Saint NameSergios, martyr in Syria, ob. 303-311 : S00023
Saint Name in SourceΣέργοις, Σέργις
Type of EvidenceInscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)
Literary - Poems
Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom
Evidence not before500
Evidence not after600
Activity not before500
Activity not after600
Place of Evidence - RegionArabia
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcIzra/Zorava
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Izra/Zorava
Sakkaia / Maximianopolis
Sakkaia / Maximianopolis
Cult activities - PlacesCult building - independent (church)
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsPrayer/supplication/invocation
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesChildren
SourceBasalt block, probably a lintel. H. 0.41 m; W. 1.33 m; Th. 0.42 m; letter height 0.03 m. The inscription is framed by a tabula ansata.
Found at Izra/Zorava and moved to the theatre of Bostra where it was photographed by Jean Starcky. First published from Starcky's photograph by Claude Mondésert in 1960. Reprinted, after the first edition, by Annie Sartre-Fauriat in 2000; by Reinhold Merkelbach and Josef Stauber in their corpus of metric inscriptions, Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten, in 2002; and by Gianfranco Agosti in 2015. The best and most recent edition, based on a new examination of the stone, was offered in 2014 by Annie Sartre-Fauriat and Maurice Sartre in the fifteenth volume of Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie.
The inscription, composed in 13 verses usually consisting of 15 or 16 syllables and containing epic vocabulary, was certainly conceived as a piece of poetical writings, but the actual meter that was used in each verse is not clear (see: Merkelbach & Stauber 2002, 383: 'Dreizehn Langverse in unregelmässigen Rhythmen'; cf. Mondésert 1960, 127: 'On est frappé par le caractère poétique de toute la pièce: vocabulaire, certaines libertés grammaticales (v.g. absence d'article: li. 1, 3, etc.), un certain rythme, fondé sans doute sur le nombre de syllabes (presque toujours 15 ou 16), mais dont je n'ai pas pu trouver la clef métrique.'; Agosti 2015, 24: 'il testo, ordinato stilisticamente, sembra un epigramma in esametri, e il linguaggio infarcito di omerismi lo conferma').
DiscussionThe inscription commemorates the construction of a church dedicated to Sergios (the martyr venerated at Rusafa) apparently at the site of a demolished pagan sanctuary. The same motif appears in another sophisticated building inscription from Izra/Zorava, in this case commemorating the completion of a church dedicated to the martyr *George over an earlier pagan temple (see: E01754; for similar texts, see also L. Robert, Hellenica, vol. 4, 131-132).
The first five lines of our inscription praise the power of God that ruined obscure temples dedicated to man-made demons (eidola/idols) and say that such was the fate of a local pagan sanctuary. Mondésert hypothesised that this could mean that a church was built in Izra/Zorava from spolia acquired from a pagan shrine destroyed, for example, by an earthquake. Although possible, so far this theory has not been verified by archaeological evidence.
In line 6 is a eulogy of Saint Sergios as a servant (therapon) of God and an excellent rider (euippeis). The epithets used to glorify the saint are distinctive and rarely occur in inscriptions. Especially the latter presupposes that the author of the poem was well acquainted with the image of Sergios as a holy rider, frequently shown on Christian amulets (see, e.g., E01326; E01639) and in later Byzantine iconography.
Lines 7-8 introduce the founders of the new church as brothers and sons of a certain 'noble Theodoros'. Their individual names and their actual number are not recorded. The founders, however, remark that their desire is to have Sergios as their peculiar protector, probably in return for the dedication of the church. Thus we probably witness here a case of the devotion of a family to a specific saint, which was still an infrequent phenomenon in late antiquity (for a family possibly devoted to *Stephen the First Martyr, see E00873; for a declaration of special protection in exchange for the construction of a church, see E01002). Interestingly, the saint they chose is not *Theodore of Euchaita, the namesake of their father and another holy rider popular in the East.
Mondésert wondered whether these 'children of the noble Theodoros' could actually be the 'students' of a rhethor or sophist, as the phrasing of the poem contains many contrasts (e.g. 'faulty stones' vs 'shining stones'; 'heavenly life' vs 'earthly life'; 'houses of demons' vs 'house of Sergios'), in a style characteristic of sophists, and the link between a teacher and his student was sometimes depicted as that between a father and his son. The editors of IGLS rightly reject this theory.
Lines 9-14 explain why special veneration is due to Sergios, mentioning one specific torture (the saint being made to walk on nails), and his eagerness to die for the faith by decapitation. Mondésert, probably rightly, supposed that these lines were based on a passage from a Martyrdom (passio) of Sergios (specifically BHG 1624), which reads:
καὶ θυμωθεὶς ὁ δοὺξ εἶπεν (...) 'συντόμως κρηπίδας μακροῖς ἥλοις ἡλώσαντες καὶ τοὺς ἥλους ὀρθοὺς ἐάσαντες ὑποδήσατε αὐτόν.' ὑποδηθέντος δὲ αὐτοῦ, καθεσθεὶς ἐπὶ ὀχήματος ὁ Ἀντίοχος ἐκέλευσεν ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ τρέχειν τὸν μακάριον, παραγγείλας μέχρι Τετραπυργίας τοῦ κάστρου ὀξέως ἐλαύνεσθαι τὰ ζῷα (...) ἀπετμήθη τὴν κεφαλήν
'and the enraged dux said ... "Immediately fit the boots with large nails, and let the nails stand straight upright and put them on!" When they made him put the boots on, Antiochos (the dux) sat on a carriage and ordered the blessed (Sergios) to run in front of it, and commanded the animals to quickly pull the carriage, up to the kastron of Tetrapyrgia ... and they cut off his head.'
It is clear that the author of our inscription knew the story. But whether he used this very martyrdom account, or a different, but similar version, is in our opinion less clear. This is because in the text of the inscription the author actually uses only two phrases,referring respectively to the boots with nails and to his death by the sword; but, as they are not direct quotations, there is always the possibility that another hagiographic work was behind lines 9-14 of our inscription. The author of the inscription is unaware of, or uninterested in, the fact that, according to this Martyrdom, Sergios suffered together with his companion *Bakchos.
Dating: sadly, there is no clear way to date the inscription. Mondésert suggested that it could be more or less contemporary to the Martyrdom mentioned above, and placed both in the early 6th c., but his argumentation is weak as there are no objective arguments to date the Martyrdom and its complicated hagiographic tradition. Merkelbach and Stauber implausibly place the inscription in the 4th or 5th c., without any justification. We think that such an early dating is unlikely. The first significant shrine of Sergios was built in Rusafa by bishop Alexander of Hierapolis-Bambyke only in the 430s, and the cult of Sergios gained popularity in the 6th c. as attested by other dated inscriptions from the Near East. Thus a 6th c. date seems to be the most probable, and is coherent with the date of construction of the church of George, a similar soldier and martyr, in Izra/Zorava in AD 515 (E01754).
For a similar poem on the substitution of a pagan shrine with a Christian church, see E02342.
Sartre-Fauriat, A., Sartre, M., Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie, vol. 15/1: Le plateau du Trachôn et ses bordures (BAH 204, Beyrouth: Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2014), no. 186 (with a French translation).
Merkelbach, R., Stauber, J., Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten, vol. 4 (Stuttgart: Teubner, 2002), no. 22/14/04 (with a German translation).
Mondésert, C., "Inscriptions et objects chrétiens de Syrie", Syria 37 (1960), 125-130 (with a French translation).
Agosti, G., "Per uno studio dei rapporti fra epigrafi e letteratura nella tarda antichità", in: L. Cristante, T. Mazzoli (eds.), Il calamo della memoria: riuso di testi e mestiere letterario nella tarda antichità. VI: Incontro internazionale di Trieste (6th: 2014: Trieste, Italy) (Trieste: Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2015), 22-23.
Key Fowden, E., The Barbarian Plain: St. Sergius between Rome and Iran (Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 1999), 110.
Sartre-Fauriat, A., "Georges, Serge, Élie et quelques autres saints connus et inédits de la province d'Arabie", in: Fr. Prévot (ed.), Romanité et cité chrétienne. Permances et mutations. Intégration et exclusion du Ier au VIe siècle. Mélanges en l'honneur d'Yvette Duval (Paris: De Boccard, 2000), 303.
Bulletin épigraphique (1961), 801; (2014), 519.
Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 50, 1518.