Chrysanthus and Daria – relics of saints

What happened to saints Chrysanthus and Daria and are the bones under an Italian church really those of the two martyred Romans?

The relics of two Roman era saints are, according to faithful Catholics, contained within the medieval cathedral of Reggio Emilia.  Chrysanthus was a young Roman from a rich family who converted to Christianity to the exasperation of his father.  The old man turned to the Vestal Virgins to try and turn his son Chrysanthus away from the eastern cult.  One of the Vestals was Daria – who according to the traditional story was sent to Chrysanthus to convince him to return to the old beliefs of Rome.

Needless to say that Daria was convinced by Chrysanthus to join the Christians and reject her Vestal vows….except chastity.  The two would be baptised and joined in a ‘virginal marriage unspoilt by sex and sin’.  They were swept up in the cult’s activities and went round preaching the virtues of sexless marriage.

The story claims ‘thousands’ of people came to hear Chrysanthus and Daria calling on people to marry but not reproduce.  It’s then alleged that the Roman authorities were so enraged that they arrested Chrysanthus and Daria and subjected them to very cruel treatment.

As is typical of Christian martyr stories of this time, there is lots of torture detail (normally intended to rouse the faithful).  And of course there is divine intervention to remove the pain and suffering of the saints.  In this case, a divine light that removed the horrible smells from the prison cell of Chrysanthus.  Daria, meanwhile, had been sent to a brothel to re-think her message of chastity.  In the story, God sends a lion to chase the interested clients away.

The two were executed around 283 or 284 AD under the short reign of Numerian – even though there is no record of him launching a persecution against Christians.  Even in the programme, the idea of a Vestal Virgin being forced in to prostitution is seen by one academic as proof the martyr story was written much, much later.  Much of the imagery comes from other biblical and Christian sources – the lion in the story of Daniel and the scholar turned Christian sounds remarkably like the account of the life of Saint Augustine (early fifth century AD)

National Geographic has recently filmed the bones of the two saints being taken up from the crypt contained in a box last sealed 500 years ago.  The question for the church investigation team was….were they the required 1700 years of age?  Did they date back to the third century AD?  As this was a ‘church investigation team’ with a ‘Vatican specialist’ – I was already assuming the answer would be positive.

Rather morbidly the skulls of the two skeletons were separate from the rest of the bodies and contained within the heads of gilded statues and the team, under the glare of TV cameras, removed the gold and silver hairpieces and face masks to reveal bone material.

The original account of their lives says the duo were either stoned to death or Chrysanthus was beheaded.  No signs of trauma were found on the bones.  So the Vatican specialist pointed to another version of the story saying that has the couple being buried alive – therefore no cuts or abrasions necessary.

As stoning or beheading would have undermined the thesis that the bones belonged to saints, the burial alive theory was more or less taken to be the reliable account – something I felt uncomfortable about….let’s go for the historical account that will ‘prove’ the bones are relics.  Choosing your premisses to get the desired conclusions.

When did the bones first appear in the church?  The programme found documentary evidence that they turned up in the year 946, a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor.   Even before the programme could decide the true age of the bones, the church displayed the skeletons holding a mass over them.  So, not much doubt what conclusion the local bishop was looking for!

National Geographic followed the team as they reported back to the bishop and – hey presto – they dated back to the Roman era….between 80AD and 340AD.  Ergo, they were Chrysanthus and Daria.

At the risk of being horribly sceptical – it really wouldn’t have been that difficult to find a Roman burial to dig up in the Dark Ages and the window thrown up by the carbon dating is very, very wide.  The bones could date to the emperor Hadrian, Severus, Diocletian or even from the Christian era after Constantine.

Interestingly, other excavations under the church have revealed extensive mosaic floors including depictions of pagan gods – either from a high status house but just as likely a temple that occupied the site.  Churches often took the prime positions occupied by temples as the empire adopted and then enforced Christianity as the state religion.

Mystery of the Murdered Saints – National Geographic – originally aired April, 2011

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