Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire’

This post is about penance. Well, sort of, though that would imply that this is somehow punishment rather than something awesome. Last week at the local pub quiz, there was FINALLY a question about a saint–who is the patron saint of firefighters and chimney sweeps? Well, dear reader, I had absolutely no idea. Naturally this led to a bit of existential crisis (if I can’t even get a pub quiz question about a saint right WHAT AM I DOING?), but I got over it and looked up good old Saint Florian.

Unfortunately, it’s also appropriate because Los Angeles is on fire (again) right now*, and we could probably use all the help we can get.

Florian von Lorch lived around 300 CE, and all it seems like we really know about him is that he was fairly high-ranking in the Roman Army stationed in Noricum, which is now more or less where Austria is. I did find a source that went on and on about how he was part of the valiant firefighting unit in Noricum, but nothing else I can find backs that up much, though it’s some interesting stuff about how firefighting worked in Rome, which is that people had to pay firefighters to put out fires, and it turns out you can get a LOT of money out of people whose houses are burning down. It’s a libertarian’s wet hot dream.

Firefighter or no, Florian lived during the big Diocletianic Persecution, along with some other obscure saints, and was thus (wait for it) persecuted for being a Christian. What followed was pretty standard: first they were just going to set him on fire and be done with it, but he got excited about that idea (telling them he’d fly to heaven on the smoke), so they opted for the more labor-intensive flogging and spiking and ripping out his shoulder blades with hooks instead. Finally they tied a heavy stone around his neck and threw him into the river Enns.

Miraculously in one piece, his body floated up onto a rock downstream, and an eagle watched over it until a peasant woman named Valeria could have a vision and come get the body. Afraid of being persecuted herself, she covered it with twigs, leaves and braches and pretended that she was building a fence for her garden. While taking him to where her vision said he should be buried, her animals tired so God made them a spring, and they carried on. Finally he was buried where he’d asked, though he was moved into the abbey at the town nearby, and later still they sent some of his relics to Poland, because when it’s the middle ages and you want a king to be your friend, you send him some bits of your dead saint.

A whole bunch of healing miracles are attributed to him (including one case of crushed genitals), but the thing he’s known for isn’t really clear. He’s supposed to have extinguished an entire burning village by pouring a single pitcher of water on it, but I can’t find whether that happened before or after he died. How about I just go with my gut instinct, which is, “Story invented a few hundred years later and posthumously ascribed to the living Florian.” There, done. In fact that sentence will do anyone lots of good in the area of Obscure Saint Studies.

Florian is the saint of firefighters, chimney sweepers, Poland, and beer brewers, so you should buy a Polish firefighter a drink on May 4 and then use him to sweep the chimney.


*Thanks for asking, but no, the Illegiterati are not in any danger. Lots of other people are, though.

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Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Way before a dude named Prince was making Purple Rain, there was a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt, named Apollonia.

Nothing, apparently, is known of her life, besides the fact that she was a Christian virgin who lived in Alexandria. Some sources say she was an older lady, but other sources say that’s a mistranslation, and what the letter it’s from actually says is that she was a deaconess. Either way, she was doing her thing in 248 or 249 CE, right after Rome’s first millenial celebration (it was founded in 753 BCE), and during one of the most intense persecutions.

The Emperor Decius, who ruled for all of two years (which was an admirable stretch at the time), decided that Christians were a big threat to the empire because a) they had weird customs, b) they weren’t worshiping the proper gods, and c) they were more loyal to the Christian god than the Emperor. Seeing an opportunity to unite the rest of the Roman people by joining together to beat up the Christians, they all got rounded up and told to convert or die. That’s the point I tried (and failed) to make last week: this is how most organized religious persecutions go, more or less.

A whole lot converted. You don’t hear about this much, because instead of getting sainthood they got to live out their lives, but it’s true. Here and here are some certificates saying former Christians had sacrificed to the Roman gods. Many went back to the church a little later asking to rejoin, which caused a big fuss, but that’s for another day.

That’s the deal they offered Apollonia. She refused, so they beat her, and either punched her and knocked out her teeth, or extracted her teeth as a torture method. When she wasn’t deterred, the mob (remember, it was a family activity) made a fire and told her to change her mind or she’d be burned alive. By pretending to consider, she got the crowd to unhand her, and then jumped in the fire herself.

You may think that this counts as suicide, which is totally a sin. St. Augustine, early father of the church, says it wasn’t, though. Clearly, as a holy person, she was told by the holy spirit to jump in the fire. Since she was just obeying God, it wasn’t suicide, so she was a martyr and therefore holy. It’s a little circuitous.

Apollonia became a saint, and Decius dealt with a huge smallpox pandemic (5,000 people PER DAY died in the city of Rome) right before being the first Roman Emperor to die in battle with barbarians.

Unsettlingly, Apollonia is the patron saint of dentistry, usually pictured with a tooth and sometimes pliers. She has relics all over the place, but her head is in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is totally near where I lived when I did a semester in Rome, and I went there a couple of times because I was just as crazy then.

Her saint day is February 9, but I recommend the nitrous oxide.

Catholic Encyclopedia


Butler’s Lives of the Saints

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This past Monday, California became an even better place than it already was, because gays and lesbians started getting married legally. So, in honor of that fact, this week we’re talking about Saints Sergius and Bacchus, officially the patron saints of Christian nomads, and unofficially the patron saints of gay marriage and military gays.

I, for one, am super-excited this week because my usually shoddy research methods are a bit better than usual. That’s right: I found a really old translation of the Greek “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus.” It’s public domain, bitches! Yeah!

Sergius and Bacchus were high-ranking Roman soldiers, probably upperclass, during the reign of Maximian and Diocletian (there were two emperors for this period until Constantine took over, so some sources talk about Diolcletian, some about Maximian. Don’t get confused, it’s all cool). They were buddies with Maximian, and also secretly Christian, knowing the official policy about being Christian at that time. (Hint: there are a shitload of martyrs from around 300 CE.)

These two were really close, which is of course why people speculate about whether or not they were lovers. They were apparently fond of saying, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” which is maybe a little gay. In any case, someone else, possibly jealous of their status, found out about their secret. The Christianity, not the possible homosexuality.

This leads to one of my favorite quotes in the Passion. Apparently the guy who reported them to Maximian said, “…they worship Christ, whom those called Jews executed, crucifying him as a criminal…” Way to anachronize, later Roman Catholic Church!

The standard test for Christianness at this point was, “Will they sacrifice?” so it was diligently applied to Sergius and Bacchus. They were asked to accompany Maximian to a temple, and when they avoided going inside, they were dragged in by other soldiers and told to offer something to Jupiter or pay the price. Guess which one they chose.

First, they were bound with heavy chains, dressed in women’s clothing, and made to parade through town. It didn’t work. The next day they reported to another officer, who ordered that Bacchus be severely beaten with chains and whips, while Sergius be chained in solitary confinement for the day. Bacchus died from his wounds–the Passion offers the delightful detail that his stomach and liver were ruptured.

That night, he appeared in angelic form to Sergius, still in solitary, saying don’t give up, bro! The next morning, the prison guards gave Sergius some new shoes, with nails pointing upwards through the soles. Then he got to run eighteen miles in them, and I wondered if that was in any way related to the original Little Mermaid story.

At that point the Romans got bored, and decided to just execute him already. He was beheaded and his body thrown to the wild animals, though a flock of birds kept watch until nightfall, when a conveniently close colony of desert monks could come bury the body. This was in Rasafa, Syria, and in the late 400’s–long after the entire empire was officially Christian–a church to Sergius and Bacchus was built on the site of Sergius’ grave.

Though as always my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, I don’t think it’s all that likely that they were actually lovers. Early Christians, broadly speaking, were really into brotherhood and the family of Christ being your new family and all that. Plus, they were also in the Roman army, which was another extremely fraternal organization, and one that frowned pretty strongly on its soldiers committing homosexual acts. And, to top it all off, most societies had different ideas about what was appropriate in friendship than ours do now.

I would love to do a bit more wild speculating, but that’s all I’ve got. I found this tantalizing nugget saying that maybe they actually lived under Julian, since he was more into humiliation, but you have to subscribe to get the rest of the article, and we all know my position on doing real research.

But, in conclusion, it is still way cool that gays and lesbians can get married in CA now. If you’re in the state, vote against the constitutional amendment in November, give money to equal marriage organizations if you feel like it, and plan your big gay wedding on Oct. 7.

The Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchu


Catholic Encyclopedia

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