Most of the earliest saints of the Church were martyrs, and for many of those saints, we have few historical details other than their names and the fact that they faced death rather than deny their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. But a detailed report was written and preserved for future generations of Christians by Nilus, an eye-witness to the martyrdom of St. Theodotus, who suffered in the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian.
When Diocletian sent out his orders in 303 to arrest the followers of Christ and make them pay homage to the pagan Roman gods (through torture if necessary) or be killed, local officials were anxious to ingratiate themselves to the Emperor. The governor of Galatia promised to remove the Christian religion from his area entirely.
When the Christians of the capital city Ancyra (modern Ankara, Turkey) heard that the governor was on his way to their city, many of them fled to the mountains or remote rural areas to avoid the coming confrontations. But Theodotus remained in the city. He was an innkeeper, a respectable family man highly regarded in the community and a friendly merchant who served good wine to his customers and provided excellent accommodations for travelers. He knew that he would not immediately be suspect and that he could do much good for his fellow Christians in this time of persecution.
The atrocities began even before the governor’s arrival. Pagan citizens of Ancyra broke into the homes of their Christian neighbors who had fled, stole their belongings and damaged their property, and dragged children or other family members who had remained behind through the streets. But, as Nilus recorded, the situation became much worse when the governor arrived.
The order was given that any products which were bought or sold had to be given first as offerings to the pagan gods before use. Theodotus must have heard of this tactic being used in other places because he had carefully built up a stock of food and wine that he could secretly make available to his fellow Christians so they would not starve or have to compromise their beliefs. Many were put into prison and tortured for their faith and many were killed. At great risk to himself, Theodotus gave encouragement to those who were suffering and helped to retrieve and bury the bodies of the dead. The inn of Theodotus became a refuge for Christians, a place where they could hide and a place of worship.
The governor had not had much success in causing the Ancyran Christians to recant their beliefs. He thought he would have better luck with a group of seven elderly maiden ladies. He arrested them and then turned them over to a gang of young “hoodlum” men who were to rape and beat the women. But the tearful entreaties of the women and the appeal of one seventy-year-old to the honor of their mothers caused them to be sorry for what they had planned and to leave the women unharmed.
In desperation, the governor thought of another novel idea. He would have the women participate in a pagan ceremony honoring the goddess Diana which was to take place at a nearby pond. He placed the women – naked – into a chariot and they were paraded through the city where they were derided by the onlookers. At the pond, they were given white robes for the ceremony of placing offerings before the statue of Diana. Meanwhile, Theodotus and other Christians were in a nearby church building, praying for strength and perseverance for their friends. They later learned that the women had refused to accept the robes and participate in the ceremony and had strongly rebuked the priestesses of Diana for worshiping an idol. The governor had then placed heavy stones around their necks and had them thrown into the pond to their deaths.
The weather turned that night, with violent storms and much rain, but Theodotus and some others went out to try to retrieve the bodies of the martyred women so they could receive a Christian burial. Despite the weather conditions, they were successful, and the next day, the news had spread to all the city. As a result, the furious governor increased the arrests and torture of Christians. Theodotus decided to turn himself in so as to spare more pain for others, but the remaining Christians would not allow him to do it. They told him that his work was too important to end now. Polychronius, one of his friends who had helped find the bodies of the women, volunteered to be a spy. He dressed like a peasant woman and went to the market at the center of the city to try to learn what news was being talked about. But there, his true identity was discovered, and when he was taken to the governor and tortured, his resolve was too weak and he reported Theodotus’ activities.
The truth about the friendly inn-keeper was now made known to the governor. Theodotus was subjected to the most cruel tortures but he endured them all by constant prayer. Even his prayers incensed the governor, who ordered the soldiers to break the jawbones of the saint so that he could no longer utter verbal prayer. Finally, the order was given to behead Theodotus and to burn his body so that it could not be buried by Christians and his relics venerated by them. But when the pyre was made ready for burning, a strange light emanated from it and the soldiers were afraid to take any action. It was now dusk, so the governor placed two guards at the site and said that they should resume their work in the morning.
That same evening, a Christian priest from a neighboring town rode into Ancyra on his donkey. He had heard about some of the troubles in Ancyra and was anxious to talk with his friend Theodotus and see what he could do to help there. He had brought a bottle of wine which he made from his own grapes as a gift for Theodotus. When they reached the pile of wood being guarded by soldiers, the donkey lay down as if to sleep. Fronto, the priest, asked the guards what was going on and he heard the whole story of the persecutions, the murder of the seven women, and the eventual martyrdom of his friend. Fronto offered the guards some of his wine and as the story unfolded, he refilled their cups many times. When the soldiers finally fell into a deep sleep aided by the wine, Fronto took the body of Theodotus and returned to his home where he buried the martyr with all the rites and ceremonies afforded such a brave and devout Christian.
In our own day, there are persecutions of Christians in numerous places in the world, and every day, there are some who receive the crown of martyrdom. We ask that St. Theodotus and all the holy martyrs pray for them that they will be courageous and steadfast in their faith.