. (2 March 274 is another possibility, as are other dates in the mid-270s.)
Perhaps more to the point for this blog is that Mani’s “crucifixion” as celebrated by his followers was a literary exultation: the 60-year-old died in prison after 26 days in chains, maybe even sooner than his captors had intended. After Mani “rose [from his body] to the residences of his greatness [in] the heights, and he met his shape,” the Sassanids decapitated the corpse to make the whole scene more properly resemble the awful majesty of an offended sovereign.
But even as merely a metaphorical “execution,” Mani’s martyrdom merits mention.
Born into a Judaic-Christian sect, Mani (also known as Manes) experienced a conversion, went east for enlightenment, and returned with a syncretic theology of a good spirit world and an evil material one — and east-meets-west twist, in other words, on gnosticism, rooted in both Christianity and Buddhism. (And Zoroastrianism, dominant in Persia at this time — to Mani’s ultimate grief.)
This seems like the sort of thing that someone ought to have revived in California in the 1970′s.
The man wrote his own holy book, after all, and it’s a bit more elegant than the likes of neoconservative foreign policy.
the first precept for hearers is this: …they shall not kill …, [and] they shall forgive those creatures who provide them with meat for food so that they do not kill them as if they were evil people. But dead flesh of any animals, wherever they obtain it, be it dead or slaughtered, they may eat …
And the second precept for hearers is that they shall not be false and they shall not be unjust to one another … he shall walk in truth. And a hearer shall love [another] hearer in the same way one loves one’s own brother and relatives, for they are children of the living family and the world of light.
And the third precept is that they shall not slander anybody and not be false witnesses against anybody of what they have not seen and not make an oath in falsehood in any matter …
Manichaeism found favor (though not a conversion) with the broad-minded and long-reigning king Shapur I. (Shapur is most famous in the West as the Persian ruler who captured the Roman emperor Valerian.)
It seems they were able to make use of the prophet’s distaste for war to question his patriotism. Some things never change.
The founder’s laying down his life hardly slowed the faith’s growth; instead, it prospered as one of the more successful entrants in the confusing late-antiquity hustle and bustle of competing cults. Dualism was a hot mystical trend literally from ocean to ocean, and nobody proselytized it like Mani’s followers.
Had it stayed that way, there’d be endowed chairs of Manichean gnosticism at every university and politicians conspicuously rubbing shoulders with Manichean clergy and Major League sluggers with WWMD bracelets. Instead, it’s a metonym for naivete. Them’s the breaks.
In the West, at least, the lost sect’s unflattering reputation comes by way of no less a personage than St. Augustine of Hippo.
You know what they say about the zeal of converts? Well, Augustine used to know Manichaeism from the inside.
St. Augustine Sacrificing to a Manichaean Idol, 15th century painting by an unknown Flemish master.
After spending his twenties as an enthusiastic Manichean, the future Church Father (re)converted to orthodox* Christianity and turned on his former philosophy with vehemence.
His Confessions denounces a Manichean bishop with whom he once had an unsatisfying audience — “Faustus by name, a great snare of the devil.” That association might very well be the etymological root of that great literary devil-bargainer Dr. Faust.
One could, at the minimum, follow a thread from Augustine’s establishment anti-dualism to the Middle Ages practice of calling any dualistic heresy — Bogomilism, Catharism, whatever — “Manichean”, and the intertwining of those forbidden gnostic traditions with Christendom’s devil mythology.
Medieval image of St. Augustine confounding devilish heresies.
At the same time, Augustine’s philosophy draws much of its enduring appeal from that very dualism, absorbed at such a formative age that the writer late into life was still repelling Christian colleagues’ accusations of immutable Manichaeism — “like an Ethiopian can not change his skin, nor the leopard his spots.” Augustine’s City of God proceeds from opposing that virtuous spiritual metropolis to the corruption of the City of Man.**
Nowhere in the early church before 400 does there appear to be such a tender and appealing piety, along with such a prominent place given to the Christ, except for Augustine and the Manichaean writings … In some essential features of Augustine’s spirituality we may perceive one of the most important channels through which the Gnostic religion of Manichaeism has exercised a lasting influence on western culture.
* Manichaeism, at least in the North African context where Augustine engaged it, is probably best thought of as one of the competing strands within the Christian community rather than a rival religious edifice. (Gnosticism’s capacity to syncretize with varying spiritual traditions has always been essential to its appeal.) Manicheans themselves insisted that they were secta, within Christianity, not schisma, like the pagans.
** Augustine had particular cause to be down on the prospects of the City of Man: at the time of writing, Rome had just been sacked by the Visigoths.
(Thanks to Carl Pyrdum, III, the author of the hilariously incisive blog Got Medieval, for this guest post — which originally appeared as part of his decidedly irreverent Medieval Months stroll through the Catholic Church’s quirky calendar of saintly feast days. -ed.)
While not one of the Holy Helpers proper, St. Agatha, whose feast falls on February 5, has special powers to heal ailments of the breasts, on account of having had hers cut off for refusing to worship pagan idols.
Like Bartholomew, she is usually depicted in the unfortunate after state in iconography, carrying her severed breasts before her on a tray or plate.
Because detached breasts sort of resemble bells, she’s the patron saint of bellfounders, and because they also kind of resemble dough, she works double duty as the patron of bakers, too. Oh, and just to be clear, that last sentence isn’t one of those clearly nonsensical sentences I pepper my writing with for purposes of the comedy. Agatha is the patron saint of severed boobs and everything that kind of looks like a severed boob.
“They say,” quoth ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, “that Fabianus having come, after the death of Anteros, with others from the country, was staying at Rome, and that while there he was chosen to the office through a most wonderful manifestation of divine and heavenly grace.”
For when all the brethren had assembled to select by vote him who should succeed to the episcopate of the church, several renowned and honorable men were in the minds of many, but Fabianus, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove.
Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.
Fabian seems to have been a competent administrator and had the luxury of occupying St. Peter‘s throne during the lull in persecutions under the Roman Emperor Philip the Arab. If you like the highly speculative hypothesis that Philip was not merely sympathetic to Christians but actually a Christian himself,* then Pope Fabian is probably the guy who baptized him.
Fabian paid the piper for those years on easy street with Philip by refusing to make the requisite sacrifices and delivering himself to a demonstrative** martyrdom in January 250. A Greek epitaph — “Fabian, bishop and martyr” — has been discovered in the catacombs.
With the surly Decius hovering around to lop off the next Roman head bold enough to submit to a bishop’s cap, the papacy stood vacant for more than a year before (with Decius out of town on campaign — for good, as it turned out) said papacy made up for lost time when it was claimed by two men set at loggerheads by the persecutions themselves: the little-known caretaker Cornelius (the Church’s official successor) and Novatian (the schismatic antipope).
The always recommended History of Rome podcast deals with this period in episode 110.
* If Philip the Arab was Christian, then he would displace Constantine the Great as the realm’s first Christian ruler; the faithful might regard the transfer of that distinction as a downgrade.
** Edward Gibbon, much less impressed than the Church with Decius’s severity, notes that
[t]he martyrs, devoted to immediate execution by the Roman magistrates, appear to have been selected from the most opposite extremes. They were either bishops and presbyters, the persons the most distinguished among the Christians by their rank and influence, and whose example might strike terror into the whole sect; or else they were the meanest and most abject among them, particularly those of the servile condition, whose lives were esteemed of little value …
It was perhaps on this date in 317 that the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great was put to death, just another casualty as the conqueror’s vast empire fragmented.
The half-witted Philip III Arrhidaeus (or Arridaeus) didn’t exactly seem like he was born to rule — or maybe he was and that was just the problem. Plutarch juicily speculated that the boy was muddled intentionally by the snake-worshiping wife of Macedonian conqueror Philip II, Olympias. Olympias was the mother of a kid named Alexander whom she was trying to advance to the throne ahead of his half-siblings; Angelina Jolie made an apt choice to depict her at her ruthless harem-politicking best.
Arrhidaeus was the son of Philip by a courtesan named Philinna, a woman of low birth. His deficiency in understanding was the consequence of a distemper, in which neither nature nor accident had any share. For it is said, there was something amiable and great in him, when a boy; which Olympias perceiving, gave him potions that disturbed his brain.
The problem for Macedon as for Arrhidaeus came after Alexander the Great’s brilliant career closed with his unexpected, youthful death.
The stupendous empire had no obvious heir, and different factions of Alexander’s military backed different candidates. Long story short, the Arrhidaeus succeeded as the titular, but powerless, king, under a succession of regents who were prone to untimely deaths.
“Merely” titular kingship is a pretty powerful post in itself, though, and Arrhidaeus’s wife Eurydice began maneuvering to gain a wider sphere of action from her now-allied, now-enemy regents, who were themselves fighting one another. In 317, Eurydice backed the wrong horse, and she and the hubby were put to death after capture by his rival, who was at the time allied with Olympias.
Alexander’s empire was fracturing, and would soon come completely apart (one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra‘s asp). It was a dangerous environment for everyone within a pikestaff of power, which meant that at least Arrhidaeus and Eurydice could take solace from the next world when the very same fate befell Olympias herself.
(More posthumous consolation: the Rimae Ariadaeus lunar crater is named for this short-lived figurehead.)
The funerary tumulus at Vergina, one of Greece’s most spellbinding archaeological treasures, features an in situ tomb whose occupant — though grandly claimed to be the more impressive Philip II — might, in fact, be Philip III. The contents of this tomb have been the subjected of spirited academic, and even nationalist, disputation, on which topics this blog is blessedly destitute of authority.