Are They Or Aren’t They?

10 07 sergius and bacchusToday is the feast day of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus. There is some doubt over whether they actually existed and some controversy over whether or not they were gay. According to their legend, were two very close friends who were high ranking officials in the Roman Army in the 4th century. I don’t know where they were from, it could have been anywhere in the Roman Empire, but at the beginning of their story, they were in Nicomedia, which is close to present day Constantinople. The fact that they were both Christians was something that they had wisely kept to themselves, as they knew they would face persecution. But then they, along with other people of high rank, were ordered by the governor to go to the temple and take part in a sacrifice and feast in honour of the god Jupiter. They said they couldn’t do it because they were Christians. They didn’t mind giving their bodies to the Roman army, but that was as far as it went.

For this crime they were stripped of their rank, dressed in women’s clothes and paraded through the town. But they didn’t mind that at all. So they were sent to Barbalissos, in what is now Syria, to be tried for their crime. It was a journey of 1,000 km (over 620 miles) and they travelled in chains, singing all the way. At their trial, they still refused to worship any Roman gods. Sergius was thrown into prison and Bacchus was beaten to death. His body was thrown to wild beasts, but instead of eating him the animals gathered to mourn over his body.

Sergius was distraught at the loss of his friend. But the spirit of Bacchus appeared to him in the night to give him courage and tell him that they would soon be together in heaven. The next day Sergius was forced to wear boots with nails inside and made to run 15 km (9 miles) in front of a chariot. During the night, an angel healed his wounds. In the morning, he was made to run again and when he reached a place called Rusafah, he was beheaded. A great chasm opened up in the ground where he fell.

A shrine was built to house his remains and the cult of Sergius and Bacchus was so strong in the 5th century that Rusafah was temporarily renamed Sergiopolis. They were venerated in the Byzantine Empire as protectors of the army and had several churches dedicated to them, including the Little Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. The source of their legend has been dated to the mid fifth century. Because there is no evidence of their existence before 425, over a century after their reported deaths, it is quite possible they never existed at all.

More recently a translation of the original Greek ‘Passion of Sergius and Bacchus’ by John Boswell has led himself and others to speculate that their close friendship was not a platonic one. When Bacchus appears to Sergius to tell him that they will be together in heaven, it would have been more usual to say that they would be in heaven with God. Also the Greek word describing their friendship, ‘erastai’ can be translated as ‘lovers’. He argues this shows that homosexuality was accepted in the early Church. This had led to a resurgence of interest in Sergius and Bacchus among the Gay Christian Community.

Whether they existed or not, whether they were friends or lovers probably doesn’t matter much in the end. What are saints for if not to inspire hope amongst the persecuted? I’m glad there still doing a good job.

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