In the winter of 320 AD, Constantine was Emperor of the West and Licinius was Emperor of the East. Licinius, under pressure from Constantine, had agreed to legalize Christianity in his territory, and the two made an alliance (cemented by the marriage of Licinius to Constantia the sister of Constantine), but now Licinius broke the alliance and made a new attempt to suppress Christianity. He ordered all Roman soldiers to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods to repudiate it on the pain of death. His edict reached the “Thundering Legion,” stationed at Sebaste, Armenia (now Sivas, Turkey), and the order was passed down to the legionaries.
The Roman Governor stood resolutely before the Forty Roman soldiers of the Thundering Legion. “I command you to make an offering to the Roman gods. If you will not, you will be stripped of your military status.” The forty soldiers all believed firmly in the Lord Jesus. They knew they must not deny Him or sacrifice to the Roman idols, no matter what the governor would do to them. Camdidus spoke for the legion, “Nothing is dearer or of greater honor to us than Christ our God. They refused to obey the edict, choosing instead to obey a higher authority: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol… You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
The governor then tried other tactics to get them to deny their faith. First he offered them promises of money or imperial honors. Then he threatened them with torments and torture with the rack and with fire.
Camdidus Replied, “You offer us money that remains behind and glory that fades away. You seek to make us friends of the Emperor, but alienate us from the true King. We desire one gift, the crown of righteousness. We are anxious for one glory, the glory of the heavenly kingdom. We love honors, those of heaven.
“You threaten fearful torments and call our godliness a crime, but you will not find us faint hearted or attached to this life or easily stricken with terror. For the love of God, we are prepared to endure any kind of torture.”
The governor was enraged. They were ordered to remove their armor and clothing, herded onto the middle of a frozen lake, standing there naked to die a slow, painful death. He set soldiers to guard them to prevent any from escaping. They were told, “You may come ashore when you are ready to deny your faith.”
The forty encouraged each other as though they were going to battle. “How many of our companions in arms fell on the battle front, showing themselves loyal to an earthly king? Let us not turn aside, O warriors, let us not turn our backs in flight from the devil”.
To tempt and increase the torment of the Christians, fires were built on shore, with warm baths, blankets, clothing, and hot food and drink close by. The mother of the youngest soldier was present and encouraged her son from the bank.
The men began to pray, “O Lord, 40 wrestlers have come forth to fight for Thee. Grant that 40 wrestlers may gain the victory!” As daylight faded, 40 warriors continued to resist, courageously bearing their pain in spite of the bitter cold—some walking quickly to and fro, some already sleeping that sleep which ends in death, and some standing lost in prayer, rejoicing in the hope of soon being with the Lord. Finally, one legionary could endure the suffering no longer, succumbed to the temptation and left the ice for the warm house that was guarded by a centurion named Sempronius and his men. On the ice, the remaining thirty-nine men stood firm. Still the petition went up from those able to speak, “O Lord, 40 wrestlers have come forth to fight for Thee. Grant that 40 wrestlers may gain the victory!”
Their prayer was answered. To the surprise of everyone, Sempronius the centurion was touched by his comrades’ bravery, and the Holy Spirit moved upon his heart. He threw off his armor, weapons, and clothing, and ran to join the 39 remaining Christians on the ice, confessing Jesus as Christ, crying out loudly, “I am a Christian.” They welcomed him into their company, and so the number of the martyrs remained at forty. By morning, 40 glorious spirits, Sempronius among them, had entered into the presence of Christ.
Some call it “the mystery of martyrdom.” Why would seeing 39 believers who were willing to die for their faith inspire a highly-trained soldier, in the prime of his life, to join them in death? It is amazing to see how God works through these tragic situations to call more people to Himself.
All died of exposure, although one source says that the few in whom a little life remained were stabbed to death by dawn. We still have what some scholars believe to be authentic eyewitness accounts of their martyrdom. It includes farewell messages to their family and friends written shortly before their deaths.
March 9 is Forty Martyrs Day, a holiday honoring the faithful resistance of the Forty Martyrs of Sabaste. It is traditionally celebrated by eating food which contains the number 40; for instance, forty layers of pasty, forty different kinds of herbs or gains, forty pancakes.