Wednesday, December 9, 2009

For All the Saints: The Martyrs of Samosata

Posted by Webster
I used to think that before my lifetime people lived in B/W, not color. That’s because in my childhood, all TV was in B/W. When a gangland boss was gunned down in the rerun of an RKO picture from the 1930s, the blood he bled was black. I would have thought the same for the Martyrs of Samosata, whom we remember today.

Abibus, Hipparchus, James, Lollian, Paragrus, Philotheus, Romanus: odd names living in a long-lost time in a city I never heard of. It's good to remember that when they looked down at their scourgings from the crosses they were hanging on, they were bleeding in living color. Those were their names, Samosata was their city, and 297 was their time to die for Christ.

That's what happened: seven crucifixions. About 260 years after the death of Our Saviour, the Roman Empire was still very much in business, and the emperor—in this case, Maximian—was still enforcing worship of the old idols. Of course, the corollary is that the Christian faith was still remarkably vibrant.

When, following his army's defeat of the Persians, Maximian swept through this fortified city guarding a major crossing of the Euphrates River (now Samsat, Turkey), he ordered the temple rebuilt so that the citizens could sacrifice and give thanks to the Roman gods. I think it's important to know your sources. In this case, the source is Father Alban Butler, 18th-century author of The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints; Butler's source, in turn, was a priest who was an eyewitness of the sufferings of the Samosata martyrs and whose account was originally written down in Chaldaic. It's not quite Joan of Arc, whose martyrdom is attested to by hundreds of pages of sworn testimony, but it's not exactly Jack and the Beanstalk stuff either. This happened:

[As the sacrifices began] the whole town echoed with the sound of trumpets, and was infected with the smell of victims and incense. Hipparchus and Philotheus, persons for birth and fortune of the first rank in the city, had some time before embraced the Christian faith. In a secret closet in the house of Hipparchus, upon the eastern wall, they had made an image of the cross, before which, with their faces turned to the east, they adored the Lord Jesus Christ seven times a day. 

Imagine their faith that all they had for a chapel was an image of the cross drawn inside a secret closet! (From here on I'll excerpt Butler.)

Five [younger] friends, named James, Paragrus, Habibus, Romanus, and Lollianus, found them in this private chamber praying before the cross, and asked them why they were in mourning, and prayed at home, at a time when, by the emperor’s orders, all the gods of the whole city had been transported into the temple of fortune, and all persons were commanded to assemble there to pray. They answered, that they adored the Maker of the world. James said: “Do you take that cross for the maker of the world? For I see it is adored by you.” Hipparchus answered: “Him we adore who hung upon the cross. Him we confess to be God, and the Son of God begotten, not made, co-essential with the Father, by whose deity we believe this whole world is created, preserved, and governed. It is now the third year since we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by James, a priest of the true faith, who since has never intermitted from time to time to give us the Body and Blood of Christ. We therefore think it unlawful for us during these three days to stir out of doors: for we abhor the smell of victims with which the whole city is infected.” 

The five young men were converted and baptized, and the seven were all eventually captured, whipped, imprisoned, scourged, tortured, then finally, when they refused to submit to Roman law, crucified:

They all prayed that he would not seek to draw them from the way which Jesus Christ had opened to them. The emperor, whose eyes sparkled with fury, upon hearing this answer, said: “Wretches, you seek death. Your desire is granted, that you may at length cease to insult the gods.” He then commanded that cords should be put across their mouths, and bound round them, and that they should be crucified. The cords were immediately put in their mouths, and fastened tight about their bodies, so that they could only mutter broken words, and not speak distinctly. The emperor ordered seven crosses to be erected over-against the gate of the city. The martyrs were hoisted on their crosses; and at noon several ladies came out of the city, and having bribed the guards with money, obtained leave to wipe the faces of the martyrs, and to receive their blood with sponges and linen cloths. 

Hipparchus died on the cross in a short time. James, Romanus, and Lollianus expired the next day, being stabbed by the soldiers while they hung on their crosses. Philotheus, Habibus, and Paragrus were taken down from their crosses while they were living. The emperor being informed that they were yet alive, commanded huge nails to be driven into their heads. This was executed with such cruelty that their brains were thrust out through their noses and mouths. Maximian ordered that their bodies should be dragged by the feet, and thrown into the Euphrates. But Bassus, a rich Christian, redeemed them privately of the guards for seven hundred denarii, and buried them in the night at his farm in the country. The Acts of their martyrdom were compiled by a priest, who says he was present in a mean garb when the holy martyrs gave their blessing to the citizens.

The ruins of the ancient city of Samosata were visible until the area was flooded by the Atatürk Dam in 1989. Then even the relatively modern city of Samsat was flooded, forcing its residents to relocate. Today, the newest town of Samsat (pictured above) has a population of 2,000. It's still obscure. Martyrs welcome!