Saints of the Day – 10 March – The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, Armenia (Died 320). The Forty Martyrs were a group of Roman soldiers in the Legio XII Fulminata (Armed with Lightning) whose martyrdom in 320, for the Christian faith, is recounted in the Roman Martyrology. The Forty Martyr are also honoured on 9 March, particularly in the Eastern Church but the Roman Martyrology places them today, on 10 March.
They were killed near the City of Sebaste, in Lesser Armenia (present-day Sivas in Turkey), victims of the persecutions of Licinius, who after 316, persecuted the Christians of the East. The earliest account of their existence and martyrdom is given by Bishop Basil of Caesarea, that is, St Basil the Great (329-379) in a homily he delivered on their feast day. The Feast of the Forty Martyrs is thus older than Basil himself, who eulogised them, fifty or sixty years after their deaths.
As St Basil tells the story – forty soldiers who had openly confessed themselves Christians were condemned by the prefect to be exposed naked upon a frozen pond near Sebaste on a bitterly cold night, that they might freeze to death.
Among the confessors, one yielded and, leaving his companions, sought the warm baths near the lake which had been prepared for any who might prove inconstant. Upon immersion into the cauldron, the one who yielded went into shock and immediately died. So this lone soldier died, deprived of both earthly and heavenly life.
One of the guards, Aglaius, was set to keep watch over the Martyrs and beheld a supernatural brilliance in the form of halos over their heads, overshadowing them. He at once proclaimed himself a Christian, threw off his garments and joined the remaining thirty-nine. Thus the number of forty remained complete.
At daybreak, the stiffened bodies of the confessors, which still showed signs of life, were burned and the remains cast into a river. Christians, however, collected the precious remains as best they could and the relics were distributed throughout many cities. In this way, veneration of the Forty Martyrs became widespread and numerous Churches were erected in their honour. But in Sebaste itself, a 40-domed Cathedral was built. The Cathedral of Sebastia stood for nearly 1,000 years, until the invasion of Tamerlane and the Mongols at the end of the 14th century. However, the “Forty Martyrs Cathedral” name has survived to this day.
A Church was built at Caesarea, in Cappadocia and it was in this Church, that St Basil delivered his homily.
St Gregory of Nyssa was especially devoted to the Forty Martyrs – two discourses in praise of them, preached by him in the Church dedicated to them, are still preserved and upon the death of his parents, he laid them to rest beside the relics of the confessors.
St Ephrem the Syrian has also eulogised the Forty Martyrs.
Sozomen,a Roman Lawyer and Historian, who was an eye-witness, has left an interesting account of the finding of the relics in Constantinople, in the Shrine of Saint Thyrsus built by Caesarius, through the instrumentality of Empress Pulcheria.
Their names are: Acacius, Aetius, Aglaius, Alexander, Angus, Athanasius, Candidus, Chudion, Claudius, Cyril, Cyrion, Dometian, Domnus, Ecdicius, Elias, Eunoicus, Eutyches, Eutychius, Flavius, Gaius, Gorgonius, Helianus, Herachus, Hesychius, John, Lysimachus, Meliton, Nicholas, Philoctemon, Priscus, Sacerdon, Severian, Sisinius, Smaragdus, Theodulus, Theophilus, VaIens, Valerius, Vivianus, and Xanthias.
The cult of the Forty Martyrs is widespread all over in the Eastern Church. The Forty Saints Monastery in Sarandë, modern day Albania, which gave its name in Greek to the City itself, was built in the 6th century and was an important pilgrimage site. The Churches of St Sophia in Ohrid (modern-day North Macedonia) and Kiev (Ukraine) contain their depictions, datable to the 11th and 12th centuries, respectively. A number of auxiliary Chapels were dedicated to the Forty and there are several instances, when an entire Church is dedicated to them – for example Xeropotamou Monastery on Mount Athos and the 13th-century Holy Forty Martyrs Church, in Bulgaria. a Church of the 40 saints located in Constantinople.. In Syria, the Armenian Cathedral of Aleppo and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Homs are dedicated to the Forty Martyrs.
The feast day of the Forty Martyrs falls is intentionally placed that it will fall during Lent. There is an intentional play on the number forty being both the number of Martyrs and the days in the fast. Their feast also falls during Lent so that the endurance of the Martyrs will serve as an example to the faithful to persevere to the end. in order to attain heavenly reward..
A prayer mentioning the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste is also placed in the Orthodox Wedding Service (referred to as a “crowning”) to remind the bride and groom that spiritual crowns await them in Heaven also if they remain as faithful to Christ as these saints of long ago.
Special devotion to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste was introduced at an early date into the West. Bishop St Gaudentius of Brescia (died about 410 or 427) received particles of the ashes of the Martyrs during a voyage in the East and placed them, with other relics, in the altar of the Basilica which he had erected, at the Consecration of which, he delivered a discourse, still extant.
The Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum, built in the fifth century, contains a Chapel, built like the Church itself, on the ancient site and Consecrated to the Forty Martyrs. A sixth or seventh-century mural there depicts their martyrdom. The names of the confessors, as we find them also in later sources, were formerly inscribed on this fresco. There is a beautiful Chapel of the Forty Martyrs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Acts of these Martyrs, written subsequently, in Greek, Syriac and Latin, are yet extant, also a “Testament” of the Forty Martyrs.