Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

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Basil, St, ‘the Great’ (c. 330—379)

St Ephrem (c. 306—373)

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330—395) Doctor of the Church, bishop of Constantinople

St Simeon Metaphrastes (fl. c. 960)

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(d. 320).

These soldiers of the ‘thundering Legion’ were the victims of a persecution by the Emperor Licinius, which required repudiation of Christianity under pain of death. The local governor of Sebaste (now Sivas in Turkey) tried persuasion, promises, and torture to obtain their apostasy. When all these failed, he ordered them to be exposed naked all night on a frozen lake outside the city. A fire and a warm bath were prepared on the bank to tempt them further. Out of the forty, thirty-nine were constant and died of exposure rather than deny their faith, while the remaining one who conformed was replaced by another soldier, so at the end they were still forty in number. Their cult was extremely widespread in the East, being celebrated in sermons by Basil, Ephrem, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa. The relics went to both Annesis (Caesarea) and to Constantinople. There is some variation in the details of the story, but substantial agreement among the panegyrists. A possibly contemporary ‘Testament of the Forty Martyrs of Christ’ survives, which records their last messages to friends and relations. There is, however, some doubt about the historicity of some details of their Acts. Feast: in the East, 9 March; in the West, formerly 10 March, suppressed in 1969.

AA.SS. Mar. II (1668), 12–29; H. Delehaye, Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires (1921), pp. 210–35;P. F. de Cavalieri, ‘I quaranta martiri di Sebastia’ in Note agiographice, Studi e Testi, xlix (1928), 155–84; Bibl. SS., xi. 768–71.

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).

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