I don’t have time now to hunt down Hippolyte Delahaye’s book about Greek warrior saints, so I cannot confirm whether St George was real or not. However, I have already posted a dragon-free version of his life, if that interests you. The main feature of the life of St George is not, as it turns out, slaying a dragon, as much as I would like that to be the case. Rather, it is his martyrdom.
He is visually identifiable by his dragon-slaying, of course. But what I noticed looking at icons of this very popular saint in Cyprus was the fact that many of them have the sequence of his life and martyrdom around the edges of the dragon-slaying. According to tradition, St George was tortured and martyred by the Emperor Diocletian in the last persecution by the Romans.
This is how we should remember him.
St George’s Day, then, is not about the heroism of defeating evil in battle with the weapons of this world. It is about the heroism of defeating evil by standing firm in the hope set before you with the weapons of love, faith, and loyalty to Christ the King.
It is about martyrdom.
The Diocletianic Persecution gained the reputation of being both the last and the greatest persecution. After a period of relative tolerance, Diocletian had a change of heart and determined to persecute the Christians of the Roman Empire starting in 303. This persecution was carried out most effectively in the eastern half where Diocletian had supreme rule, destroying scriptures, dismantling or seizing church property, killing and imprisoning Christian leaders and Christian civil servants.
Eusebius of Caesarea believed that this persecution came upon the church because they had become too lax, too lazy, too worldly. The church had been left alone for some time. Christians were bureaucrats. Bishops could live like anyone else. They had started building big churches (like the one across from Diocletian’s palace in Nicomedia) instead of living holy lives.
The persecution was less severe in the West, particularly in the portion given to Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine, who thus manages to acquire for himself an image of being a crypto- or even open Christian in some later traditions.
It officially ended in 311, although I do not think its ferocity continued after Diocletian’s retirement in 305 and the series of civil wars that followed, 306-312.
St George was one of the victims of this persecution, a soldier torn between his duty to God and the commands of his emperor.
We face nothing so great or so large today in the West, despite what the alarmists will tell you.
Will we stand up for Jesus?