Saints Sergius and Bacchus

Saints Sergius and Bacchus

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Saints Sergius and Bacchus (also Serge and Bacchus or Sergios kai Bakchos or Sarkis wa Bakhos), were third century Roman
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 soldiers who are commemorated as martyr
A martyr is somebody who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce, or accept, a belief or cause, usually religious.-Meaning:...

s by the Catholic
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox
Oriental Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy is the faith of those Eastern Christian Churches that recognize only three ecumenical councils — the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople and the First Council of Ephesus. They rejected the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon...

 churches. According to their hagiography Sergius and Bacchus were officers in Caesar Galerius Maximianus
Galerius , was Roman Emperor from 305 to 311. During his reign he campaigned, aided by Diocletian, against the Sassanid Empire, sacking their capital Ctesiphon in 299. He also campaigned across the Danube against the Carpi, defeating them in 297 and 300...

's army, and were held high in his favor until they were exposed as secret Christians. They were then severely punished, with Bacchus dying during torture, and Sergius eventually beheaded. Churches in their honor have been built in several cities, including Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

 and Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

. Their feast day is October 7. The close friendship between Sergius and Bacchus is strongly emphasized in their hagiographies and traditions, making them one of the most famous examples of paired saints. This closeness has led the historian John Boswell to put forth the suggestion that their relationship was a romantic one; this suggestion has been challenged by several authors, including David Woods, Robin Darling Young, and Brent D. Shaw.


The saints' story is told in the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 text known as The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus. According to the text, they were Roman citizens and high-ranking officers of the Roman Army
Roman army
The Roman army is the generic term for the terrestrial armed forces deployed by the kingdom of Rome , the Roman Republic , the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine empire...

, but their covert Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 was discovered when they attempted to avoid accompanying a Roman official into a pagan
Religion in ancient Rome
Religion in ancient Rome encompassed the religious beliefs and cult practices regarded by the Romans as indigenous and central to their identity as a people, as well as the various and many cults imported from other peoples brought under Roman rule. Romans thus offered cult to innumerable deities...

 temple with the rest of his bodyguard. After they persisted in refusing to sacrifice to Jupiter
Jupiter (mythology)
In ancient Roman religion and myth, Jupiter or Jove is the king of the gods, and the god of the sky and thunder. He is the equivalent of Zeus in the Greek pantheon....

 in the company of the emperor Galerius
Galerius , was Roman Emperor from 305 to 311. During his reign he campaigned, aided by Diocletian, against the Sassanid Empire, sacking their capital Ctesiphon in 299. He also campaigned across the Danube against the Carpi, defeating them in 297 and 300...

, they were publicly humiliated by being chained and dressed in female attire and paraded around town. Galerius then sent them to Barbalissos
Barbalissos was a city rebuilt near the ruinous site of ancient Emar in the Roman province of Mesopotamia, now in Syria.-History:It was a city in the province of Syria Euphratensis, where the Equites Dalmatae Illyriciani kept garrison Barbalissos was a city rebuilt near the ruinous site of ancient...

 in Mesopotamia to be tried by Antiochus, the military commander there and an old friend of Sergius. Antiochus could not convince them to give up their faith, however, and Bacchus was beaten to death. The next day Bacchus' spirit appeared to Sergius and encouraged him to remain strong so they could be together forever. Over the next days, Sergius was also brutally tortured and finally executed at Resafa
Resafa , known in Roman times as Sergiopolis, was a city located in what is now modern-day Syria. It is an archaeological site situated south-west of the city of Ar Raqqah and the Euphrates.-History:...

, where his death was marked by miraculous happenings.


The Passion, replete with supernatural occurrences and historical anachronisms, has been dismissed as an unreliable historical source. There is no firm evidence for Sergius and Bacchus' scholae palatinae
Scholae Palatinae
The Scholae Palatinae , were an elite military guard unit, usually ascribed to the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great as a replacement for the equites singulares Augusti, the cavalry arm of the Praetorian Guard...

having been used by Galerius or any other emperor before Constantine I
Constantine I
Constantine the Great , also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine, was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious tolerance of all...

, and given that persecution of Christians had begun in the army considerably before the overall persecutions of the early 4th century, it is very unlikely that even secret Christians could have risen through the ranks of the imperial bodyguard. Finally, there is no evidence to support the existence of monks, such as the ones said in the Passion to have recovered Bacchus' body, living near the Euphrates
The Euphrates is the longest and one of the most historically important rivers of Western Asia. Together with the Tigris, it is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia...

 during the 4th century.

Instead, the Italian scholar Pio Franchi de Cavalieri has argued that The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus was based on an earlier lost passion of Juventinus and Maximinus, two saints martyred under Emperor Julian the Apostate
Julian the Apostate
Julian "the Apostate" , commonly known as Julian, or also Julian the Philosopher, was Roman Emperor from 361 to 363 and a noted philosopher and Greek writer....

 in 363. He noted especially that the punishment of being paraded around in women's clothes reflected the treatment of Christian soldiers by Julian. David Woods further notes that Zosimus
Zosimus was a Byzantine historian, who lived in Constantinople during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I . According to Photius, he was a comes, and held the office of "advocate" of the imperial treasury.- Historia Nova :...

' Historia Nova includes a description of Julian punishing cavalry deserters in just such a manner, further strengthening the argument that the author of The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus took material from the stories of martyrs of Julian's time rather than that of Galerius. Additionally, the work has been dated to mid-5th century, and there is no other evidence for the cult of Sergius and Bacchus before about 425, over a century after they are said to have died. As such there is considerable doubt about their historicity.

Popularity and veneration

Veneration of the two saints dates to the 5th century. A shrine to Sergius was built in Resafa, renamed Sergiopolis
Resafa , known in Roman times as Sergiopolis, was a city located in what is now modern-day Syria. It is an archaeological site situated south-west of the city of Ar Raqqah and the Euphrates.-History:...

 around 425, but there is no certain evidence for his or Bacchus' cult much older than that. This shrine was constructed of mudbrick
A mudbrick is a firefree brick, made of a mixture of clay, mud, sand, and water mixed with a binding material such as rice husks or straw. They use a stiff mixture and let them dry in the sun for 25 days....

, evidently at the behest of bishop Alexander of Hierapolis
Alexander of Hierapolis
Alexander of Hierapolis was the name of two different bishops of that city:*Alexander, a bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, who flourished around the year 253. He was the author of a book titled On the new things introduced by Christ into the world , which is no longer extant.*Alexander, a bishop...

. The Passion has been dated to the mid-5th century on the grounds that it describes the construction of such a shrine as if it were a relatively recent occurrence. This structure was replaced with a sturdier stone one in 518; this new site was patronized by important political figures including Roman Emperor Justinian I
Justinian I
Justinian I ; , ; 483– 13 or 14 November 565), commonly known as Justinian the Great, was Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565. During his reign, Justinian sought to revive the Empire's greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the classical Roman Empire.One of the most important figures of...

, King Khosrau II
Khosrau II
250px|thumb|Khosrau II 250px|thumb|Khosrau II 250px|thumb|Khosrau II (Khosrow II, Chosroes II, or Xosrov II in classical sources, sometimes called Parvez, "the Ever Victorious" – (in Persian: خسرو پرویز), was the twenty-second Sassanid King of Persia, reigning from 590 to 628...

 of Sassanid Persia
Sassanid Empire
The Sassanid Empire , known to its inhabitants as Ērānshahr and Ērān in Middle Persian and resulting in the New Persian terms Iranshahr and Iran , was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty from 224 to 651...

, and Al-Mundhir, ruler of the Ghassanids
The Ghassanids were a group of South Arabian Christian tribes that emigrated in the early 3rd century from Yemen to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Holy Land....


The popularity of the cult of Sergius and Bacchus grew rapidly during the early 5th century, in accordance with the growth of the cult of martyrs, especially military martyrs, during that period. In the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

, they were venerated as protectors of the army. A large monastery church, the Little Hagia Sophia
Little Hagia Sophia
Little Hagia Sophia , formerly the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus , is a former Eastern Orthodox church dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople, later converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire....

, was dedicated to them in Constantinople by Justinian I, probably in 527. Sergius was a very popular saint in Syria and Christian Arabia.

The city of Resafa, which became a bishop's see, took the name Sergiopolis and preserved his relics in a fortified basilica
The Latin word basilica , was originally used to describe a Roman public building, usually located in the forum of a Roman town. Public basilicas began to appear in Hellenistic cities in the 2nd century BC.The term was also applied to buildings used for religious purposes...

. Resafa was improved by Emperor Justinian, and became one of the greatest pilgrimage centers in the East. Many other churches were built dedicated in the name of Sergius, sometimes with Bacchus. A church dedicated to Santi Sergio e Bacco
Santi Sergio e Bacco
Santi Sergio e Bacco is a Catholic church of the Byzantine Rite in the rione of Monti in Rome, Italy, located in Piazza Madonna dei Monti. Saints Sergius and Bacchus are said to have been early fourth century Roman military officers and Christian martyrs buried in Syria...

 was built in Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

 in the 9th century. Christian art represents the two saints as soldiers in military garb with branches of palm in their hands. Their feast is observed on 7 October, and a mass is assigned to them in the "Sacramentarium
Gelasian Sacramentary
The so-called "Gelasian Sacramentary" is a book of Christian liturgy. A sacramentary contains the priest's texts for celebrating the Eucharist throughout the year...

" of Pope Gelasius
Pope Gelasius I
Pope Saint Gelasius I was pope from 492 until his death in 496. He was the third and last bishop of Rome of African origin in the Catholic Church. Gelasius was a prolific writer whose style placed him on the cusp between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages...

. The nomads of the desert looked upon Sergius as their special patron saint
Patron saint
A patron saint is a saint who is regarded as the intercessor and advocate in heaven of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, clan, family, or person...


In the Armenian Church traditions Sergius, or Sarkis, was venerated as a Christian general in the Roman army. He was martyred with his son, Martyros, for witnessing to their faith in Christ. The feast is preceded by a three-day fasting.

Sergius and Bacchus are noted as a classic example of paired saints; scholar John Boswell considers them to be the most influential example of such a pair, even better an example of such an archetype than Saints Peter and Paul
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, or the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, is a liturgical feast in honour of the martyrdom in Rome of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which is observed on 29 June...

. In his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Boswell further argues that Sergius and Bacchus's relationship can be understood as having a romantic dimension, noting that the oldest text of their martyrology describes them as erastai, which can be translated as "lovers". He suggested that the two were even united in a rite known as adelphopoiesis
Adelphopoiesis, or adelphopoiia from the Greek , derived from "brother" and "I make", literally "brother-making" is a ceremony practiced at one time by various Christian churches to unite together two people of the same sex...

or (brother-making), which he argued was a type of early Christian same-sex union
Same-sex marriage
Same-sex marriage is marriage between two persons of the same biological sex or social gender. Supporters of legal recognition for same-sex marriage typically refer to such recognition as marriage equality....

 or blessing, reinforcing his view of tolerant early Christian attitudes toward homosexuality
History of Christianity and homosexuality
This article focuses on the history of homosexuality and Christianity from the beginnings of the Church through the mid 1900's. For current teachings of Christian Churches on homosexuality see Homosexuality and Christianity....

. However, Boswell's methodology and conclusions have been challenged by historians including David Woods, Robin Darling Young, and Brent Shaw
Brent Shaw
Brent D. Shaw is an historian who teaches ancient history at Princeton University.Shaw earned his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Alberta in 1968 and 1971, respectively, and then later his Ph.D...


External links