In 313 Emperor Constantine the Great granted Christians religious freedom in the western half of the Roman Empire. But his co-ruler Emperor Licinius, a pagan, continued to persecute Christians in the eastern empire. In 320, the 12th Roman Legion in Sevaste (present-day Sivas, Turkey) was commanded to offer pagan sacrifices as a test of political loyalty. An elite company of forty Christian soldiers from Cappadocia refused, saying “We will not sacrifice. To do so is to betray our faith.”
Wishing to preserve the soldiers, Governor Agricola attempted to persuade them. “But what of your comrades? Consider – you alone of Caesar’s troops defy him! Think of the disgrace you bring upon your legion.”
“To disgrace the name of our Lord Jesus is more terrible still,” the men answered.
“Give up this stubborn folly,” the governor commanded, “You have no lord but Caesar! I promise promotion to the first one of you who steps forward to do his duty.” None of the soldiers moved. The governor then switched tactics and threatened them with torture, imprisonment and death if they continued to refuse.
The soldiers stood firm. “You can offer us nothing that would replace what we would lose in the life to come. We have learned to deny our bodies where our souls are at stake.”
Governor Agricola had the stubborn soldiers flogged but not one surrendered. They were then imprisoned until Lysias, the commander of the 12th Legion arrived. Lysias again demanded that the soldiers submit to worship the Emperor or else pay the penalty of their defiance. The forty respectfully refused. As it was winter, Lysias then ordered that the soldiers be stripped and sent into the frozen lake until they either recanted or died of exposure.
The young men did not wait to be stripped but removed their clothing themselves and marched into the frozen lake singing. The commander posted guards to prevent their escape from the icy water. He also arranged a fire and a warm bath on the shore to tempt the unyielding soldiers to surrender.
Encouraging one another to stand firm, the Christian soldiers prayed, “Lord, we are forty engaged in this contest. Grant that forty may receive crowns of glory.”
During the night, one man broke and left his companions. However, when the man entered the hot bath, the sudden heat was too great a shock to his frozen body and he died. A guard named Aglaius, however, took off his uniform and joined the remaining thirty-nine martyrs in the lake. Aglaius was impressed by the martyrs’ courage and claimed to have a vision of crowns over their heads so that he too professed faith in Jesus and elected to die alongside them. Thus the number of forty remained complete.
At daybreak, the frozen bodies of the forty martyrs were burned and the charred bones and ashes thrown into the river. Christians, however, collected such remains as they could find, and these relics were later distributed throughout many cities to encourage the persecuted church.
The traditional icon of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste always shows the apostate running away into the warm bathhouse, while another soldier removes his clothes to join the thirty-nine freezing to death.
Icons depicting the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste are widespread and numerous churches and chapels were dedicated in honor of the Forty Martyrs, including one in Caesarea (present-day Kayseri.) It was in this church that Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea (329-379), preached a sermon in honor of the feast day of the Forty Martyrs (March 9) which is the first written record of their courageous story.
Gregory of Nyssa (335-396), Basil’s brother, was also deeply influenced by the Forty Martyrs. When he was twenty years old, some of the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste were brought to a chapel on the family estate. During an all-night vigil service at the chapel, in honor of the Forty Martyrs, something dramatic occurred.
Gregory attended the service half-heartedly at his family’s insistence. Wearied by the long prayers, he snuck out of the chapel and went to bed. Gregory then had a vivid dream in which he tried to enter the church, but the Forty Martyrs would not permit him. It was only with the help of one of them that he managed to escape punishment. This fearful dream left a lasting impression on Gregory who soon afterward devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and service to God. When Gregory’s parents died, he had their remains buried beside some of the forty martyred soldiers. In his lifetime, Gregory preached two panegyric homilies about the Forty Martyrs (available online here).
The Forty Martyrs are painted in churches throughout Cappadocia. These Cappadocians were "hometown heroes" for later monks in the region.
The most famous church in their honor is the The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Church. The beautifully-restored, double-nave church is in an isolated cone outside the village of Şahinefendi. In the north room, the Forty Martyrs cover the arched ceiling, twenty on each side.
The Forty Martyrs also appear in the back section of Snake Church (Yılanlı Kilise) in Ihlara Valley, around the bottom of the arched ceiling.