St. Philip of Heracleca and Companions

(Martyred c. AD 303)

The Roman Emperor Diocletian essayed the most wholesale of the Roman persecutions in AD 303-305. Earlier emperors had tried to crush Christianity selectively or briefly. Diocletian, a gifted organizer, launched a program that aimed at its total destruction.

There were, at this time, three clergymen of the diocese of Heraclea in Thrace: Philip, the bishop; Severus, a priest; and Hermes, a deacon. When the Emperor issued his earliest edicts against the Christians, Bishop Philip was advised to take flight. He refused. He would remain at Heraclea in order to help his flock to stand firm in their faith.

The governor eventually closed his church, but the Bishop continued to hold services in the open air. Then the officials demanded that he hand over to them the sacred vessels and the holy books. The books would have been not only the ceremonials but all the scriptural readings.

Bishop Philip answered their demand with a distinction. “The vessels we will give you, for it is not by precious metal but by charity that God is honored. But the sacred books it becomes neither you to demand nor me to surrender.” Deacon Hermes added that even if the governor should take away all the manuscripts, he could not destroy the eternal word of God written on them.

The officers did seize the books, however, and cast them into the fire. They also burnt down the church building. Philip and Hermes were then tortured to compel them to offer sacrifices to the gods. When they refused, they were jailed. Access to them was permitted, however, so those under instruction for baptism were able to continue their study. The authorities were especially puzzled by Hermes’ behavior. He had won high respect among the citizens in past years, and sat in the local senate. How could he have become so stubbornly Christian?

Meanwhile, Severus, a priest who had been in hiding, turned himself in to the governor and became a co-captive with the bishop and the deacon. After seven months of imprisonment, the trio was taken off to Adrianople. Brought into court once again, they were severely beaten, but nothing could persuade them to offer pagan sacrifices. At length the presiding official condemned the three to death by burning at the stake.

The beatings suffered by Philip and Hermes made it difficult for them to walk to the place of execution, as they were required to do. Hermes encouraged the bishop, however. “Master, let us hasten to go to the Lord. Why should we be concerned about our feet, since we shall have no more use for them?”

Once the execution was over, the two bodies were thrown into the river, but Christians managed to rescue and preserve them. Severus the priest was put to death the following day.

The story of St. Philip and companions is one of the most dependable accounts of a martyrdom dating from the persecution of Diocletian. That persecution achieved the death of thousands of victims, but most of them are unidentified and unrecorded, and known only to God. The legend of this trio has come down in a Latin text, but the Latin account was based on a contemporary Greek narrative.

As St. Hermes the Deacon observed, the Roman governor might destroy the scrolls inscribed with the Holy Scriptures, but he did not and could not destroy the word of God.

--Father Robert F. McNamara