Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

Yesterday, March 10th, was the feast of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. These forty Roman soldiers were martyred in 320 under the rule of the Emperor Licinius by being frozen to death overnight on an ice-covered pond. As Christians they refused to offer the pagan rites demanded of them.

The story might seem at first sight implausible or a pious fable, but is in fact well attested from the 370s, in a sermon by St Basil. As Saints they are better known and more widely venerated in the Orthodox world - on March 9th - than in the west, although they have a feast day and propers in the traditional Roman missal and breviary. The Mattins readings in the latter point out the Lenten and fasting symbolism of there being forty martyrs and their prayer that they would all remain faithful.

The depiction of the forty Martyrs gives us that entire dramatic story with one look: “A group of early Christians from Sivas who refused to give up their faith and was driven out onto a frozen lake to freeze to death. There's even an image of the one man who recanted being replaced by a local official who converted to Christianity and who is shown casting off his elaborate robe to join the men on the lake.”
              The Forty Martyrs 
 Ceiling of the church of Şahinefendi in       Cappadocia 
Image: bibliotraveler.com

The soldiers appear to have been members of the XII Legion, known as the Thundering Legion, as is explained in one of the following articles 

There are a number of accounts on the Internet that narrate their suffering, each of which explores different parts of the story. Wikipedia has an account at Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

40 Martyrs of Sebaste from Early Church History gives a substantial extract from St Basil’s sermon.

The text of the Testament of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste is quoted from in Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. It also appears at some length in The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

The Testament is also cited and the story put in its historical perspective in The Story behind the Martyrs: Times of the Roman Asia Minor & Christian Persecutions – Faithful Journeys

The story of one, the youngest and the supposed author of the Testament, of the Forty, Melito, and a further quotation from St Basil, can be read from Tradition in Action at 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, saints of March 10

The martyrdom is retold in a dramatised narrative and with a useful historical commentary as to the politics of the Empire divided between Licinius in the East and the much more favourable situation for Christians in the West under Constantine the Great at 40 Martyrs of Sevaste

The story is recounted in a similar way and its legacy in devotion and art is set out and illustrated by Cappadocia History at 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

Sebaste is now known as Sivas. St Sebastian was also probably a native of the city and from it derived his name. Sebaste was for many centuries an important trading point on routes through Anatolia.

May the Forty Martyrs Pray for us

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