In the Eastern churches, among the most famous of the early martyrs is a group of forty soldiers who died for the Faith during the persecution of the emperor Licinius, in 320 A.D. Their feast is kept in the Byzantine Rite on March 9th; in the West, it has been fixed to the 10th since the early 17th century.
These men belonged to the Twelfth Legion (nicknamed Fulminata), stationed in the region of central Asia Minor which the Romans called Lesser Armenia, near the town of Sebaste. Presented with the usual choice to either sacrifice to the pagan gods or be killed, at first they all refused to sacrifice, and were therefore left naked overnight on a frozen lake to die of exposure. When one of them yielded, his place was taken by one of their guards, who spontaneously stripped off his clothes and joined them. (There are several accounts of martyrdoms in which by-standers were inspired to embrace Christianity on the spot by witnessing the constancy of the martyrs in their suffering.) In the morning, when it was discovered that some of them were still alive, they were dispatched by having their legs broken.
The bodies were then cremated, and their mixed remains taken to Caesarea in Cappadocia, about 120 miles to the south-west of Sebaste. Among the earliest accounts of their martyrdom are sermons of St Basil the Great, bishop of that city in the later 4th century, of his brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, and their contemporaries Ss Ephraim the Syrian and John Chrysostom.
(An ivory relief panel of the Forty Martyrs, made in Constantinople in the 10th century; now in the Bode Museum in Berlin.)
Devotion to these martyrs was introduced into the West by St Gaudentius, who was bishop of Brescia in northern Italy from 387 to 410. While traveling through Cappadocia on his way to the Holy Land, he had received some of their relics from Basil’s nieces. On returning to Brescia, he built a church called the “Concilium Sanctorum – the Assembly of the Saints”, where he deposited these and other relics acquired during his travels. One of his extant sermons was preached at the dedication of this church, and the largest part of it (roughly two-thirds, in fact) is dedicated to these martyrs.
“… Ecclesia Caesariensis exsultat, et nostra fraternitas non immerito gloriatur, reservatum sibi providentia Dei salutare munus intelligens. Portionem reliquiarum sumpsimus, et nihil nos minus possidere confidimus, dum totos quadraginta in suis favillis honorantes amplectimur: sicut illa in Evangelio fidelis mulier quae per fimbriam Christi salvata est, oram tenuit vestimenti, et virtutem divinitatis exegit: attactu fimbriae medelam credenti fides traxit, et salutem quam praesumpserat, acquisivit. Itaque pars ipsa quam meruimus, plenitudo est; dividi enim quadraginta isti martyres ab invicem nullo modo possunt, quorum sunt inseparabiles et indiscretae reliquiae. Nam sicut animas eorum igneus ille Spiritus Dei, salutaris fidei unitate conjunxit … ita etiam membra eorum concremans ignis in unum favillae corpus redegit.
Habemus ergo et hos quadraginta, et praedictos decem sanctos, ex diversis terrarum partibus congregatos; unde hanc ipsam basilicam eorum meritis dedicatam, ‘Concilium Sanctorum’ nuncupari oportere decernimus. … Tot igitur justorum patrocinio adjuvandi, tota fide, omnique desiderio, supplices secundum eorum vestigia curramus; ut ipsis intercedentibus, universa quae poscimus, adipisci mereamur, magnificantes Christum Dominum tanti muneris largitorem; cui omnis honor, virtus, et gloria, cum Patre, et cum Spiritu Sancto, ante omnia, et nunc, et semper, et in cuncta saecula saeculorum. Amen.
(The relic altar of the church of St John the Evangelist in Brescia, built on the site of St Gaudentius’ Consilium Sanctorum.)
… the church of Caesarea rejoices, and we as brethren deservedly boast, knowing that a salutary gift has been reserved for us by God’s providence. We have received a portion of the relics, and we trust that what we possess is in no way lesser, as we embrace all forty of them, honoring them in their ashes; just as that faithful woman in the Gospel who was saved through Christ’s hem, touched the edge of His garment, and brought out (of it) the might of God. By the touch of that hem, her faith drew forth healing, because she believed, and thus she acquired the deliverance which she anticipated. Therefore, that part which we have merited is the fullness; for these forty martyrs can in no way be divided from each other, whose relics are inseparable and closely joined. For just as that fiery Spirit of God joined their souls in the unity of the saving Faith … so also the fire that burnt their limbs brought them together as one body of ash.
Since we have these forty, and the ten Saints mentioned before (in the first part of the sermon) gathered together from various parts of the world, we have decided that this very basilica, dedicated to their merits, should be called ‘the Assembly of the Saints.’ … Therefore, since we shall be helped by the patronage of so many just ones, with all our faith and all our longing, let us humbly run in their footsteps; so that by their intercession, we may merit to obtain all that we ask for, glorifying Christ the Lord, the Giver of so great a gift; to Whom be all honor, power and glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, before all things, and now, and forever, unto all the ages of ages. Amen.”