St. Symphorosa and Her Seven Sons, Martyrs
TRAJAN’S persecution in some degree continued during the first year of Adrian’s reign, whence Sulpicius Severus places the fourth general persecution under this emperor. However, he put a stop to it about the year 124, moved probably both by the apologies of Quadratus and Aristides, and by a letter which Serenius Granianus, proconsul of Asia, had written to him in favour of the Christians. 1 Nay he had Christ in veneration, not as the Saviour of the world, but as a wonder or novelty, and kept his image together with that of Apollonius Tyanæus. This God was pleased to permit, that his afflicted Church might enjoy some respite. It was, however, again involved in the disgrace which the Jews (with whom the Pagans at these times in some degree confounded the Christians) drew upon themselves by their rebellion, which gave occasion to the last entire destruction of Jerusalem in 134. Then, as St. Paulinus informs us, 2 Adrian caused a statue of Jupiter to be erected on the place where Christ rose from the dead, and a marble Venus on the place of his crucifixion; and at Bethlehem, 3 a grotto consecrated in honour of Adonis or Thammuz, to whom he also dedicated the cave where Christ was born.
This prince towards the end of his reign abandoned himself more than ever to acts of cruelty, and being awakened by a fit of superstition he again drew his sword against the innocent flock of Christ. He built a magnificent country palace at Tibur, now Tivoli, sixteen miles from Rome, upon the most agreeable banks of the river Anio, now called Teverone. Here he placed whatever could be procured most curious out of all the provinces. Having finished the building he intended to dedicate it by heathenish ceremonies which he began by offering sacrifices, in order to induce the idols to deliver their oracles. The demons answered: “The widow Symphorosa and her seven sons daily torment us by invoking their God; if they sacrifice, we promise to be favourable to your vows.” 1
This lady lived with her seven sons upon a plentiful estate which they enjoyed at Tivoli, and she liberally expended her treasures in assisting the poor, especially in relieving the Christians who suffered for the faith. She was widow of St. Getulius or Zoticus, who had been crowned with martyrdom with his brother Amantius. They were both tribunes of legions or colonels in the army, and are honoured among the martyrs on the 10th of June. Symphorosa had buried their bodies in her own farm, and sighing to see her sons and herself united with them in immortal bliss, she prepared herself to follow them by the most fervent exercise of all good works. 2
Adrian, whose superstition was alarmed at this answer of his gods or their priests, ordered her and her sons to be seized, and brought before him. She came with joy in her countenance, praying all the way for herself and her children, that God would grant them the grace to confess his holy name with constancy. The emperor exhorted them at first in mild terms to sacrifice. Symphorosa answered: “My husband Getulius and his brother Amantius, being your tribunes, have suffered divers torments for the name of Jesus Christ rather than sacrifice to idols; and they have vanquished your demons by their death, choosing to be beheaded rather than to be overcome. The death they suffered drew upon them ignominy among men, but glory among the angels; and they now enjoy eternal life in heaven.” The emperor changing his voice, said to her in an angry tone: “Either sacrifice to the most powerful gods, with thy sons, or thou thyself shalt be offered up as a sacrifice together with them.” Symphorosa answered: “Your gods cannot receive me as a sacrifice; but if I am burnt for the name of Jesus Christ my death will increase the torment which your devils endure in their flames. But can I hope for so great a happiness as to be offered with my children a sacrifice to the true and living God?” Adrian said: “Either sacrifice to my gods, or you shall all miserably perish.” Symphorosa said: “Do not imagine that fear will make me change; I am desirous to be at rest with my husband whom you put to death for the name of Jesus Christ.” The emperor then ordered her to be carried to the temple of Hercules, where she was first buffeted on the cheeks, and afterwards hung up by the hair of her head. When no torments were able to shake her invincible soul, the emperor gave orders that she should be thrown into the river with a great stone fastened about her neck. Her brother Eugenius, who was one of the chief of the council of Tibur, took up her body, and buried it on the road near that town. 3
The next day the emperor sent for her seven sons all together, and exhorted them to sacrifice and not imitate the obstinacy of their mother. He added the severest threats, but finding all to be in vain, he ordered seven stakes with engines and pullies to be planted round the temple of Hercules, and the pious youths to be bound upon them; their limbs were in this posture tortured and stretched in such a manner that the bones were disjointed in all parts of their bodies. The young noblemen, far from yielding under the violence of their tortures, were encouraged by each other’s example, and seemed more eager to suffer than the executioners were to torment. At length the emperor commanded them to be put to death, in the same place where they were, different ways. The eldest called Crescens had his throat cut; the second called Julian was stabbed in the breast; Nemesius the third was pierced with a lance in his heart; Primativus received his wound in the belly, Justin in the back, Stacteus on his sides, and Eugenius the youngest died by his body being cleft asunder into two parts across his breast from the head downwards. The emperor came the next day to the temple of Hercules, and gave orders for a deep hole to be dug, and all the bodies of these martyrs to be thrown into it. The place was called by the heathen priest, The seven Biothanati; which word signifieth in Greek and in the style of art magic, such as die by a violent death, particularly such as were put to the torture. After this, a stop was put to the persecution for about eighteen months. 4 During which interval of peace the Christians took up the remains of these martyrs, and interred them with honour on the Tiburtin road, in the midway between Tivoli and Rome, where still are seen some remains of a church erected in memory of them in a place called to this day, The seven Brothers. 5 Their bodies were translated by a pope called Stephen, into the church of the Holy Angel in the fish-market in Rome, where they were found in the pontificate of Pius IV. with an inscription on a plate which mentioned this translation. 6 4
St. Symphorosa set not before the eyes of her children the advantages of their riches and birth, or of their father’s honourable employments and great exploits; but those of his piety and the triumph of his martyrdom. She continually entertained them on the glory of heaven, and the happiness of treading in the steps of our Divine Redeemer, by the practice of humility, patience, resignation, and charity, which virtues are best learned in the path of humiliations and sufferings. In these a Christian finds his solid treasure, and his unalterable peace and joy both in life and death. The honours, riches, applause, and pleasures with which the worldly sinner is sometimes surrounded, can never satiate his desires; often they do not even reach his heart, which under this gorgeous show bleeds as it were inwardly, while silent grief, like a worm at the core, preys upon his vitals. Death at last always draws aside the curtain, and shows them to have been no better than mere dreams and shadows which passed in a moment, but have left a cruel sting behind them, which fills the mind with horror, dread, remorse, and despair, and racks the whole soul with confusion, perplexities, and alarms. 5
Note 1. St. Paulin. ep. 11, ad Sever.
Note 2. St. Hieron. ep. 13, ad Paul.
Note 3. The Emperor Adrian, nobly born at Italica, near Seville in Spain, was cousin-german to Trajan; and having been adopted by him, upon his death ascended the imperial throne in 117. He was extremely inquisitive, and fond of whatever was surprising or singular, well skilled in all curious arts, mathematics, judiciary astrology, physic, and music. But this, says Lord Bacon, was an error in his mind, that he desired to comprehend all things, yet neglected the most useful branches of knowledge. He was light and fickle; and so monstrous was his vanity, that he caused all to be slain who pretended in any art or science to rival him; and it was accounted great prudence in a certain person that he would not dispute his best with him, alleging afterwards that it was reasonable to yield to him who commanded thirty legions. The beginning of this prince’s reign was bloody; yet he is commended in it for two things; the first is mentioned by Spartian, that when he came to the empire he laid aside all former enmities, and forgot past injuries: insomuch that, being made emperor, he said to one who had been his capital enemy: “Thou hast now escaped.” The other is, that when a woman cried to him as he was passing by: “Hear me, Cæsar;” and he answered, “I have not leisure.” The woman replied: “Then cease to reign.” “Noli ergo imperare.” Whereupon he stopped and heard her complaint.
Note 4. Adrian became more cruel than ever towards the end of his life, and without any just cause put to death several persons of distinction. At last he fell sick of a dropsy at his house at Tibur. Finding that no medicines gave him any relief he grew most impatient and fretful under his lingering illness, and wished for death, often asking for poison or a sword, which no one would give him, though he offered them money and impunity. His physician slew himself that he might not be compelled to give him poison. A slave named Mastor, a barbarian noted for his strength and boldness, whom the emperor had employed in hunting, was, partly by threats, partly by promises, prevailed upon to undertake it; but instead of complying, was seized with fear, and durst not strike him, and fled. The unhappy tyrant lamented day and night, that death refused to obey and deliver him who had caused the death of so many others. He at length hastened his death by eating and drinking things contrary to his health in his distemper, and expired with these words in his mouth, “The multitude of physicians hath killed the emperor.” “Turba medicorum Cæsarem perdidit.” (See Dio et Spartian in Adr.) He died in 138, being sixty-two years old, and having reigned twenty-one years.
Note 5. A sette Frate, in the villa of Maffei, nine miles from Rome. See Aringhi, Roma Subter. l. 3, c. 14.
Note 6. Ado, Usuard; Mart. Rom. cum notis Baronii et Lubin.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VII: July. The Lives of the Saints. 1866. July 18.