March 29 – Mark of Arethusa

Mark, Bishop of Arethusa (d. ca. 362) was struck from the western martyrology for many centuries, partly because he disliked the word “homoousios” (and who can blame him, from a purely asthetic point of view), and partly because for many years was semi-Arian (just his left side). But all indication is that he ultimately embraced the orthodox faith—he is ecomiumized by Theodoritus, Sozomen, and Gregory Nazianzen (Jan 25), and they should know. In the west the Bollandists* have rehabilitated his name. (Perhaps through reading Theodoritus, Sozomen, and Gregory Nazianzen.)

Theology aside, Mark was particularly good at tearing down pagan temples and replacing them with Christian churches, which pleased the Emperor (Constantius). When Constantius was killed by his brother Julius, Mark gave refuge to his son Julian, fitting him out with a wig and a false nose (or something—where sources are silent, one can invent). Once Julian gained the throne he returned the favor by renouncing Christianity and becoming—drumroll, please—Julian the Apostate. One of his first apostatic acts was to demand that Christians rebuild all the temples they had destroyed under his dad. The pagans in Arethusa (which is, by the way, in Syria), including some erstwhile Christians who had deconverted, thus demanded that Mark pay to rebuild their venue, a particularly resplended temple that had fallen to his wrecking ball (or its fourth century equivalent). After a dismayed glance in at his checking account balance, Mark fled for the hills, but when he learned that the pagans were torturing Christians in their search for him, he turned himself in.

At this point our sources diverge slightly in the wonderfully grotesque tortures they put Mark through. Many of which, we are told, were made up on the spot. (The beauty of my use of multiple sources is that you can read about many forms of torture than in any single article I read.) Of course he lives through them all, laughing his tormentors to scorn and not minding their tortures any more than you mind an untroublesome thing that doesn’t bother you. (Feel free to skip the next paragraph if your stomach is weaker than your curiosity.)

He was stripped, dragged by his hair, dumped in a swamp (and/or sewer), scourged, slashed with knives, bereft of his ears via linen cords (not gonna ask), stabbed by schoolboys with iron pens (Montegrappa? Namiki? sources don’t say), squeezed in a foot press, and finally smeared with honey and grease (or a kind of relish made from pickled fish) (I did not make that up) and suspended in a basket for wasps and other nasties to eat.

Bizarrely, throughout all this they kept lowering the amount of money they demanded for rebuilding the temple. Like so: “Give us 1,000 solidi or the schoolboys stab you with pens.” “No.” (Stab, stab.) “Okay, give us 500 solidi or we squeeze you in a foot press.” “No.” (Squeeze, squeeze) “Okay give us 200 solidi or we smear you with pickled fish[1].” “No.” (Smear, smear.) And so on. But even when it got down to a single coin, he refused to pay. Finally they were overcome by his patience and fortitude and courage and endurance and three other abstract nouns, and let him go free. Many of the tormentors and onlookers became Christians themselves when they saw his patience and all those other good qualities. Later he was either pardoned or martyred by Julian, depending on whom you believe. I couldn’t find a patronage, so I hereby nominate him as the patron saint of fish picklers.


[1]One of the weirdest tortures ever devised, I’m sure you’ll agree.