Martyr soldiers

This article by an anonymous author signing under “V.R.” appeared in Russian in a special issue of the student newsletter of the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris dedicated to the Russian Veteran’s Association of St. George in 1929.

Not one group of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, except, of course, the clergy, have done so much in the course of the first, even the first four centuries of Christianity for its spreading, as the army. This is particularly true for the inhabitants of the countryside and for the Barbarians of the North. They lived their closed lives, and new spiritual movements penetrated their regions to a significant degree only through the caserns and the army camps…

Therefore, when in the 3rd century the Roman army started losing its aristocratic character and the emperors allowed wide streams of peasants and Barbarians to enter in it, the teaching of Christ reached the most backward places. For instance one of the very greatest desert fathers, St. Pachomios the Great, learned about Christianity only when he had been enrolled; on the other hand among the martyrs who suffered under Aurelianus (270-275 A.D.) we know the Goth Sabas, who occupied the high rank of Stratilatus, i.e. general. Moreover, one can state that in many senses Christianity owes its victory to believing soldiers. But from their side this was no victory of blind and brutal physical force, for at the time of the Emperor Constantine only in a few provinces in the east of the Empire had the number of Christians started constituting not a majority, but a significant minority, 30 to 40 percent; in all, Christians constituted hardly more that 10-15 percent of the inhabitants of the Empire.

It is true that in the armed forces, particularly in certain regiments, for instance in the 12th Melitian legion, the percentage of Christians surpassed significantly their usual norm in the empire, but nevertheless they did not form a majority here either. Not their number, but their quality made the Christian soldiers significant. When we look at the names of saints in the synaxaria, we notice the following: from the total number of male martyrs, in all about a thousand, not less than 20 names belong to Roman officers of various ranks from the first four centuries. Even if we neglect the fact that a large part of these glorious thousand belong to other peoples and centuries, the share of officers still is 2 percent. Never, even in periods of the very most intensive military efforts, would a state assign 1/50 part of its male population to commanding functions in the armed forces; the highest number would be 0,5 percent. Thus we see that among the martyrs of the Roman Empire, officers even according to the most conservative calculations figure four times more frequently, than if all classes had provided equal numbers of martyrs.

In addition we are struck by the comparatively insignificant number of regular soldiers in cases of single, individual martyrdom. This changes when we consider cases of mass confession of faith: entire regiments die for Christ. Particularly striking is the example of the 40 martyrs of Sebastea, from the 12th legion, whose Christian co-legionnaires had 150 years earlier obtained rain and victory for the army led by Marcus Aurelius; in the regiment, the memory of this miracle was kept alive, as a sort of specific Christian tradition, which strengthened and inspired the martyrs. This is mentioned by St. Gregarious of Nyssa in his sermon about the Martyrs of Sebastea. When we pass from considering individual names to nameless martyrs, mentioned in the synaxaria by the words “and his men”, “and the others”, or more often “and those with him”, the meaning of officerdom changes character: officers are not separated from their men but lead them in the glorious death for Christ. The proportion among the commanding officers and regular soldiers is re-established. In the synaxarion of Macarius (of Novgorod, ed.) we read on 6 September: “Diocletian took to power, and ordered Christians to be killed everywhere, and the officers Meletios and Eudoxios refused to do this, as they were Christians. After many sufferings it was ordered that they be beheaded, and with them their men, whose number was 1034.” It should be noted that when such figures are given, they may concern not only soldiers but monks and civilians, but cases involving soldiers are so frequent, that on the basis of the numerous cases of collective suffering of soldiers for Christ the overall role of the army in the history of martyrdom becomes even more significant, than would follow from the study of the list of individual martyrs.

We observe here a phenomenon that is, on first sight, paradoxical: Christianity is a religion of peace, but we notice that it had a particular appeal for men of the sword, even of the heaviest and most terrifying of all — the Roman sword. This can be explained by the following. According to many, two types of men make good soldiers: merciless, daring seekers of glory and adventurers on the one side, noble, courageous idealists on the other; and if we sharpen our terms we might say: criminals and saints. This opinion is, however, not completely accurate: during lengthy battle, particularly in case of failures, people of a criminal type always surrender, only saints hold out, therefore only they make good soldiers. Of course only rarely do we meet pure representatives of one and the other type; in every soldier there is some of both — but between these two sides there can be no peace, only battle in the soul of a man, and woe to the soldier in whose soul the criminal kills the saint. Woe not only from the highest, moral point of view, but also from the lowest, most utilitarian, for the soldier-knight will always crush the criminal. The armed forces of Byzantium gave any talented and brave man the opportunity — given some luck — to make a career, but they provided something else as well: its hardness and severe discipline were rooted in the great and deep ideals of patriotism, self-sacrifice, duty and religious feeling which, even if misguided, are still planted in the soul of man by God. All this attracted the very best people to serve, those, who in the context of permanent battle for ideals which, if not the highest, are still respectable, were prepared to receive from among all the gifts of the Holy Spirit one in particular — the gift of strength.

It is remarkable that this progress from a lower towards a higher diakonia can be perceived in the answers of the martyrs during their trials. Military service itself, the service of the Emperor, is not refused, but is acknowledged to be inferior to serving Christ, which takes forms which stand far above military service. The Roman officer Marcellian, a centurion (commander of over 100 men) of the Trajan Legion stated during interrogation: “It is unfitting to serve earthly affairs for a Christian who serves the Lord Christ as a soldier.” The position of Christian soldiers was particularly difficult, since Roman military ceremonies could always go against their Christian conscience. For this reason we know of cases of martyrdom of soldiers even in times when there were no persecutions, when we have no witness about martyrdom among the other professions. Here we have to consider the following, very important fact: there are hardly any examples of Christian soldiers who took off their belts (the sign of refusal of military service) on grounds of pacifism, considering that principally a Christian has no right to be a soldier. It is true that the Church has always considered killing a sin, also during wartime, but the military trade has never been condemned.

Here we witness some antinomy, but the believing soldier resolves it, shedding his blood, dying from the sword of the enemy. There is a deep meaning to the fact that military language expresses better then any other the ways of Christian life: the Apostle Paul often uses military expressions, as well as Clement, who poses the Roman army as an example for Christians of both discipline and docility. For the first Christians, the army was not something to abhor but rather one of the centres where the virtues of Christianity were prepared. They prayed for the emperor, but for the army separate prayers were read. On the other hand it is hardly surprising that those ecclesiastical authors of the first centuries who condemned soldiers, notwithstanding their qualities, fell into heresy: Tertullian, Origen and Tatian. Their misgivings mainly became apparent in totally other areas, but seemingly, both the departure from the purity of Orthodoxy and the negative attitude towards military service were the fruits of the same worm-infected root. The truth seems to have been held not by the Syrian enemy of the army Tatian, who finally ended up in the Gnostic heresy, but by a chief of martyrs, a martyr himself: Andrew the General, whom many Russians know as Andrew Stratilate.

The acts of Andrew refute the writings of many paper peace-lovers. It has been said above that the path of the righteous soldier is a step towards the Spirit of Strength. This becomes evident from the example of St. Andrew and his men. He was a tribune (under-officer) and a secret Christian, not yet baptised but only a catechumen, when by order of the Duke (the commanding officer of the region) Antiochus he took command of a battalion which was sent out against the Persians. He is called ‘the General’, for this gave him already the rank of general. Andrew started selecting soldiers who were pagans, but brilliant warriors, together with whom he achieved splendid military successes. Later his Christian conviction was used as an accusation against him, and persecution set in. Fearing to die non-baptised, Andrew and more than 2500 soldiers who had followed him in his striving for Christ were baptised by Bishop Peter in Tarsus of Cilicia. Having received holy Baptism, they left the city and lined up in a valley, peacefully waiting to be slaughtered by their pursuers.

When defending the state, the Christian soldiers raised their threatening swords, yet these experienced fighters would not even raise their unarmed hands to defend themselves. The life of the saints adds that the entry into the valley was narrow and that it could have been defended against an overpowering enemy. What can we make of this? The best men of the emperor revealed themselves good soldiers of the heavenly Kingdom. Would you condemn them in your severe judgement, Tertullian? Would you take off their crowns, learned Origen? Courage and boldness have thus revealed themselves in their highest forms as heavenly, not earthly virtues. The antique world felt and knew this. Plato recognises four main virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation and righteousness! In his life of St. Anthony, St. Athanasius of Alexandria mentions all these virtues, including courage, in the list of the natural treasures that man can endeavour to acquire, since he can take them with him to the other world. In another work of the same teacher of the Church, the life of St. Pachomius, we find examples of the importance of courage and of the difficulties it takes to obtain this virtue. There is the story of a monk, a great ascetic, “one of the famous,” as the life says; he had always dreamt of martyrdom, but when he was taken unexpectedly by barbarians in the desert and pressed to sacrifice to idols and eat meat that had been sacrificed, he lost heart under the threat of death and seeing the naked sword, and did as he was told. The monk later erased his sin by endless spiritual exploits, and St. Athanasius left us the proof that even to a monk who has left the world and who has reached a high level of perfection in many ways, courage does not come without effort and special dedication.

The example of martyr soldiers also shows us that military service, when served with honour, can be a great school for superior heavenly courage; but only in Christ-loving soldierdom the virtue of courage finds its full realisation, only in Christ-loving, not in any other kind.

— From “the Leaflets of St. Sergius”, Paris 1929

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