“LARGER THAN LIFE” is a fitting description for this saint who has become the patron of so many nations and peoples. George the Great-Martyr and Trophybearer (c.280-303) was born to a prominent Greek Christian family in Palestine. His father was a military official from Cappadocia and his mother from Lod (Lydda). When George’s father died, mother and son went back to Lod where he was raised.
The young George aimed at a military career like his father and at the age of seventeen went to Nicomedia, the imperial capital in Asia Minor, to present himself for the emperor’s service. Emperor Diocletian had known George’s father and welcomed him into the Roman army. By his late 20s George held the rank of tribune and served in the imperial guard.
The Persecution of Diocletian
In AD 293 Diocletian had instituted a “tetrarchy,” entrusting the rule of the Roman Empire to four leaders: two emperors (Diocletian and Maximian) and two Caesars (Galerius and Constantius) as part of his program to revitalize the empire. His plan also involved restoring temples and cults of the ancient gods as a way of instilling “Roman pride.” Christians supported the empire but resisted its identification with the gods and goddesses of antiquity.
Christian historians have long described the events of 302-311 as the “persecution of Diocletian,” but in fact it was instigated by Galerius. His mother, a pagan priestess, loathed the Christians for avoiding her festivals and passed on those sentiments to her son. He instituted the persecution of Christians in the territory he ruled and urged the same throughout the empire.
In the previous forty years Christians had become increasingly influential in public life and in the military. Under the tetrarchy, however, Christians were increasingly blamed for the failure of the ancient gods to answer the prayers of their devotees. In 299, for example at the end of a war with Persia, Diocletian and Valerius had stopped at Antioch and were consulting oracles there to determine their future course. The diviners blamed the presence of Christians in the imperial retinue for their own failure to interpret the future.
In the year 302, Diocletian was again at Antioch. A sacrifice was being offered in the palace when a Christian deacon interrupted and publicly denounced it. When a few months later fire broke out in the imperial palace at Nicomedia Galerius convinced Diocletian that it was a revolt of some Christians on his staff. The result was described by the fourth century historian, Eusebius:
“It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian’s reign [AD 303] and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour’s Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire, and giving notice that those in places of honor would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty. Such was the first edict against us. Soon afterwards other decrees arrived in rapid succession, ordering that the presidents of the churches in every place should all be first committed to prison and then coerced by every possible means into offering sacrifice” (Eusebius, History of the Church, VIII.2 ).
The Martyrdom of St George
George stood up for his faith. He resisted the bribes Diocletian offered if he were to worship the Roman gods, and remained firm when those bribes turned to threats. Condemned to death, George gave away his belongings to the poor and submitted to torture. Later writers described all manner of tortures said to have been inflicted on St. George. Perhaps the most astute judgment on those writings is that of Pope Gelasius I who stated that George was among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God” (De Libris recipiendis, 494).
George was beheaded outside the walls of Nicomedia on April 23, 303. His body was returned to Lod where Christians began to revere him as a martyr. In the time of Constantine the Great a church was built over the saint’s grave. There has been a shrine at this site from the fourth century until the present day.
Another Palestinian shrine to St George, at Beit Jala, is frequented by numerous Pilgrims – Muslims as well as Christians. An Orthodox church, it nevertheless found a place in Taufiq Canaan’s Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine. It may be that, while many Palestinians were willing to accept Islam during the Arab and Egyptian invasions, they were not willing to give up St. George.
Persecution Ends in 311
George’s apparent defeat at the hand of Diocletian was actually a victory over him and, by extension, over all evil. For this reason St George is called “the Trophy-bearer.” That victory would soon become widespread in the Roman world.
In AD 311 Galerius ended the Great Persecution which he had instigated in 303. Having contracted a particularly loathsome disease, he sought to appease the Christian god. Both Lactantius (XXXIV) and Eusebius record this Edict of Toleration:
“Among the other steps that we are taking for the advantage and benefit of the nation, we have desired hitherto that every deficiency should be made good, in accordance with the established law and public order of Rome; and we made provision for this – that the Christians who had abandoned the convictions of their own forefathers should return to sound ideas. For through some perverse reasoning such arrogance and folly had seized and possessed them that they refused to follow the path trodden by earlier generations (and perhaps blazed long ago by their own ancestors), and made their own laws to suit their own ideas and individual tastes and observed these; and held various meetings in various places.
“Consequently, when we issued an order to the effect that they were to go back to the practices established by the ancients, many of them found themselves in great danger, and many were proceeded against and punished with death in many forms. Most of them indeed persisted in the same folly, and we saw that they were neither paying to the gods in heaven the worship that is their due nor giving any honor to the god of the Christians. So in view of our benevolence and the established custom by which we invariably grant pardon to all men, we have thought proper in this matter also to extend our clemency most gladly, so that Christians may again exist and rebuild the houses in which they used to meet, on condition that they do nothing contrary to public order…. Therefore, in view of this our clemency, they are in duty bound to beseech their own god for our security, and that of the state and of themselves, in order that in every way the state may be preserved in health and they may be able to live free from anxiety in their own homes.”
After eight years of persecution, Christians again were permitted to build their churches, if only they would pray for the recovery of the dying emperor.