Site logo

The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world

Gregory of Nyssa, on 9 March 379, delivers his Second Encomium on the *Forty Martyrs (martyrs of Sebasteia/Sebaste, E00103), recounting their martyrdom and miracles. Composed and delivered in Greek at Kaisareia/Caesarea of Cappadocia (central Asia Minor).

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom

Literary - Sermons/Homilies

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Forty Martyrs II (CPG 3189, BHG 1208), p. 159

(ed. Lendle 1990, p. 159.1-17)


μνπλταιωμαίων κατνόμον πάτριον, κασυνήθειαν παλαιν, ἣν παδες παρπρογόνων διαδεξάμενοι, καμέχρι τοπαρόντος φυλάττουσιν, ἐν τῇ ἀρχτοῦ ἐνεσττος μηνς τν πανοπλίαννσκευαζόμενοι, καχωροντεςπί τι πεδίονπλωμένονκανς καὶ ὕπτιον, ἔνθαπερξεστι καδρόμονππωνκτεναι, καμελετσαι ττακτικὰ, καπσαν γυμνασθναι τννόπλιονσκησιν, ἀνάμνησίν τε τοῦ ἔτους ποιονται, κατνμέρανπίσημονγουσιν. Ἐγδμνήμην μαρτύρων τελν, καταύτην τπροτεραίκηρύξαςμν, τος τοΧριστοστρατιώτας τος μʹ, τος πσαν προθυμίανπερβαλομένους, ἐν τοςγσινπλίσας διτς μνήμης σήμερον θαυμαστος τος δυναμένοις βλέπειν προΐστημι· κόσμον τςκκλησίας, καλαν εφροσύνην, καΘεοδόξαν τοῦ ἐνισχύσαντος. Ἄριστον δπάντως, καὶ ἄγαν λυσιτελς τος τςρετς διηγήμασι, τούς τε νέουςντρέφεσθαι, κασυνακμάζειν τοςνδρας (……).


The soldiers of the Romans have an ancestral tradition and ancient custom, which they receive as children from their ancestors and keep it until the present time: at the beginning of this month, they prepare their armour, go to a sufficiently spacious and flat plain, where it is possible to ride horses, study tactics, and train in every military drill, and they celebrate the memory of the year and keep this day as a feast. As for myself, I keep the memory of the martyrs, which I announced to you the other day: by this commemoration, today I am arming for combat the forty soldiers of Christ, who excelled in all zeal, and am setting them up to be admired by those who can see. These are the pride of the Church, the joy of the people, and the glory of God who gave them strength. It is indeed an excellent and extremely beneficial thing that the young may be nourished and that men may keep their vigour by accounts of bravery (……).’

The speaker has a double challenge: to speak in a way commensurate with the importance of the story, and not to fall too much short of the quality of a sermon on the same subject by the late Basil of Caesarea whose wisdom and holiness is universally respected.

Gregory recounts the story of the martyrs who were forty Christians serving in the Roman army. A law demands Christians to sacrifice on the threat of death, but they declare their willingness to die. Their persecutor seeks for a torment to frighten these men who, trained in arms, would not be afraid of the sword or fire. It is winter, the land is the neighbouring province of Armenia, famous for its cold climate, and the martyrs are condemned to be exposed naked to the cold, a torment as painful as fire, but causing a much slower death. They are left out in the cold, while a bathhouse nearby is heated and prepared for those that apostatise. One of the martyrs is turned, and enters the bath, hoping to save his life, but he dies immediately. One of the guards watching over them has a vision of the angels coming for the martyrs, takes off his clothes, and joins them in their martyrdom, replacing the apostate. The dead bodies of the martyrs are burned and their ashes are shared by the Christians becoming a blessing for the entire world. Gregory himself possesses a quantity of it (at the shrine of his family estate), and he has buried the bodies of his parents next to it, so that they may rise among righteous men on the day of resurrection. Gregory once met a soldier who was miraculously healed from a disability in his leg by the martyrs, after praying at that shrine. He also remembers attending as a young man the consecration of the shrine, which was organised by his mother. Gregory was summoned to the festival by his mother against his will, but his feelings changed, after he had a dream vision of the martyrs as soldiers preventing him from entering the garden of the shrine
[see E01299]. He recounts these stories in order to show that the martyrs are not dead, but real and living. Their memory makes Lent brighter. The winter is no more burdensome, since it became the means of the saints’ martyrdom. The intercession of the saints is particularly strong and efficient, because they are a large group offering their prayer together.

Text: Lendle 1990.
Translation and Summary: E. Rizos

Liturgical Activities

Service for the saint


Saint’s feast

Cult Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Non Liturgical Activity

Transmission, copying and reading saint-related texts
Composing and translating saint-related texts

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops


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, cclix-cclxiii (O. Lendle)


Thanks to a number of details in the text, the occasion for this oration can be reconstructed with considerable accuracy: Gregory delivered it at the festival of the Forty Martyrs held at their shrine in Kaisareia/Caesarea on 9 March 379. The date is confirmed by the fact that Gregory refers to Basil of Caesarea as already dead (he died on 1 January 379), and he also mentions the burial of his parents at their private shrine, while not mentioning his elder sister Makrina who died towards the end of 379 and was buried in the same tomb as their parents (E01675). It seems that Gregory spent the winter and early spring of 378/379 in the Cappadocian capital, being present at the death and funeral of Basil, and participating in the election of his successor.

The sermon opens with a reference to the martial festival of March (
Feriae Marti) which was celebrated with drills and parades, traditionally held in Rome on 1 and 9 March. The latter coincided with the feast of the Forty Martyrs (9 March), which was very probably the festival on which Gregory gave this speech. Gregory states that he announced the festival to his audience. This may suggest that he was serving as the acting bishop of Kaisareia/Caesarea between the death of Basil and the election of his successor, Helladios. In the captatio benevolentiae, Gregory pays tribute to his deceased brother, mentioning the homily of Basil on the Forty Martyrs, which indicates that he speaks before a Caesarean audience which probably had heard Basil giving that homily at the same shrine some years earlier. The text of this sermon presents clear influences from that of Basil.

Gregory recounts the story of the Forty Martyrs in a way that follows roughly the other known accounts, namely that of Basil of Caesarea (E00718), the
Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs (E01303), and another sermon on the subject by Gregory himself (E01293). He only omits the episode of the mother who gives up her son to be burned. Like Basil, Gregory insists on the idea of the unity of the group of the Forty, regardless of the place of their veneration and which part of their relics is involved, and he stresses the power of their intercession as a group. A particularly interesting part of this text is its reference to the shrine of the Forty Martyrs on Gregory’s family estate near Ibora in Pontus, on which see E01299. This is added as a testimony to miracles performed by the saints.


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).

Further reading:
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.

, 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.

Record Created By

Efthymios Rizos

Date of Entry


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00103Forty Martyrs of SebasteΤεσσαράκοντα μάρτυρεςCertain

Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Efthymios Rizos, Cult of Saints, E01298 -