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E00651: Gregory of Tours, in his Glory of the Martyrs (98), tells of the shrine of *Phokas (martyr of Antioch, S00413) in Syria, where people bitten by snakes are miraculously cured. Written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 580/594.

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posted on 2015-08-17, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs 98

Focas quoque martyr et ipse his martyribus regione coniunctus apud Syriam requiescit; qui, post multas quas pro nomine Redemptoris est passus iniurias, qualiter de antiquo illo serpente triumphaverit, hodieque populis declaratur. Denique si in quempiam in his locis coluber morsum stringens venena diffuderit, extemplo qui percussus est ut ianuam atrii, quo martyr quiescit, attigerit, conpraesso tumore, evacuata virtute veneni, salvatur. Ex quibus nonnulli, ut celebre vulgatum est, iam tumidi malae bestiae ictu, iam toto corpori, incrassante veneno in hoc, perflati, ut spiritum exalarent, inter manus delati et in atrio positi, sunt sanati; nec umquam ab hoc virus obire hominem fas est, si sacrum limen fide plenus attigerit.

'The martyr Phocas, he too from the same region as these martyrs [Cosmas and Damianus], rests in Syria. Still today it is made apparent to the people how, after he suffered many insults on behalf of the name of the Redeemer, he triumphed over that ancient serpent. For if in those regions a snake has bitten someone and injected poisons, as soon as the person who has been bitten touches the entrance to the courtyard where the martyr is buried, the tumour goes down, the infection of the poison vanishes, and the person is healed. According to a widespread report, some of these people are already distended from the bite of the evil beast and their entire bodies are already swollen from the poison that is growing in them, so that they might breathe out their lives. But when they are carried by [others'] hands and placed in the courtyard, they are cured. It is not possible for a man to die from this venom if he is filled with faith and touches the holy threshold.'

Text: Krusch 1969, 104. Translation: Van Dam 2004, 91-92, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Phocas, martyr at Antioch, ob. 303/312 : S00413

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Gaul and Frankish kingdoms

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Tours Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Tours

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Healing diseases and disabilities Miracle with animals and plants Specialised miracle-working


Gregory, bishop of Tours from 573 until his death (probably in 594), was the most prolific hagiographer of all Late Antiquity. He wrote four books on the miracles of Martin of Tours, one on those of Julian of Brioude, and two on the miracles of other saints (the Glory of the Martyrs and Glory of the Confessors), as well as a collection of twenty short Lives of sixth-century Gallic saints (the Life of the Fathers). He also included a mass of material on saints in his long and detailed Histories, and produced two independent short works: a Latin version of the Acts of Andrew and a Latin translation of the story of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Internal references to datable events and to other work by Gregory, suggest that he wrote the greater part of his Glory of the Martyrs between 585 and 588, though there is one chapter (ch. 82), long before the end of the book, that describes an event that is most readily dated to 590. It is in fact likely that Gregory was collecting and recording these stories throughout his life, and, fortunately for our purposes, precise dating is not of great importance, since his views on the role of saints and the correct ways to venerate them do not seem to have changed during his writing life. The work was probably never fully completed and polished: the version we have closes with four very disparate chapters, including one (105) about the divine punishment of an avaricious woman that bears no obvious connection to the overall theme of the book. (For discussions of the dating, see Van Dam 2004, xi-xii; Shaw 2015, 104-105, 111.) In his preface, Gregory states that his aim in the work is 'to publicise some of the miracles of the saints that have until now been hidden' (aliqua de sanctorum miraculis, quae actenus latuerunt, pandere), so, as in his Glory of the Confessors, his focus is not on the lives of the saints, nor on the details of their martyrdoms, but on miracles they have effected, particularly through their relics. Miracles are recorded from many places; but unsurprisingly the largest number is from Gaul. The book opens, rather curiously, with a sizeable number of miracles and relics of Jesus and his mother Mary, neither of them conventional 'martyrs'. The explanation for this must be that Gregory's interest was really much more in relics and miracles in general than in martyrs specifically. Many of the Gallic saints he included are somewhat obscure, but outside Gaul he concentrates for the most part on major saints; towards the end of the book, however, he slips in a couple of lesser Syrian saints, probably because they had interesting specialisms: Phokas and Domitios, with, respectively, particular skills at curing snake bites and sciatica. In the case of the non-Gallic saints, it is not always clear whether they were attracting active cult in Gaul – Phokas and Domitios, for instance, almost certainly didn't. It is only when Gregory tells us of a church dedication or relic that we can be certain that the saint concerned had serious cult in Gaul: in the case of the martyrs of Rome, for instance, this is true of Clement and Laurence, but not of Chrysanthus and Daria, Pancratius, and John I. Although each section contains extraneous material, the work can be broken down very roughly into the following sections:    *Chapters 1-7: Miracles and relics of Jesus (with some of Mary), including three chapters (5-7) on relics of the Passion. (For the most part, these chapters are not covered in our database.)    *Chapters 8-19: Miracles and relics of Mary and John the Baptist.    *Chapters 20-25: Miraculous images of Jesus, and a spring associated with Easter.    *Chapters 23-34: Miracles and relics of the Apostles and Stephen (i.e. New Testament saints).    *Chapters 35-41: Miracles and relics of the post-apostolic martyrs of Rome.    *Chapters 42-46: And of northern Italy.    *Chapters 47-77: And of Gaul (in no obvious order, except that the first three chapters are occupied by early martyrs). This is the longest section of the book.    *Chapters 78-87: Very miscellaneous, with only marginal references to saints: three anti-Arian stories (79-81); two stories regarding relics of Gregory's (82-83); four stories of the punishment of impure people (84-87).    *Chapters 88-102: Miracles and relics of martyrs of Spain, Africa (just one, Cyprian of Carthage), and the East, in that order.    *Chapters 103-106: Miscellaneous. But tight structuring was never a great concern of Gregory's, so within this broad framework, he often wanders off his main theme. For instance, a clutch of miracle stories relating to John the Baptist (chs. 11-13) lead Gregory into a general discussion of the River Jordan (ch. 16), which then leads him to discuss some springs near Jericho (ch. 17), linked to the preceding chapter by the common theme of 'miraculous waters in the Holy Land', but with no connection to any martyr. Similarly, a miracle story involving relics of St Andrew and the punishment of an Arian count (ch. 78) leads Gregory into three stories against Arians with no relation to saints. These digressions did not bother Gregory and are part of the charm of his work. Gregory very seldom tells us about his sources, which for the most part were certainly oral; he had a wide circle of acquaintances within the Gallic church, and also met and collected stories from travellers from abroad, including (if the source is to be believed) a man who had travelled to India (ch. 31). But Gregory also used a range of written texts, including Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (chs. 20 and 48), the poems of Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, and Venantius Fortunatus, and a substantial number of Martyrdoms (Van Dam 2004, xiv-xvi). Because many of his stories are set abroad, Glory of the Martyrs is less informative about cult practices than Glory of the Confessors, with its very local and very Gallic focus, but it is still a gold-mine of information. To take just two examples: the story of Benignus of Dijon is a remarkably rich and detailed account of the discovery and enhancement of a previously unknown martyr (ch. 50), while that of Patroclus of Troyes shows the importance of a written Martyrdom, and the degree of scepticism that might greet a new one (ch. 63). There is a good general discussion of Glory of the Martyrs in Van Dam 2004, ix-xxiii, and of Gregory's hagiography more widely in Shaw 2015. (Bryan Ward-Perkins)


For the overview of the Glory of the Martyrs see E00367. This Phokas must be the martyr of Antioch, as Gregory tells us he was buried in Syria. Phokas of Antioch was never a major saint, and there is no evidence that he attracted cult in the Latin West; Gregory presumably included him in Glory of the Martyrs because he had somewhere heard an interesting story about him as a miracle-worker specialising in curing snake bites. Remarkably, a sixth-century amulet from Oxyrhynchos in Middle Egypt, lends support to Gregory's account of Phokas' specialism, which is otherwise undocumented, since the amulet, both invokes Phokas and was specifically aimed at providing protection 'from every evil reptile', παντὸς κακοῦ ἑρπετοῦ (E02277). Gregory attributes Phokas' power over snakes to his triumph over 'the ancient serpent', the Devil; but all martyrs had shared this same triumph, so this may be an intellectual construct of Gregory's rather than a widespread explanation of Phokas' specialism. Curiously, the cure at the shrine was effected, not by touching the saint's tomb, but the threshold of the outer courtyard or atrium. As the next chapter of Glory of the Martyrs (E00652) shows, entrance to shrines was denied to impure people, and those bitten by a snake possibly belonged to this group (for the atrium of a church as a sacred space, see also E00585).


Edition: Krusch, B., Liber in gloria martyrum, in: Gregorii Turonensis Opera. 2: Miracula et opera minora (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.2; 2nd ed.; Hannover, 1969). Translation: Van Dam, R., Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs (Translated Texts for Historians 4; 2nd ed., Liverpool, 2004). Further reading: Shaw, R., "Chronology, Composition, and Authorial Conception in the Miracula", in: A.C. Murray (ed.), A Companion to Gregory of Tours (Leiden-Boston 2015), 102-140.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity