Saints of the Day – Forty Armenian Martyrs

Orthodox icon of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, author unknown, late 19th centuryArticle

Died 320. Emperor Licinius ordered every Christian in Cappadocia to renounce the faith. This reversed the policy of toleration that his brother-in-law Constantine had introduced in 313. The governor of Lesser Armenia, Agricolaus, published this decree before his army, but forty soldiers of the twelfth, “Thunderstruck,” legion refused to obey.

When persuasion, promises, and torture failed to sway these 40 men of various nationality and one faith, Agricolaus worked out a plan he considered certain to make them recant. Outside the city walls of Sebaste (Sivas, Turkey) was a frozen lake. He ordered the forty Christians to strip and lie on the ice. At the edge of the lake a huge bathful of water was placed over a fire, continually tempting the Christians to abandon their torment on the ice.

One of the soldiers broke, and jumped into the water. The intense contrast between the cold he had endured and the heat of the bath killed him. Another soldier, seeing the faith of the other 39 and having experienced a dream of an angel, stripped himself and joined them, accepting the 40th place. The next day almost all were dead, except the youngest, a boy named Melito. His brave mother carried her child after the corpses of the rest until he too died in her arms, then laid his body by the side of the others.

Many ecclesiastical writers of that period speak of this group of martyrs, including Saints Basil, Ephrem, Gregory of Nyssa, Gaudentius of Brescia, John Chrysostom, Sozomen, and others. They are still highly venerated in the East on March 9.

The relics were sent to both Annesis (Caesarea) and Constantinople. Although there is variation in the details of the story, there is substantial congruence among the panegyrists. A possibly contemporary Testament of the Forty Martyrs of Christ survives, which records their last messages to friends and relatives. The historicity of some of the details is doubted (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Encyclopedia, Farmer).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 May 2020. Web. 3 August 2020. <>