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The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste or the Holy Forty (Ancient/Katharevousa Greek Ἃγιοι Τεσσεράκοντα, Demotic Άγιοι Σαράντα) were a group of Roman soldiers in the Legio XII Fulminata, who traditional martyrologies allege to have become martyrs for their Christian faith in 320; this would be nine years after the persecution of Christians was abandoned.

They were killed near Sebastemarker, in Lesser Armenia, victims of the persecutions of Licinius, who, after the year 316, persecuted the Christians of the East. The earliest account of their existence and martyrdom is given by St. Basil, Bishop of Caesareamarker (370–379), in a homily delivered on the feast of the Forty Martyrs (Hom. xix in P.G., XXXI, 507 sqq.). The feast is consequently more ancient than the episcopate of Basil, whose eulogy on them was pronounced only fifty or sixty years after martyrdom.

Account of Martyrdom



According to St. Basil, 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. One of the guards set to keep watch over the martyrs beheld at this moment a supernatural brilliancy overshadowing them and at once proclaimed himself a Christian, threw off his garments, and placed himself beside the thirty-nine soldiers of Christ. 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 ashes cast into a river. The Christians, however, collected the precious remains, and the relics were distributed throughout many cities; in this way the veneration paid to the Forty Martyrs became widespread, and numerous churches were erected in their honour.

Early Veneration

One of them was built at Caesareamarker, in Cappadociamarker, and it was in this church that St. Basil publicly delivered his homily. St. Gregory of Nyssa was a special client of these holy martyrs. Two discourses in praise of them, preached by him in the church dedicated to them, are still preserved (P. G., XLVI, 749 sqq., 773 sqq.) and upon the death of his parents, he laid them to rest beside the relics of the confessors. St. Ephraem, the Syrian, has also eulogized the forty Martyrs (Hymni in SS. 40 martyres). Sozomen, who was an eye-witness, has left us (Hist. Eccl., IX, 2) an interesting account of the finding of the relics in Constantinoplemarker through the instrumentality of the Empress Pulcheria.

A recurring theme in Orthodox art



Byzantine artists were fascinated with the subject that allowed them to graphically show human despair. The martyrs were typically represented at the point when they were about to freeze to death, "shivering from the cold, hugging themselves for warmth, or clasping hands to their faces or wrists in pain and despair". This is particularly evident in the large 10th-century ivory plaque from the Bode Museummarker and the Palaiologan portable mosaic set in wax, from Dumbarton Oaksmarker.

The subject continues to be popular among Orthodox iconographers.

Veneration in the East

The cult of the Forty Martyrs is widespread all over the East. The Churches of St. Sophia in Ohridmarker (modern-day Republic of Macedoniamarker) and Kievmarker (Ukrainemarker) 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 temple (church building) is dedicated to them: for example Xiropotamoumarker Monastery on Mount Athos and the 13th-century Holy Forty Martyrs Churchmarker, in Veliko Tarnovomarker, Bulgariamarker.

In Aleppomarker (Syria) the Armenian Cathedral is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs.

The feast day of the Forty Martyrs falls on March 9, and is intentionally placed that it will fall during Great 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 Great Lent so that the endurance of the martyrs will serve as an example to the faithful to persevere to the end (i.e., throughout the forty days of the fast) in order to attain heavenly reward (participation in Pascha, the Resurrection of Jesus).

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.

Veneration in the West

Special devotion to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste was introduced at an early date into the West; their feast day is 10 March. St. Gaudentius, Bishop of Brescia in the beginning of the fifth century (d. about 410 or 427), received particles of the ashes of 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 Antiquamarker, in the Roman Forummarker, built in the fifth century, a chapel was found, built, like the church itself, on an ancient site, and consecrated to the Forty Martyrs. A picture, preserved there, dating from the sixth or seventh century, depicts the scene of the martyrdom. The names of the confessors, as we find them also in later sources, were formerly inscribed on this fresco.

Acts of these martyrs, written subsequently, in Greek, Syriac and Latin, are yet extant, also a "Testament" of the Forty Martyrs.

The names of the Forty Martyrs

The Menaion of the Eastern Orthodox Church lists the names of the Forty Martyrs as follows:
  • Hesychius, Meliton, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Domnus, Eunoicus, Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Euthychius, John, Xantheas, Helianus, Sisinius, Cyrion, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecditius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Candidus, Theophilus, Dometian, Gaius, Gorgonius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valaerius, Philoctimon, Severian, Chudion, and Aglaius.


According to Antonio Borrelli, their names were:
  • Aetius, Eutychius, Cyrius, Theophilus, Sisinnius, Smaragdus, Candidus, Aggia, Gaius, Cudio, Heraclius, John, Philotemon, Gorgonius, Cirillus, Severianus, Theodulus, Nicallus, Flavius, Xantius, Valerius, Aesychius, Eunoicus, Domitian, Domninus, Helianus, Leontius (Theoctistus), Valens, Acacius, Alexander, Vicratius (Vibianus), Priscus, Sacerdos, Ecdicius, Athanasius, Lisimachus, Claudius, Ile, Melito and Eutychus (Aglaius).


See also



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