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.
Metrophanes (on the far right) was old and frail at the time of the gathering at Nikaia. He had retired from being overseer of Byzantion eleven years before the gathering at Nikaia, although some say otherwise. We learn from a fresco painter on the island of Kypros that he was present at Nikaia. The scholars are mostly silent.
Despite the conflicting reports of tradition, internet encyclopaediae, fresco-painters, and scholars centuries in the future, Metrophanes of Byzantion stood quietly in the market of Nikaia, examining a pomegranate.
“It is funny,” he noted to Antonios the fruit-seller, “my family is from the upper classes, you see. My grandparents worshipped the old gods; my father was the first to follow Jesus. And, well, the old stories are still a part of who I am.”
“The old stories are part of us all. It’s no shame, old man,”  replied the fruit-seller.
“I have a friend,” explained Metrophanes, “who looks at pomegranates, and you know what she thinks of?”
“Solomon’s Temple! Pomegranates were one of the chief decorations of the splendour of that place. Imagine. I, on the other hand, think immediately of Persephone, the story of how she was abducted by Hades. Whilst in the Underworld, she eats pomegranate seeds, thus sealing her doom to spend a portion of every year in the Underworld.”
“I know the story well,” said the fruit merchant. “Thus comes the season of winter, say the old stories. It is no shame that a pomegranate reminds you of the stories of the ancients. These stories are part of who we are, whether we be Khristianos, Platonistos, Stoikos, Manichaios, Gnostikos, or worshipper of the Unconquered Sun; we all are Romans.”
An older woman standing nearby held up a pomegranate. “Indeed,” she said, “let us not forget the teachings and stories of the ancients, even if we do not believe in them all; thus can we spoil the Egyptians, like the Israelites did.”
“This is good wisdom,” noted Metrophanes. “I am not acquainted with you, dear lady. My name is Metrophanes.”
“I am Makrina,” she replied. “If we think more deeply on the pomegranate, my brothers, we will find in it a spiritual lesson. For the skin of this fruit is very thick and tough. This is like the beginning of the spiritual life. We find the discipline hard, odious even. We do not wish to pray or fast or get out of bed on the Sun’s Day for the Lord’s Supper. Every act of charity, even for a poor widow or an orphan, feels like an unwanted burden. It does not taste sweet.
“But if we endure past this hard exterior and persevere, within the pomegranate we find these gems, jewels of sweetness,” Makrina tore open the pomegranate, plucked out a seed and began to eat it. “So it is with the spiritual life. Over time, we find that it is sweet to our souls, that the prayers are like the water of life to us, that we cannot even live without the Lord’s Supper. On that note, good sir, I would like to buy three.”
“Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, Makrina,” noted Metrophanes. “Are you from these parts, or did you travel to Nikaia?”
“I come from Kappadokia,” she replied. “I came here to see what the overseers would decide regarding the faith.”
“You are not Makrina the Confessor, are you? We have heard of your bravery under Diokletianos in Byzantion!”
“Many were brave in those days, Metrophanes of Byzantion,” Makrina said with a smile (was it sly or sad?). “I see a new kind of bravery need now, though, mark me. Rumour has it Byzantion is going to become the New Roma.”
“Well . . . I . . .”
“That’s what I hear, too,” Antonios noted, receiving the coins from Makrina. “Have they not already begun building houses of the Lord there and tearing down the old temples?”
“Indeed, they have,” noted Metrophanes.
“It is to be a city dedicated to the one and only God,” said Makrina. “No pagan ceremony will ever be performed in it, no pagan temple shall stand, no monument to any god but the one, true God.”
“Ah,” snorted a customer leaving with some lemons, “I hear there’ll be a statue of Konstantinos arrayed like the Unconquered Son. Which one, true god does anyone mean these days?” He trooped off.
“The heart of Konstantinos is good,” said Metrophanes. “He is still somewhat young in the faith. We must give him time and see where things go.”
“Indeed, let us hope his thoughts about God do not remain as naive as what we’ve seen in the council,” noted Makrina.
“His thoughts on architecture, on the other hand,” said Antonios, making change for a customer, “are not to be missed! You spoke, madam, of spoiling the Egyptians. Well, Konstantinos has been doing just that for the past year. He is stripping the monuments to the old gods and old emperors to furnish this new city! There shall be fora filled with art from all over the Empire.”
“Yes, my friends, Konstantinos is remaking Byzantion in a new image. The old is going, and the new is on its way. This is his thankoffering to the Most High for his defeat of Likinios and the maintenance of true religion, the triumph of the Anointed’s Assembly,” Metrophanes looked at the two of them.
“However,” Makrina noted, “is it not dangerous, this union of City and Assembly? Ought we not to always be looking to the City of God? Yet Konstantinos plans to give us a City of Earth.”
“He’s a politican,” Antonios replied, “Earth is his domain, not the heavens.”
“You have touched on a key aspect of it all, Makrina,” responded Metrophanes. “This is what the overseer, Alexandros, and many of the others in the city are concerned about. We have all, of course, been anxious to see what will come of this gathering here, about Arios’ fate. But we have another issue at hand in Byzantion — keeping the heavenly kingdom free from compromise as Konstantinos comes with his grand plan of reforming Roma’s dominion. It is a very difficult calling, and markedly contrasted with yours, dear lady. No longer will our faith be tried and tested with the sword, the wheel, the stocks, the rack, burning coals — instead, Satan, the False Accuser, will come after us with mammon, with power, wealth, earthly glory, a share in the course of the events of the empire, status, prestige, comfort, food. Rather than scare us into submission, he will try to buy our souls. It will be the hard task of future generations not to sell them to Hades and its denizens.”
“Well said, Metrophanes. God’s good blessings,” she walked off into the market.
“Well, old man, will you buy the pomegranate or not?” Antonios asked.
 J B Bury, Later Roman Empire; Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire; Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; W H C Frend, The Early Church (all we know from him is that he counts Alexander as bishop of Byzantium at the time of Nicaea); A H M Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (the content surrounding the discussion of Constantinople comes from here, pp. 190-193, but all opinions and conjectures are my own or the characters’); Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church. Also silent: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, The Catholic Encyclopedia
 In ancient Greek culture, calling someone “old man (geron)” was not rude but respectful.
 St. Macrina the Elder was probably not at Nicaea, thus rendering this entire an unlikely fiction. Also, the analogy she is about to make was one that her grandson, St. Gregory of Nyssa, was to make in his Life of Moses. Since this venerable lady exercised an influence over the education of her grandchildren, who is to say that St. Gregory’s idea did not come from her?
Constantine (272-337; r. 307-337) was the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity. As an Emperor, he seems very little different from his predecessors — a violent war-monger who sought supreme power for himself, engaged in great building projects, regulated the life of the Roman Empire, executed family members, was involved in various palace and political intrigues, and so on and so forth. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his recent book The Fall Of The West, says that Constantine ruled in a manner so similar to Diocletian (r. 284-305) that it is often difficult to determine who instituted which reforms.
Furthermore, Constantine’s tolerance for Christianity is not as outstanding as many, especially his panegyrists such as Eusebius, would like us to think. The third century was not a time of rife persecution from all emperors, but often had many emperors who tolerated Christianity, with one even giving formal acknowledgement of the protection of Christians.
Unlike his predecessors, Constantine was actually a Christian. Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) which he fought against his rival Maxentius, he had a dream saying, “In this, conquer,” indicating to him the labarum, or chi-rho sign — or possibly that of a cross with the top curved to look like a rho (which looks like a P). Having painted the labarum on his soldiers’ shields, he won the Milvian Bridge and credited his victory to the Christian god. Many Roman Emperors credited their victories to specific gods, so as yet this was still not excessively remarkable.
However, Constantine’s attachment to the Christian God was to grow throughout his reign. Christianity gained imperial favour, which resulted in new public church buildings designed in the style of the Roman basilica, the place for public meeting, law, and business. Included amongst these were the original St. Peter’s on Vatican Hill, St. John’s Lateran, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where his mother, St. Helena, went on pilgrimage. The Church was also returned her property which had been confiscated during the Diocletianic Persecution.
Our English word emperor comes from the Latin imperator, which was used by Rome’s leading citizen from Augustus in 27 BC to Romulus Augustulus in AD 476. The imperator was the supreme commander of Rome’s armies. He organised the legions and the navy. He planned campaigns against Rome’s enemies. He looked after the welfare of the State in a very physical, tangible sense. In Senatorial Rome, the military and the political and the administrative were never entirely divorced. The imperator was a great organiser of men.
What an imperator such as Constinatine really needed was to ensure the Pax Romana — the “Roman Peace” instituted by Augustus which had suffered greatly in the previous century through a great deal of internal turmoil which beckoned a number of external threats (chiefly Germanic or Persian). Part of this was instilling unity throughout the Empire, something attempted by Diocletian through an ill-fated price-fixing law. Constantine did this through the army, and he sought to do it to the Church.
Thus, Constantine called the ever-famous Council of Nicaea in 324 (for more on this, read my fictionalised Nicene Sketches). He was no theologian, and he knew it. What he wanted was for the Church to sort herself out and become a unified force within a unified Empire. Thus, the problems posed by Arius and his supporters needed to be dealt with. If we look at the letters from Constantine to Arius and the involved bishops, his chief accusation against Arius was not doctrinal but that Arius was stirring things up and not submitting to his bishop.
Nicaea set the stage for the future Ecumenical Councils that helped the Church clarify her thought on certain foundational questions of theology, the person of Christ, and the Holy Trinity. It also set a dangerous precedent for future emperors to meddle where warriors and politicians do not belong.
Constantine also established the city of Constantinople at Byzantium on the Bosporus (modern Istanbul) which later became the capital of the Eastern Empire when Rome’s power divided. This city has largely been rumoured to have been free from pagan influences under the new Christian emperor. Such is not the case; many pre-existing temples were retained, and Constantine even commissioned a naked statue of himself as Sol Invictus — the Unconquered Sun — atop a column. Constantine’s conversion, even in the late 320’s and 330’s, was not sudden but gradual. And, despite the occasional syncretistic blending of Sol Invictus and YHWH (the former also makes his way onto coinage), Constantinople was still overwhelmingly Christian, no doubt part of Constantine’s vision for himself as starting grand, new things, not because he had any antipathy towards paganism; as a ruler, he allowed pluralist paganism to continue and even received appeals from pagan cults.
Although Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was not a massive revolution in his religious life, it was real. There was probably an element of political manoeuvring, probably also an element of superstition following the Milvian Bridge, but also undoubtedly sincere trust in the God of the Christians. From 312 to 337, this faith was nurtured and informed by the Christians around Constantine.
He was baptised near the end of his life, the result of some concern over whether or not post-baptism sins could be forgiven — a concern that was real at this time in ancient Christianity. He reposed on May 22, 337 and was buried in a grand mausoleum in Constantinople, surrounded by images of the Twelve Apostles.
He may not be the “Thirteenth Apostle” as some style him, but he was, in my opinion, a sincere believer who had a large impact upon the Church in his lifetime and beyond. His impact did not affect the doctrine of the Church — Nicaea merely forced the bishops to get together in one room and come to a decision, and that decision was even questioned and overthrown after Constantine’s death. He did not affect the organisation of the Church’s threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. He did not affect the liturgy of the Church. His basilicas did not change too much — Christians were already gathering in large buildings by this time, although most of them were converted homes.
What Constantine did bring about was the thrusting of the Church into public life. This had both good and bad affects. Among the good were a greater ability to freely evangelise the 90 to 60 percent of the Empire’s population who still held to the traditional religions. It meant greater ease of organisation, which meant a greater ability to deal with heretics, schismatics, and people who were just plain weird (ie. men who castrated themselves in the pursuit of holiness). It meant that the Church could become a more dramatic patron of the arts and a more lavish helper of the poor. All of these things the Church was already — now she was in a position to have even greater influence for the good of the people of the Roman Empire, thanks to Constantine and his conversion.
G.K. Chesterton once submitted an entry to a discussion about how St. George would feel were he to be dropped into modern England. Most of the other entries talked about how vastly different England would be in their day than his, and how he would be shocked and surprised and feel totally out-of-place. In true contrarian, Chestertonian fashion, G.K. submitted an entry that went counter to all of this and said how at-home St. George would feel in modern England, being a cosmopolitan man himself from the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity.
Chesterton has launched his readers out of the myth that surrounds St. George and realised that this is a real man who didn’t even live in England. And whether there was a dragon or not, St. George is worth a look, worth not skipping over.
George was a soldier. He is one of the very few ancient soldier-saints, along with St. Demetrius. He lived from c. 275-303 under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284/5-311). Diocletian was the last Emperor to engage in a systematic persecution of Christians. Bishops and presbyters (“priests”, lit. “elders”) were asked to hand over the holy books — presumably Bibles, lectionaries, and liturgical books. Christians w
ere forced to burn incense to the Genius of the Emperor to prove that they were true Romans and hadn’t violated the Pax Deorum. Furthermore, all soldiers had to swear oaths of loyalty to the Emperor who was the Imperator — originally “General”, but now the sole general, the supreme commander of the armed forces of the Roman Empire.
He was not born a soldier, of course, but was nevertheless born into a family that included a soldier-father and both parents Christians. When George was only fourteen years old, his father died, followed a few years later by his mother. Young George decided to go to Nicomedia, which was then housing the Imperial court, and seek service in the guard of Diocletian. Diocletian accepted George, having been acquainted with his father who man of great soldiering ability. George would then have undergone all of the training requisite and necessary for a soldier and joined the household guard of the Emperor Diocletian.
St. George rose to the rank of tribune, and all was fine and dandy with his military career until 302. In 302, Diocletian launched his Great Persecution. Part of this persecution was the elimination of Christians from the army. All of the soldiers were forced to sacrifice to the gods and the Christians were arrested. George refused to make the commanded sacrifice and was thus arrested, having made a public declaration of his refusal and his Christian beliefs.
The Emperor Diocletian made many attempts to persuade George to make the sacrifice and surrender his Christian beliefs, but George was made of sterner stuff than that. Following what was no doubt a very painful torture, St. George was executed by the Emperor Diocletian. His torture seems to have included the wheel, and whipping, and other unpleasantnesses.
This is what we can know for certain. The lesson runs no different and no deeper than those of Sts. Valentine, Polycarp, and other early martyrs.
St. George also has his mythical side, of which all are aware. This is what drew me to St. George as a child — obsessed with knights and dragons, I remember reading a children’s book all about St. George and the Dragon. In my wallet, I have an icon of St. George given to me by Michael, a Cypriot owner of a periptero (corner store). I also have an icon pin of St. George on my jacket, given my by a guy on the bus one day here in Toronto. Both of these icons have St. George mounted on his valiant steed impaling a dragon through the mouth with a spear.
To borrow a phrase from Emily, that which is mythical is “bigger than true”. The literal, historical truth we have seen. What of the bigger story? St. George comes to a city where the spring was guarded by a dragon. Every day, the citizens had to provide the dragon with a sheep to be able to draw water from the spring. If they ran out of sheep, the dragon required a maiden. Since the maidens were drawn by lots, inevitably the ruler’s daughter is selected. St. George comes and saves her, slaying the dragon and converting the people to Christianity.
Some say that the snakes of Ireland driven out by St. Patrick symbolise the demons and old gods or the sins of the Irish people. Perhaps that is what the myth shows us. George comes as the valiant soldier of Christ, and he defeats the dragon — a traditional symbol of the Devil, as seen in the book of Revelation. As a result of the death of the Devil or the old ways, the people are drawn to Christ.
Perhaps we are that city, beset by the dragon of sin and self-indulgence, and someone will come into our life as St. George to slay that dragon and set us free to worship Christ.
Last week’s saint was to be St. Alban the Martyr. So you get him today instead. I am a big fan of St. Alban.
St. Alban holds the distinction of being the first British martyr. According to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was martyred under Diocletian, c. 305. The following is pretty much from memory; correct me if I’m wrong.
Alban was converted when he gave refuge to a priest during the persecution. While the priest was staying with him, he observed this Christian at prayer and was converted to the Faith and then baptised by him. When the soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban dressed in the priest’s clothes, so they took him instead. Having gone before the magistrate — who, if I remember aright, was sacrificing to demons at the time — the ruse was found out. Nevertheless, he refused to make the necessary sacrifice and was condemned to death. I imagine the sacrifice was burning incense to the Emperor.
As the soldiers were marching him to the place of execution, for some reason they couldn’t use the bridge. Alban was so prepared to stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ that, like Moses, Joshua, or Elijah, he parted the waters of the river and continued on to the place of his earthly death. His first executioner was converted by the miracle and refused to behead this holy man. He was condemned to death also. The second executioner’s eyes proceeded to fall out of his head when he did the wicked deed — much to the delight of mediaeval illuminators. And where Alban’s head fell, there did a spring bubble up.
Alban has been a part of my life for many years. My father was rector of St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Brooks, Alberta, when I was born. I was thus baptised at St. Alban’s. St. Alban’s martyrdom was accordingly listed in the events on my dad’s timeline of church history during confirmation class (although by then we were at a different parish). In university, I was blessed to attend St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church in Ottawa. Then I was married at St. Alban’s in 2007. All that remains is to find a St. Alban’s for me to attend at the hour of my death so that I may have my funeral at St. Alban’s.
Oh yes—and whilst in university, the martyr would occasionally grow restless. My friends and I would oblige him by taking his statue from the church around the city and getting some photos with him. He visited the pubs with us, went to class, saw the Parliament Buildings, attended my wedding.
Finally, let us reflect on St. Alban and see what we can learn from his tale. Certainly we learn that Christ can use even the observation of a believer at prayer to enact His work of saving grace in people’s lives. We should not be awkward about praying or uncomfortable mentioning our prayer lives to those around us. Second, we see that we should carry ourselves with bravery. This saint went bravely and eagerly to his martyrdom. Perhaps you doubt tales of miraculous river crossings, eyes popping out of heads, springs rising up where bits of saints land. Nevertheless, we should not be ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone! Let us be emboldened by St. Alban the Martyr — not to the point of insensitive spiritual bullying, but to the point of clear, unabashed statements of what we believe as followers of the Most High God.
St. Alban’s feast day is June 22 by the BCP calendar. He is much remembered and revered by Anglicans because he is England’s first martyr. Thus, there were 9 parishes dedicated to him in England in “ancient times”.