The 350 Martyrs: Part 1 (The Holy Martyrs)
On 31 July each year, the Maronite Church remembers the 350 Maronite monks who were martyred in the year 517, slain by other Christians for no other reason than being orthodox Christians.
In The Maronites: The Origins of an Antiochene Church, Abbot Paul Naaman takes their history from a letter from the archimandrites, (that is, abbots and senior abbots), and monks of Syria Secunda to Pope Hormisdas (514-523). Syria Secunda was the inland part of ancient Syria, and Apamaea (Arabic: Afamiyya) on the Orontes River was its capital. (p. 43)
There is a second letter from the monks of Apamaea to their own bishops, also written in 517. This, too, is signed by Archimandrite Alexander of the monastery of Maroun. It states, as the first had done, that the purpose of the monks in travelling had been peaceful. There is also a reply from Pope Hormisdas dated 10 February 518. So, the evidence for the feast of the martyrs is based on three letters, a point which is often missed.
The first letter, the one to Pope Hormisdas reads, in part: “To Hormisdas, the most holy and blessed patriarch of the whole world, the holder of the See of Peter, the leader of the apostles, the earnest petition and humble prayer of the least (important) archimandrites and of other monks of your province Syria Secunda.”
“The grace of Christ, the Redeemer of us all, has instigated us to take refuge with your blessedness as if (taking refuge) from the winter storm in the stillness of a harbour. We are admonished to, and, indeed believe, that, even though disasters encompass us on all sides, we are in no way caught in. For even if we suffer, we endure it with rejoicing, knowing that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy of the future glory, which will be revealed in us.”
“(We have been opposed by) … Severus and Peter, who have never been counted among the number of Christians, who on each single day have attacked and publicly anathematized the holy synod at Chalcedon and our most holy and blessed father Leo. … when we were going to the cell of Mar Simeon for the cause of the Church, they (men instigated by Severus and Peter) were lying in wait for us on the way as it had been announced, defiling us, and when they came upon us by surprise, they killed three hundred and fifty men from among us, and certain ones they wounded; but others, who could take refuge to the venerable altars, they slew there and set the monasteries on fire, inciting throughout the night a multitude of unsettled people and mercenaries. They wasted all the poverty of the Church through destructive trouble makers of this kind. About the details, however, the writings may instruct your blessedness, which were brought over by the venerable brothers, John and Sergius, whom we had sent to Constantinople …”
“We pray, therefore, most blessed one, we go on our knees and ask, that you stand up with fervour and zeal and rightly have pity for the body that is torn to pieces (for you are the head of all); and that you avenge the faith that has been despised, the canons that have been trodden under foot, the fathers who have been blasphemed and such a great synod that has been attacked with anathema.”
Pope Hormisdas’ reply adds little to this. The opening reads: “Hormisdas, to the priests, deacons, and archimandrites of Syria Secunda.”
“I have read your highly esteemed letters, by which the insanity of the enemies of God has been laid open and the obstinate fury of the unbelievers, who with revived spirit hate the Lord and thereby wickedly persecute his members, has painfully been exposed. To the extent that it pertains to the recognition of your perseverance, I praise God that he preserves the faith of his soldiers in the midst of adversities.”
The third letter, from the monks of Apamaea to the bishops, was translated into German and French by Suermann in Histoire des origins de l’Église Maronite (PUSEK 2010). This letter blames Severus for what occurred as they were travelling through an area called “Kaprokeramée”. It does not mention the number slain and captured, but gives more details of how the monks could not defend themselves against the attacks (pp. 95-100).
The clash between Monophysite and other Christians arose after the Council of Chalcedon (451): to be brief, they had different ideas of the nature of Christ. Although only theologians could understand the argument (and even they may not have been clear about it), because these thinkers led their churches, they split Christianity into two bitterly divided factions, a rift which is only being slowly healed today.
In Part 2, I shall deal with an objection to the historicity of this account, and in Part 3, with the spirituality of this feast.
Cornelia B. Horn, writing in the Journal of Maronite Studies, translated both the letter from the monks to Pope Hormisdas and his reply. Her article is still available on the internet: http://www.maronite-institute.org/MARI/JMS/october97/The_Correspondence_Between.htm
Joseph Azize, 2 April 2017 revised 24 July 2020