July 10 – The 45 Martyrs of Nicopolis; Rufina and Secunda

The 45 Martyrs of Nicopolis (d. 319) suffered under Licinius, coregent at the time with Constantine the Great, although somewhat less inclined to be well-disposed toward Christians. Licinius was threatening Christians with death if they didn’t convert (or re-convert) (or de-convert) to paganism, and what is more, was making good (or bad) on his threats. A group of about forty Christians, with a certain Leontius at their head, presented themselves to the authorities saying, “We’re Christians. What are you going to do about it?” (Knowing full well what they were going to do about it, of course.) The local procurator, Licius, was impressed by their bravery, and tried to get them to renounce their faith, as per his job description. But the holy ones remained steadfast, and even pointed out the ridiculousness of the Greek and Roman gods with their ungodlike ways. Licius had them beaten with stones, then imprisoned.

Over that night Leontius encouraged his fellow conspirators with tales of previous martyrs, between which they all sang psalms (of David, one source helpfully explains, lest you think they sang those other ones). In the morning they were still disinclined to apostatize, so they were tortured some more. Fearing that some would recant under the strain, Leontius prayed for them to be released quickly from their torments. During a second Davidic night, an angel appeared to them, complete with the obligatory dungeon-filling light. The angel said their reward was near, and their names were already inscribed in Heaven. Two of the guards saw this and added themselves to the number (which was hard because they didn’t have decimals yet).

Sure enough, they were dispatched the next morning, burned, and tossed in the river, but not before a few more people joined them, bringing the total to XLV. Their bones were retrieved, and years later a church was built on the spot in their memory.

Rufina and Secunda (d. 257) were Christian daughters of a Christian Roman senator who happily found them two Christian fiancés (Armentarius and Verinus, respectively). Sadly these latter apostatized when Valerian began his famous unpleasantness. Refusing to be married to a couple of lily-livered turncoats (Butler says they “resisted their solicitations to imitate their impiety” which is downright musical), the sisters fled from Rome. They were overtaken, however, and dragged before the prefect Junius Donatus. He wasn’t content to scourge them both, though—oh no. He scourged Rufina and forced Secunda to watch, whereupon Secunda cried out, “Not fair! Why should she get this honor, and not me?” Seeing this wasn’t working, J.D. (hmm) had them beheaded.

They were buried along the Via Aurelia (by, and this must be important, a pagan lady named Plautilla), in a place called the Black Forest. (Our sources do not mention cherry cake, alas.) Sometime later a chapel was built on the spot, and the forest was renamed the White Forest. (Still no cherry cake.) The chapel was replaced with a church, around which a town sprang up (called, for obvious reasons, Sylva Candida (White Forest)), which turned into an episcopal see. And there the story would have ended happily, were the whole city not demolished in the twelfth century by barbarians (and they’d have to be). The bishopric was dissolved into Porto (which is a crime because Porto should be drunk neat), and the saints’ relics were removed to the Lateran, where they remain, somewhere in the vicinity of Constantine’s Baptistry.

In art, one source says, they are depicted as two maidens floating in the Tiber with weights around their necks (which is a good trick unless the weights are really wimpy). There’s nothing like that in their hagiography, but that’s iconography for you.