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The martyrdom of Saints John and Paul

26 June

They were two court dignitaries. The Emperor Julian the Apostate tried to convince them to renounce. But, seeing their refusal, he had them killed in secret. Their friends also underwent martyrdom.

A Christian senator was the first to honor these martyrs.

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

All the information we have on them comes from liturgical documents, some of which prove contemporary with their times, and from the sixth century transcription of the Passio, causing turned up noses on many fronts. As if Christian liturgy applied fairy tales instead of factual records and ignoring that, due to the indications in the Passio, the house in which John and Paul were killed was discovered last century, along with their graves dug in virgin tufo stone and the Confessio, built a few years later on the spot by Byzante and Pammachius.
The two brothers are introduced to us as imperial court dignitaries, heirs of Constantina (the daughter of Constantine) who died in 354 AD. They were on bad terms with the Emperor Julian because of their inheritance, probably called in question by the emperor, and which they, as faithful Christians, didn’t allow to be confiscated in favor of false gods. Perhaps it was the same house as that found under the Basilica entitled to them on the Coelian hill, in Rome, and which definitely documents the presence of Christians.
The Passio opens up with Julian’s words (not presented however as a personal intervention, respecting the historical data that maintains that Julian never did come to Rome): “In the Gospel your Christ states that he who does not give up all his worldly goods cannot be His disciple”. Julian attempts to justify the confiscation of the brothers’ wealth by means of ethical blackmail inconceivable outside of Christian apostasy. So much so that in modern times it has become the norm.
Invited to pledge loyalty to the Emperor, the two Christians refuse: “You have abandoned the faith to follow ways which you know very well have nothing to do with God. Because of this apostasy, we have refused to have anything to do with you”. Because of this, they added, we have witdrawn from “societate imperii vestri”.
Julian then sends the brothers a message containing both flattery and threats: “You too have been brought up at court and cannot, therefore, avoid being at my side. Quite the contrary. I want you among my most important courtiers. But beware: if you scorn my request, I cannot consent to your impunity”. (In effect Socrates, the historian, writes, “Julian persuaded many Christians to make sacrifices, using both flattery and gifts”. There were defections among military men in particular but they were not unknown even in the clergy).
The two brothers forwarded their reply. “We do not place another human being in front of you, therefore wronging you. But only God, who made the sky, the earth, the sea and all things contained therein. Men attached to earthly things can thus fear your ire. We fear only the wrath of the eternal God. So we want you to know that we will never adhere to your cult (numquam ad culturam tuam) nor will we frequent your palace”.
The Emperor gives them a further ten days to “think things over” so that “you decide to visit me of your own free will and not by force”.
The brothers responded: “Pretend that the ten days have already passed” to which Julian adds; “Do you think Christians will consider you martyrs?...”.
At this point John and Paul called their friends, Crispus, a priest of the Roman community, Crispinianus and Benedicta and explain the whole situation to them. They all celebrated Mass together then they invited other Christians to join them, giving them instructions for the disposal of all their goods. Ten days passed and on the eleventh, they underwent house arrest.
When Crispus and other friends received the news they rushed to the place but were refused entry. Terentianus, the field instructor, (the Passio relates that he, after his conversion, was the narrator of the story) and his guards were the only ones who entered. He found the brothers in prayer and intimated to them to worship a false idol or perish by the sword, “the public killing of courtiers being inopportune”. Julian wanted to avoid, at all costs, there being martyrs among the Christians but should that be impossible, that it be at least covered up.
The two answered: “We have only one Master, the only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit whom Julian had no scruples in repudiating; and since God has rejected him, he wants to drag others down into ruin with him”.
A few hours later the two Christians were executed. It was 26 June 362. They were secretly buried in the cryptoporticus of their home. Word was then spread that they had been sent into exile. Crispus, Crispinianus and Benedicta imagined their fate but could do nothing except mourn and pray that the burial ground be revealed to them. And they were heard. But they themselves were decapitated by Terentianus’s son. Pimenius and John (priests) and Flavianus, an illustrious former Roman prefect, secretly removed the bodies of the new martyrs and buried them also beside the bodies of John and Paul. All these burials in one house have given rise to disbelief and even hilarity among skeptics. But today, now that the graves have been found...
The Passio narrates at this point that the son of Terentianus, having come to the martyrs’ house, began shouting that John and Paul were tormenting him. Terentianus, terrified by this, threw himself face down to the floor trying to justify himself: I’m a pagan, I only obeyed Caesar’s orders without asking questions. He converted and was baptized the following Easter. But both he and his son were afterwards killed and thanks to Pimenius and John were also buried in John and Paul’s house.
A skeptical critic could argue that such a chain of crimes could be an expedient to link events which had evolved in different times and different places, or to justify the amalgamation of simple relics, or even an imaginary invention of additional names and facts to make the tale more attractive. In reality, however, it must be considered that if there is one certainty regarding the religious attitude of Julian the Apostate, it was his aversion to the cult of martyrs. This also because he believed it impeded the oracular answers of the gods. A blind and fearful superstition in the face of the simple reality of a memorial. He wrote with contempt; “Christian churches built usually on the tombs of martyrs are nothing but filthy morgues and charnel-houses”. And again: “The Galileans have done nothing other than fill the world with tombs and sepulchers”. Precious witness for us of the corporality and deeply-rooted historicity of the Christian event.
In the war against the Persians begun in March 363, the pagan gods to whom Julian had once again entrusted the fortune of the empire, seemed to still assist him. He celebrated one victory after another, always to be found in the front lines encouraging his soldiers. But on 26 June 363, exactly one year after the martyrdom of the two brothers, the point of a spear put an end to his tragic utopia.
His successor, Jovianus, was an orthodox Christian, authentic, that is, and the Church became free again (because, as St. Augustine teaches, an emperor formally defining himself as Christian does not always mean more freedom). The new emperor, aware of the tragedy consumed in the house on the Coelian Hill, summoned Senator Byzante, he too Christian, entrusting him with the search for the martyrs’ remains. Byzante and his son Pammachius first built an oratory then a Basilica over the relics of those martyrs, whose names would also be conserved through the centuries along with those of John and Paul: entitled either to John and Paul or to Byzante and/or Pammachius. That is why the story of Saint Byzante and Saint Pammachius, they too at home in the Palace, is linked so closely to that of the martyred brothers.
Like his father, Pammachius was a senator and patrician of the gens Furia. Most of the great Roman families were still pagan in the years between the fourth and fifth centuries. Pammachius was an exception and the most renowned among the Christians in Rome and in the senate. Three friends speak of him in a series of moving letters. And what friends! St Jerome, St Augustine and St Paul of Nola.
Jerome – who as a young man had gone to school with Pammachius – describes him as “my companion and friend of times past”. In one of those letters he plays on the Greek origin of his friend’s name “which is prophetic and you show yourself to be a wrestler in every way against the devil and adverse forces”. (In the sport of wrestling pammacharii athletes were authorized to resort to any tactics to win). Julian the Apostate, in hilarite tristis, had never known the irony with which our Roman senator faced the mockery of his colleagues draped in purple when he presented himself in the Curia senatus. Jerome wrote: “It is he who laughs at those who make fun of him!” A highly useful quality for Christians and which gained him the admiration of his holy friends who asked for and appreciated his advice also on religious matters. It was, in fact, Pammachius who brought to the attention of the Roman bishop Siricius the heresies beginning to penetrate the Church (for example, that of Jovinianus). And it was Pammachius himself “with almost all of the Roman fraternity” who called the attention of Jerome to the Peri Archon of Origen, having just come across Rufinus’ Latin translation of it. “We have discovered many parts which agitated our little brain,” wrote the Senator “and they seem to have an unorthodox twist to them”.
St Jerome wrote a letter to Pammachius in 397 offering his sympathy on the death of Pauline, Pammachius’ young wife: “A pearl shines even in the dirt, and a splendid sparkling jewel sends out its reflexes even in the muck. This is precisely the promise the Lord has made us: ‘I will glorify those who offer glory to me’. For those who wish these words can easily be understood as regarding the future... Personally, I notice that this promise in him is being realized also for this life... We have received more than we have given. We have left behind trifles and we have come to possess great things; Christ has maintained his promises increasing their interest a hundredfold”.
Pammachius was overwhelmed by the fall of Rome, routed by Alaric’s hordes on 24 August 410. But what does it matter when one is registered in the census of the City of God!







A portrait of the apostate emperor who left the Christian faith to return to the gods


The Emperor Julian the Apostate (Flavius Claudius Julian), the traitor par excellence, was born in Constantinople toward the end of 331. He never knew his mother who died a few months after his birth. A few years later he lost his father, who was killed in the purge which systematically eliminated all the male members of Constantine’s family after the death, in 337, of the emperor who had thrown open the gates of the Roman Empire to the Church. Reasons of state, as is well-known, are not to be questioned. No one was spared. Apart from Julian himself who was only six years old and his step-brother Gallus, a little older but of such delicate health as to suppose a natural and rapid death. Such a decision would supposedly permit Constantine’s three male children (Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans) to reign undisturbed.
Julian’s cousin, Constantius II, assigned Eusebius of Nicomedia, the true head of the Arian party, to tutor him and on his death in 342, another Arian, George of Cappadocia. They were not only formal heretics, but basically dishonest. The Arians were simply a political faction which used the Christian faith for its own ends. From Constantine’s times they had only one objective: religious hegemony in the Imperial Court and it was to such an end that the two tutors dedicated their energies, disregarding the needs of Julian. Their only influence on him was to kill whatever attraction he might have had for the Christian event. And such was the terrible plague of heresy which contaminated Julian.
The eunuch Mardonius, more in daily contact with the child Julian, was a teacher able to encourage in him a love of Greek philosophy and culture. He was later substituted by Maximus of Ephesus, a neoplatonic philosopher (his true ‘maestro’ and author, in the words of Dante) who would initiate Julian into all kinds of magical-religious practices. The high ideals of the neoplatonic idealism was reduced to cheap theurgy.
At about twenty, Julian abandoned his Christian faith. He concealed his apostasy for more than a ten-year period during which he married Helen, an obviously unsuccessful marriage in that she was sister of the detested Constantius II who, in 354, had his half-brother Gallus killed to remind Julian of the kind of destiny that ever loomed over him. In effect, sending him to Gaul like Caesar in 355, Constantius II intended to rid himself of Julian since Gaul then was an administrative and military hell, forming the main frontier where the fate of the empire was in constant movement. But Julian displayed the best of himself in that very place. He became an idol to the troops who declared him “Augustus” already in 359. Destiny finally seemed to take a favorable turn for him and his gods.
Julian was proclaimed emperor upon the death of Constantius II in 361; it was then that he rendered public his repudiation of Christianity and activated works for the reinstatement of paganism. Temples of pagan worship were reopened, the cult of the gods was restored in the army and Christians were banned from teaching grammar and rhetoric!
Yet Julian wanted not so much a return to as much as a reform of paganism, but the results are a decadent substitute of the Christian faith. He desired an exemplary pagan priestly hierarchy and dictated the organization of the cult down to the smallest details. He demanded the preaching of the dogmata hellenica by his pagan priests (dogmatic paganism is in reality a monstrum) and exhorted charity. Julian wrote to Theodore, the pagan pontifex of Galatia: “It is shameful that while among the Jews none asks alms, the Galilean misbelievers [Christians] support not only their own beggars but ours also, while our needy are without any apparent help on our part”.
There is something fatal in Julian’s apostasy. He utopistically pursued the intent to revitalize paganism; he demanded coherence from himself and others and yet he abandoned himself to mystical meanderings, all this in exact contrast to the rationalizing Arian Christianity, scheming and unattractive, imposed on him as a child. He did not realize that it was the way of perpetuating the curse. Not only did the pagan gods not come back, but the grace of Jesus Christ became even farther off. Thus also Julian’s ostentatious tolerance posing as a philosopher (modeled on Marcus Aurelius) and his repudiation of bloody persecutions sometimes proved to be more violent than open persecution. Above all in the East and in Africa where dissent was more accentuated, the martyrs are numerous. But also in Rome, on 26 June 362, two brothers, John and Paul, met with martyrdom.

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