University of Oxford

File(s) not publicly available

E06616: The Greek Martyrdom of *Arethas and his Companions (martyrs of Najran, ob. 523, S01492) recounts the persecution of several Christians of Najran (Arabia) and their leader by the Jewish Himiyarite king Dounaan. A punitive campaign by king *Elesbaas (king of Aksum and ascetic, S02835) avenges their death and establishes a shrine for them. Written in Greek based on Syriac sources, probably in the 6th century.

online resource
posted on 2018-09-26, 00:00 authored by erizos
Martyrdom of Arethas (BHG 166-166b)


I. The Ethiopian invasion and the siege of Najran.

[1-3] In October of the fifth year of the reign of the Christian Roman emperor Ioustinos [Justin I, 518-527], when Timothy was bishop in Alexandria [Timothy III, Monophysite bishop of Alexandria, 518-536], John in Jerusalem [John III, 516-524], Timothy in Constantinople [Timothy I, 511-518], and Euphrasius in Antioch [521-528], Ethiopia was ruled the righteous king Elesbas [Kaleb of Aksum, c. 520], reigning in the capital city of Auxoume [Aksum]. Meanwhile, a cruel Jew named Dounaan [Dhū Nuwās, 517-525/527] was king of the Homerites in the region called Saba or Arabia Felix [the Himyarite kingdom of Yemen]. The people of that region were pagans and barbarians who seemingly practised a form of Judaism, but in fact worshipped idols. The only exception was the city of Negran [Najrān] which was and still is Christian. Elesbas attacked and conquered the Homerite kingdom, forcing Dounaan to fly to a mountain, and left a garrison to control the region. Yet Dounaan managed to kill the Ethiopian troops and started a persecution of all Christians, both locals and foreigners. He therefore sent the army to besiege Negran, and ordered the citizens to apostatise, but they refused.

[4-5] After an unsuccessful siege of several days, and having killed or enslaved the inhabitants of the suburbs, the king took false oaths that he would not kill or force anyone to convert, and claimed that he only wished to make the city his ally and collect the tribute owed by it. Trusting his oath, the locals opened the gates, and their leaders, including Arethas, paid their respects to the king. He, however, had them immediately arrested and their property confiscated. When he heard that the bishop of the city, Paulos, had died, he had his remains dug up and burned, and had the ashes scattered.

II. The martyrdom of 427 clerics and monastics, and 227 women.

[6-9] Next day, the king had a huge pyre lit, and had all the clerics, monks, and virgins of the city, a total of 427 people, burned alive. The overall number of the martyrs of all ages and both sexes, including the clerics and Arethas, was 4252. Arethas, son of Chanef, was the chief of the city and its territory, and together with other leading citizens, he was fettered and ordered to apostatise and convert to Judaism. They firmly refused. The king had their wives and children fettered in front of them. Ten virgins reproached the king for blaspheming against Christ, and he had them and another 227 women killed by the sword.

III. The martyrdom of a noble woman and her two daughters.

[10-14] The king arrested the leading woman of the city, who was very beautiful, with her two daughters. Unable to convert them, the king had them beheaded, after the woman gave a speech to all women, urging them to remain steadfast in the faith.

IV. The martyrdom of Arethas and his 340 companions

[15-19] The king summoned Arethas and his 340 fellow convicts. He accused him of insurrection and of attempting to create his own kingdom in the city, and called him to apostatise. Arethas replied that he was happy to die for Christ and prophesied that the whole region would eventually convert to Christianity, and Dounaan’s kingdom would fall. He exhorted his fellows to keep their faith and ordered that all his possessions be given to the new church which would be replace the one destroyed by Dounaan. They all agreed to die with him.

[20] When Dounaan saw that no-one was willing to apostatise, he ordered that they be beheaded at the ditch where the other martyrs had been killed, near a stream called Obedianos, and that their bodies be left unburied. Arethas was executed first. Before their own execution, his companions anointed themselves with his blood. They were all killed on 24 October.

V. The martyrdom of a woman and her five-year-old son. End of the persecution.

[21] A pious woman who saw the scene also anointed herself and her five-year-old son with the blood of Arethas, and reproached the king who had her cast into a furnace. Before burning her, the king spoke with her son who declared his love for Christ and willingness to be a martyr together with his mother. As the soldiers were taking him away, he escaped and threw himself into the furnace with his mother. The officials petitioned the king to stop the persecution.

[23-24] The king distributed to his followers 1297 Christian children of both sexes as slaves. As he was about to leave the city, a cloud of celestial fire appeared in the sky, burning for forty days and nights. There follows a rhetorical praise of the city of Negran.

VI. Dounaan calls for a persecution of Christians in Persia and Arabia, and the emperor Justin asks Elesbaas to invade the Homerite kingdom

[25-28] King Dounaan sent letters and messengers to the Persian king and to the Saracen king Alamoundaros, also called Sakikas [= Al-Mundhir III ibn al-Nu'man, king of the Lakhmids, 503/4-554], offering them money in order to persecute the Christians in their respective kingdoms. The Roman emperor Justin also sent an embassy with the priest Abramios to Alamoundaros, seeking the protection of the Christians. Together with Abramios there was Symeonios, presbyter of the Orthodox in Persia, Ioannes, subdeacon of the Mandinoi [Mandaeans?], and Aggaios, son of Zet, chief of the Christian federates. There also came the Nestorian bishop Silas who undermined the Christian cause, because he wanted to please the pagans and the Jews. After a debate with the Nestorian, the orthodox convinced Alamoundaros and returned to Constantinople. Hearing about the letter of the Homerite king, the emperor sent instructions to Timothy of Alexandria, to write to the Ethiopian king Elesbaas and ask him to attack Dounaan. In April, Timothy summoned the monks of Sketis and Nitria at the shrine of *Mark (the Evangelist, S00293) in Alexandria, and celebrated the Eucharist. He then sent a priest to the king of Ethiopia, carrying a letter and a silver vessel containing the consecrated Eucharist.

VII-VIII. King Elesbaas conquers the Homerites

[29-31] Elesbaas marshalled an army and fleet of 15,000 against the Homerites, but the campaign failed. At Pentecost, the king visited the great church of his capital, where the kings of the country were buried, and prayed. He then left the capital, disguised as a commoner, and reached the city of Sabi/Saba where he met a holy monk named abba Zonenos, who had lived for forty-five years on a tower with no door or windows. The holy man recognised Elesbaas as the king, blessed him, and prophesied his victory.

[32-38] After a naval expedition (described in detail), assisted by a number of miracles, the Ethiopian king conquered the Homerite kingdom and killed Dounaan. During one of the battles, a voice was heard from heaven calling three times the name *Gabriel (implying the intervention of the archangel, S00192).

IX. A Christian Homerite kingdom and church are established. Elesbaas steps down and becomes an ascetic

[38] In the Homerite capital Tafar [Zafar] the nobles converted to Christianity. Elesbaas founded a church on the site of Dounaan’s palace, working himself on its construction for seven days. He announced his victory to the Patriarch of Alexandria and the emperor Justin. The patriarch ordained a bishop for the Homerites, who dedicated the church, baptised the people, and ordained clerics. Elesbaas rebuilt the city of Negran and its church, nominating the son of Arethas as its leader. He endowed the church with royal estates and with some of Arethas’ property, as the martyr had instructed. He made a sanctuary (ἄσυλον) of the place where the burned remains of the martyrs had been dumped. After appointing a new Christian king, named Abraham, and leaving 10,000 Ethiopians in the land, Elesbaas returned to Ethiopia.

[39] In thanksgiving for his victory, Elesbaas stepped down as king and joined a monastery where he spent the rest of his life as a recluse in strict asceticism. He sent his precious crown to Jerusalem, instructing patriarch John to place it at the gate of the Holy Sepulchre.

Text: Detoraki 2007.
Summary: Efthymios Rizos, Giovanni Hermanin De Reichenfeld.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Arethas, martyr in Najran, early 6th c. : S01492 Elesbaas, king of Aksum, ob. c. 540 : S02835

Saint Name in Source

Ἀρέθας Ἐλεσβαᾶς

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Ethiopia Egypt and Cyrenaica Constantinople and region Arabia

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Alexandria Najran

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

Dechmid Dechmid Alexandria Hermopolis ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛ Ashmunein Hermopolis Constantinople Κωνσταντινούπολις Konstantinoupolis Constantinopolis Constantinople Istanbul Najran Sakkaia / Maximianopolis Σακκαια Sakkaia Saccaea Eaccaea Maximianopolis Shaqqa Schaqqa Shakka

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Saint as patron - of a community

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miraculous sound, smell, light Miraculous interventions in war

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Children Family Ecclesiastics - bishops Jews and Samaritans Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Pagans Heretics Monarchs and their family Relatives of the saint Aristocrats

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - unspecified


For the manuscript tradition, see Detoraki 2007, 96-162 and For the edition, see Bibliography.


One of the most important sources for the history of Ethiopia and the Yemen in the 6th century, the Greek version of the Martyrdom of Arethas and his Companions bears witness to the interest aroused in the Greek-speaking Christian world by contemporary stories of martyrdom outside the frontiers of the East Roman Empire. It is also a fine example of the blurring between hagiography and historiography, since the bulk of the text is concerned with outlining the broader historical context of the martyrdom. Both the interest in these martyrs' story and the veneration of their memory played a role in the shaping of Constantinople's international policy. The reference to the Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria Timothy III indicates that the text is of anti-Chalcedonian origins. For this reason, it is less than clear whether the hostility of the text towards the Nestorians (in section VI), refers to the 'Nestorian' Church of the East in Persia, or to the Chalcedonian orthodox imperial church of the East Roman Empire. Arethas became a relatively popular saint in the Byzantine ecclesiastical tradition, as indicated by the copious manuscript tradition of the text, and by the popularity of his unusual name (a Hellenised form of the Arabic name al-Ḥārith) as a personal name in the Byzantine period.


Text with French translation: Detoraki, M. (ed.) and Beaucamp, J. (trans.), Le Martyre grec de saint Aréthas et de ses compagnons (BHG 166): édition critique, étude et commentaire (Paris, 2007), 183-285. Further reading: Detoraki, M., "Greek Passions of the Martyrs in Byzantium," in: S. Efthymiadis (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography II: Genres and Contexts (Farnham, 2014), 75. Various papers in J. Beauchamp, F. Briquel-Chatonnet, C. J. Robin (eds.), Le massacre de Najrân - Tome 2, Juifs et chrétiens en Arabie aux Ve et VIe siècles : regards croisés sur les sources (Paris: CNRS-Centre de Recherche d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, 2010).

Usage metrics

    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity