The Noblest Sacrifice: A Tale of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
Emperor Licinius was a man unused to compromise. So, when his colleague in the West, Constantine, suggested an edict to tolerate Christianity, Licinius had at first refused to help. But the Empire was in fragments, little men each claiming different little parts; Licinius could not afford to have more enemies at that time. But things had changed now. Constantine had brought peace to almost the entire West, and Licinius had also been having success over his rivals. It was time to show that the old gods were still greater than this God-man anomaly–and to convince the people that he, Licinius, should be equal to the gods.
“Scribe!” Licinius hollered. Where was he these days? “Scribe! Get in here, you good-for-nothing, I have some work for you!”
“I’m right here, sir,” a thin voice said from a nearby table.
Licinius started. “Should’ve answered sooner, then.”
The scribe opened his mouth.
“Don’t get smart with me!” Licinius bellowed again. “Now, I have something very important for you to write down, so pay attention! Ready? Good.” The Emperor took a deep breath, and began. “I, the Emperor Licinius, do solemnly declare that in my Empire, no man shall worship this so-called God of the Christians…”
“…And if any does so, he is to be put on trial and executed for high treason against the most holy, august, and supreme person of the Emperor!” The messenger stepped down and rolled up his scroll.
Agricola smiled. For a long time, he had been wanting to do something about those crazy fanatics. Unlike others, he was not convinced that the Christians harboured some plot to take over the Empire and practiced black magic. It was entirely possible that they had put an evil spell on Constantine to make him do their will; but then, Constantine’s father, Caesar Constantius had also been rather soft on the Christians. Too soft, Agricola thought.
“If such is the will of the Emperor, then let us act on it at once!” Agricola said, leaning forward. Many in the court at once voiced their approval. “Do any of you know any Christians that we might bring before us?”
The commander stepped forward, bowed, and spoke: “If I may, sir, there is a detachment of forty men in the garrison, who are all Christians. They make no secret of their faith, and indeed are glad to talk about it with any who are curious.”
“Summon them!” Agricola waved his arms in a welcoming gesture. “Summon them!”
A short while later, the commander was reading the roll of the detachment, to ensure that all were present.
“Cyrion, Candidus, Domnus, Hesychius, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Eunocius, Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Eutychius, John, Xanthius, Helianus, Sisinius, Aggias, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecdicius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Gorgonius, Theophilus, Dometian, Gaius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valerius, Philoctimon, Severion, Chudion, Catastrus, Meliton!” All had come, eager to profess their faith.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Agricola, “I am so glad you all decided to come. Now,” he waved to a bowl of incense, set before an idol, “Offer sacrifice to the gods and renounce this Jesus, or you shall all be thrown in prison!”
Cyrion stepped forward to speak for his brothers in arms and in Christ. “Gladly shall we do as you desire,” he said.
But Cyrion had not finished. “Just show us our cells.”
Agricola’s smile became sour immediately. “Guards, take them away!” he called. “Perhaps they’ll be more inclined to agree with us in the morning, after a night in prison.”
Lysimachus positively glowed as he was led away, so happy was he to be suffering for the Lord. No experience could be better than this. His mind and soul caught up in prayer, he allowed his body to follow the guards, down to the dungeons. Hardly noticing the horrible squalor of the cell, he delighted in God’s presence. But his prayers were rudely interrupted by one of his fellow prisoners.
“Ugh,” Catastrus groaned, “Even the sands of Persia were more comfortable than this place. And cleaner, too.”
“We have been chosen to suffer for the Lord,” Aetius disagreed, “What could be more wonderful?”
“I suppose,” Catastrus consented, “But still, I wish it didn’t have to be this hard. I can fast and pray and all that, that’s simple. But this! This is taking it to another level!”
“To the best level,” Lysimachus replied, “Let us praise God for it!”
Any guard walking by those cells would have heard a most unusual sound: singing. Many who heard it shivered, thinking the prisoners were putting some evil spell on the whole prison. But others understood, and a few even smiled to themselves, praising God that there were such stalwart Christians in the land. One even said that he had heard a voice from above, saying: “Persevere until the end, and then you shall be saved.”
The following morning, Agricola again summoned the prisoners. But to the astonishment of all, again they refused, being, if possible, even more thoroughly against sacrificing to the idol. Agricola shifted his strategy.
“You there,” he pointed to one of the Christians, “What is your name?”
“Xanthius, sir,” the man replied.
“Here, take this sword, and show me how talented you are with it,” Agricola said, motioning one of his guards to draw his own sword and prepare for battle.
Xanthius took the sword Agricola offered him, and faced his opponent. Before the battle began, he took a step back, held the sword upside-down for a moment, and then attacked swiftly. The guard was prepared for just such a move, but even so, all could see that Xanthius had the upper hand. Agricola was prepared for this, and waved his hand; another guard joined the battle. Again Xanthius sprang back, held his sword upside-down, and then attacked again. Gasps escaped from the onlookers as it became clear that the Christian still had the upper hand, despite being outnumbered. Two more guards were sent in, and Xanthius replied to this in his usual way. Even against four, the Christian soldier was still winning, and the blows the guards were receiving on their arms and legs became more and more numerous, while Xanthius looked untouched. With a twist of his hand, Xanthius disarmed all of his opponents at once, and the guards fell back in dismay, rubbing their stinging hands.
“Brilliant!” Agricola cried, clapping his hands. “Absolutely wonderful! You are young, strong–why throw your life away like this? Is there nothing you’d rather do?”
“No,” said Xanthius, dropping his sword, “There is nothing I would rather do.” He resumed his place among his fellow Christians.
Agricola sighed. “Take them away again,” he said, “And let them see the folly of their ways.”
For a week the Christians were confined in the prisons, but they did not seem to grow any less healthy, or less steadfast in their faith. After one week, they were brought to trial again, and this time, there was a new judge: Licius, recently come to town. This trial proceeded in a similar way to the others. Licius, angered at the steadfastness of the Christians, decreed that they be stoned.
“A good verdict,” Agricola said. “But it will only end in their broken bodies.”
“Does that really matter?” Licius responded, as they followed the guards escorting the Christians into the courtyard. “I came here to put an end to these Christians. This is simply a different way to do it.”
“A pity,” Agricola sighed, “They were good soldiers.”
“Can any Christian be a good Roman soldier?” Licius rhetorically asked.
“These men have proven it,” Agricola responded. “And I would rather that they be converted away from their God then have to stone them to death.”
“There is no hope in rhetoric,” Licius persisted. “These men can only be deterred from worshipping their God by torture. It is the way we must do it. So come now, and help me perform justice.”
Agricola sighed. “You are right, my friend. It is the only way.”
By this time, the forty men had been lined up against the wall of the courtyard, and various people stood by with rocks in their hands, waiting for Agricola’s command to begin. Agricola nodded his head, and dozens of rocks, large and small, were hurled at the Christians. Immediately, screams and cries of anguish rent the air, and Agricola opened his eyes wide in surprise. The rocks had changed course in mid-flight, and turned completely around to return and strike the pagans! Licius hefted a particularly hefty stone, and pitched it right at Xanthius. Agricola opened his mouth to command an end to the torture, but Licius’ stone hit him squarely in the teeth, breaking many of them. Agricola fell to the ground cursing, as blood filled his mouth. Licius realized what was going on, and persuaded the angry mob to stop throwing stones. Sulking, the pagans slunk away as the guards took the martyrs back to prison.
One of the guards, Aglaius, could not help but marvel at the steadfastness of these Christians. As he led them back to their cells, he pondered what the secret of their seeming happiness and contentment could be. Surely, it could not be something in this world, because they had nothing but their bodies there. But Aglaius was equally skeptical of any possibility of a world after death, as well. The story of the voice from a week ago had spread like wildfire among the guards, but Aglaius had never really believed it. But now, as he looked into the eyes of these soldiers, he began to think that perhaps there could be some truth to that story after all. Perhaps their happiness had come from that voice.
Aglaius sighed. “If only I could hear a voice like that,” he muttered under his breath.
The following day, Licius once more tried to persuade the Christians to renounce their faith, but as he expected, to no avail. The torture he chose then was to throw them into a lake outside the city. Winter was at its height, and the weather was bitterly cold. A guard was set to make sure none of them escaped, while a warm bath-house was made ready nearby to break the Christians’ will.
Aglaius pulled his cloak closer about him as night descended. The other guards began to make fires to warm themselves. What luck! Aglaius thought. On this cold, despicable winter night, when any sensible man would be inside with a glass of something warm, he had to be given the utterly most disagreeable job of watching Christians freeze in a lake.
Abruptly, a splash sounded out as one of the Christians sprang out of the water and toward the bath-house. Aglaius watched as the man leaped over the threshold and suddenly collapsed. Alarmed, he and one or two other guards rushed over to the Christians. After only a brief examination, it was confirmed that the man was dead.
“It’ll happen to all of those stupid people before long,” one guard declared. “I’m surprised any of them are still standing.”
Aglaius simply shook his head as he spread a towel over the corpse. Slowly, he returned to his position and resumed his watch. As he settled down on the cold ground, he heard one of the Christians begin a prayer.
“Let us pray for the departed soul of our brother, Catastrus…”
The night had aged. Aglaius alone was still awake. Bitingly cold, the chill air had helped drive all thoughts of sleep from his mind. A wind began to blow, and Aglaius pulled his cloak up about his neck to keep it out. But it was not what he expected; the wind was warm, and Aglaius let his cloak fall as he lifted his face to meet the welcome breeze. A light began to shine as well, and the ice that had accumulated on the lake began to melt. Splendidly, a rich crown appeared over the head of each soldier. Aglaius counted thirty-nine; Catastrus had lost his crown.
This convinced Aglaius. Surely, this God was the true God, if he could do marvels like this! Hurrying, he woke the other guards. “I, too, am a Christian,” he said, taking off his uniform and jumping into the lake. Bowing his head, he made his first prayer: “Lord God, I believe in You, in Whom these soldiers believe. Add me to their number, and make me worthy to suffer with Your servants.” A fortieth crown appeared over his head.
Agricola simply stared at the report the guard had handed back to him. “How can this be?” he wondered. “Nevermind,” he grumbled, “All my patience is lost. Let’s burn these fanatics!”
A column of smoke rose to the sky. The only person near to the pyre was the mother of Meliton, the youngest of the martyrs. Tears streamed from her eyes, both because of the stinging smoke and the great grief she bore. Vainly, she had tried to suade her son from sacrificing himself; but Meliton remained convinced, and calm.
“This is the most glorious and holiest way to die, mother,” he had said. “Let me join my brethren, the saints, and my Father in Heaven.”
She could not stop him; now, as she turned from the burning bodies, she wished for a sign from this God of her son to show her that Meliton’s sacrifice had not been senseless and idiotic. Slowly, she trudged home. As she passed underneath an avenue of trees, a thought struck her. They are cold, barren, forlorn… Just like me. Their heart is frozen by the chill wind of winter, mine by the cold blow of grief. She continued on her way, but not before looking back one last time. In that glance, she saw forty skylarks fly toward the trees and land on them; one perched close to the lady’s shoulder, bringing her attention to the branch it stood on. Green buds could barely be seen on the cold grey twig. The lark chirped a happy note, then winged away to join its flock. Spring was on the way.