The Church had endured a long period of peace after the persecution of Decius, in 250; and in the half-century that had followed, although there had been recrudescences of persecution, it had been spasmodic and local.
During those fifty years the Church had made great way. Conversions had been numerous, persons in high station suffered not only their slaves, but their wives and children, to profess themselves Christians. Places about the court, even in the imperial household, were filled with Christians; and even some were appointed to be governors of provinces, with exemption from being obliged to assist at the usual sacrifices. The Christians built churches of their own, and these not by any means small and such as might escape observation.
But, internally, there had been a great development of her own powers in the Church, such as had not been possible when she was proscribed, and could only exercise her vital functions in secret.
And among one of the most remarkable and significant phenomena of this vigorous expansion of life was the initiation of monastic life. In Syria and in Egypt there had for long been something of the kind, but not connected with Christianity.
In Palestine were the Essenes. They numbered about four thousand; they lived in convents, and led a strange life. Five writers of antiquity speak of them – Josephus, Philo, Pliny the Elder, Epiphanius and Hippolytus. They were a Jewish sect, a revolt against Pharisaism, and a survival of the schools of the prophets.
Of fervent and exalted piety, of ardent conviction impatient of the puerilities and the bondage of Rabbinism, they sought to live to God in meditation and prayer and study.
They built for themselves great houses on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, which they occupied. They observed the law of Moses with great literalness; they had all things in common; they fasted, prayed, and saw visions. They did not marry, they abstained from wine, they tilled the soil when not engaged in prayer. They were, in a word, monks, but Jewish monks.
When Christianity spread, it entered into and gave a new spirit to these communities without their changing form.
In Egypt, in like manner were the Theraputae, not Jews, nor confined to Egypt, but most numerous there. They were conspicuous for their habits of great austerity and self-mortification. They left their homes, gave up their substance, fled towns and lived in solitary places, in little habitations or cells apart yet not distant from one another. Each had his little oratory for prayer and praise. They neither ate nor drank till the sun set. Some ate only once in three days, and then only bread, flavoured with salt and hyssop. They prayed twice a day, and between the times of prayer read, meditated or worked. Men and women belonged to the order, but lived separately though sometimes praying in common.
Here again we see the shell into which the new life entered, without really changing or greatly modifying the external character.
Doubtless the teaching of the Gospel reached these societies, was accepted, and gradually gave to them a Christian complexion – that was all.
Whether this sort of life was in accordance with the Gospel, was not doubted by them, having before them the example of Christ who retreated into the wilderness for forty days, and His words exhorting to the renunciation of everything that men hold dear, and the recommendation to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow in His footsteps.
It is significant that it was precisely in Palestine where the Essenes had flourished, and in Egypt that the Therapeutae had maintained such numerous colonies that we find the most vigorous development of monachism. It is not possible to doubt that the one slid into the other imperceptibly.
The persecution of Diocletian broke out in 304. At that time there was at Sibapte, in Syria, a convent of fifty virgins.
One of these, named Febronia, aged eighteen, was the niece of the abbess, Bryene. She was wondrously fair of face and graceful of form, and the old sisters seem to have regarded her with reverence as well as love, because of her marvellous loveliness of body as well as innocence of soul. Apparently when quite young she had lost her parents, and had been taken by her aunt into the convent in earliest infancy, so that she had grown up among the sisters, as a sweet flower, utterly ignorant of the world.
She had studied Scripture so deeply, and was so spiritual in mind, that many ladies living in the cities of Syria came to visit and consult her. Bryene drew a curtain between her niece and those who visited her, so as not to distract her thoughts, as also not to expose her to the gaze of vulgar curiosity.
One day a young heathen woman came to the monastery in the first grief at the loss of her husband, to whom she had been married but seven months. She had found no comfort in the religion of her parents, who could not assure her that the soul had any life after death; it was no true consolation to her to set up a monument in honour of the deceased, and so, hearing of Febronia, she came to Bryene, and falling at her feet, entreated to be allowed to tell her trouble to the girl Febronia.
The abbess hesitated, as the woman was a pagan; but at length, moved by her tears and persistency, gave consent, admitted her into the cell of the nun, and allowed her to tarry with her as long as she pleased.
They passed the night together. Febronia opened the Gospel and read to the broken-hearted woman the words of life. They fell on good ground. The widow wept and listened, and wept again, and as the sun rose on them, she begged to be properly instructed, so as to receive baptism.
When she was gone, “Who,” asked Febronia, “was that strange woman who came to me, and who cried as though her heart would break when I read the Scriptures to her?”
“It was Hiera,” answered the nun Thomais, who afterwards committed the whole narrative to writing. “Hiera is the widow of a senator.”
“Oh,” said Febronia, “why did you not inform me of her rank? I have been talking to her just as if she had been my sister.”
The noble widow did become the sister of the nun in the faith, and in the family of Christ; and when, some time after, Febronia fell very ill, Hiera insisted on being allowed to be with her and nurse her with her own hands.
Febronia was but convalescent, and looking white as a lily, when Selenus, charged with the execution of the imperial decree against Christians, arrived at Sibapte. He was accompanied by his nephews Lysimachus and Primus, the former of whom was suspected by Diocletian of having a leaning towards Christianity, as his mother had been of the household of faith, and he was a youth of a singularly meditative and temperate life.
Selenus accordingly brought his nephews with him, to associate them with himself in the deeds of cruelty that were meditated, and to awe them into dread of transgressing the will and command of the emperor.
Primus was a cousin on his mother’s side to Lysimachus, and he shared with him disgust at the cruelty of their uncle, and they did what was in their power – they sent timely warning to the Christians to escape from a city that was about to be visited.
As soon as the bishop and clergy of Sibapte heard that the governor purposed coming to the place, they dispersed and secreted themselves. The sisters of the convent in great agitation waited on the abbess, and entreated her to allow them to escape for their lives.
Bryene bade them entertain no alarm, as the danger only threatened, and was not at their doors: such humble, insignificant folk as they might expect to be overlooked. At the same time she was really distracted with anxiety, as Febronia was not strong enough to be removed, and she could not leave her.
The sisters took counsel together, and electing one named Aetheria as their spokeswoman, made a second remonstrance, and complained, “We know what is your real reason for retaining us: it is that you are solicitous about Febronia; but the bishop and clergy are in hiding. Do try to carry Febronia away, and suffer us to leave.”
Febronia, however, could not be moved, so Bryene dismissed the nuns, and they decamped forthwith; two alone remained – Thomais, the writer of the history, and Procla, who acted as nurse to the sick girl, and who could not find the heart to tear herself away.
Almost immediately after the sisters had fled, news reached those who remained that the governor had arrived. Febronia heard her aunt sobbing. She looked at Thomais, and asked, “I pray you, dear mother, what is the great mistress” (for this was the title of the abbess) “crying so bitterly about?”
“My child,” answered the old nun, “she is sore at heart about you. We are old and ugly, and all that can chance to us is death; but you are young and fair, and there are things we fear for you of which you know nothing. We need not say more to you, dearest child, than bid you be very cautious how you accept any offers made to you by the governor, however innocent they may appear. A danger lurks behind them of which you have no conception.”
The night passed in anxious conversation and in mutual encouragement. Next morning Selenus sent soldiers to the convent, who broke open the door, and would have cut down Bryene, had not Febronia started from her pallet, and casting herself at their feet, implored them to kill her rather than her old aunt.
Primus arrived at this juncture, rebuked the soldiers for their violence, and bade them go outside the house. Then, turning to Bryene, he asked somewhat impatiently why she had not taken advantage of the warning that had been sent, and escaped.
“Even now,” said he, “I will make shift to help you. I will withdraw the soldiers, and do you escape by the back of the house.”
Primus then withdrew, and it is possible that the three nuns and Febronia might have escaped, but that Selenus, suspicious of his nephew, sent back the soldiers with peremptory orders to secure Febronia and bring her before him. This was done, and she and the rest were thrown for the night into the common prison.
Next day Selenus ascended the tribunal, and was accompanied by his nephews Primus and Lysimachus, whom he forced to attend.
Bryene and Thomais appeared, each holding a hand of the sick girl and sustaining her. They begged to be tried and condemned with her.
“They are a pair of old hags,” said Selenus. “Dismiss them.”
Then they were separated from their charge.
“Mother,” said Febronia, clinging to and kissing Bryene, “I trust in God that, as I have been ever obedient to thee in the monastery, so I may be faithful to what thou hast exhorted me to do, faithful here openly before all the people. Go then – do not stay here, but pray for me, but before leaving give me thy benediction.”
Then she slid to her knees, and Bryene, stretching her hands to heaven, cried: “Lord Jesus Christ, who didst appear to Thy handmaid Thecla, in her agony, to comfort her, stand by Thy lowly one in her great contest.”
So saying, she fell on the neck of Febronia, and they kissed and wept and clung to each other till parted by the soldiers.
Then, unable to bear the sight of what she knew must follow, Bryene retired to the deserted convent, and begged that word might be sent her as to how all ended.
In the meantime, Hiera had heard of the arrest of Febronia, and wild with grief she rushed to the place of judgment. She found the court crammed with people, mostly women, agitated, indignant, and murmuring. There was a space clear before the tribunal, where stood the accused, and at one side were various instruments of torture, and a stake driven into the ground furnished with rings and ropes. On the judgment seat were Selenus, with his nephews by him.
Selenus turned to Lysimachus, and said, “Do you open the examination.”
The young man, struggling with his emotion, began – “Tell me, young maiden, what is thy condition?”
“I am a servant,” answered Febronia.
“Whose servant?” asked Lysimachus.
“I am the servant of Christ.”
“And tell me thy name, I pray thee.”
“I am a humble Christian,” answered Febronia.
“May I ask thy name, maiden?”
“The good mother always calls me Febronia.”
Then Selenus broke in: “We shall never have done if you push along in this fashion. To the point at once. Febronia, I vow by the gods that I have no desire to hurt thee. Here is a gallant young gentleman, my nephew; take him as thy husband, and forget the silly stuff, thy religion. I had other views for the boy, but that matters not; never have I seen a sweeter face than thine, and I am content to accept thee as my niece. I am a man of few words: accept my offer, and all is well; or by the living gods I will make thee rue the refusal.”
Febronia replied calmly, “I have a heavenly Bridegroom, eternal; with celestial glory as His dower.”
Selenus burst forth with, “Soldiers, strip the wench.” He was obeyed; they allowed her to wear only a tattered cloak over her shoulders.
Calm, without a sign of being discomposed, Febronia bore the outrage.
“How now, you impudent hussy?” scoffed Selenus; “where is your maiden modesty? I saw no struggles, no blushes.”
“God Almighty knows, judge, that till this day I have never seen the face of man, for I was only two years old when I was taken as a little baby to my aunt, and the rest of my life I have spent there among the good sisters. Do I seem lost to shame? Nay, I have been assured that wrestlers strip in the games when they strive for victory. I fear thee not.”
“Stretch her, face downwards, over a slow fire. Bind her hands and feet to four stakes, and so – scourge her.”
He was obeyed, and the crimson blood trickled over her white skin at every stroke of the lash, and hissed in the glowing charcoal.
The multitude, looking on, could not bear the sight, and with one voice entreated that she might be removed and dismissed.
But the shouts only made Selenus more angry, and he ordered the executioners to redouble the blows. Thomais, unable to endure the sight, fainted at the feet of Hiera, who uttered a cry of “Oh, Febronia, my sister! Thomais is dying.”
The poor sufferer turned her head, and asked the executioner to throw water over the face of the fainting woman, and begged to be allowed to say a word to Hiera.
But the judge interposed to forbid this indulgence, and ordered Febronia to be untied and placed on the rack.
This was sometimes called “the little horse.” It had four legs united by planks. At each end was a crank. The sufferer was attached by the feet and hands at ankles and wrists to cords that passed over rollers between the planks. She thus hung below and between the two pieces of wood. At a signal from the magistrate, the executioners turned the cranks, and these drew the feet and hands tighter towards the rollers, and strained them, so that if this were persisted in, the limbs were pulled out of joint.
“Well, girl,” asked Selenus, “how do you like your first taste of torture?”
“Learn from the manner in which I have borne it, that my resolution is unalterable,” answered Febronia.
On the rack her sides were torn with iron combs. She prayed incessantly: “O Lord, make haste to help me. Leave me not, neither forsake me in my hour of pain!”
“Cut out her tongue,” ordered the judge.
Febronia was detached from the rack and tied to the post in the centre of the place. But when the multitude saw what the executioner was about to do, the excitement and indignation became so menacing, that the judge thought it prudent to countermand the order. Instead of which, however, he bade the surgeon in attendance extract her teeth. When he had drawn seventeen, Selenus bade him desist.
“Cut off her breasts.”
This atrocious order caused a renewed uproar. The physician hesitated. But Selenus was fairly roused. “Coward, go on! Cut!” he shouted, and the surgeon, with a sweep of the razor, sliced off her right breast.
Febronia uttered a cry as she felt the steel gash her: “My Lord! my God! see what I suffer, and receive my soul into Thy hands.”
These were the last words she spoke.
“Cut off the other breast, and put fire to the wound,” said Selenus.
He was obeyed. The mob swayed and quivered with indignation; women wept and fainted. Then with a roar broke forth the execration, “Cursed be Diocletian and all his gods!”
Thereupon Hiera sent a girl running to the convent to Bryene to tell her all. And the old abbess flung herself on the ground sobbing, “Bra, bra, bra! Febronia, my child!” Then raising her arms and straining her eyes to heaven, she cried, “Lord, regard Thy humble handmaiden, Febronia, and may my aged eyes see the battle fought out, and my dear child numbered with the martyrs.”
In the meantime Selenus had ordered the cords to be removed which bound Febronia to the stake. Then she dropped in a heap on the sand, her long hair flowing over and clothing her mangled body.
Primus said under his breath to his cousin, “The poor girl is dead.”
“She died to bring light and conviction to many hearts – perhaps to mine,” answered Lysimachus aloud, that his uncle might hear. “Would that it had been in my power to have saved her! Now let her finish her conflict and enter into her rest.”
Then Hiera, bursting into the arena, stood wild with indignation and anguish before the judge, and shrieked, as she shook her hands at him, – “O monster of cruelty! shame on thee, shame! Thou, born of a woman, hast forgotten the obligation to honour womanhood, and hast insulted and outraged thy mother in the person of this poor girl. God, the Judge above judges, will make a swift work with thee, and cut it short, and root thee out of the land of the living.”
Selenus, stung with these words, exasperated at the resentment of the mob, and finding that he had fairly roused his nephews into defiance of his authority, shouted his orders to have the widow put on the rack.
But at this point some of the town authorities interfered, and warned the judge that he was proceeding to dangerous lengths. Hiera was well connected, popular; and if she were tortured, a riot was certain to ensue. “Half the town will rush here and insist on being tried and tortured. They will all confess Christ.”
Selenus reluctantly gave orders for the release of Hiera, and directed the current of his rage on Febronia, now unconscious. He ordered first her hands, then her feet, and finally her head to be struck off; and when all was finished, rose from his seat, turned to Lysimachus, and saw that his face was bathed in tears. He hastily withdrew to supper, angry with himself, his nephews, and the mob.
Lysimachus and Primus descended to the arena, and standing by the mutilated body, vowed to renounce the gods of Diocletian and to worship the God of Febronia. Then the young men gave orders for the removal of the mangled remains to the house of Bryene.
Almost the whole city crowded to see the body of the young girl who had suffered so heroically.
That night Lysimachus could not eat or speak at supper, and Selenus forced himself to riotous mirth and drunk hard.
We cannot quite trust what follows. It was too tempting to a copyist to allow the governor to go away unchastised. Perhaps it is true that in a drunken and angry fit Selenus, pacing the room storming, slipped on the polished pavement, and in falling hit his head against a pillar – with the result that he never spoke again, having congestion of the brain, and died next day. It is quite possible that this may be true. If it were an interpolation by a copyist, he would have killed him by fire falling from heaven and consuming him – that was the approved way with the re-writers of the Acts of Martyrs.
When Constantine became Emperor both the young men were baptised, retired into solitude and embraced the monastic life.
The name of Febronia is in the Greek, Coptic and Abyssinian Kalendars. The simple and apparently quite trustworthy account of her death was by Thomais, the nun who saw her die, and had known her all her short life.