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The martyrdom of Saint Alexander

26 August


It was the year 303. A group of soldiers converted to Christianity were imprisoned for their faith. Their unity astonished the prison guards. They escaped. Their path of escape became the way to glory


by Lorenzo Cappelletti


Agroup of Christians were in flight from Milan, seat of the Augustus of the West, Maximian Herculean, and his court. They were heading in the direction of Como and it was probably the summer of 303. But the exact month and day are also unknown. Tradition, however, has conserved the names of those men. They bore the name of the Lamb on their foreheads so oblivion could not have been their fate.

The signifer Alexander, an officer who commanded the first ranks of triarii (selected soldiers who were the last to enter the fray of a battle); his military companions were Cassius, Severinus, Secundus, and Licinius; Fidelis, the faithful godson of the holy bishop of Milan, Maternus; two imperial officials, Carpoforus and Exanthus who showed themselves Christians at the moment of the arrest of Alexander and his companions. These were the components of that heterogeneous group, but so intent were they in professing the one faith that they astonished the pagan (impius) prison guard Sillanus with the miracle of their unity (forte viderat miraculum: it happened that he witnessed a miracle).

Evidently because of the positions they held, the important people of the group, Carpoforus and Exanthus, were able to free Alexander and his companions from prison, and with Fidelis they were helping them to flee. Their intentions were that flight would spare Alexander and his companions the severe test of prison and torture, which might have forced them to apostasize. These Christians knew that there was no need to gloat about their faith. Even a way of flight would serve to glorify God.

Because they were Christians, Alexander and his companions were imprisoned (in cippo constricti) in Milan’s Zebedeus prison over which, at the end of the fifth century, a church would be erected that was to be one of the oldest Milanese parish churches.

In effect, between 297 and 298, the persecution initially ordered by the Emperor Diocletian himself, had begun to strike military ranks, the most exposed target because they were duty bound to honor the gods of the Empire publicly. However, there was no desire for bloodletting. One reason was that the times demanded the maximum solidarity within army ranks. For example, the Theban Legion, to which these soldiers belonged, was about to move towards Gaul where for the past decades locally inspired anarchy had reigned. Discipline had to be observed. And part, if not most, of this discipline entailed acts of worship celebrated in conjunction with symbolic anniversaries. The troops’ loyalty and the maxime of the officers were measured by these acts (what’s different in our times?). Alexander and his companions seem not to have complied with some of this cult worship and were imprisoned as a result. They then devised an escape route, as we have seen.

But it was not long before they were tracked down. The Passio dedicated to them claims that on 7 August Carpoforus and Exanthus were caught and murdered in the locality of Selvotta (Como); and the Roman Martyrology sets the same day as the dies natalis of Cassius, Severinus, Secundus, and Licinius, although no Passio makes mention of these latter four. Fidelis, as his Passio narrates, became separated from his companions, and is said to have been captured soon afterwards and killed at Samolaco (Sondrio). Alexander was the only one reported to have been taken back to Milan to the Emperor and there, because, as his Passio narrates, he was dear to the Emperor, he was asked in various ways to make a ritual sacrifice. “Usque nunc quidem adhaesisti mihi / in truth until now you were dear to me”. In an era that was by then officially Christian, that is between the fourth and fifth centuries, stories were starting to circulate, as the Passio Alexandri states, and which could date back to that period at least in its original form, that the Emperor Maximian and other Emperors were ferocious and cruel tyrants. The Passio Alexandri also used the words “saevissimus et crudelissimus”, moreover contradicting itself, as we have seen. Certainly, these were powerful men without too many scruples, but Maximian and his predecessors, like their officers, did not exercise gratuitous cruelty toward Christians. Tradition and the law obliged them to demand acts of formal obedience. Christians had experienced and therefore understood that nothing was any longer formal, but for the pagans formality was everything and principally religion, which in its precise meaning meant “scrupulous repetition of ceremonies” (religio, or religare).

It was not surprising, then, that a search was launched for this group. The order, according to the Passio Alexandri, was not to kill them, but to take them back to prison (then, as was often the case, they were treated cruelly). What may seem surprising yet historically feasible (since the prisoner was an officer) is that only Alexander escaped death, and most surprising of all was the persuasive insistence with which they tried to spare him the death sentence, to the point that they used physical force to convince him to make a ritual sacrifice.

However, rebelling even on this occasion Alexander, according to the Passio, managed to escape again, by crossing the Adda this time. He took refuge in the woods near Bergamo. But, recaptured, he was not able to escape decapitation this time, after refusing to make the pagan sacrifice yet again. A woman called Grata, with a mixture of instinctive compassion and openness to grace (like Mary Magdalene, Mary of Salome or James’ Mary) gathered his remains and offered them to Bergamo as a pretiosissimus thesaurus, to serve as a sure historical and unconventional foundation of the Church there.

Who knows if the Italian novelist from Lombardy, Alessandro Manzoni, who bore the name of the martyr, in memory of his grandfather, did not intend in chapter XVII of Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) that his hero, Renzo, run again through the woods and fields of that same escape route from Milan to Bergamo that the signifer Alexander had used. Like Alexander, Renzo fled alone and frightened, but unlike him, Renzo, not even in the fictional romance, had to offer up his body. The body had already been offered in sacrifice, despite themselves, by those soldiers when, between Milan, Bergamo and Como, it was not yet even known what Christianity was. They had refused, with an illogical stubbornness in the eyes of the pagans, to offer sacrifice to idols, in order to offer themselves as a living sacrifice to the living God. Without, perhaps, even knowing the words of Paul, they brought them to life: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercy of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God: this is your spiritual worship”. Loghikèn latreìan: that only logical devotion, worthy of man.



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