One of the most dramatic mass martyrdoms of ancient Roman times was that of the 40 Christian soldiers stationed at Sebastea (now Sivas in Turkey). In 313 AD Emperor Licinius had co-signed with his fellow emperor Constantine a decree allowing Christians to be tolerated. But in 320 Licinius went back on his word and ordered that every Christian in Cappadocia abandon the Christian faith.
We have a contemporary record of what happened when this decree was enforced at Sebastea. Forty Christian military men assigned there simply refused to offer sacrifice to the gods. Death was preferable, they said.
Agricolaus, the local pagan governor, would not humor this obstinacy. When imprisonment of the whole stubborn company could not break them, he decided on a novel sort of pressure.
It was a bitterly cold March and the pond outside the city was frozen over. The governor, therefore, ordered that the 40 be herded out to the center of the lake stark naked and allowed to rethink their decision. Meanwhile, he set up on the shore statues of the gods to be worshipped, a nice fire, and a pleasant warm bath. He hoped that the offer of warmth might change the minds of the freezing men and induce them to apostatize. But the prisoners retained their solidarity. Together they prayed, “Lord, we are 40 who are engaged in this conflict; grant that 40 may be crowned and that we may not fall short of that sacred number.”
During the three days of their lethal exposure, only one of the group gave up, stumbled towards the shore, and offered the pagan sacrifice. Actually the hot bath that rewarded his apostasy also brought about his death. Ironically, the sudden heat was too much after the long chill, and he died of shock.
Although the soldier-victims were saddened by this defection, their prayer was heard. One of the pagan soldiers on hand fell asleep by the fire. He had a strange dream. In the dream he saw himself standing on the same spot and looking out at the freezing soldiers. Suddenly a host of angels came down from heaven and placed crowns on the heads of the martyrs. The soldier counted the crowns — only 39. It was after he awoke that he saw the 40th man apostatize. Pagan though he was, the soldier got the meaning of the dream. Throwing off his own clothing, he proclaimed with great feeling that he, too, was a Christian. He joined the 39 and died with them, thus receiving a “baptism of blood.”
After three days only a few of the 40 were still alive. Agricolaus ordered that their arms and legs be broken to hasten death, and that, when dead, all be cremated. The military detail entrusted with this task left to the last, Melito, a teenager. They felt sorry for him and thought that if he were left alone he might weaken in his resolve. But his Christian mother went up to the dying youth and encouraged him to hold fast. Indeed, she even gathered up his stiffening body and put it onto the cart that was carrying the dead to the crematory. He soon died, winning his crown and his palm of victory.
Although all the bodies were burned, the Christians were able to rescue some of their relics from the ashes. A wave of admiration for the 40 flowed over Asia Minor. This was indeed a startling act of Christian heroism, and it hastened the end of the persecution.
The alien world often tries to bribe us away from our principles by the coinage of physical comforts. When we are chilled to the bone, a warm bath can be mighty attractive. But that is precisely why the Church uses Lent to give us practice in denying ourselves a few breaks. Then, when we are faced by a crisis of faith or morality, we will never forget what is right and seek the heavenly courage to do it.
–Father Robert F. McNamara