(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate Sts. Aniketos and Photios, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saints Aniketos and Photios
It is reasonable to assume that those dedicated Christians of the early Roman era who hid themselves to escape persecution not only managed to keep their activities undetected, but obscured themselves from history as well, assuming an anonymity which they kept sometimes until death. Of the many whom we are allowed to perceive, if only at a glance in ecclesiastical history, there have been few whose life stories parallel those of Aniketos and his nephew Photios. Both lived and died for Christ in the third century, a century upon which Christians look back, for the most part, in horror.
Scenes of atrocity and cruelty have been captured on film in this century and viewed by millions who have been shocked at what they might refuse to believe without graphic illustration. Christianity has only the dusty pages, scrawled by scholars and clerics of antiquity, which lack the impact of the films. They seem less horrifying because the fates of such men as Aniketos and Photios were sealed so long ago that they now appear less brutal and less credible. If there had been such a thing as a camera centuries ago, it would have recorded scenes that would never be presented to Sunday school children.
Since most accounts of Christian martyrs inevitably end with torture and heinous deaths, their demise is almost as routinely accepted today as they were methodically brought about by the persecutors of long ago. The story of Aniketos, joined in death by his nephew Photios, is somewhat of a departure from the norm of the day, but it serves to indicate that here was a pair who must have been in God’s favor.
During the reign of the fiendish Emperor Diocletian in the third century, there was no such thing as a political activist because there was no political ideology worth dying for. But there were Christian activists in great numbers because the threat of death was not a deterrent to the true follower of Jesus Christ.
Although it has not been established whether Aniketos was a cleric or a lay preacher, it is enough to know he was a religious leader of considerable note and unquestionable courage. His unflagging devotion to the Prince of Peace was looked upon by harmless pagans who might have disagreed with him, but who could not fail to see that in preaching the word of the Savior he was offering love for all mankind. This included the hard-bitten Romans who either saw Christians as a menace, or who looked upon their deaths in the arena as a sport viewed with the same detached personal emotion as they regarded the gladiators.
Whatever the circumstances, Aniketos was a leading figure of Rome to the extent that his activities were well-known to the emperor himself. He had come to view this Christian preacher with a respect for his oratory which he considered wasted on the worthless cause of Christianity. The emperor was in one of his particularly ugly moods when he ordered that Aniketos be brought before him for a debate. It was anticipated that the awesome position of the emperor, as well as his false gods, would render Anikitos virtually speechless.
The reverse was true when Aniketos appeared and proceeded to shred any argument offered in defense of stone idols. At the same time, he so enraged the emperor that the latter ordered Aniketos tossed to the lions along with his upstart nephew Photios, who had the audacity to stand in support of his uncle. Both were extended an offer of clemency if they simply disavowed Jesus Christ, but the offer was spurned, and the two Christians were led away to be destroyed.
As they stood in the sand of the arena praying for strength, a hungry lion was loosed in the arena. He made a charge at the praying figures, but stopped short as if held back by some unseen barrier. This provoked the royal wrath even more, and he selected death by fire as an answer to their sorcery. When the flames had done their work, the bodies of the dead Christians bore not the slightest trace of having been engulfed in fire. They gave their lives for Christ on August 12, 289.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.