Its 320, the final years of the Roman Empire and we travel to Turkey, remembering how today 40 Roman Soldiers froze to death rather than renounce their Christian faith. They have become known as the Sebaste Martyrs
In the year 313 the Emperor Constantine had issued an edict granting Christians religious freedom, and officially recognizing Christianity as equal with paganism under the law. The eastern provinces had been entrusted to Licinius who had married the half-sister of Constantine. Their marriage was the occasion for the jointly-issued "Edict of Milan" that allowed Christianity (and any religion one might choose) to be professed in the Empire, with additional dispositions that restored confiscated properties to Christian congregations and exempted Christian clergy from municipal civic duties.
However a year later, civil war erupted between Licinius and Constantine. As part of the information war and part of Constantine's attempts to decrease Licinius's popularity, he actively portrayed his brother-in-law as a pagan supporter. Beyond the propaganda, it is clear that Licinius had re-affirmed the rights of Christians in his half of the empire but later in his life turned against them and back to paganism. Today the eastern church remembers how in 320, forty young Christian Roman soldiers were from the 12th Legion, who had refused to sacrifice to idols, were tried before the tribunal at Sebaste, Cappadocia. The governor tried threats, bribery, and torture to persuade the young men, but they stood firm. He put the forty in prison, where it is said that Christ appeared and encouraged them to persevere.
All forty signed a will, drafted by the youngest soldier St. Meletius, that expressed their faith, unity, and courage: When we by God’s grace and the common prayers of all shall furnish the strife set before us, and come to the rewards of the high calling, we desire that then this will of ours may be respected . . .For although we come from different localities, we have chosen one and the same resting-place because we have set before ourselves one common strife for the prize. These things have seemed good to the Holy Spirit and have pleased us. Therefore we . . . brothers in Christ beseech our honoured parents and relatives to have no grief or distress, but to respect the decision of our brotherly fellowship, and to consent heartily to our wishes, so that you may receive from our common Father the great recompense of obedience and of sharing in our sufferings. . . .We pray with our souls and with the Divine Spirit that we may all obtain the eternal good things of God and his kingdom, now and forever and ever. Amen.
They were killed near the city of Sebaste, in Lesser Armenia (present-day Sivas in Turkey), and the earliest account of their existence and martyrdom is given by Bishop Basil of Caesarea. Through him we are told that, incensed by the soldiers’ obstinacy, the governor ordered them to be stripped and left to die standing on a frozen lake. In a cruel attempt to soften their resolve, he arranged a fire and warm bath on the shore to tempt them to apostatize. After one night’s ordeal, however, one soldier caved, but died of extreme heat in the bath. An off-duty guard, Aggias , prompted by the courage and a dream, professed himself a Christian and took his place. After three days the governor had the survivors’ limbs broken and their bodies burned and had the ashes of the forty martyrs scattered into a river, but some were allegedly secured and became treasured relics.
The deaths of The Forty Martyrs has attracted both veneration and art until the present day. One of the oldest images we have is painted on a wooden icon from the 4th century. It shows forty naked, pale, shivering, stoical young men crowded together and can be seen in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Paris. The Forum in Rome has a small building called the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs. Dating from the 600’s, its walls are frescoed with the slim bodies of the young men whose arms are raised in praise. And early images can be found in catacombs in Sicily. A Church dedicated to them can be found in Sugarland Texas, and is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. And there is a pious custom of baking “skylarks” in Christian Orthodox families on this day, either of pastries shaped like skylarks or a simple Lenten bread if today falls into the Lenten season. In some countries, for a long while, people believed that birds sing at this time to announce the arrival of spring and in honour of the Forty Martyrs.