The earliest records of a New Year celebration are from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. Then about the time of Father Abraham, the new year was heralded not in mid winter, but at the Spring equinox in mid-March. Following these already ancient customs, the first Roman calendar had ten months and also recognized March as the beginning of the year. This is why September, October, November and December have their names: from March they were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months.
The second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius added January and February to the calender1 and in 153 BC we have the first record of January first being celebrated as New Years’ Day. The change was decreed for civil reasons (the consuls began their term at that time) but many people still recognized March as the start of the year.2
When Julius Caesar replaced the old lunar based calendar3 in 46 BC with a solar calendar,4 he also formally established the beginning of January as New Year’s Day. As the Empire fell and Europe transitioned to the new religion and rule of Christianity, the vestiges of pagan culture were purged. New Years’ Day at the beginning of January was officially eliminated at the Council of Tours5 in 597, and across Europe the start of a new year was celebrated variously at Christmas, Easter or most significantly March 25.
The date of March 25 not only connected with the most ancient celebrations of the new year at the Spring equinox, but in the Christian calendar March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation–the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son. The date of March 25 was determined by the Jewish belief that great men were conceived on the same day of the year as their death. Jesus Christ died on March 25, (so the theory goes) which means he was conceived on March 25. Incidentally this is also the origin for the traditional date of Christmas–nine months from March 25.
Medieval Christians understood that the beginning of the life of the Son of God in the Virgin Mary’s womb was the beginning of God’s work among mankind, the restoration and redemption of the world and the beginning of a new creation. It was therefore theologically fitting that March 25 or Ladyday (in honor of the Virgin Mary) should be celebrated as New Years’ Day. And so it was for a thousand years.
Then in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII tinkered with Julius Caesar’s ancient calendar. Because of imprecise calculations, the date of Easter had been drifting and the pope decided it needed fixing. Part of the reform was to re-establish January first as New Years’ Day. Seeing this as papal presumption, the Eastern Orthodox rejected the reform.6 Seeing this as not only papal presumption, but paganism restored, the Protestants also rejected the new Gregorian calendar. The British did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. The Greeks held out until 1923. The monks of Mt Athos still hold on to the Julian calendar.7
What about the fall of Sauron—the nemesis in The Lord of the Rings? J.R.R.Tolkien was very sly in the way he wove Christian symbolism into his epic myth. He records the dates of the great events in the cycle of the ring, and we discover that it is on March 25 that the ring of power is cast into the fires of Mount Doom, and so the destruction of Sauron heralds a new beginning for Middle Earth. Thus Tolkien gives a nod to the medieval Christian tradition that March 25 is the true New Years’ Day.
As you celebrate New Years’ Day remember that for one thousand years the welcoming of a new year was not just a calendar event, but a culturally religious event which linked the renewal of nature with the redemption of the world.
By tradition, Numa promulgated a calendar reform that adjusted the solar and lunar years, introducing the months of January and February (Livy’s History of Rome, 1:19).
The January Kalends came to be celebrated as the new year at some point after it became the day for the inaugurating new consuls in 153 BC. Romans had long dated their years by these consulships, rather than sequentially, and making the kalends of January start the new year aligned this dating.
In AD 567, the Council of Tours formally abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus; March 1 in the old Roman style; March 25 in honor of Lady Day and the Feast of the Annunciation; and on the movable feast of Easter. These days were also astronomically and astrologically significant since, at the time of the Julian reform, March 25 had been understood as the spring equinox and December 25 as the winter solstice. Medieval calendars nonetheless often continued to display the months running from January to December, despite their readers reckoning the transition from one year to the next on a different day.
Though all the monks on Mt. Athos follow the Old Calendar, there is a divide between those under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (new calendar) and those who adhere to other ecclesiastical jurisdictions not in communion with the churches that follow the new calendar.
For completeness, if nothing else, this post addresses how religious images not depicting Christ and His Saints were regarded by the Church, using the testimony of her martyrs. Below, is a roughly chronological list of Saints known to have destroyed idols: i.e. the religious images and statues venerated by non-Christians, and considered holy by them. The list is by no means exhaustive.
King Hezekiah (+687 B.C.)
This king of Judah gives a scriptural precedent for the physical destruction of idols (2 Kings 18-20). King Hezekiah is glorified because, in order to restore true worship of God in his kingdom, he“removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made…”; and as Scripture explains, the righteous king did these things because “he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Commemorated Aug 28
King Josiah (+609 B.C.)
In a similar way to King Hezekiah, Josiah also used his royal authority to “clean up” the faith of Israel, and destroyed idols and other objects related to the worship of Baal. Scripture describes his legacy thus: Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. (2 Kings 23:25).
Josiah is included in the genealogy of the Evangelist Matthew and so is celebrated on the second Sunday before Christmas.
The Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother (1st Century A.D.)
As part of the Church’s tradition, it is believed that during Christ’s flight into Egypt, statues to the native gods crumbled and fell at His presence; this led to the conversion of some of the inhabitants. This story is enshrined in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, which contains the following stanza addressed to Jesus:
By shining in Egypt the light of truth, Thou didst dispel the darkness of falsehood; for its idols fell, O Saviour, unable to endure Thy strength;
The Apostle Paul (+67 A.D.)
As recounted in the Book of Acts (19:11-20), the miracles of the Apostle Paul led many pagan sorcerers in Ephesus to convert to Christ, whereupon they publicly burned their spell-books. Scripture concludes this episode with the words: So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
The Apostle Matthew (+ 1st century A.D.)
Some accounts of the Evangelist’s life state that in the place of his martyrdom the local ruler repented of executing the Saint and was baptized, taking the name Matthew. The newly-illumined king then proceeded to destroy the pagan idols in his temples.
Commemorated November 16 and June 30
The Apostle John (c. +97 A.D.)
Some accounts of the Life of John the Evangelist state that his exile to Patmos was a result of the Apostle causing pagan idols to fall through his prayers. In the Anglo-Saxon homilies from the 10th/11th centuries, there is an explicit mention of the Apostle John turning the idols to dust by the power of God (see here).
Commemorated September 26, May 8, and June 30
Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus (+ 2nd Century A.D.)
These Saints were stonemasons who settled in Ulpiana (in modern-day Kosovo) and were there employed by the Roman prefect in building a pagan temple. The Saints gave away all their salary to the poor. After the temple was complete, Ss Florus and Laurus gathered all the local Christians together, and then proceeded to smash all the statues of the temple before erecting a cross. The local authorities executed 300 Christians for this act, including the Twin-Saints, who were thrown down into a well.
Commemorated August 18.
Abercius of Hieropolis, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 167 A.D.)
After praying fervently for the conversion of the pagan-dominated Hierapolis, an angel of the Lord appeared to the bishop, and ordered him to destroy the pagan idols. Having done so, he presented himself to the pagans, who would have murdered him were it not for his miraculous healing of three demon-possessed youths.
Commemorated October 22.
Martyr Julian of Dalmatia (+ 160 A.D.)
This youth was mercilessly tortured over a period of days for not offering sacrifice to the idols. During this time, the temple of Serapis and all the idols within it were destroyed. The pagans attributed the destruction to St Julian’s “magic” and demanded his immediate execution. Of the idols, Julian said boldly: “Listen, accursed ones, do not trust your gods, which you have made with your hands. Know, rather, the God Who out of nothing, has created Heaven and earth.”
Commemorated July 28.
This famous Orthodox saint was arrested for converting many pagans to Christ. After many tortures she meekly let herself be led to the Temple of Apollo to offer sacrifice. However, upon entering the temple, St Paraskevi made the sign of the cross and the statues in the temple were destroyed. The furious pagans ensured the Saint was condemned to death.
Commemorated July 26.
Holy Martyrs Speusippus, Eleusippus, Meleusippus and their grandmother Leonilla (+ 175 A.D.)
Triplets who lived in France, as youths they were converted to the Christian faith by their grandmother, Leonilla, and in their zeal destroyed the pagan idols in the area.
Commemorated January 16.
Saint Glykeria (+ 177 A.D.)
The daughter of a Roman official in Thrace, she was a secret Christian who was forced to attend a pagan high-festival at the largest temple in the area. During the service, overcome by having to witness the ministering to false idols, she toppled the statue of Jupiter and upbraided the pagans for their folly. For this she was executed. Read more>>
Commemorated May 13
Saint Charalampus (+202 A.D.)
When already 113 years old, St Charalampus was subjected to fierce tortures for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. Upon witnessing his steadfast faith, the daughter of the Emperor Severus – called Gallina – converted to the Christian faith and destroyed all her pagan idols.
Great-Martyr Christina of Tyre (+ 3rd Century A.D.)
The daughter of a pagan governor, Christina was instructed in the faith by an angel of the Lord, and afterwards she destroyed all the idols in her room and threw them from the window. When her father discovered the truth he had her cruelly tortured before he died. The next governor finished the job and executed St Christina by the sword.
Commemorated July 24.
Great-Martyr Tatiana of Rome (+225)
Secretly Christian, Tatiana was ordained as a deaconess, captured by the pagan authorities, brought into the sanctuary of Apollo, and forced to offer sacrifice. Through her prayers, the earth shook, toppling the statue of Apollo and causing some of the pagan priests to be crushed. As the statue fell, witnesses saw a demon flee from behind it. St Tatiana was cruelly tortured and beheaded.
Commemorated January 12.
Martyr Polyeuctus of Melitene, in Armenia(+ 255 A.D.)
A Roman soldier who confessed faith in Christ during the persecution by Emperor Valerian (253-259). In zeal he went to the public square and tore up the edict of Decius which required everyone to worship idols. A few moments later, he met a procession carrying twelve idols through the streets of the city. St Polyeuctus dashed the idols to the ground and trampled them underfoot.
Commemorated January 9.
Martyr Agatha of Palermo (+251)
Was also cruelly tortured under the edict of the Emperor Decius (see above) for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. During interrogations she openly mocked the idols as “not gods but demons”, and also mocked the city prefect who worshiped them. Before her final execution an earthquake shook the city destroying a number of the pagan temples, attributed to the prayers of St Agatha.
Commemorated February 5
Martyr Heliconis of Thessalonica (+ 3rd Century A.D.)
Suffered under the governor Perinus for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. After many tortures the virgin-martyr appeared to relent and so was brought to the temple. After requesting to be alone in the temple, St Heliconis manfully tore down all the idols and smashed them to pieces. On returning, the enraged pagans demanded her execution.
Commemorated May 28
Martyr Sozon (“Saved”) of Cilicia (+ late 3rd century)
A pious young shepherd who was foretold his martyrdom in a dream. Awaking he headed for the city of Pompeiopolis, where a festival to a golden statue was taking place. Secretly he broke off the hand of the statue and distributed the fragments to the poor. When persecutions began in order to find the culprit, St Sozon immediately presented himself to the emperor Maximian, confessing: “I did this, so that you might see the lack of power of your god, which offered me no resistance. It is not a god, but a deaf and dumb idol. I wanted to smash it all into pieces, so that people would no longer worship the work of men’s hands.” St Sozon gave up his life under pitiless tortures.
Commemorated September 7
Saint Victor of Marseilles (+290 A.D.)
A Roman army officer in Marseilles, who publicly denounced the worship of idols. At the orders of Emperor Maximian he was brought before a statue of Jupiter in order to offer incense before it. Not only did St Victor refuse, he kicked the statue, causing it to fall and shatter. Crushed under a millstone.
Commemorated July 21.
Priest-Martyr Mocius of Amphipolis (+ 295 A.D.)
Overturned the altar during a pagan service to Dionysius (Bacchus) and exhorted those gathered to turn to Christ. Captured and forced to offer sacrifice to false gods, the Saint called upon the name of Jesus Christ and the idols shattered. He was finally brought to Byzantium and executed there.
Commemorated May 11
Sainted-bishop Sisinios and Artemon, Presbyter of Laodicea (+303)
When the Emperor Diocletian ordered a persecution of the Christians in the late 3rd century, St Artemon was already an elderly and long-serving priest of the Church. Saint Sisinios, knowing about the impending arrival in the Laodiceian district of the military-commander Patricius, went together with the priest Artemon into the pagan-temple of the goddess Artemis. There they smashed and burnt the idols. Although arrested and tortured, St Artemon’s life was miraculously spared so that he could go on preaching until 303 A.D., when he was finally seized by pagans and murdered.
Commemorated April 13.
Martyr Blaise of Sebaste (+ 316 A.D.)
An old man living a life of prayer in a secluded cave, the pagans did not forget his earlier life as a zealous bishop for the Christians. Dragging him back to the city to face trial, St Sebaste fearlessly mocked the idols (as shown in this detail from a Russian icon) for which he was savagely beaten and eventually executed along with pagan women who had been converted by his words and miracles.
Commemorated February 11
Great-Martyr Theodore Stratelates, or “the General” (+ 319 A.D.)
Was appointed military-commander in the city of Heraclea Pontica, during the time the emperor Licinius began a fierce persecution of Christians. Theodore himself invited Licinius to Heraclea, having promised to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. He requested that all the gold and silver statues of the gods which they had in Heraclea be gathered up at his house. Theodore then smashed them into pieces which he then distributed to the poor. After tortures, St Theodore was beheaded
Holy Martyr Acacius was brought to trial for his belief in Christ. Sent from city to city enduring tortures along the way, the Saint publicly caused the toppling of pagan idols through his prayers… twice!
Commemorated July 28.
Among the many stories relating to this great Saint, is one relating to the smashing of idols (and shown in the picture at the very top of this post). After being offered great riches and power, the Holy George was brought to the temple of Apollo to give sacrifice. St George made the sign of the Cross approaching an idol and turned towards it, as though it were alive: “You wishest to receive from me sacrifice befitting God?” The demon inhabiting the idol cried out: “I am not God and none of those like me are God. The One-Only God is He Whom thou preachest. We are of those servant-angels of His, which became apostate, and in the grips of jealousy we do tempt people.” “How dare ye to be here, when hither have come I, the servant of the True God?” – asked the saint. Then was heard a crash and wailing, and the idols fell down and were shattered.
Commemorated April 23.
Priestly-Martyr Erasmus of Ohrid (+ 303)
Born in Antioch and after living a life of prayer on Mt Lebanon, he was ordained bishop and sent into Ohrid to preach the Gospel. Through miracles and preaching he converted many pagans in Ohrid, and overturned their altars. Brought before Emperor Maximian, Erasmus was commanded to worship a copper statue of Zeus. St Erasmus through prayer caused a terrible-looking dragon to appear from behing the idol and, again through prayer, caused it to wither and die. Through this sign the demonic nature of idol-worship was revealed, and the power of Christ to overcome it, converting 20,000 pagan souls. St Erasmus was beaten and imprisoned, but later was released and died in peace.
Commemorated June 2 (read his life here)
Empress Helena (+ 329 A.D.)
The pious Christian mother of Constantine the Great, Empress Helena is best remembered in the Orthodox Church for finding the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the site of the finding she erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Less well-known perhaps, but no less significant, is that a temple to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) needed to be flattened for the church to be built. St Helena probably also ordered the destruction of a temple to Zeus (Jupiter) in order to build a church dedicated to St. Cyrus and St. John.
Commemorated, with St Constantine, on May 21.
A native of Cappadocia, the Saint Nino is called “Equal-to-the-Apostles” for her evangelism of Georgia in the 4th century. One time, St Nino was traveling to Mtskheta with a group of Georgian pilgrims on their way to venerate the god Armazi. There she watched with great sadness as the Georgian people trembled before the idols, and prayed:“O Lord, send down Thy mercy upon this nation …that all nations may glorify Thee alone, the One True God, through Thy Son, Jesus Christ.” A violent wind began to blow and hail fell from the sky, shattering the pagan statues.
Commemorated January 14.
Achillius of Larisa (+ 330 A.D.)
The earliest recorded bishop of Larisa, St Achillius was present at the first Ecumenical Council, where he defending the Orthodox faith. In his city, the miracle-working Achillius embodied well the fuller Orthodox understanding of “religious images”: he was renowned for both tearing down pagan temples and adorning the Christian churches with icons. Reposed peacefully.
Commemorated May 15.
One of the most celebrated Saints of the Orthodox Church worldwide, the wonderful feats of this miracle-working bishop abound. Among these acts is the destruction of all the temple of Diana and other pagan shrines in his city of Myra, after he was reinstated as bishop there during Constantine’s reign. Much of the demolition was carried out by his own hand, though he also had to struggle in prayer to overcome the demons that inhabited the temples. That this act of Nicholas is celebrated is evidenced in later church frescoes showing the event, and this account taken from his biography.
Commemorated December 6, May 9, and July 29.
Under Constantine the Great St Mark, with the help of his deacon Cyril, had tore down a pagan temple and built a church in its place. When Julian the Apostate became emperor, idol-worship again grew, and the pagans wished to take revenge upon the now elderly bishop. Beaten, slashed with knives, his ears sliced off with linen, and with his hair pulled out, St Mark steadfastly refused to offer up any money in order to rebuild the pagan temple he had demolished. Even after the pagans kept lowering the price, St Mark refused to pay a single coin. Exhausted, and seeing that people were converted to Christ through his endurance, the torturers let St Mark go! St Gregory the Theologian writes highly of St Mark, and uses his example in his writings against Julian the Apostate.
Commemorated March 29.
Saint Emilian of Thrace (+ 362 A.D.)
A servant of the governor of Dorostolon, in Thrace, during the reign of Julian the Apostate. When an imperial delegate arrived in Dorostolon to kill the Christians, he did not find a single one there. Delighted by this, he ordered a great feast in honour of the idols to take place the next day. That night, Emilian went throughout the town and smashed all the idols with a hammer. The next day, the outraged citizens grabbed a man, supposing him to be the culprit. Emilian said within himself: ‘If I conceal my action, what sort of use has it been? Shall I not stand before God as the slayer of an innocent man?’ He therefore confessed everything before the governor, explaining: ‘God and my soul commanded me to destroy those dead pillars that you call gods.’ The enraged governor ordered St Emilian to be flogged and burned.
Commemorated July 18.
A shepherd who gave all his wealth to the poor, St Spyridon was made bishop of Tremithus after the death of his wife, under the reign of Constantine the Great. All the Lives of the saint speak of the amazing simplicity and the gift of wonder-working granted him by God. Through a word of the saint the dead were awakened, the elements of nature tamed, the idols smashed. At one point, a Council had been convened at Alexandria by the Patriarch to discuss what to do about the idols and pagan temples there. Through the prayers of the Fathers of the Council all the idols fell down except one, which was very much revered. It was revealed to the Patriarch in a vision that this idol had to be shattered by St Spyridon of Tremithus. Invited by the Council, the saint set sail on a ship, and at the moment the ship touched shore and the saint stepped out on land, the idol in Alexandria with all its offerings turned to dust, which then was reported to the Patriarch and all the bishops.
Commemorated December 12
Born in Persia, Irene was the daughter of the pagan king Licinius, and her parents named her Penelope. Locked in a tower to keep her away from Christian influence, Penelope received instruction from her tutor, Apellian, who was secretly Christian. Baptized by a priest named Timothy, she took the name Irene (meaning “peace”), and then smashed all her father’s idols, urging her parents to be Christians.
Commemorated May 5.
Emperor Theodosius the Great (+ 395 A.D.)
As ruler of the western and eastern Roman Empires, St Theodosius was zealous in upholding the Orthodox confession of the Holy Trinity, and is honored with the epitaph: “Right-Believing”. He ordered the destruction of many pagan temples, outlawed the old Olympic Games, and successfully defeated numerous armed, pagan rebellions, which sought to re-establish worship of the pagan gods.
Commemorated January 17.
Julius the Presbyter and Julian the Deacon (+ 5th Century A.D.)
Natives of Myrmidonia, these two brothers visited many outlying lands of the Byzantine Empire in order to win converts to Christ. To this end, they obtained permission from the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (+450) to build churches over the sites of dismantled pagan shrines. The grave of St Julius, which lay within a church built by Julius himself, dedicated to the Twelve Holy Apostles, became a site of healing.
Commemorated June 21.
Saint Porphyry of Gaza, Bishop and Confessor (+ 420 A.D.)
After many years as a monk, St Porphyry was elected Bishop of Gaza, a city where the Christian population numbered less than three-hundred, and idolatry was wide-spread. Discriminated against by the pagans, St Porphyry went to Constantinople and gained the support of Emperor Arcadius and the Archbishop, St John Chrysostom, to close down the idolatrous temples. Officials sent to close down the pagan shrines of Gaza were often bribed, and so after much labouring, St Porphyry undertook the destruction of the temples personally with his flock of Christians. Many temples were destroyed, including those dedicated to Aphrodite, Hecate, the Sun, Apollo, Kore (Persephone), Tychaion, the shrine of a hero, and the Marneion, dedicated to Zeus. In their place, Christian churches were erected. The pagan idols were burnt, and the marble from their temples were used to pave the way to the new Christian churches, so that all Christians on their way to worship would trample upon the remains of idolatry. These acts, along with much preaching, prayer, and humiliations suffered by St Porphyry, won the entire city of Gaza over to the Christian faith. The Life of St Porphyry, recounting his struggles against the pagans, was written by the deacon Mark.
Commemorated February 26.
A Holy Father among the Saints, St Gregory is also known for sending, as the Bishop of Rome, the missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English in the late 6th century. In a letter to Abbot Melitus, St Gregory writes:
Tell [Bishop Augustine] that I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should not be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited. For if these temples are well built, it is essential that they should be transferred from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.
We can be confident that St Augustine of Canterbury carried out faithfully the orders of St Gregory, and can also be counted among the list of those Saints which have destroyed pagan religious artifacts.
In another letter to Aethelbert, the first Christian king of England, St Gregory gives further exhortations to destroy the idols:
Almighty God raises up certain good men to be rulers over nations in order that he may by their means bestow the gift of righteousness upon all those over whom they are set… So, my most illustrious son, watch carefully over the grace you have received from God and hasten to extend the Christian faith among the people subject to you. Increase your zeal for their conversion; suppress the worship of idols; overthrow their buildings and shrines…
It should be noted that King Aethelbert is also revered by the Orthodox Church, even if he is not outrightly proclaimed as a Saint. Both these letters are found in full in St Bede’sEcclesiastical History of the English people (Book I).
St Gregory commemorated March 12 and September 3.
St Augustine commemorated May 26.
A thoughtful king who took many years before finally accepting baptism by the hand of St Paulinius, despite his wife already being a pious Christian. After much deliberation, it was a miracle which finally convinced the king of Christ’s power, and upon making the decision to convert, his loyal lords and pagan priests were convinced too by his firmness of confession. The first thing St Edwin did, before even being baptized, was to order the “profaning” (according to Bede’s history) of the pagan altars and shrines. The chief-priest, Coffi, volunteered to do this, riding on horseback to the main pagan temple and throwing a spear at the altar, before tearing the whole edifice down (this happened not far from York, UK).
Commemorated October 12.
Saint Romanus (also Godard) of Rouen (+ 640 A.D.)
A sainted bishop of Rouen, before his consecration the faithful of the city asked Romanus to do something about the Temple of Venus in the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre. St Romanus entered the temple and tore the dedication from the altar, causing the temple to miraculously crumble and collapse.
Commemorated October 23.
Born Wynfrith in Devonshire, England, St Boniface went on to spread the Gospel throughout the German lands. One of his most famous evangelic feats was the felling by his own hand of a sacred Oak dedicated to Thor, using the timber to build a chapel on the site where today stands the cathedral of Fritzlar.
Commemorated June 5.
Possibly a native of Syria, St Michael was sent by St Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople to be the first Metropolitan (head-Bishop) of Kiev, after that nation’s ruler, Prince Vladimir, accepted baptism. Saint Michael spent the rest of his days tirelessly traveling the Kievan lands preaching, shepherding the faithful, establishing churches, and overturning the pagan shrines.
Commemorated September 30 and July 15.
Previously a war-monger, fanatic idol-worshiper, and polygamist, the change in Prince Vladimir after his baptism in the year 988 cannot be more dramatic. Immediately after his baptism, the newly-illumined ruler also had his twelve sons baptized, along with many boyars. Prince Vladimir then went on to have the wooden idols he had erected, torn down and hacked to pieces, with a statue of the chief pagan God, Perun, cast into the River Dnieper. These acts of Prince Vladimir had such far-reaching consequences that they later became known as the Baptism of Rus’. Prince Vladimir spent the rest of his twenty-eight years establishing churches and Christian schools throughout his lands, supported in his efforts by Sainted Metropolitan Michael (see above).
Commemorated July 15, also the day designated to celebrate the Baptism of Rus.
Saint Abraham of Rostov (+ 1077 A.D.)
A pagan convert who became a monk and dwelt in the areas around Rostov, in Russia. St. Abraham prayed fervently before an icon of Christ that he may be able to topple the idol of the local’s chief god: Veles. In answer to his prayers, the Apostle John appeared to the monk, and gave him a staff. With this, St. Abraham went to the shrine of Veles and toppled the statue of him, smashing it into pieces. Abraham founded the monastery of the Theophany in Rostov, as well two parish churches.
Commemorated October 29.
Some of the saints listed above are chiefly remembered for their fearless acts of destroying idols, though the majority are not. However, all the saints listed above are, among their other works, openly celebrated by the Church for their destruction of non-Christian temples, shrines, and statues.
What to take from this all? As with other miraculous deeds of the Saints, the destruction of the idols can be understood symbolically as the victory of right-believing Christians over all other idols, whether they be demons pretending to be gods or man-made constructs that lead our minds from the contemplation of God. This can be done without denying the historical fact of the Church’s Saints physically destroying non-Christian religious images. Of course, when considering other deeds of the Saints, we try to use their acts as an example for our own conduct. In the case of idol-smashing, most Christians today would shy away from literally following the Saints’ example, even though non-Christian idols abound. Perhaps this is wise, though the courage of these idol-smashing Saints is certainly something worthy of imitation. In striving for this, we can pray to Christ that we may emulate the martyr’s strength:
Thy Martyr, O Lord, in his courageous contest for Thee
Received the prize of the crowns of incorruption
And life from Thee, our immortal God.
For since he possessed Thy strength, he cast down the tyrants
And wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.
O Christ God, by his prayers, save our souls,
Since Thou art merciful.
NOTE: The following article is excerpted from, Usury in Christendom: The Mortal Sin that Was and Now is Not, 2013.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.1 (Matthew 6:24)
Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?…He that does not ask interest on his loan, and cannot be bribed to victimize the innocent. (Psalm 15:1, 5)
The upright man is law-abiding and honest…He never charges usury on loans, takes no interest, abstains from evil…It is Yahweh who speaks. (Ezekiel 18:5, 8-9)
“The natural form therefore, of the art of acquisition is always, and in all cases, acquisition from fruits and animals. That art, as we have said, has two forms: one which is connected with retail trade, and another which is connected with the management of the household. Of these two forms, the latter is necessary and laudable; the former is a method of exchange which is justly censured, because the gain in which it results is not naturally made, but is made at the expense of other men. The trade of the petty usurer is hated most, and with most reason: it makes a profit from currency itself, instead of making it from the process (i.e., of exchange) which currency was meant to serve. Currency came into existence merely as a means of exchange; usury tries to make it increase (as though it were an end in itself). This is the reason why usury is called by the word we commonly use (the word tokos, which in Greek also means breed or offspring); for as the offspring resembles its parent, so the interest bred by money is like the principal which breeds it and it may be called ‘currency the son of currency.’ Hence we understand why, of all modes of acquisition, usury is the most unnatural.” (Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Part 10, 350 BC)
To understand how extreme is usury, let us recall that God did not intend that His people would be indebted for ten or twenty years even if the loans were interest free. Under the Biblical concept of Jubilee, no indebtedness would last longer than the sabbatical seventh year. In the year after the last of seven such sabbatical years (7 x 7 = 49 years + 1), a Jubilee was to be declared and all debts cancelled. Jesus Christ declared that He came to proclaim the Jubilee (the “acceptable year”).
Usury is derived from the Latin word usura, defined as “a sum paid for the use of money” (Oxford Latin Dictionary). The Fathers are unanimous in regarding all interest as usury, and, therefore as a species of robbery: “Whatever exceeds the amount owed is usury” (St. Ambrose, De Tobia).The condemnation of interest taking was part of the unanimous consensus partum…It was not until the 16th century that ‘usury’ was redefined as high interest rates.
USURY AND THE FATHERS OF THE EARLY CHURCH
St. Clement of Alexandria: The issue of usury made its first appearance in Christian literature in Clement’s Paidagogos (circa 197 AD), an instruction for new converts on Christian conduct in daily matters. Concerning the ‘just man,’ Clement quotes Ezekiel: ‘His money he will not give on usury, and he will not take interest.’ This subject is taken up again some years laeter in the second book of his major work Stromateis.2
Tertullian: He considers the subject of interest in his treatise on the theology of the New testament, Adversus Marcionem, where he teaches that the Gospel does not abolish the law of the Old Testament, it exceeds it. Tertullian writes of the just man, “He hath not…put out his money at interest, and will not accept any increase—meaning the excess amount due to interest, which is usury.”3
St. Cyprian of Carthage: Offers proofs in his Testimoniorum (Ad Quirinum) that interest taking is prohibited by the law of God.4
Council of Elvira: In the early fourth century, Canon 20 of this Council prohibited all clerics and laymen from participating in the sin of taking interest on loans, under penalty of excommunication.5
St. Jerome: In his Commentaria in Ezechielem he stated that the prohibition against usury among the Israelites had been made universal by the New Testament. He affirmed that all interest on money is forbidden. “One should never receive more than the amount loaned.”6
St. Hilary of Poitiers: In his Tractatus in Psalm XIV: “If you are a Christian, why do you scheme to have your idle money (otiosam pecuniam) bear a return and make the need of your brother, for whom Christ died, the source of your enrichment?”7
St. Basil the Great: In his second Homily on Psalm 15 (LXX): “This sin is denounced in many places in Scripture. Ezekiel accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest evils,8 and the Law specifically forbids this practise: ‘You shall not charge interest to your relative or your neighbor.’9 And again the Scripture says, ‘Guile upon guile, and interest upon interest.’10 A certain Psalm says, regarding a city that prospers amidst a multitude of evils, ‘Interest-taking and guile are never absent from its snares.’11 And now the prophet identifies this very thing as the characteristic of human perfection, saying, ‘They do not lend money at interest.’
“…for those who set rates of interest, their money is loaned and bears interest and produces even more…It is from this tendency to multiply that this kind of greed derives its name …loans are said to ‘bear’ interest on account of the great fecundity of evil…The offspring of interest one might even call a ‘brood of vipers’…you should have nothing to do with this monstrous creature.”12
St. Basil then launches into an extended admonition against borrowing money, on the responsibility to repay a loan, and the virtues of frugality and living within one’s means. He further states: “Listen, you rich people, to the kind of counsel I am giving…on account of your inhumanity…If you must seek a return on your investment, be satisfied with what comes from the Lord…You should expect the characteristics of philanthropy from the true Philanthropist. As it is, the interest you receive back shows every characteristic of extreme misanthropy…”
“Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,’ and ‘do not lend your money at interest;’ these commandments from the Old and New Testaments13 were given so that you might learn what is for your benefit, and thus depart to the Lord with a good hope, receiving there the interest upon your good works, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion forever and forever.”14
St. Gregory of Nyssa: In Contra usurarios (ca. 379 AD), he calls down on him who lends money at interest the vengeance of the Almighty. He further states, “…lending at interest can be called ‘another kind of robbery or bloodshed…since there is no difference in getting someone else’s property by seizing it through covert housebreaking and acquiring what is not one’s own by exacting interest.” St. Grgeory describes the lender at interest as a “poisonous serpent” and an evil, beast-like spirit. Referring to the words of the Pater Noster prayer of Jesus Christ—“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—Gregory asks, “How can you pray like this, oh usurer? How can you make a request from God in good conscience since he has everything and you do not know how to give?”
In De beneficentia, St. Gregory excoriates evil-doers who hypocritically practice outward acts of piety such as fasting. In doing so he employs terms associated with usurers: “Renounce dishonest profits! Starve to death your greed for Mammon! Let there be nothing in your house that has been acquired by violence or theft. What good is it to keep meat out of your mouth if you bite your brother with wickedness…What kind of piety teaches you to drink water while you hatch plots and drink the blood of a man you have shamefully cheated?”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus: For this saint, the usurer is a sinful parasite, “gathering where he had not sowed and reaping where he has not strawed” (Oratio). Cataloguing a list of mortal sins, Gregory of Nazianzus states, “One of us has oppressed the poor, and wrested from him his portion of land, and wrongly encroached upon his landmark by fraud and violence, and joined house to house, and field to field, to rob his neighbor of something, and been eager to have no neighbor, so as to dwell alone the earth. Another has defiled the land with usury and interest, gathering where he had not sowed…” (Oration 16)
St. Ambrose of Milan: In his aforementioned work De Tobia, written in 380 AD, he declared that the taking of interest on loans of money is equivalent to murder. He declared usury to be a mortal sin in De officiis ministrorum and De Nabuthe. In De bono mortis Ambrose stated that usurers will suffer eternal damnation. In De Tobia Ambrose described the usurer as a “monster” and “devil” even when lending at 1% interest (“the hundredth”): “Money is given, it is called a loan; it is termed money at interest, it is designated capital; it is written down as debt; this huge monster of many heads causes frequent executions; the usurer names the bond, he speaks of the signature, he demands security, he talks of a pledge, he calls for sureties; he claims the legal obligation, he boasts of the interest, he praises the hundredth…The devil is a usurer…the Savior owed nothing but He paid for all…The usurer of money…exacts his hundredth…the Redeemer came to save the hundredth sheep, not to destroy it.”
This “devil” epithet is etymologically justified. As we have noted, in Old Testament Hebrew Neshek, from the root NShK means to “bite” and signifies usury; Nahash, from the root NkHSh denotes serpent.
St. John Chrysostom: The saint taught that usury was shameless: “What can be more unreasonable than to sow without land, without rain, without plows? All those who give themselves up to this damnable culture shall reap only tares. Let us cut off these monstrous births of gold and silver, let us stop this execrable fecundity.”
St. Leo the Great: In his encyclical Ut nobis gratulationem, of 444 AD: “Some people put out their money at usury in order to become wealthy. We have to complain of this, not only with regard to those in clerical office, but we likewise grieve to see that it holds true of lay people who wish to be called Christians. We decree that those who are found guilty of receiving this turpe lucrum (shameful gain) should be severely punished.”
St. Augustine of Hippo: The saint denounced the sin of interest on money in De consensus evangelistarum.
Charlemagne: In 789AD, Charlemagne in his Admonitio Generalis prohibited usury by all people, laymen as well as clerics, throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, citing the following authorities: “(1) the Council of Nicea, (2) the above mentioned letter of Pope Leo, (3) the Canones Apostollorum, and (4) Scripture.” The Catholic Council of Aix-la-Chapelle promulgated Charlemagne’s Admonitio Generalis as church doctrine.
In Charlemagne’s Capitulary of Nijmegen of March, 806, he defines usury in clause 11 as “claiming back more than you give; for instance, if someone has given 10 solidi and asks for more than 10 in return, that is usury.” Clause 16: “Lending (foenus) consists in providing something; the loan is fair and just when one demands no more than what he provided.”
Charlemagne imposed heavy fines for usury.
King Alfred the Great: He ordered that the charging of interest on loans of money was illegal throughout England. Those who received revenue from usurious loans were to forfeit their property. Christian burial was denied to them.
St. Edward the Confessor, King of England: “Usury is the root of all evil”15 As monarch, St. Edward (ca. 1003-1066), the last Saxon King of England, banished all who charged interest on loans. Usurers who remained in England were subject to the confiscation of their property and declared to be outside the protection of the law (i.e., outlaws).16
Unanimous Teachings of Popes and Councils Before 1500
The unanimity of the Early Church Fathers brought about a crystallization of hostility to interest-bearing loans into numberless decrees of popes, councils, monarchs and legislatures throughout Christendom. The Canon law was shaped in accordance with these prohibitions, which were enforced by the Council of Arles in 314 and the Council of Nicea in 325: “Because many of the Ecclesiastical Order, being led away by covetousness and desire of base gain, have forgotten the Holy Scripture which saith, ‘He gave not his money upon usury,’ do exercise usury, so as to demand every month a hundredth part of the principal and one half of the principal for interest, or contrive any other fraud for filthy lucre’s sake, let him be deposed from the clergy and struck out of the list”17 (Council of Nicea, Canon XVII).18
Although it is claimed ny apologists for usury that the Nicean Council only condemned usury among clerics and not the laity, Canon XVII also quoted Psalm 15: “Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? He that hath not put out his money to usury.” Psalm 15 does not qualify God’s criterion for who shall dwell with Him. Anyone who practices usury will not be admitted. It was not by accident that the Council of Nicea referenced Psalm 15’s total rejection of any usury practiced by anyone.
The 12th Canon of the Council of Carthage (345) and the 36th Canon of the Council of Aix (789) declared it to be sinful for anyone to charge any interest on money. Every great assembly of the Church, from the Council of Elvira in 306 to that of Vienne in 1311, condemned lending money at interest. The fount of Canon Law in the Middle Ages totally banned all interest on loans.
A few months before his death, Edward’s usury-free England, “was a rich and prosperous kingdom… Later generations did right to appeal to the good old laws of life which refused to die…” King Edward was canonized in 1161. His feast day on the traditional Roman Catholic calendar is October 13.
“Mammon is derived from the Aramaic word for riches (mamona) occurring in the Greek text of Matt. vi. 24 and Luke xvi. 9-13, and retained in the Vulgate. Owing to the quasi-personification in these passages, the word was taken by medieval writers as the proper name of the devil of covetousness…From the 16th century onwards it has been current in English, usually with more or less of personification, as a term of opprobrium for wealth regarded as an idol or as an evil influence” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Ante-Nicene Fathers 2, pp. 233, 366.
Ante-Nicene Fathers 3, pp. 372-373.
Ante-Nicene Fathers 5 p. 546.
“If any clergy are found engaged in usury, let them be censured and dismissed. If a layman is caught practicing usury, he may be pardoned if he promises to stop the practice. If he continues this evil practice, let him be expelled from the church.” http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm
Commentary on Ezekiel, Translation by Thomas P. Scheck
Jeremiah 9:6 (Septuagint)
Psalm 55:12 (Septuagint)
On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (SVS Press, 2009), pp. 89-90; 95 (emphasis added).
Matthew 5:42; Psalm 15:5 (Septuagint).
On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (op. cit.), pp. 97-99.
Leges Edwardi Confessoris (ca. 1130), cap. 37, De usaraiis.
The phrase “a hundredth part of the principal” connotes a 1% interest rate.
In The Rudder, Nikodemos the Hagiorite interprets this Canon: “Various Canons prohibit the charging of interest on money, but the present one expressly ordains this, to wit: Since many canonics, or clergymen, being fond of greed and shameful profits, have forgotten the saying in the Psalm of David which says that the chosen man is one “who hath not lent out his money at interest,” meaning the righteous man who is destined to dwell in the holy mountain of the Lord, or, in other words, in the heavenly kingdom, and in lending money have been exacting a percentage charge from their debtors, consisting, for example, of twelve cents, or pennies, say, per hundred (or per dollar), which was an excessive interest — because, I say, clergymen were actually doing this, this holy and great Council deemed it right and just that if hereafter any clergyman should be found to be charging interest, or treating the matter as a commercial proposition, or turning it to his own advantage in any other way (while pretending not to charge interest, that is to say, when lending his money to those in need of it, yet agreeing with them that he too is to receive some part of the interest and profit accruing from the money, thus calling himself, not a lender, but a sharetaker or partner), and be caught doing this, or demanding a commission (or half the percentage, which would amount, in this case, to six cents, or six pennies, instead of the twelve comprised in the full amount of total interest, i.e., of interest at 12%), or should invent any similar means of making a shameful profit, any such person shall be deposed from the clergy and shall be estranged from the canonical order. Read also Ap. c. XLIV.”
In the first few centuries of Orthodox Christianity, the Orthodox Church and the Church Fathers accepted the act of suicide if it was to preserve one’s virginity; i.e. an individual could commit suicide to prevent being raped and it was not considered a mortal sin and one was even eligible to be ranked as a virgin-martyr. Also, some of the martyrs commemorated in the Church were not actually killed by their tormentors but rather they leapt to their own deaths after a period of torture or with the threat of martyrdom. Thus, in the Lives of the Saints of the first few centuries, one can find many saints who committed suicide. After the 4th-5th century, suicide was no longer an acceptable practise to preserve chastity which creates a little confusion. Those before this time period are saints in the ranks of heaven, whereas those who commit suicide after this time period have committed mortal sin and lost their souls.
The majority of the early Church Fathers evidently not only justified but commended suicide in such an extremity. The first Father distinctly to condemn the practice was Augustine (De civ. Dei. I. 22–27). He takes strong ground on the subject, and while admiring the bravery and chastity of the many famous women that had rescued themselves by taking their own lives, he denounces their act as sinful under all circumstances, maintaining that suicide is never anything else than a crime against the law of God. The view of Augustine has very generally prevailed since his time. In the 9th century, St. Theodore of Studite clearly states in his epistle: “It is not permitted in any situation whatsoever for a service or liturgy to be performed for him (namely, the one who commits suicide)” [PG 99, 1477B].
Interestingly, though homosexual rape and pedophilia were quite predominant in the early days of the Church (both within and without of Christianity), the Fathers seem to only accept women virgin-martyrs. There is no mention of “economia” when it comes to male on male rape. It should be noted that in some medieval non-Christian cultures, a common practise of male victors in a raid or war was to rape (sometimes gang-rape) the male captors to shame and humiliate them. This practise continues today throughout the world both in war and prison systems.
Also, the early Fathers don’t talk much about clergymen hiding behind their rank to sexually abuse others (whether heterosexual, homosexual or pedophilia). This trend which existed in the early Orthodox Church is today quite predominant worldwide. Perhaps this silence is because St. Constantine the Great set the precedent of protecting them when he stated at the First Ecumenical Council: “If I would see with my own eyes a bishop, a priest or a monk in a sinful act, I would cover him with my cloak, so that no one would ever see his sin.”
ORTHODOX CHURCH FATHERS WHO SUPPORTED SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
St. Ambrose of Milan (4th c.): Though St. Ambrose disapproved of suicide in general, he embraced the idea that women who committed suicide to protect their virginity received the martyr’s crown. St. Ambrose ends his ascetical treatise On Virgins by explaining to his sister that suicide is preferable to losing one’s virginity. He tells his sister that she can be confident suicide is permissible when protecting chastity because the Church has examples of martyrs who did that very thing. He then proceeds to tell the story of a teenager named Pelagia who lived in Antioch. She threw herself off a building to avoid lecherous pursuers. St. Ambrose even has her rationalizing her plans in his retelling. Ambrose’s Pelagia says, “God is not offended by the remedy [avoiding rape], and faith mitigates the misdeed [of suicide].” Though still a “misdeed,” St. Ambrose clearly views it as the lesser of two evils when a woman’s virginity is at stake.
Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, Church Historian (4th c.): In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius writes about the abominable treatment of female Christians formed a feature of the persecutions both of Maximian and Maximin, who were alike monsters of licentiousness. Eusebius wrote about the suicides of St. Domnina and Her Two Daughters and evidently approved of these women’s suicide. [Book VIII, Chapter 12]
St. John Chrysostom (4th-5th c.): St. John Chrysostom’s stance regarding suicide and martyrdom is relatively close to St. Ambrose’s. John condemns suicide, believing it to be against God’s will, and claims that real martyrs do not commit suicide. Even though they do not kill themselves, John believed they must face death willingly. However, like St. Ambrose, Chrysostom accepts suicide for women who are attempting to protect their purity.
St. John Chrysostom, like many of his contemporaries, highly prized virginity, and when he considered the importance of sexual purity, St. John rationalized behaviors that would otherwise be condemnable. Specifically, John advocated suicide for women when necessary to protect their chastity. In his sermon on Julian, suicide is a defeat, though John probably had men in mind while preaching that sermon. In his sermon on the Virgin-Martyr Pelagia, suicide is victory over the enemies of God and over the Devil himself.
St. Jerome (4th-5th c.): The early Church Father St Jerome categorically stated that Christ would not receive the soul of one who commits suicide. [Saint Jerome, Letters 39:3]. However, St Jerome makes an interesting exception to their otherwise absolute and inclusive condemnation: those who commit suicide in order to preserve their chastity.
ORTHODOX CHURCH FATHERS WHO OPPOSED SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
St. Augustine of Hippo (5th c.): This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her. (Of Lucretia, Who Put an End to Her Life Because of the Outrage Done Her, City of God Chapter 19).
ORTHODOX SAINTS IN THE SYNAXARION WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE
This list is just a brief sample and by no means complete. One can find numerous examples from the first few centuries of the Orthodox Church in the Synaxarion.
St. Agathonike (165 or 251 AD): St. Agathonike did not commit suicide to preserve her virginity, but is in the ranks of “voluntary martyr.” During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Agathonike became so excited while watching Carpus and Papylus die martyrs’ deaths that she believed she should join them on the pyre. The crowd tried to dissuade her after she announced her intentions, reminding her that her son needed her. She replied that God would take care of him, at which point she disrobed and threw herself on the fire. In the Latin recension of the text, however, Agathonike is arrested with the other two martyrs, which leads Musurillo to suggest, “The Latin redactor was attempting to colour the facts for a later age.” [See: Martyrdom of Carpus, Papylus, and Agothonike 44].
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on October 13th
St. Apollonia (2nd century): St. Apollonia also did not commit suicide to preserve her virginity but did so after being tortured. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria (247–265), relates the sufferings of his people in a letter addressed to Fabius, Bishop of Antioch, of which long extracts have been preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: “At that time Apollonia, parthénos presbytis (mostly likely meaning a deaconess) was held in high esteem. These men seized her also and by repeated blows broke all her teeth. They then erected outside the city gates a pile of fagots and threatened to burn her alive if she refused to repeat after them impious words (either a blasphemy against Christ, or an invocation of the heathen gods). Given, at her own request, a little freedom, she sprang quickly into the fire and was burned to death.” [6.41 (PG 20:605–607)]
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on February 9th.
St. Pelagia of Antioch (late 3rd century): St. Pelagia was a Christian saint, virgin, and martyr who committed suicide during the Diocletian Persecution rather than be forced by Roman soldiers to offer a public sacrifice to the pagan gods. She was 15 years old.
She was home alone during the Diocletian Persecution when Roman soldiers arrived. She came out to meet them and, discovering they intended to compel her to participate in a pagan sacrifice, she received permission to change her clothes. She went to the roof of her house and threw herself into the sea. The patristic sources treat this as a sacred martyrdom rather than an ignoble suicide, usually with reference to the potential that she would have been dishonored by the soldiers.
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on October 8th.
Saints Domnina, Berenice, and Prosdoce (c. 310)
Saint Domnina and her daughters Berenice (Bernice, Veronica, Verine, Vernike) and Prosdoce are venerated as Christian martyrs by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Domnina was arrested by soldiers for her adherence to the Christian religion. Fearing that the soldiers would rape her and her daughters, they threw themselves into a river after they asked their guards for a chance to rest for a while or after the soldiers had become drunk with wine. All three women drowned.
The account of St. John Chrysostom tells a slightly different story: according to Chrysostom, Domnina, after jumping into the river, pulled her daughters in with her to prevent them from being raped. Chrysostom praised Domnina for her courage and Domnina’s daughters for their obedience.
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on October 4th.
PATRISTIC SERMONS LAUDING SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
Saint John Chrysostom delivered the following sermon about St. Pelagia, the Virgin Martyr:
“Even women now poke fun at death and girls mock passing away and quite young, unmarried virgins skip into the very stings of Hades and suffer no ill effects. All of these blessings we experience because of Christ, born of a virgin. For after those blessed contraction pains and utterly awe-inspiring birth the sinews of death were unstrung, the devil’s power was disabled and from then on became contemptible to not just men but also women, and not just women, but also girls….
“It’s for this reason that blessed Pelagia too ran to meet death with such great delight that she didn’t wait for the executioners’ hands nor did she go to court, but escaped their cruelty through the excess of her own enthusiasm. For while she was prepared for tortures and punishments and every kind of penalty, even so she was afraid that she would destroy the crown of her virginity. Indeed, that you might learn that she was afraid of the sexual predation of the unholy men, she got in first and snatched herself away in advance from the shameful violence. None of the [Christian] men ever attempted any such act at all. Instead they all filed into court and displayed their courage there. Yet women, by nature vulnerable to harm, conceived for themselves this manner of death. My point is that, were it possible both to preserve one’s virginity and attain martyrdom’s crown, she wouldn’t have refused to go to court. But since it was utterly inevitable that one of the two would be lost, she thought it a sign of extreme stupidity, when it was possible for her to attain each victory, to depart half crowned. For this reason she wasn’t willing to go to court or to become a spectacle for lecherous eyes, or to give opportunity for predatory eyes to revel in the sight of her own appearance and crudely insult that holy body. Instead she went from her chamber and the women’s quarters to a second chamber – heaven….
“Don’t simply pass over what happened, but consider how it’s likely that she was raised as a gentle girl, knowing nothing beyond her chamber, while soldiers were posted against her en masse, standing in front of the door, summoning her to court, dragging her into the marketplace on weighty sorts of grounds. There was no father inside, no mother present, no nurse, no female attendant, no neighbor, no female friend. Instead, she was left alone in the midst of those executioners. I mean, how isn’t it right that we be astonished and amazed that she had the strength to come out and answer those executioner soldiers, to open her mouth and utter a sound, just to look, stand, and breathe? Those actions weren’t attributable to human nature. For God’s influence introduced the majority. Most assuredly, at the time she didn’t just idly stand around, but displayed all her personal qualities – her enthusiasm, her resolve, her nobility, her willingness, her purpose, her eagerness, her bustling energy. But it was as a result of God’s help and heavenly good goodwill that all these qualities reached maturity….
“In addition to what’s been said, I marvel as well at how the soldiers granted her the favor, how the woman deceived the men, how they didn’t work out the deception. After all, one can’t say that no one effected anything of the sort. For many women, it seems, gave themselves up to a cliff or hurled themselves into the sea or drove a sword through their breast or fastened a noose. That time was full of numerous dramas of that kind. But God blinded the soldier’s hearts so that they wouldn’t openly see the deception. That’s why she flew up out of the middle of their nets….
“Lot’s of people who’ve tumbled from a high roof haven’t suffered any ill effect. Others, in turn, despite suffering permanent disability to some part of their body, have lived for a long time after the fall. But in the case of that blessed virgin God didn’t allow any of these options to happen. Instead, he ordered the body to release the soul immediately and received it on the grounds that it had struggled sufficiently and completed everything. For death wasn’t caused by the nature of the fall, but by God’s command. From that point the body wasn’t lying on a bed, but on the pavement. yet it wasn’t without honor as it lay on the pavement…For this reason, then, that virginal body purer than any gold lay on the pavement, on the street.” [St. John Chrysostom, A homily on Pelagia, Virgin and Martyr, translated into English by Wendy Mayer, from the book Let Us Die That We May Live (pp. 148-161)]
Saint John Chrysostom delivered a sermon about St. Domnina and her two daughters:
In St. John’s sermon probably preached in the 390s in Antioch, the story takes an interesting turn. The women do not just kill themselves; John suggests that the mother actually drowns her daughters. He preaches, “And so, the mother entered in the middle [of the river], restraining her daughters on either side.” Once in the river, John says, “That blessed woman [Domnina] … lowered them down into the waters, and in this way they drowned.” Domnina then drowns herself to claim her martyr’s crown. Astonishingly, in this sermon, the protection of virginity not only justifies self-murder, but also John uses it justify murdering one’s children. He actually esteems Domnina because he claims that drowning her own daughters was an exceedingly painful form of martyrdom. Domnina could have suffered at the court, but then she would not have been able to ensure her daughters’ purity.
She endured far greater tortures in the river [than she would have at court]. My point, as I started saying, is that it was truly far more cruel and painful than to see flesh scourged, to drown her own innards, I mean her daughters, by her own hand, and to see them suffocating, and it required far greater philosophy than to endure tortures for her to have the capacity to restrain her children’s right hands and to drag them along with her into the river’s currents. For it was not the same in terms of pain to see [her daughters] suffering badly at the hands of others and to herself act as death’s servant, to herself promote their end, to herself stand against her daughters in place of an executioner.
John imputes extraordinary suffering to a mother who kills her young daughters, and he not only excuses the killing but also lauds it because she did it to preserve virginity. John commends these martyrs as prime examples for mothers and daughters in his congregation. No doubt, this sermon worried not a few daughters whose reputations were at risk. [see, The Cult of the Saints: St. John Chrysostom, http://www.svspress.com/the-cult-of-the-saints-st-john-chrysostom/ ]
Saint Ambrose replies to Marcellina, who had asked what should be thought of those who to escape violence killed themselves, by narrating the history of Pelagia, a virgin, with her mother and sister…
As I am drawing near the close of my address, you make a good suggestion, holy sister, that I should touch upon what we ought to think of the merits of those who have cast themselves down from a height, or have drowned themselves in a river, lest they should fall into the hands of persecutors, seeing that holy Scripture forbids a Christian to lay hands on himself. And indeed as regards virgins placed in the necessity of preserving their purity, we have a plain answer, seeing that there exists an instance of martyrdom.
Saint Pelagia lived formerly at Antioch, being about fifteen years old, a sister of virgins, and a virgin herself. She shut herself up at home at the first sound of persecution, seeing herself surrounded by those who would rob her of her faith and purity, in the absence of her mother and sisters, without any defence, but all the more filled with God. What are we to do, unless, says she to herself, you, a captive of virginity, takest thought? I both wish and fear to die, for I meet not death but seek it. Let us die if we are allowed, or if they will not allow it, still let us die. God is not offended by a remedy against evil, and faith permits the act. In truth, if we think of the real meaning of the word, how can what is voluntary be violence? It is rather violence to wish to die and not to be able. And we do not fear any difficulty. For who is there who wishes to die and is not able to do so, when there are so many easy ways to death? For I can now rush upon the sacrilegious altars and overthrow them, and quench with my blood the kindled fires. I am not afraid that my right hand may fail to deliver the blow, or that my breast may shrink from the pain. I shall leave no sin to my flesh. I fear not that a sword will be wanting. I can die by my own weapons, I can die without the help of an executioner, in my mother’s bosom.
She is said to have adorned her head, and to have put on a bridal dress, so that one would say that she was going to a bridegroom, not to death. But when the hateful persecutors saw that they had lost the prey of her chastity, they began to seek her mother and sisters. But they, by a spiritual flight, already held the field of chastity, when, as on the one side, persecutors suddenly threatened them, and on the other, escape was shut off by an impetuous river, they said, what do we fear? See the water, what hinders us from being baptized? And this is the baptism whereby sins are forgiven, and kingdoms are sought. This is a baptism after which no one sins. Let the water receive us, which is wont to regenerate. Let the water receive us, which makes virgins. Let the water receive us, which opens heaven, protects the weak, hides death, makes martyrs. We pray You, God, Creator of all things, let not the water scatter our bodies, deprived of the breath of life; let not death separate our obsequies, whose lives affection has always conjoined; but let our constancy be one, our death one, and our burial also be one.
Having said these words, and having slightly girded up the bosom of their dress, to veil their modesty without impeding their steps, joining hands as though to lead a dance, they went forward to the middle of the river bed, directing their steps to where the stream was more violent, and the depth more abrupt. No one drew back, no one ceased to go on, no one tried where to place her steps, they were anxious only when they felt the ground, grieved when the water was shallow, and glad when it was deep. One could see the pious mother tightening her grasp, rejoicing in her pledges, afraid of a fall lest even the stream should carry off her daughters from her. These victims, O Christ, said she, do I offer as leaders of chastity, guides on my journey, and companions of my sufferings. [On Virgins, Book III, Chapter 7:32-35]
SERMONS OF CHURCH FATHERS CONDEMNING SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
St. Augustine of Hippo, That Christians Have No Authority for Committing Suicide in Any Circumstances Whatever, City of God Chapter 20.
It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is proved especially by the omission of the words “thy neighbor,” which are inserted when false witness is forbidden: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Nor yet should any one on this account suppose he has not broken this commandment if he has borne false witness only against himself. For the love of our neighbor is regulated by the love of ourselves, as it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” If, then, he who makes false statements about himself is not less guilty of bearing false witness than if he had made them to the injury of his neighbor; although in the commandment prohibiting false witness only his neighbor is mentioned, and persons taking no pains to understand it might suppose that a man was allowed to be a false witness to his own hurt; how much greater reason have we to understand that a man may not kill himself, since in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” there is no limitation added nor any exception made in favor of any one, and least of all in favor of him on whom the command is laid! And so some attempt to extend this command even to beasts and cattle, as if it forbade us to take life from any creature. But if so, why not extend it also to the plants, and all that is rooted in and nourished by the earth? For though this class of creatures have no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed. So, too, the apostle, when speaking of the seeds of such things as these, says, “That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die;” and in the Psalm it is said, “He killed their vines with hail.” Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichæans? Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, Thou shalt not kill, we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses; if so, then it remains that we understand that commandment simply of man. The commandment is, “Thou shall not kill man;” therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man.
St. Augustine of Hippo, Of Suicide Committed Through Fear of Punishment or Dishonor, City of God Chapter, Book I, Chapter 17.
And consequently, even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them? And as for those who would not put an end to their lives, lest they might seem to escape the crime of another by a sin of their own, he who lays this to their charge as a great wickedness is himself not guiltless of the fault of folly. For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person, whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide, and so much the guiltier of his own death, as he was more innocent of that offence for which he doomed himself to die. Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime. Why, then, should a man who has done no ill do ill to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent to escape another’s guilty act, and perpetrate upon himself a sin of his own, that the sin of another may not be perpetrated on him?
NOTE: The following article is taken from the 4th Chapter of History of Flagellation Among Different Nations. New York: Medical Publishing Co., 1930: pp. 47-53. Though the Abbots and Abbesses don’t inflict flagellation in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, each one has their own form of punishment to humble and correct insubordinates. Geronda Ephraim has stated that Elder Joseph the Hesychast use to hit him and his other monastics; both with his cane as well as with slaps across the face and head, as a form of disciplinary action..
It must be confessed, however, that though self-flagellation made no part of the rules or statutes in those early stages of Christianity, the same cannot be said of that method of correction, when imposed by force upon such monks as had been guilty of offences, either against the discipline of the order, or against piety: an extensive power of inflicting such salutary corrections, having, from the earliest times, been lodged in the hands of abbots and the superiors of convents.
Nay more, we find that bishops during the very first times of Christianity, assumed the paternal power we mention, even with regard to persons who were bound to them by no vow whatever, when they happened to have been guilty either of breaches of piety or of heresy. Of this, a remarkable proof may be deduced from the 59th Epistle of St. Augustin, which he wrote to the Tribune Marcellinus, concerning the Donatists. St. Augustin expresses himself in the following words: “Do not recede from that parental diligence you have manifested in your researches after offenders; in which you have succeeded to procure confessions of such great crimes, not by using racks, red-hot blades of iron, or flames, but only by the application of rods. This is a method of coercion which is frequently practiced by teachers of the fine arts upon their pupils, by parents upon their children, and often also by bishops upon those whom they find to have been guilty of offences.”
Another proof of this power of flagellation, assumed by bishops in very early times, may be derived from the account which Cyprianus has given of Cesarius, Bishop of Arles; who says, that that bishop endeavoured as much as possible, in the exercise of his power, to keep within the bounds of moderation prescribed by the Law of Moses. The following are Cyprianus’s words: “This holy man took constant care that those who were subjected to his authority, whether they were of a free or servile condition, when they were to be flagellated for some offence they had committed, should not receive more than thirty-nine stripes. If any of them, however, had been guilty of a previous fault, then indeed he permitted them to be again lashed a few days afterwards, though with a smaller number of stripes.”
From the two passages above, we are informed that the power of whipping, possessed by bishops, extended to persons of every vocation, indiscriminately; and with much more reason may we think that those persons who made profession of the ecclesiastical life, were subjected to it. In fact we see that even the different dignities which they might possess in the church, did not exempt them from having a flagellation inflicted upon them by their bishops, when they had been guilty of offences of rather a serious kind; and Pope St. Gregory the Great, moreover, recommended to the bishops of his time, to make a proper use of their authority. In his sixty-sixth Epistle, he himself prescribes to Bishop Paschasius, the manner in which he ought to chastise Deacon Hilary who had calumniated Deacon John. “Whereas,” he says, “guilt ought not to pass without adequate satisfaction, we recommend to Bishop Paschasius to deprive the same Deacon Hilary of his office, and after having caused him to be publicly lashed, to confine him to some distant place; that the punishment inflicted upon one, may thus serve to the correction of many.”
This power of inflicting the brotherly correction of whipping was also possessed by the abbots and priors in all the ancient monasteries; though, at the same time, it was expressly provided by the rules of the different orders, that the same should be assumed by no other persons. “Let no man, except the abbot or him to whom he has intrusted his authority, presume to excommunicate, or flog a brother.”
When the faults committed by monks were of a grievous kind, the abbot was not only charged to correct them by means of his discretionary power of flagellation, but he was moreover expressly directed to exert that power with rigour. In the rule framed by St. Fructuosus, Bishop of Braga, it is ordained with respect to a monk who is convicted of being a liar, a thief, or a striker, “That if, after being warned by the older monks he neglects to mend his manners, he shall, on the third time, be exhorted in the presence of all the brethren, to leave off his bad practices. If he still neglects to reform, let him be flagellated with the utmost severity.” The above rule of St. Fructosus is mentioned by Ecbert, in his Collection of Canons, which together with his Councils of England, has been published by Spelman.
St. Ferreol, Bishop of Usez, framed a rule for monks, which like that above, makes severe provisions against such monks as are addicted to the practice of thieving. “With regard to the monk who stands convicted of theft, if we may still call him a monk, he shall be treated like him who is guilty of adultery for the second time; let him therefore be chastised with the whip, and with great rigour too. The same punishment ought to be inflicted upon him as upon a fornicator, since it may be justly suspected that his lewdness has induced him to commit theft.”
Committing indecencies with other monks, or with boys, were offences which the Statutes of Convents likewise directed to be punished by severe flagellations; and the above St. Fructuosus, Bishop of Braga, ordered that the punishment should, in the above case, be inflicted publicly. “If a monk,” it is said in his rule, “is used to tease boys and young men, or is caught in attempting to give them kisses, or in any other indecent action, and the fact be proved by competent witnesses, let him be publicly whipped.”
Refusing to make proper satisfaction to the abbot for offences committed, or in general persevering in denying them, were also grievous faults in the eye of the first founders, or reformers, of monastic orders. In the rule framed fifty years after that of St. Benedict, in order to improve it, the following direction was contained: “If the brothers who have been excommunicated for their faults, persevere so far in their pride, as to continue, on the ninth hour of the next day, to refuse to make proper satisfaction to the abbot, let them be confined, even till their death, and lashed with rods.” Nor is the rule of the above-mentioned Bishop of Braga less severe against those monks whose pride prevents them from making a proper confession of the offences they may have committed. “To him,” it is said in that rule, “who, through pride and inclination to argue, continues to deny his fault, let an additional and severer flagellation be imparted.”
The habit of holding wanton discourses, or soliciting the brethren to wickedness, was also deemed by the founders of religious orders to deserve severe flagellations; and St. Pacom ordered in his rule, which it was said had been dictated to him by an angel, that such as had been guilty of the above faults, and had been thrice admonished, should be publicly lashed before the gate of the convent.
Attempts to escape from monasteries, were, even in very early times, punished by flagellation. We read in Sozomenius, that St. Macarius of Alexandria, Abbot of Nitri in Thebaid, who had five thousand monks under his direction, ordered that chastisement to be inflicted upon those who should attempt to climb over the walls of the monasteries. “If anyone continues in his wickedness, and says, I can no longer bear to stay here, but I will pack up my things and go where God will direct me; let any one of the brothers inform the prior, and the prior the abbot, of the fact; let then the abbot assemble the brothers, and order the offender to be brought before them and chastised with rods.”
The holy founders of religious orders have also been very severe in their provisions against such monks as seek for familiarities with the other sex. In the rule of the Monastery of Agaunus, it was ordained, that, “If any monk had contracted the bad habit of looking on women with concupiscence, the abbot ought to be informed of the fact, and bestow upon the monk a corrective discipline; and that, if he did not mend his manners in consequence thereof, he ought to be expelled from the society as a scabby sheep, lest he should ruin others by his example.” The above monastery had been built by Sigismond, King of Burgundy, to the honour of one hundred and twenty Martyrs of the Theban Legion, of which St. Maurice was the commander, under the reign of the Emperor Maximinus.
The above-quoted rule of St. Fructuosus, is no less severe against those monks who seek for the company of women. In the fifteenth chapter, which treats of the lewd and quarrelsome, it is ordered, that, “If after having received proper reprehensions they persist in their wicked courses, they shall be corrected by repeated lashings.” And St. Columbanus, who is the first who instituted the monastic life in France, and has written a rule as a supplement to that of St. Benedict, also expresses himself with great severity against such monks as are convicted of having barely conversed with a woman in the absence of witnesses; for though there are faults for which he orders only six lashes to be given, yet, in the case here mentioned he prescribes two hundred. “Let the man who has been alone with a woman, and talked familiarly to her, either be kept on bread and water for two days, or receive two hundred lashes.”
Objective: The aim of this article is the presentation and brief analysis of some historical cases, unknown in the broader medical bibliography, of child sexual abuse in Byzantine Society (324-1453 A.D.).
Method: The original texts of the Byzantine historians, chroniclers and ecclesiastical authors, written in the Greek language, were studied in order to locate instances of child sexual abuse.
Results: Although the punishment provided by the laws and the church for cases of child sexual abuse were very strict, a number of instances of rapes under cover of premature marriages, even in the imperial families, are revealed in these texts. Furthermore, cases of child prostitution, pederasty, and incest are included in the historical texts and some contemporary authors continued the presence of many such cases in all classes of Byzantine society.
Conclusion: The research of original Byzantine literature disclosed many instances of child sexual abuse in all social classes even in the mediaeval Byzantine society which was characterized by strict legal and religious prohibitions.
CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE today constitutes an alarming social phenomenon the instances of which, reported daily, appear to be increasingly widespread (Leventhal, 1998; Wyatt, Bums Loeb, Solis, & Vargas Carmona, 1999).
Research of historical sources, however, reveals the existence of the problem from antiquity and that the endeavors of the state to combat it were always intense and systematic. In particular, our research into the original texts of Byzantine historians and chroniclers indicates that child sexual abuse flourished even in a religious mediaeval society such as that of Byzantium, a state which comprised the rational continuation of the Roman empire and which was the most important state in the known world for 11 centuries (324-1453 A.D.). The state with its strict legislation and the church with the spiritual pressures at its disposal both made every effort to restrict this social phenomenon, which in Byzantium took the forms of rape under cover of premature marriages, child prostitution, pederasty, and incest.
The Roman law had established the age of marriage at 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Under-age marriage of both spouses were then customary mainly among aristocratic families, which by such means arranged political alliances and pacts. The Roman law was applied in Byzantium with the addition that the husband who married an under-aged wife should wait for her to reach 12 years old before entering sexual relations (Lingenthal, 1931). Usually, however, the law was not followed and frequently parents declared false ages for their daughters (Bees, 1976). In cases of breach of the law, the church dissolved the marriage and unfrocked the priest concerned. The bishop of Arta, Demetrius Chomatianos (13th century), dissolved an engagement which had been arranged for a girl of 5 because her intended husband regularly sexually abused her between the ages of 7 and 12. When she reached 12 years old, she requested dissolution of the engagement, threatening to jump from a cliff or into the sea if her request was not granted (Pitra, 1891).
Another case referred to was the engagement of a girl of 7 after a false declaration by her father that she was 12. The intended bridegroom raped the girl because she refused sexual relations with him, “sealing her mouth to the extent that blood poured out of her ears. For the rest of her life, she feared the sight of any man” (Tourtoglou, 1963).
The most celebrated instance of child sexual abuse is referred to in the case of Princess Simonis, only daughter of Emperor Andronicus II, Palaeologus (1282-1328), who at the age of 5 was given in marriage to the 40-year-old Sovereign of the Serbs, Stephan Milutin, for reasons of state alliance. The husband, however, as the historian Nicephorus Gregoras (14th century) confirms, “did not abide by the legal requirements for the wife to reach legal age and raped her at the age of 8, causing injuries of the womb, which prevented her from bearing children, and mental suffering which obliged her to return in tears to her homeland to be a nun.” Her parents, however, obviously respecting the political implications of the marriage which created conditions of friendship between Byzantium and Serbia, forced her to go to her husband; she did so and became a widow at the age of 21 (Schopen, 1829).
It should be emphasized that there are some indications in the historical texts that the psychological reactions of the victims were very similar to those described in today’s medical literature (Calam, Home, Glasgow, & Cox, 1998; Verduyn & Calam, 1999) such as the cases of the 7-year-old girl who feared men all the rest of her life and the princess who perhaps presented depression and wished to become a nun.
The imperial family ignored the marriage legislation in numerous cases. Emperor Andronicus I, Comnenus (1183-1185) violated the law when at the age of 63, he married the 11-year-old Agnes Anna, daughter of Louis VII of France, already the widow of Alexius II Comnenus whom he had overthrown and killed. Immediately after the ceremony Andronicus rushed to satisfy his sexual desire to consummate the marriage, as the historian Nicetas Choniates (12th century) narrates (Dieten, 1975).
However, whenever cases of child sexual abuse in marriage were referred to the Patriarchate, voidance of the marriage by decision of the Patriarch was the outcome. One of these decisions was based on a certification of virginity signed by a midwife (Miklosich & Milller, 1970).
Even more serious was the crime of child sexual abuse outside marriage or engagement. In this case the perpetrator was punished with various penalties during the period of the Byzantine empire, from money fines paid to the victim, dragging of the offender through the streets, to rhinocopy (cutting off the nose), exile, and in extreme cases, capital punishment (Pitsakis, 1971).
Child prostitution was the result of parents’ decisions, in their abject poverty, to sell their daughters for 5 gold coins or to hire them out, as the chronicler Malalas narrates (Dindorf, 1831). The defloration of the girls was a matter of public auction. Frequently under-aged prostitutes satisfied clients in the brothels with anomalous sexual acts.
As the contemporary historian Procopius writes, the famous Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I, the Great (527-565), when previously an under-aged prostitute, satisfied her clients in such ways. As is well-known, Theodora and her two sisters were, when child orphans, working in the theater. Theodora assisted in comic performances of clowns and removed her clothes “to show the men from front and rear that which should have remained hidden from their eyes,” as Procopius states (Wirth & Haury, 1963). Her childhood and adolescent experiences led to two births and numerous abortions which probably were responsible for her sterility during her marriage to Justinian the Great (Wirth & Haury, 1963).
Many Byzantine authors referred to the extent of the problem of pederasty during the whole period of the Byzantine empire. Eminent Byzantines were accused of being pedophiles, among them the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), Constantine V (741-775), and the Eparch of Constantinople, during the reign of Justinian I, John Cappadoces, who “regularly sexually assaulted small pre-adolescent children who had not acquired the signs of manhood, especially hair” (Kukules, 1955; Niebuhr, 1837).
A great number of abductions of children, even outside their homes, is referred to; mothers frightened their children not to wander far from home because they “ran the risk of sexual attack by pedophiles offering sweets and nuts” as Saint John Chrysostome writes (Migne, 1858-1860).
Punishments were especially severe for pedophiles. The first emperor of Byzantium, Constantine the Great (324-337 A.D.), imposed lengthy Terms of imprisonment, the emperor Constas II (641-668) capital punishment, and Leon VI the Wise (886-912) added exile and drowning with weights in the sea.
Chroniclers record, during the reign of Justinian I, the punishment of a group of pedophiles, among them the Bishop of Rhodes, Isaias, and the Bishop of Dion in Thrace, Alexander, with mutilation of the penis, dragging nude through the streets, and death (Bekker, 1838; Boor, 1883; Boor & Wirth, 1978; Dindorf, 1831).
Capital punishment remained the usual penalty for pedophiles for many centuries in Byzantium; the victims were also punished with incarceration in a monastery which had the characteristics of the modern reformatory (Migne, 1857). However, Constantine VII the Porphyrogenitus (913-959) provided in his legislation “Ekloge” (which means “Selection”) for the immunity from penalties of children under 12 who had passive sexual relations; on the contrary adult pedophile rapists were punished with decapitation by sword (Pitsakis, 1971).
The church also attempted to confront the phenomenon, including it among the most serious sins and imposed a penalty of 19 years withholding of holy communion (Kukules, 1955).
A well-known case of intended sexual abuse was that of the son of the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras, 11-year-old Isaac, who was the intended victim of Sultan Mohammed II after the fall of Constantinople, as the historian Ducas confirms (Bekker, 1834). The same happened to John, the son of the historian Sfrantzes. The two young boys and their parents refused to submit to the anomalous sexual desires of the Sultan who killed them all except the historian, who managed to escape (Bekker, 1834; Schlumberger, 1914).
More than any other form of child sexual abuse, incest is covered by a conspiracy of silence to protect his family secret. The penalties provided by each succeeding law during the Byzantine period, which included capital punishment and the ecclesiastical degrees of family relationship which prohibited marriage, all demonstrate the extent of the problem. The historian Agathias (6th century) states that “the phenomenon of incest is widespread and many brothers have shameless relationships with their sisters, fathers with their daughters, and worst of all, sons with their mothers” (Niebuhr, 1828).
The best-known incestuous emperor was Heraclius (610-641) who, with his second marriage, “legalized” his long incestuous relationship with Martina, his sister’s 14-year-old daughter, by whom he had about 10 children, many of whom suffered from various physical disabilities (Lascaratos, PouIakou-Rembelakou, Rembelakos, & Marketos, 1995). It appears that the desires of this all-powerful emperor were above the law and moral codes. The Byzantine historian Nicephorus (Bekker, 1837) and the chroniclers Leo Grammaticus (Bekker, 1842) and loannes Zonaras (Buttner-Wobst, 1847) attributed congenital anomaly of the emperor’s urinary system (epispadias) to divine punishment due to this incestuous marriage.
In conclusion, historical accounts by Byzantine writers confirm that child sexual abuse is an ancient social phenomenon, which has many similarities with, modern attitudes as regards its widespread social-impact and its influences on the psychological balance of the victims.
Historical cases compiled from the works of Byzantine writers, unknown to the broader medical bibliography, prove that, despite the strict state legislation and church prohibitions from the early times of the Eastern Empire, the problem seems to have remained endemic in all social classes. (Dr John Lascaratos, Dr. Effie Poulakou – Rebelakou, Department of the History of Medicine, Medical School, National Athens University and International Hippocratic Foundation of Kos).
See also An Analysis of Child Sexual Abuse During the Byzantine Empire By Lorissa Kingston:
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