The several persecutions undertaken by Roman emperors from the first to the early fourth century varied in duration and intensity. Indeed, for long periods in the first three centuries, the Church was able to grow without molestation. However, under Emperor Diocletian and his associated rulers, the Roman Empire undertook a vast, organized assault against Christianity that could best be described as an all-out war (302-312).
Diocletian was an able administrator and basically a kindly man. But in the earliest years of the fourth century his huge empire was becoming unmanageable due to constant inroads of barbarian armies against its northern borders. Therefore he appointed as co-emperors Maximinus and Constantius Chlorus in the West; and chose to assist him in the East, Co-emperor Galerius. Galerius, under constant pressure from his fanatical pagan mother, considered Christians as the real enemies of the Roman Empire. Consequently he sought to entrap Diocletian into proceeding against them initially by urging that all soldiers guarding the borders, especially in the Danube provinces, be forced to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, on the pretext of strengthening military discipline. Once he had won over the old emperor, that ruler, who had a totalitarian mentality, authorized a persecution in which every Christian in the Empire was at risk, and literally thousands actually suffered.
Diocletian issued his initial decree of discrimination in the year 302. The Christians in the armed forces were the first to feel the turn of the screw.
One such Christian soldier was an officer named Florian. Whatever his ethnic origin, he occupied a high administrative post in the province of Noricum, which is now a part of Austria. When news of the decree commanding such military men to offer sacrifice reached him, Florian saw at once that he could not accept such an order. Therefore he went to Lorch (now St. Lorenz) in the province of Noricum and turned himself in to the Roman military authorities serving there under Aquilinus.
Turned himself in: that is, he confessed his Christianity and refused point blank to offer the required sacrifice, come what might. The record of the trial of this soldierly man is not detailed, but the way he was treated indicates the price he had to pay for his staunch faith. He was scourged twice, and much of his skin was torn off, evidently in a futile effort to make him change his mind. Since his faith was firm, he was finally thrown into the River Enns with a millstone tied about his neck and drowned in this tributary of the Danube.
Fortunately, a pious woman recovered the martyr’s body and gave it proper burial. In due time Florian’s remains were disinterred and enshrined near Linz, Austria, in what became the famous Augustinian monastery of St. Florian.
At least part of his relics were sent to Rome in the twelfth century, for in 1138 Pope Lucius III is reported to have given a portion of them to King Casimir of Poland and to the Polish bishop of Cracow.
Even if the information about St. Florian’s origins, martyrdom and early veneration are skimpy, his basic story is confirmed by the devotion that sprang up around his relics. He is invoked as heavenly patron not only of Linz but of all Upper Austria. And after the translation of a part of his relics to Poland, the Roman soldier became the welcome object of devotion in that country as well.
Early in the history of Christian devotion, the custom arose of identifying saints in their pictures or statues by some easily recognizable symbol. Sometimes the symbol was chosen from the legendary rather than the historical lore of the individual. Images of St. Florian of Lorch usually represent the soldier clothed in Roman military armor. Sometimes he is further identified by a millstone like the one hung about his neck. More often, however, he is shown putting out a fire by pouring water on it. It seems that among the miracles attributed to him was that of extinguishing the flames of a burning city with a single bucket of water. Whatever the circumstances of the miracle were, it made a firefighter out of him.
Can there be any need to explain why later firefighters have long since chosen as their patron saint the courageous Roman soldiermartyr, St. Florian of Lorch?
–Father Robert F. McNamara