On the Holy Forty Martyrs (Saint Basil the Great)

NOTE: The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste were a group of Roman soldiers in the Legio XII Fulminata (Armed with Lightning) whose martyrdom in 320 for the Christian faith is recounted in traditional martyrologies. The earliest account of their martyrdom is given by St. Basil, the Archbishop of Caesarea (370-379), in a homily delivered on the feast of the Forty Martyrs (Hom. xix in P.G., XXXI, 507 sqq.). His eulogy on them was pronounced about fifty or sixty years after martyrdom.

Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)
Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)

SHALL he that loves the Martyrs ever be satiated with celebrating their memory? The honor that we fellow‐servants render to these stalwarts is the proof of our affection towards our common Master. For assuredly, he that lauds courageous men, in similar circumstances will not fail to emulate them himself. Wholeheartedly bless the sufferings of the martyrs so that you might become a martyr by your volition, and, without persecution, without fire, without scourging, you might be shown worthy of recompenses in no way differing from theirs.

In the year 313 AD, Saint Constantine the Great signed a law decreeing freedom of religious faith. His co-ruler, Emperor Licinius seconded this law; however, in the provinces subject to him, the persecution of the Christians continued as before.
In the year 320 AD, these holy Martyrs, who came from various lands, were all soldiers under the same general, who tried to force them to bring a sacrifice to the idols, which they refused to do. Taken into custody for their faith in Christ, and at first interrogated by cruel means, they were then stripped of their clothing and cast onto the frozen lake which is at Sebastia of Pontus, at a time when the harsh and freezing weather was at its worst. This torment was made more difficult for them, since a warm vapour-bath was placed on the shore of the lake to tempt them to leave the freezing water.

They endured the whole night naked in such circumstances, encouraging one another to be patient and singing holy hymns to God until the end. He that guarded them, named Aglaius, who was commanded to receive any of them that might deny Christ, had a vision in which he saw heavenly powers distributing crowns to all of the Martyrs, except one. The one who abandoned the contest hurried into the bath, but as soon as the warm air touched his body he died. Seeing this, Aglaius professed himself a Christian and joined the Martyrs on the lake, and the number of forty remained complete. In the morning, when they were almost dead from the cold the torturers broke the martyrs’ shins with mallets and cast them into fire, after which their remains were thrown into the river.
The torturers, however, almost left one of the martyrs behind. Although he was practically lifeless, yet still breathing, his mother took her son on her shoulders putting him on the cart together with his companions so that he would be burned with them and thus complete his martyrdom.

Even though these Martyrs had completed their martyric struggle by having been burned alive, and then having their incinerated relics cast into a river, these relics shone from the depths of the waters as a witness to the incorruptibility of their bodies and the immortality of their souls.

Three days later, the torturers came to Bishop Peter of Sebastia and recounted their deeds. Bishop Peter gathered the bones of the martyrs and buried them with honour.

Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)
Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Xiropotamou Monastery, Mount Athos)


The so-called Testament of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste is in many ways an extraordinary document. Allegedly an encyclical letter written by Meletius, Aetius, and Eutychius, three of their group, this document presents itself as the last words of this famous and hugely popular group of martyrs. In their letter they express their will as to what should happen with their remains. These should be buried ‘in the town of Sarim, below the city of Zelon’; they should be buried there all together in one place. Furthermore they ask their readers that nobody should take a particle of the remains for himself. As to the young man Eunoicus, it is stipulated that he should be buried together with them but, if he should survive the trial and persecutions, he is urged to devote himself in all freedom to the tomb of the Forty. After a more general parenetic part to live a Christ-centred life, the letter closes with a long list of greetings.1

This document stands out in several ways: as to literary genre it is unique among the late antique martyrial literature, and while there are some other documents written by the martyrs themselves, such as (part of) the Passio Perpetuae and, possibly, the Martyrium Pionii2 such texts remain exceptions. Doubts regarding the text’s authenticity and historicity have been brought forward without decisive argument pro or contra emerging.3

While the possibility of the text’s authenticity cannot be entirely excluded, it can certainly also easily be made sense of as having originated later than the early fourth century, at a time that the cult of the Forty, and the creation of a literary tradition around them, was in full swing. The theme of the unity of the Forty and the idea that the powerfulness of each particle of their remains equals that of those of the entire group is a stock theme also present in other late fourth century texts about the Forty.4

And besides, for its edifying value in the parenetic part the Testament may have been written to bolster the claim of the town of Sarim as an early (though probably not the original) burial place of the Forty, maybe even in competition with bigger centres of the veneration of the Forty that had established themselves.5

The most startling aspect of this text with regard to the purpose of this contribution, however, is that this is the only relatively early martyr text I know in which the heroes of the story themselves dictate what should happen with their own bones. Generally, this is the duty of the community or its leaders. In this text, though, the roles are reversed: the martyrs themselves are indicating who of the community members are to be responsible for the care for their remains and they say what should happen with them. In that it gives precedence to the group of individual martyrs over against the ‘normal’ course of events in which community members or leaders after the martyr’s death take the initiative to start a cult, the Testament can be considered as the expression of an exceptional form of individualization in the late antique cult of the martyrs.

Unusual as it may be, the Testament has introduced us to the main (f)actors in the martyr cult: the centrality of the martyr’s relics, the role of the community, and of the leaders of the community.


Xeropotamou monastery was founded in the 10th century, and is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.
Xeropotamou monastery was founded in the 10th century, and is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.


  1. Text in Musurillo 1972, 354–9 [this text is a reprint of that in the 1892 Bonwetsch edition].
  2. See on this issue the recent contribution by Hilhorst 2010.
  3. The most complete defence of the text’s authenticity (against Buckle 1921) was by Franchi di Cavalieri 1928, 173–9(‘merita ogni fede’).
  4. Vinel 1997
  5. Maraval 1999; van Dam 2003, 136
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste and Four Men in the Fiery Furnace 15th century, Novgorod School Tempera and gesso on linen
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste and Four Men in the Fiery Furnace 15th century, Novgorod School Tempera and gesso on linen