ST. THEODOTUS, VINTNER, AND SEVEN VIRGINS, MM A. D. 303.
Feast: May 18
From their authentic acts, written by one Nilus an eye-witness, in Ruinart's Acta Sincera, p. 336. See Tillemont, and the English abridgment of these acts.
St. Theodotus was a citizen of Ancyra, the capital of Galatia. From his tender years he had been brought up in perfect sentiments of piety, by the care of a holy virgin called Thecusa. He was married, kept an inn, and sold wine; but, what is very rare to be found in that profession, was just, abstemious, and zealous in the practice of all the duties of religion. In the flower of his age he despised riches and pleasures; made fasting, alms-deeds, and prayer, his delight, and laid himself out in relieving the necessitous, comforting the distressed, and bringing sinners to repentance: he had also encouraged many persons to suffer martyrdom. It was a settled maxim with him, that it is more glorious for a Christian to suffer poverty than to possess riches; the great advantage of which consists in employing them on the poor, those especially who were persecuted for the faith. He had likewise the gift of miracles; for, according to his acts, he, by his prayers and the laying on of his hands, healed such as were afflicted with incurable diseases. A life of softness and ease he condemned as unworthy a Christian, saying, that "it enervates a soldier of Christ, and that a Christian addicted to pleasure can never be a martyr," as every disciple of Christ is bound to be in the disposition of his heart. So persuasive were his exhortations to piety, that by them he converted drunkards to temperance, the most debauched persons to continence, and the covetous to the love of poverty. When the persecution of Dioclesian was raised against the church, Theodotus was not dismayed; because his whole life had been a preparation for martyrdom. The bloody edicts published at Nicomedia in 303 soon reached Galatia. Theotecnus, the most cruel governor of that province, promised the emperor to extirpate the Christian name out of his district No sooner had the bare report of his being on the road to Ancyra reached that city, than the greater part of the faithful betook themselves to flight; incredible numbers of them taking shelter in desert and mountainous places. The pagans in the mean while feasted and reveled in transports of public joy on this occasion They broke into the houses of the Christians and carried off whatever they pleased, without opposition; for the least complaint would have been dangerous to him that made it. No Christian was seen in the streets, unless to suffer for his religion, or to renounce it: the most noted persons among them lay in prison, loaded with irons, their goods confiscated, their wives and daughters dragged about the streets by insolent ruffians, and their very babes forced to undergo the greatest hardships on account of the religious principle of their parents, the only crime they alleged against them.
While this violent persecution raged at Ancyra, Theodotus assisted those who were imprisoned for the faith, and buried the bodies of the martyrs, though the performance of that last duty was forbid under pain of death; The governor had ordered all the provisions that were sold publicly to be offered to the idols before they were exposed to sale, that the Christians might be reduced to starve, or give a sanction to that abominable consecration, and even be obliged to unite the service of Jesus Christ with that of the devils on the very altar. But Theodotus had laid in a large stock of corn and wine, which he sold to the Christians at prime cost, and thus the altars were furnished with pure oblations, and the faithful supplied with food without defiling their consciences, or giving the least umbrage to the pagans. His profession privileged this way of proceeding; and thus, while he seemed only employed in keeping an inn, his house was at once the place of divine worship, a hospital for the sick and strangers, and the only refuge of the Christians in that town. While he thus studied the security of others, he freely exposed his own life on all occasions where the glory of God was concerned. A friend of his, named Victor, was taken up at that time and accused by the priests of Diana of having said Apollo had debauched that goddess, his own sister; and that it was a shame for the Greeks to honor him as a god who was guilty of a crime that shocks the lewdest of men. The judge offered him his life, if he would comply with the edict of the emperor; and he was made to believe his obedience would be rewarded with great preferment at court; but if he remained obstinate, he was to expect a slow and painful death; his body should be thrown to the dogs, his estate confiscated, and his family quite destroyed. Theodotus, full of apprehension for his friend thus powerfully attacked, hastened to the prison where he was confined, encouraged him to bear up against all the menaces, and despise the promises that were employed to deprive him of the eternal reward due to his perseverance. Victor received fresh courage from his discourse, and as long as he remembered the instructions of our saint, was an overmatch for all the cruelty of his executioners. He had almost finished his course, when he desired some time to consider of the proposals that had been offered him; upon which he was carried back to prison, where he died of his wounds without making any further declaration, which has left his end doubtful in the church, and deprived him of the honor due to martyrs.
There is a town at some miles' distance from Ancyra, called Malus, where Theodotus, by a particular disposition of providence, arrived just as the persecutors were throwing into the river Halys the remains of the martyr Valens, who after long and cruel torments had been burned alive. These relics Theodotus found means to secure, and was carrying off, when, at some little distance from Malus, he was met by some Christians, who had been taken up by their own relations for beating down an altar of Diana, and had lately recovered their liberty by his means; Theodotus having, besides great trouble and expense in the affair, exposed his very life in their deliverance. They were all overjoyed to see him, and joined in thanks to him, as the common friend and benefactor of persons in distress; and he no less rejoicing at the sight of those glorious confessors, desired they would allow him to give them some refreshment before they went any further. They sat down about a quarter of a mile from the town and sent thither to invite the priest of the place to dine with them, and say the usual prayers before meat, and those for travellers before they pursued their journey. The messengers met the priest as he was coming out of the church after sext, or the prayer of the sixth hour, who pressed Theodotus to come to his house to line with;; but our saint desired to be excused, being in haste to return to Ancyra for the assistance of the suffering Christians in that city. After dining together on the spot, Theodotus told the priest he thought that place very proper for the lodging relics. "Yes," said Fronto, for that was the priest's name, "but we must have them before we can think of building a place for their reception." Theodotus told him, God would take care of that desired he would only see an edifice raised as soon as possible; and assured him the relics should not be wanting. When he had given him this assurance, he took his ring from his finger, left it with the priest as an earnest of his promise, and returned to Ancyra, where he found the persecution had made as much havoc as an earthquake could have done.
Among those that suffered in that city were seven virgins, grown old in virtue. The governor finding them invincible in the profession of the Christian faith, delivered them into the hands of some young libertines to be insulted and abused in contempt of their religion, and to the prejudice of their chastity, which had always been their brightest ornament. They had no arms but prayers and tears, which they offered to Jesus Christ, the author and guardian of their virtue; and protested against the violence offered them. One of the young debauchees, more impudent than the rest, laid hold of Thecusa, the oldest of that holy company, and dragged her aside. Thecusa cast herself at his feet, bathed in tears, and thus expostulated with him: "My son, what designs can you have on such as us, quite worn out as you see with fasting, sickness, torments, and old age?" She was upwards of seventy, and her companions not much younger. "It is preposterous," said she, "to entertain a passion for such carcasses as ours, shortly to be cast forth to be devoured by beasts and birds of prey; for the governor refuses us burial." Then rending her veil, she showed him her gray hairs, saying: "Pay some regard to these, who perhaps have a mother of the same age. For her sake, leave us to our tears, 'tis all we desire; and do not despair of a reward from Christ on account of your forbearance." The young men were all so affected with this speech that they desisted, and joined their tears with those of the holy virgins, and withdrew. Theotecnus perceiving his design defeated, attacked their constancy another way. He, proposed their engaging in the service of Diana and Minerva, and officiating as priestesses to those pretended deities. The heathens of Ancyra had an annual custom of washing the images of those goddesses in a neighboring pond; and the day for performing that ceremony happening at that time, the governor obliged them to attend the solemnity. As the idols were each to, be carried thither in a pompous manner, and in a separate chariot, the governor gave orders for the seven virgins to be placed in derision in other open chariots, in a standing posture, naked, and to be carried with the idols to the pond for the same purpose. They accordingly led up the procession, then came the idols, followed by a great crowd of people, and Theotecnus, himself in the rear, attended by his guards. Theodotus was all this while under great concern for the seven virgins, begged the Almighty to carry them victoriously through the severe trials to which they were exposed, and waited the event in a house near the church of the patriarchs, in company with some other devout persons. They had been prostrate on the ground, and fixed in prayer from break of day till noon, when news was brought that Thecusa and her six companions had been all thrown into the pond aforesaid, and there drowned. Theodotus, overjoyed at this account, raised himself on his knees, shed a flood of tears, lifted up his hands to heaven, and with a loud voice returned thanks for the success of his prayers. He then inquired into the particulars of their sufferings and behavior, and was told by one who had been in the crowd and had seen all things that passed, how that the virgins had slighted all the governor's fair speeches and promises, had severely rebuked the priestesses of the heathen deities that presented them the crowns and white garments which were the badges of their priestly office, and rejected their offer with horror and indignation. Whereupon the governor ordered them to be thrown into the deepest part of the pond, with large stones hung about their necks, which was accordingly executed. Theodotus, upon hearing this, consulted with the master of the house and one Polychronius how they should get the bodies of the seven martyrs out of the water; and in the evening they were informed that the task was rendered more difficult by the guards the governor had posted near the pond. This news gave Theodotus a most sensible affliction. He left his company and went to the church of the patriarchs; but found the pagans had deprived him of the comfort he expected there by walling up the door. However, he prostrated himself without the church, near the shell where the altar stood, and continued there some time in prayer. From thence he made his way to another church, where, finding the same bar to his entrance, he again threw himself on the ground near the building, and poured out his soul in fervent prayer. But hearing a great noise behind him, imagining he was pursued, he went back to the house where he had left his friends, and lay there that night. Thecusa appeared to him in his dream, reproached him with taking his ease while she and the companions of her sufferings were neglected; injured him by all the pains she had taken for his education, and the affection he once bore her, to rescue their bodies from the fishes; assured him he should be called to a like trial within two days, and then bid him arise and go directly to the pond, but to beware of a traitor.
Upon this he arose, and related his vision to his companions, and as soon as it was day, sent two persons to take a view of the guard, which they hoped would be drawn off on account of its being the festival of Diana, but they were mistaken. To engage the blessing of God more effectually on the undertaking, they fasted till night, and then set out. It was very dark, and neither moon nor stars appeared, which enhanced the horror of the place, it being where malefactors were executed. It was strewed with heads and scattered romaine of burnt bodies. This shocking scene would probably have made them give over the attempt for that time, had they not been encouraged by a voice which called our saint by his name and bid him go on boldly. Upon this invitation they made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and immediately saw before them a light in the form of a cross to the eastward. They fell on their knees, adored God with their faces turned towards that glorious phenomenon, after which they went on; but it was so dark that they could not see one another; at the same time a heavy rain fell, which made it so dirty that they could scarce keep themselves upon their legs. In this difficulty they had recourse to prayer, and immediately a body of fire appeared, and moved before them; and two men clothed in shining garments appearing to them, were heard to say: "Theodotus, take courage, God has written thy name among the martyrs: he has sent us to receive thee: we are they whom they call the Fathers: thou wilt find near the pond Sosander in arms; and the guards are in a terrible consternation at the sight of him; but thou shouldst not have brought a traitor with thee." This last clause none of the company understood. The storm still continuing, the thunder, wind, and rain made the sentinels very uneasy in their post; but the apparition of a man completely armed, darting fire round him, was too terrible to allow them to keep their ground. They accordingly betook themselves to the neighboring cottages. The way being thus cleared for our martyr and his companions, following their guide, or luminous body before-mentioned, they came to the side of the pond; and the wind raged so violently, that, as it drove the water to the sides of the pond, it discovered the bottom where the bodies of the virgins lay. Where upon Theodotus and his companions drew out the bodies, laid them upon horses, and carried them to the church of the patriarchs, near which they interred them. The names of these seven martyrs were Thecusa, Alexandria, Claudia, Euphrasia, Matrona, Julitta, and Phaina.
The news of this removal of the saints' bodies was spread all over the town the next day; every Christian that appeared was put to torture about it. Theodotus understanding that several had been taken up, was for surrendering himself and owning the fact; but the Christians would not let him follow his inclinations. Polychronius, who had assisted our saint in carrying off the bodies of the seven virgins, the better to be informed of what passed in the city, disguised himself in a peasant's dress, and went to the market-place. But he was discovered by some who knew him to be related to Thecusa, carried before the governor, examined, and being beaten by his order, and threatened with death, he was weak and base enough to say that Theodotus had taken away the bodies, and discovered the place where he had concealed them. Upon which, orders were given for these valuable relics to be taken up and burnt; and thus it appeared who was the traitor against whom they had been cautioned. Theodotus being informed of this, took his last farewell of the brethren, begged their prayers, and prepared himself for the combat. They continued a long time in prayer, beseeching God to put an end to the persecution, and grant peace to the church. They then embraced him; who, making the sign of the cross over his body, went boldly to the place of trial. Meeting two of his old acquaintance and fellow-citizens on the way, they endeavored to persuade him to provide for his own security, before it was too late; and told him the priestesses of Diana and Minerva were that moment with the governor, accusing him of discouraging the worship of the gods, and that Polychronius too was there, ready to prove what he had alleged about his carrying off the bodies of the seven martyrs.
Theodotus assured them they could not give him a more substantial proof of their regard for him, than by going to the magistrates, and telling them the man against whom those articles were alleged was at the door, and desired admittance. Being come to the end of his journey, he, with a smiling countenance, surveyed the fire, wheels, racks, and other instruments of torture which they had got ready upon this occasion. The governor told him it was still in his power to avoid the torments prepared for the disobedient; offered him his friendship, assured him of the good will of the emperor, and promised to make him a priest of Apollo, and governor of the town, upon condition he would endeavor to recover his neighbors and friends from their delusion, and teach them to forget Jesus Christ. Theodotus in his reply, on one hand, insisted on the enormous crimes the heathen gods stood charged with, even by their own poets and historians; and on the other, extolled the greatness and the miracles of Jesus Christ. A discourse like this could not but incense the idolaters. The priestesses were so transported with rage that they rent their clothes, dishevelled their hair, and tore their crowns, which were the marks of their sacrilegious dignity, and the populace were very clamorous in demanding justice on this enemy of their gods. The governor ordered him to be stretched on the rack, and every one seemed desirous of having a share in vindicating the honor of the offended deities. Several executioners were successively employed in tearing his body with iron hooks; then vinegar was poured upon his wounds, and his flesh burnt with torches. When the martyr smelt the burning of his flesh he turned his head aside a little, which the governor mistaking for a sign of his fainting under the torments, put him in mind that his present sufferings were all owing to his disrespect for the emperor, and contempt of the gods. The martyr told him he was mistaken in imagining he was in a yielding disposition, because he turned his head aside; on the contrary, he could not help thinking that his officers did their duty carelessly, and therefore entreated him to see that his orders were better obeyed. He then bid him invent new tortures, which should all contribute to show what courage Jesus Christ inspires into such as suffer for him; and let him know in plain terms, that while he was thus united to, and supported by his Saviour, he was an overmatch for all the power of men. The governor, surprised and enraged at this freedom, commanded him to be struck on the jaws with a stone, in order to beat out his teeth. But Theodotus told him nothing of that nature could interrupt his conversation with his God, who would hear the language of his heart and sufferings, if he should be deprived of the use of speech. The executioners were now quite tired out with labor, while the martyr seemed to feel nothing; upon which he was ordered back to prison, and reserved for further punishment. As he went along, he took care to draw the eyes of the crowd on his mangled body, which he offered to their consideration as a glorious proof of the power of Jesus Christ, and the strength he gives to his servants, of what condition soever, and, pointing at his wounds: "It is but reasonable," said he, "that we should offer to Him such sacrifices, who was pleased to set us the example, and submit to be sacrificed for us." At the end of five days the governor ordered Theodotus to be brought before him, and finding his courage not the least abated, directed the executioners to stretch him a second time upon the rack, and open all his wounds. He then caused him to be taken off and laid upon the ground, strewed with red-hot tiles, which put him to inexpressible torment. But finding him not to be overcome, though put upon the rack the third time and tortured as before, he condemned him to lose his head; with strict orders that his body should be burnt, to prevent its being buried by the Christians. The holy martyr being come to the place of execution, returned thanks to Jesus Christ for his grace and support under the torments he had undergone, and for having made choice of him for a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem: he also begged of him to put an end to the persecution, and grant peace to his afflicted church. Then turning to the Christians who attended him, bid them not weep, but rather thank God for having enabled him to finish his course, and overcome the enemy; and assured them that he would employ his charity in praying for them with confidence in heaven. After this short speech he cheerfully received the fatal stroke. The corpse was then laid upon a large funeral pile, but before they could set fire to it, they beheld it surrounded by such an extraordinary light that none durst approach near enough to kindle it. This being reported to the governor, he ordered the body to be watched by a guard he dispatched thither for that purpose.
Fronto, the priest of Malus, came to Ancyra that day with the view of carrying back the relics Theodotus had promised him, and had brought with him the ring he had left in his hands as a pledge. He had with him an ass laden with wine of his own vineyard, which he cultivated himself: this was probably designed as a present to Theodotus. He reached the town in the evening, his ass, tired with the journey, lay down near the pile, and did not seem disposed to go any further. The soldiers invited him to pass the night with them, where they assured him he might be better accommodated than at an inn; they having made themselves the day before a hut of reeds and willow branches, near which they had kindled a fire and dressed their supper just as the priest arrived, whom they invited to partake with them. Fronto accepted of their invitation, and in return gave them a taste of his wine, which they found excellent, and of which they drank pretty freely. They then began to talk of what they had suffered on occasion of the dead bodies of seven women being carried away by one made of brass, as they said, whose body was now in their custody. Fronto desired they would explain themselves, and let him into the story of the dead bodies and the brazen man. One of them undertook to give the particulars of the seven martyrs, the rescue of their bodies, the seeming insensibility of Theodotus while under the sharpest torments, which was the reason of their calling him a man of brass; and the punishment they had reason to expect if they lost his body. Hereupon Fronto gave God thanks, and invoked his assistance on the present occasion. After supper, perceiving the guards in a dead sleep, he took the venerable relics of the martyr, put his ring upon his finger, and laid the body on the ass, which, being let loose, went directly home, where a church has been since built in honor of the martyr; and thus the saint's promise of furnishing the priest with relics was made good.
This account was drawn up by Nilus, who had lived with the martyr, had been his fellow-prisoner, and was an eye-witness of what he relates.
(Taken from Vol. V of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, the 1864 edition published by D. & J. Sadlier, & Company)