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E01293: Gregory of Nyssa composes his First Encomium on the *Forty Martyrs (martyrs of Sebasteia/Sebaste, E00103), consisting of two orations (Ia and Ib) delivered during a two-day festival held in March at their shrine at Sebasteia (eastern Asia Minor). Written in Greek at Sebasteia, in the early 370s or early 380s.

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posted on 2016-04-20, 00:00 authored by erizos
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Forty Martyrs I (CPG 3188, BHG 1206, 1207)


'Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, Encomium on the Holy Forty Martyrs'

First Oration (Ia)

The speaker expresses his pleasure at the large audience which has filled the shrine. He wonders which subject he should talk about. Possible themes are the scriptural readings of the day (Job, Proverbs, 2 Corinthians 12:4, Ephesians 3:18; and readings from Psalms 37, 69, 15, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 8, 80, or 83). Instead he prefers to talk about the Fifth Commandment (‘Honour your father and your mother’). Gregory’s parents have died long ago, but, for him, his audience has taken their place, and he feels that he can perform his duty of honour towards them, as if to his parents. But what kind of an offering should he make for people lacking nothing? He does not wish to talk of worldly things, such as the beauty of the landscape or local history, but about higher matters, namely the martyrs who blossomed in the region. That very place and day witnessed the struggle of the martyrs:

(ed. Lendle 1990, p. 145.1.1-18)
οὐκοῦν πρὸς τὰ προτιμότερα τῇ φύσει ταῖς εὐφημίαις τρεπόμεθα. ταῦτα δὲ οὐκέτι διὰ λόγων ἡμῖν δειχθήσεται, ἀλλ᾽ εἰς αὐτὸ πάρεστι βλέπειν τῶν ὑμετέρων ἀγαθῶν τὸ κεφάλαιον. τίς γὰρ οὐκ οἶδε τὸν καρπὸν τὸν ὑμέτερον, ὅτι ὑμεῖς τὸν τῶν μαρτύρων ἐβλαστήσατε στάχυν τὸν πολύχουν τοῦτον καὶ ὑπὲρ τοὺς τριάκοντα τῷ πλήθει τῶν καρπῶν πλατυνόμενον; ὁρᾶτε τὴν ἱερὰν ταύτην ἄρουραν· ἐντεῦθεν τῶν μαρτύρων τὰ δράγματα. εἰ ζητεῖς μαθεῖν, τίνα λέγω τὴν ἄρουραν, μὴ πόρρω τοῦ παρόντος περισκοπήσης. τίς ὁ τόπος ὁ περιέχων τὸν σύλλογον; τί σοι λέγει ἡ ἐνιαύσιος τοῦ κύκλου περίοδος; ποῖά σοι διηγήματα ἡ τῆς ἡμέρας ταύτης ὑπόμνησις ἥκει κομίζουσα; ἆρ᾽ Οὐ λαλιαί τινές εἰσι, καθώς φησιν ὁ προφήτης, καὶ λόγοι, ὧν οὐχὶ μόνον ἀκούονται αἱ φωναὶ αὐτῶν παντὸς λόγου εὐτονώτερον διηγουμένων τὰ θαύματα; ἂν εἰς τὸν τόπον ἀπίδῃς, αὐτὸς εἶναί φησι τῶν μαρτύρων τὸ στάδιον· ἂν τὴν ἡμέραν λογίσῃ, οἷόν τις κῆρυξ μεγαλόφωνος ἀνακηρύττει τῶν μαρτύρων τὸν στέφανον. ταῦτά μοι δοκῶ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐμβοώσης ἀκούειν, ὅτι ἄλλη μὲν τῇ δημιουργίᾳ τῶν φωστήρων σεμνύνεται, ἄλλη δὲ τῷ οὐρανῷ, καὶ ἑτέρα τῇ κατασκευῇ τῆς γῆς ἐπαγάλλεται. ἐμοὶ δὲ ἀρκεῖ πρὸς κόσμον τὰ τῶν μαρτύρων θαύματα·

ταῦτά μοι δοκῶ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐμβοώσης ἀκούειν, ὅτι ἄλλη μὲν τῇ δημιουργίᾳ τῶν φωστήρων σεμνύνεται, ἄλλη δὲ τῷ οὐρανῷ, καὶ ἑτέρα τῇ κατασκευῇ τῆς γῆς ἐπαγάλλεται. ἐμοὶ δὲ ἀρκεῖ πρὸς κόσμον τὰ τῶν μαρτύρων θαύματα·

‘Let us, then, turn to things which are by their nature more appropriate for praise. These will no more be shown to us by words, since we can readily see the very summit of your wealth: for who doesn’t know your fruit [=the martyrs, spiritual fruit of Sebaste], and that it was you who brought forth this ear of corn of the martyrs – so rich in flour and splitting up into a bounty of more than thirty seeds? Look at this holy acre: the sheaves of the martyrs come from here! If you wonder what I mean by acre, look no further than this very site. What is the place hosting our gathering? What does its yearly repetition say to you? What kind of stories has the memory of this day arrived to bring to you? Aren’t there some speeches and words, as the Prophet says [Ps. 19:3], whose voice is more than audible, proclaiming the marvels more vigourously than any kind of speech? If you look around at this place, it says that it is the stadium of the martyrs. If you contemplate the day, it proclaims the martyrs’ victory like a loud herald. I believe that I can hear the day shouting out the following: “One day boasts the creation of the lights, another the sky, and another rejoices in the making of the Earth. As for me, the marvels of the martyrs are enough for my honour.”’

Gregory starts recounting their story, stating that they were young, virtuous, and handsome men. But his speech is interrupted by noise in the church, and he concludes the sermon.

Second Oration (Ib)

This day the martyrs have come as visitors to a church in the city, returning the visit the people paid to them one day earlier. Gregory will treat the visiting martyrs with what was left unfinished of his homily of the previous day, which he now intends to finish. The sermon begins as follows:

(ed. Lendle 1990, p. 145.1-146.8)
Χθὲς οἱ μάρτυρες πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς τὸν λαὸν ἐκάλουν, νῦν τῷ καταγωγίῳ τῆς Ἐκκλησίας ἐπιξενοῦνται αὐτόκλητοι. νόμος δέ τίς ἐστι συμποτικὸς τὰς ἐγκυκλίους ταύτας ἑστιάσεις παρὰ τῶν δαιτυμόνων ἀλλήλοις ἐκ περιτροπῆς ἀντιδίδοσθαι. οὐκοῦν ἀνάγκη καὶ ἡμᾶς τὸν αὐτὸν ἀντιπληρῶσαι τοῦ δείπνου τοῖς μάρτυσιν ἔρανον. ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὴ πένεται ἡμῖν ἡ χορηγία τοῦ λόγου, καλῶς ἔχει τοῖς παρ’ αὐτῶν ἐκείνων λειψάνοις ἡμᾶς δεξιοῦσθαι τοὺς χθὲς μὲν ἑστιάτορας, σήμερον δὲ δαιτυμόνας. ἀρκεῖ γὰρ καὶ βραχύ τι μέρος ἐκ πλουσίας τραπέζης, μεγάλης εὐωχίας γενέσθαι παρασκευὴν, ὅταν τοιοῦτον λείψανον ᾖ. τί οὖν τοῦτο τὸ λείψανον; μέμνησθε πάντως, ἐν τίνι ἦμεν τοῦ λόγου, ὅτε ὁ εὐκταῖος ἐκεῖνος καὶ ἡδὺς ἡμῖν ἐκ τοῦ πλήθους τῶν συνειλεγμένων θόρυβος συνέχεε τὴν τῶν λεγομένων ἀκρόασιν, ὅτε ἡ ἔμψυχος ἐκείνη τῆς ἐκκλησίας θάλασσα τῷ πλήθει τῶν ἐπεισρεόντων πλημμυροῦσα πρὸς τὴν ῥοπὴν τῶν ἀεὶ βιαζομένων ἐκύμαινε, μιμουμένη καὶ τῷ ἤχῳ τὴν ὄντως θάλασσαν, οἷον αὐταῖς ταῖς ἀκοαῖς ἡμῶν προσρηγνῦσα τῶν κυμάτων τὸν ψόφον. ἐν τίσι τοίνυν κατελίπομεν χειμασθέντα τῷ θορύβῳ τὸν λόγον, μέμνησθε πάντως οἷς μεμελέτηται διὰ μνήμης ἔχειν τοὺς μάρτυρας. ἦν δὲ, ὡς οἶμαι, ἡ ἀκολουθία τοῦ λόγου αὕτη, ὅτι οὐ τῶν τυχόντων ἦσάν τινες οἱ εἰς τὸν ἀγῶνα τοῦτον ἐξειλεγμένοι, οὐδέ τις σύμμικτος καὶ ἀνώνυμος ὄχλος, ἐκ ταπεινῶν ἐπιτηδευμάτων ὁρμηθέντες, πρὸς τὸ ἀξίωμα τοῦτο ἐπήρθησαν· ἀλλὰ πρῶτον μὲν δι’ εὐφυΐαν σώματος, κάλλει καὶ δυνάμει καὶ ῥώμης περιουσίᾳ τῶν λοιπῶν διενεγκόντος, τοῖς στρατιωτικοῖς καταλόγοις ἐνηριθμήθησαν· μετὰ ταῦτα δὲ τῷ κατ’ ἀρετὴν βίῳ καὶ πολιτείᾳ σώφρονι διαπρέψαντες ὥσπερ τι γέρας καὶ ἀριστεῖον τὴν χάριν τῆς μαρτυρίας τελειωθέντες ἐδέξαντο. καὶ εἰ δοκεῖ ὡς ἂν ἡδίους γενοίμεθα, πάντα τὰ τῶν μαρτύρων ἐφεξῆς ἀναλάβωμεν οἷον ὑπ’ ὄψιν ἄγοντες τῷ παρόντι θεάτρῳ τὴν ἄθλησιν.

‘Yesterday the martyrs invited the people to them; now they are entertained in the lodging of the Church, on their own invitation. There is a rule in banqueting etiquette that such regular receptions are returned by the diners to one another. Thus, we also have to treat the martyrs with a feast of the same class in return. But, since our supply of words is poor, it will be enough to treat our hosts of yesterday and guests of today with leftovers from what we received from them. For even a little piece left from a rich table is enough to prepare a great feast, especially when it is such a leftover. What is, then, this leftover? Surely you remember at which point of our homily we were, when that noise – welcome and sweet to us! – from the gathered crowd drowned out the hearing of our words; when that living sea of the Church, flooding by the mass flowing in, was pushing in waves the flow of the people ever rushing through, imitating the real sea by its very sound, beating, as it did, our ears with the hubbub of its waves, like on a shore. Those of you caring to keep the martyrs’ memory alive will surely remember at which point we gave up our speech, overwhelmed by the noise. The part of the speech was, I believe, this: the men chosen for this contest were not random nor were they lifted up to this dignity, being a disparate and obscure mob of lowly pursuits. Quite the contrary: first, they joined the army for their bodily health, distinguished from the rest by their beauty, might and abundant physical strength; and after that, having excelled in virtuous life and wise conduct, they received as a reward the grace of martyrdom at the end of their lives. But let us indulge, if you please, and follow now the whole story of the martyrs, bringing their contest under our eyes, as it were, on this very stage.’

A military unit in a neighbouring city (probably Melitene) has a special zeal for the faith, because it has experienced a divine manifestation. During a war, the barbarians occupy all the sources of water and the Romans are threatened by thirst. The prayer of Christians causes a thunderstorm which destroys the camp of the enemy, and plentiful streams of water flow for the soldiers. The martyrs serve as soldiers at this unit, and their youth and virtue are envied by the Devil. Christians are threatened with death unless they apostatise. The martyrs are tortured, but they endure bravely, laughing at their torturers. The time of their execution arrives just before the beginning of the forty days of Lent [their feast is recorded in later sources on 9 March]. It is a day of freezing cold, for which the area is famous, and the tyrant orders the martyrs to be exposed to the cold, which they accept happily. They arrive at the site of the shrine which was then a public bath, take off their clothes and go naked into the freezing water. Glorious scenes follow: the bodies are carried away to be burned; the keeper joins the martyrs when one of them apostatises; a mother gives up her own son to be burned. After the fall of mankind, the Kingdom of Heaven has been guarded by a rotating sword of flame, which allows only the worthy to enter, among whom were the Forty Martyrs.

Text: Lendle 1990
Summary and translation: Efthymios Rizos


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, ob. early 4th c. : S00103

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom Literary - Sermons/Homilies


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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

Sebaste Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Nyssa

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Service for the Saint

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting graves and shrines

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Crowds


Gregory of Nyssa was born in the late 330s as one of the youngest of a leading Christian family of Cappadocia. His siblings included important figures of church life, namely Basil of Caesarea, the ascetic Makrina the Younger, and Peter of Sebaste. Gregory was trained in philosophy and rhetoric mainly by his brother Basil, who, in 371 or 372 ordained him bishop of the Cappadocian township of Nyssa. In 376, Gregory was deposed from his see, to which he was able to return in 378, and, from then onwards, he was one of the protagonists of church politics in the East Roman Empire. He played an important role during the Council of Constantinople (381) and was very close to the imperial family of Theodosius I. He was sent on missions to Armenia and Arabia in order settle problems in local churches. Gregory died after 394. He left a large literary heritage on philosophical, theological, ascetical, catechetical and homiletic works. On the manuscript tradition of this oration, see: Heil, Cavarnos, and Lendle 1990, ccxxxix-cclvii (O. Lendle).


These two sermons provide evidence for the structure of a two-day festival held in the memory of the *Forty Martyrs. Although it is not directly stated by the author, it is probable that the venue of the festival was their shrine near Sebasteia/Sebaste. In 1a (passage quoted above), the author states that he was talking at the very site of the martyrs’ contest. In sermon 1b, the author flatters his audience by alluding to the fact that he is talking at length about a legend which is local and already well-known: (Lendle 1990, 152, 14-15) ἦ που περιττὸς ὑμῖν εἶναι δοκῶ καὶ ἀδόλεσχος, τὰ ὑμέτερα θαύματα ἐν ὑμῖν διηγούμενος, καὶ τοῖς ὑμετέροις τὴν ἀκοὴν δεξιούμενος; ‘Do I appear to you banal and boring, recounting, as I am, your own wonders at your home, and treating your ears with your own stories?’ Gregory’s statement that the martyrdom of the Forty is a mystical reflection of the forty days of Lent indicates that he was preaching at the festival of the Forty Martyrs on 9 March. This is the feast date given by the Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs (E01303), and it is also indirectly hinted at in Gregory’s Second Encomium on the Forty Martyrs (E01298). The precise date of the sermon is unknown. Gregory is unlikely to have been invited to Sebaste for the festival between 374 and 380, when the bishop of the city, Eustathios, was in conflict with Gregory’s elder brother and metropolitan, Basil of Caesarea. The sermon must either date from the early 370s, when their friendship with Eustathios had not yet been broken, or from after 380, when Gregory’s brother, Petros, succeeded Eustathios as bishop of Sebaste. Jean Daniélou (1955, 362-363) argues for 383, while Johan Leemans (2001) suggests dating this sermon to the period before 376. The latter’s dating is based on the fact that, in the captatio benevolentiae of 1a, Gregory expresses his interest in the mystical interpretation of the Inscriptions (titles) of the Psalms, stating that he intends to treat the subject separately. Gregory, indeed, wrote a book On the Inscriptions of the Psalms, which is thought to have been composed in 376-378. Leemans takes this as a terminus ante quem. Sermon 1a was given during a service celebrated at the shrine of the Forty Martyrs on the site of their martyrdom. In the first paragraphs of 1a and 1b, Gregory alludes to the crowds of worshippers streaming through the shrine while he was talking. The service included readings from the Old and New Testaments (Job, Proverbs, 2 Corinthians 12:4, Ephesians 3:18) and from the Psalms (the author alludes to Psalms 37, 69, 15, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 8, 80 and 83). The author refers to the scriptural readings in passing, and makes a rhetorical contemplation on the Fifth Commandment (‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you’), presenting his speech as an offering in honour of his audience – an artful captatio benevolentiae. Gregory continues flattering his Armenian hosts with a disguised ekphrasis (rhetorical description) of their homeland, alluding to the two rivers, lakes, and marshes of the area. He states that the greatest fruit and treasure of that place and community are the martyrs. However, when he reaches the point of recounting their story, the noise in the church has grown so loud that he is compelled to conclude his speech without further ado. The second sermon (1b) was delivered one day later, as indicated by the opening phrase: Χθὲς οἱ μάρτυρες πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς τὸν λαὸν ἐκάλουν, νῦν τῷ καταγωγίῳ τῆς Ἐκκλησίας ἐπιξενοῦνται αὐτόκλητοι. ‘Yesterday the martyrs invited the people to them; now they are entertained in the lodging of the Church, on their own invitation.’ It is unclear what Gregory means by ‘the lodging of the Church’ (καταγώγιον τῆς Ἐκκλησίας): was the festival continued at the central church of the city? Later on, however, the author seems to imply that the venue was again the shrine on the site of the martyrs’ death, which was a former public bath: (ed. Lendle 1990, p. 153.14-17) ούδεὶς ὕστερος ὤφθη τῇ προθυμίᾳ, ἀλλ’ ὁμοθυμαδὸν ἅπαντες τουτονὶ καταλαβόντες τὸν τόπον, ὡσεὶ δημοσίοις τότε λουτροῖς σχολάζοντα, ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ μέλλοντες τῷ λουτρῷ καταφαιδρύνειν τὰ σώματα, ἑτοίμως τὴν τῶν χιτώνων περιβολὴν ἀπετίθεντο. ‘Νone of them appeared to lag behind in enthusiasm, but all unanimously arrived at this place here, which then used to serve as public baths, for they were themselves about to beautify their bodies with a bath, and readily took off their dress of tunics.’ The story of the martyrs as recounted by Gregory follows closely the story recounted by the sermon of Basil of Caesarea on the same saints (E00718), and, with a number of differences, the Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia/Sebaste (E01303). A detail added by Gregory is the association of the Forty Martyrs with the Twelfth Legion, Fulminata, of Melitene, and the presumed Christian traditions of that regiment. The rain miracle is mentioned by a number of ancient sources (Tertullian, Apology 5; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.4.3–5.7; Dio Cassius, Roman History LXX, 8.1–10.5; Historia Augusta, Life of Marcus Aurelius 24, 4), and is also depicted on the column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome.


Text: Heil, G., J. P. Cavarnos, and O. Lendle, eds. Gregorii Nysseni Opera X.1: Gregorii Nysseni Sermones Ii. Leiden: Brill, 1990, 137-156 (O. Lendle). Translation: Leemans, J., ed. 'Let Us Die That We May Live' : Greek Homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria, (C. Ad 350-Ad 450). London: Routledge, 2003, 91-110 (J. Leemans). Further reading: Bernardi, J. La prédication des pères Cappadociens, Paris : Université de Paris, 1968, 303-307. Daniélou, J. (1955), ‘Chronologie des sermons de Grégoire de Nysse’, Revue des Sciences Religieuses 29.4, 346-372. Leemans, J. (2001), ‘On the Date of Gregory of Nyssa’s First Homilies on the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (Mart Ia and Ib)’, Journal of Theological Studies 53: 93–8. L, V., Architects of Piety: The Cappadocian Fathers and the Cult of the Martyrs (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Maraval, P., ‘Les premiers développements du culte des XL Martyrs de Sébastée dans l’Orient byzantin et en Occident’, Vetera Christianorum 36, 1999, 193–211. On Gregory of Nyssa: Dörrie, H., “Gregor III,” in Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 12 (1983), 863-895. Maraval, P., ‘Grégoire, évêque de Nysse’, in Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 22 (1988): 20–4. Silvas, A. M. Gregory of Nyssa. The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2007, 1-57.

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