Saint George (c. 275/281 – 23 April 303) was, according to tradition, a Roman soldier from Syria Palaestina, an officer of the guard of the Emperor Diocletian and is venerated as a Christian martyr. In hagiography Saint George is one of the most venerated saints in the Roman Catholic (Western and Eastern Rites), Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches. He is immortalized in the tale of Saint George and the dragon and is one of the fourteen holy helpers. His feast is celebrated on 23 April and he is one of the most prominent military saints.
Many patronages of Saint George exist around the world, including those of: England, Georgia, Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iraq, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia, as well as those of the cities of Genoa, Amersfoort, Beirut, Fakiha, Bteghrine, Cáceres, Ferrara, Freiburg, Kumanovo, Ljubljana, Pomorie, Preston, Qormi, Rio de Janeiro, Lod, Lvov, Barcelona, Moscow, Tamworth and the Maltese island of Gozo, as well as the Scout Movement and a wide range of professions, organizations and patients.
Life of Saint George
Historians have debated the exact details of the birth of Saint George for over a century, although the approximate date of his death is subject to little debate. The Catholic Encyclopedia takes the position that there seems to be no ground for doubting the historical existence of Saint George, but that little faith can be placed in some of the fanciful stories about him.
The work of the Bollandists, Danile Paperbroch, Jean Bolland and Godfrey Henschen, in the seventeenth century was one of the first pieces of scholarly research to establish the historicity of the saint’s existence, via their publications in Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca and paved the way for other scholars to dismiss the medieval legends. Pope Gelasius stated that George was among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”
The traditional legends have offered a historicized narration of George’s encounter with a dragon. The modern legend that follows below is synthesized from early and late hagiographical sources, omitting the more fantastical episodes, to narrate a purely human military career in closer harmony with modern expectations of reality. Chief among the legendary sources about the saint is the Golden Legend, which remains the most familiar version in English owing to William Caxton’s 15th-century translation.
It is likely that Saint George was born to a Christian noble family in Lod, Syria Palaestina, during the late third century between about 275 AD and 285 AD, and died in Nicomedia. His father, Gerontius, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia and his mother, Polychronia, was from Palestine. They were both Christians and from noble Roman families of the Anicii, so the child was raised with Christian beliefs. They decided to call him Georgius, meaning ‘worker of the land’. At the age of fourteen George lost his father; a few years later George’s mother, Polychronia, died. Eastern accounts give the names of his parents as Anastasius and Theobaste.
Then George decided to go to Nicomedia, the administrative capital of the eastern empire, and present himself to Emperor Diocletian in hope of a military appointment. Diocletian welcomed him with open arms, as he had known his father, Gerontius — one of his finest soldiers. By his late twenties, George had been promoted to the rank of tribunus militum and stationed as an imperial guard of the emperor at Nicomedia.
In the year AD 302, Diocletian (influenced by Galerius) issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and all others should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. However George dissented and with the courage of his faith approached the emperor. Diocletian was upset, not wanting to lose his best tribune and the son of his best official, Gerontius. George loudly denounced the emperor’s edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and military tribunes professed himself a Christian and confessed his worship of Jesus Christ. Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods. The Emperor made many offers, but George never accepted.
Finally, recognizing the futility of his efforts, Diocletian commanded that George be executed for his refusal. Before the execution George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. After various torture sessions, including laceration on a wheel of swords in which he was resuscitated three times, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia’s city wall, on April 23, 303. A witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians as well, and so they joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda in Palestine for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr.:166
Although the above distillation of the legend of George connects him to the conversion of Athanasius, who according to Rufinus was brought up by Christian ecclesiastical authorities from a very early age, Edward Gibbon argued that George, or at least the legend from which the above is distilled, is based on George of Cappadocia, a notorious Arian bishop who was Athanasius’ most bitter rival, who in time became Saint George of England. According to Professor Bury, Gibbon’s latest editor, “this theory of Gibbon’s has nothing to be said for it”. He adds that: “the connection of St. George with a dragon-slaying legend does not relegate him to the region of the myth”.
Note on the Roman clan of the Anicii
From the reign of Diocletian to the final extinction of the Western empire, that name shone with a lustre which was not eclipsed, in the public estimation, by the majesty of the Imperial purple. The several branches, to whom it was communicated, united, by marriage or inheritance, the wealth and titles of the Annian, the Petronian, and the Olybrian houses; and in each generation the number of consulships was multiplied by an hereditary claim. The Anician family excelled in faith and in riches: they were the first of the Roman senate who embraced Christianity; and it is probable that Anicius Julian, who was afterwards consul and praefect of the city, atoned for his attachment to the party of Maxentius, by the readiness with which he accepted the religion of Constantine.
Their ample patrimony was increased by the industry of Probus, the chief of the Anician family; who shared with Gratian the honors of the consulship, and exercised, four times, the high office of Praetorian praefect. His immense estates were scattered over the wide extent of the Roman world; and though the public might suspect or disapprove the methods by which they had been acquired, the generosity and magnificence of that fortunate statesman deserved the gratitude of his clients, and the admiration of strangers. Such was the respect entertained for his memory, that the two sons of Probus, in their earliest youth, and at the request of the senate, were associated in the consular dignity; a memorable distinction, without example, in the annals of Rome.
“The marbles of the Anician palace,” were used as a proverbial expression of opulence and splendor; but the nobles and senators of Rome aspired, in due gradation, to imitate that illustrious family.
A branch of the family transferred to the Eastern Roman Empire, establishing itself in Constantinople (where Anicia Juliana, daughter of Western Emperor Anicius Olybrius, was a patron of the arts) and rising in prestige. The philosopher Boëthius was a member of this family, as was Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius, the last person other than the Emperor of Byzantium himself to hold the office of consul, in 541. In the West the Anicii were supporters of the independence of the Western Empire from the Eastern one. They were, therefore, supporters of the Ostrogothic kings of Italy, and as such were celebrated by the king Theodahad.