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 St. Niketas, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saint Niketas the Goth
Among the barbaric hordes of the north who were to bring about the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the most dreaded was a ruthless tribe known as the Goths who had no respect for any aspect of civilization. Their polemic nature was passed down from generation to generation to the twentieth-century Prussians, whose badge of honor was a scar on the cheek inflicted in battle or a duel. Civilization to the Goth was something to be plundered or laid waste, not to be emulated, but Christianity was to find its way into the flinty hearts of these people, who centuries later lent their names to fortresses of the house of God known to this day as Gothic architecture.
In the fourth century there were very few Christians to be found among the Goths, not for lack of missionaries but for lack of any form of culture which gave the individual Goth a semblance of character. Christian missionaries faced the burdensome task of first civilizing them and then making Christians out of them. Like some flower sprouting out of the weeds and rocks of barbarism, there emerged a man known to us as Niketas the Goth who responded with great distinction to the teachings of a man named Theophilos who had earlier distinguished himself as a participant of the First Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea in 325, prior to being assigned to the Goths.
Theophilos had help – which he sorely needed – in this hostile area, but scarcely anticipated that from his converts would come a man of spiritual stature that merited sainthood. Niketas attached himself to the company of Theophilos, and because he was a native he was given a far better welcome than foreign-speaking missionaries faced with a language barrier. At first a liaison man, Niketas soon was a spiritual leader of some renown on his own who joined the missionary Ulfilas in making a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek to the language of the Goths.
In addition to civilizing and Christianizing the Goths, there was the problem of illiteracy which had to be overcome. This formidable task was done by the intensive training of teachers who spread literacy and Christianity at the same time, under the supervision of Niketas, who had pledged his life to Christ and whose earnest wish was to bring all of the Goths into the Christian camp, a wish he was not to see in his lifetime but which was to become a reality sooner than even the most optimistic of that era could have envisioned.
The area of the Goths found itself divided into two hostile camps, each bent on the destruction of the other in a internecine struggle for power between two forces, one led by a man called Athanaric and the other by a man known as Firitirgernis. When the conflict seemed at an impasse, Firitirgernis successfully appealed to the Byzantine Empire for military assistance and Athanaric was put to rout. In 372, the scattered remnants of Athanaric were regrouped and, in a surprise attack on the unsuspecting and relatively complacent followers of Firitirgernis, won a decisive battle that brought the Gothic empire completely under their rule.
The vengeful Athanaric lost no time in retaliating against the Christians who had sided with his enemies and embarked on a program of Christian persecution unequaled in history for brutal savagery and cunning. He instituted the practice of parading down the village streets the pagan gods to whom all were to emerge from their homes and bow in respect or have their homes burned down while still occupied. The Christians did not want to be burned in their own homes, let alone bow to idols, and began to flee in great numbers.
Niketas was not allowed to flee but instead was brought before the barbaric court of Athanaric, where he was asked to recognize the supreme authority of the new Gothic regime, which included acceptance of the idols. For this he would have been spared, but Niketas remained steadfast in his allegiance to Christ, for which he was burned to death on September 15, 372. A fellow Christian named Markianos brought the ashes of Niketas to Mopsuestia in Cicilia to be enshrined at a site that has been the scene of countless miracles.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.