One of the worst atrocities committed in the name of religion must surely be the sacking of Constantinople by Christian crusaders in the year 1204. The city of Constantinople had been the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire since the emperor Constantine – the first emperor to embrace Christianity. it had been “The City” of the early Middle Ages rivalled by none. Yet by the Fourth Crusade, the eastern Roman Empire – or Byzantine Empire as it’s more commonly called though it was never called that at the time – was in a slow decline. The lands it had once ruled in Egypt and the Levant were now under Muslim control and the Balkans had mostly slipped away.
But Constantinople – defended by huge walls – endured. That is until a wily, nonagenarian and blind Doge of Venice called Enrico Dandolo decided that the crusades shouldn’t attack their intended Muslim target but instead divert to Constantinople and sack it. Why? Because the Byzantines had long been the commercial and political rivals of Venice. And the latter was in the ascendancy while the Byzantines were not the force they had once been. So why not kick them while they were down.
And so it came to pass that the city was put under siege and its walls breached. The destruction was on an epic scale and the Venetians stripped the place of all the booty they could carry. That included the four horses you see on top of Saint Mark’s cathedral (well, they’re replicas and the real ones are now under cover). One statue taken back that tourists always seem to miss is a third or fourth century CE depiction of the last pagan Roman emperor Diocletian and his three co-emperors or “tetrarchs”.
This statue was obviously part of an ancient monument in Constantinople and was just unceremoniously slammed into a corner of Saint Mark’s cathedral where it looks weirdly out of place. But there it is – a piece of crusader/Templar booty. And most tourists walk past it without blinking.
You all know about Saint George and the Dragon and if you’re English, you’ll be aware that he is the patron saint of England. But there’s a lot more to this saint who was venerated in the Middle Ages.
Reputedly a Greek who served in the Roman army during the reign of the emperor Diocletian – he got into trouble when he decided to convert to Christianity. The reason being that the emperor had been convinced to launch an all out purge of Christians leaving George on the wrong side of the political fence. But he refused to change his mind and suffered martyrdom.
In the 12th century, the saint’s remains were brought to Egypt and the Convent of Saint George is still one of the key places of worship for Coptic Christians in Cairo. The faithful are invited to put the collar round their neck and wind the chain round their body. This ritual goes back to the Byzantine era and is said to leave the pilgrim in a state of grace.
According to some sources, the chain was also used in the past to chain those suffering from mental illness, anxiety and hysteria. Well, I suffer from none of those things but did hold the chains during my visit to Cairo in 2009.
The Templars loved to worship saints who had given up their lives in name of Christ so here’s a list of top ten martyred saints the knights would have known and possible revered. Many of them were martyred during the reigns of two Roman emperors – Trajan Decius and Diocletian. As a rule, the Romans didn’t ban religions outright. The only criteria for clamping down was disloyalty to the state and sedition.
But as the empire, under increasing attack from stronger enemies, became more unstable – it sought greater unity. These two emperors demanded pledges of loyalty from all citizens and while some Christians went along with this and made the dutiful sacrifice to the emperors at a local temple, others did not. Under the emperor Diocletian in particular, this resulted in a nasty end. Ironically, Diocletian was the last pagan emperor with his successor Constantine embracing Christianity.
AGATHA – died 251 CE – during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius who had outlawed Christianity, Agatha was tortured very brutally including being rolled over broken tiles, cut in various places and burning coals applied to her flesh. The incorrupt body was apparently sent to Constantinople centuries later but then parts of Agatha ended up in Catania.
ALBAN – died 304 CE (disputed) – an Englishman and a pagan by birth. He hid a priest from the Roman authorities and then to protect him, dressed as the priest when soldiers arrived at his house. The local governor new Alban and asked him to return to the state religion. He refused. After being scourged he was taken to be beheaded but supportive crowds blocked the way and a river had to be crossed. Alban caused the waters to part so he could be martyred for Christ. The executioner was so impressed that he converted on the spot. Both men were then beheaded.
EUPLIUS – died 304 CE – like so many of the early martyred saints, this is another one under the reign of Diocletian. He was found reading the gospels and was led to the place of execution with the sacred texts hung round his neck. He had been brutally tortured and beheading was apparently a sweet release.
FEBRONIA – early fourth century – like many other young female martyrs of this time, she was said to be exceedingly beautiful and a virgin. She refused to renounce her faith and was roasted on a gridiron, had her teeth knocked out and breasts cut off. Then she was executed. Out of remorse, the uncle of the local Roman prefect was said to have dashed his own brains out.
GENESIUS – died 285 CE – yet another Diocletian purge victim. This time starting out in life as a pagan comedian who mocked the Christians but then suddenly realising the error of his ways, converted. The praetorian prefect Plautian reacted by having Genesius stretched on a rack and torn at with hooks before the inevitable beheading.
GORDIUS – early fourth century – a Roman soldier who became a Christian. In the town of Caesaria, he was told there were to be games in honour of the god Mars. When Gordius showed up, both pagans and Christians were queueing up for the festivities and entertainment in the arena. So he began insulting Mars and was dragged before the governor who offered him riches to recant. But he wouldn’t. So it was off to the torturer and when that didn’t work, he was burned to death.
LUCY – died 304 CE – one of the most revered female saints from very early on in the church’s history. Martyred at Syracuse in Sicily, she was reputed to have either gouged out her own eyes to put off a potential suitor (bit extreme!) or they were gouged out by the Romans during her torture. As a result, she is patron saint to the blind.
POLYCARP – died 155 – the Knights Templar believed they had the head of Saint Polycarp. He was said to have been a disciple of the apostle Saint John. Polycarp was made bishop of Smyrna before John was banished to the island of Patmos, from where he wrote the Book of Revelation. It’s claimed he was martyred during a persecution by the emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. That is the emperor played by the actor Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator.
QUIRINUS – early fourth century – Diocletian abdicated as emperor but his co-emperor Galerius continued the policy of purging Christians. Quirinus was a bishop who was ordered to sacrifice to Jupiter and refused. He was tied to a millstone and chucked in the river. But miraculously, the millstone and Quirinus floated to the top and he continued to preach for a while to the huge crowds. Then he sank and died.
VITALIS – first or second century – an early Christian martyr. A similar tale to the above with a refusal to renounce Christ and accept the state gods leading to his execution. What distinguishes this story is that his wife Valeria was then set upon by the pagans and died of her injuries. She was subsequently canonised too. One of the statues in St Peter’s square in Rome is of Vitalis and the Byzantines built a octagonal basilica to him at Ravenna that can still be seen today. It includes a mosaic of the emperor Justinian, a Christian and a Roman ruler.
Couple of things to note.
Many Christians did not wish to be martyred and so sacrificed to the gods. This caused an early division within Christianity where some of the faithful refused to associate with those who had chickened out of martyrdom. These die-hard Christians were called Donatists and held sway in parts of north Africa. Their view did not prevail and even though the martyrs were lauded, those Christians who had chosen the path of compromise prevailed.
Also – just to reiterate that the Roman state was largely disinterested in theology. It was more focussed on the correct practice of religion and loyalty to the emperor than what the Christians actually stood for. There is an enduring myth that when Rome became Christian, slavery, brutal capital punishment and the games disappeared. They did not. Christians and pagans shared many social values including the holding of slaves and the need for executions to maintain order. In fact, Christians introduced new capital crimes related to moral failing – for example executing slaves who assisted their owners in committing adultery.