There were rumours swirling around the Roman soldiers Sergius and Bacchus before they were confronted by Emperor Galerius in the early fourth century. Sergius was primicerius, a guard in the imperial palace. He had enough sway with the emperor to aid his friend Antiochus to become governor of Barbalissos in the Roman province of Euphratensis, now in modern-day Syria.
Jealous functionaries in Galerius’ Serdica palace (in modern-day Bulgaria) attempted to incriminate young Sergius and his second-in-command, Bacchus with a grave charge:
They were secretly Christians.
In writings on the mythological figure known as Christ, there are instances of the messiah brushing up against the homosexually-rife world of the Roman empire, enough that it made it into the Gospels. “At Capernaum, a Roman centurion begs Jesus to heal a sick servant ‘who was dear to him,’” writes historian Graham Robb in his book Strangers. “Marvelling at the centurion’s faith, Jesus performs the miracle at a distance. Matthew calls the ‘servant’ pais (boy); Luke calls him doulos (slave). Both Gospels were probably written in Antioch of Syria, where the exceptional concern of a Roman centurion for a sick slave-boy would have had clearly erotic overtones.”
That Sergius and Bacchus are devotedly in love is not contested. They are described at the beginning of the 19th-century Latin-to-Greek-to-English text recently translated by gay, Christian historian John Boswell, The Passion of SS Serge and Bacchus:
“Being as one in their love for Christ, they were also undivided from each other in the army of the world, united not by the way of nature, but in the manner of faith, always singing and saying, ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!’”
However, it was noted in court that they did not worship and make sacrifices to the pagan temples of the Roman empire. According to accounts in The Passion, the emperor couldn’t believe rumours of their Christianity, but resolved to invite them to the temple of Jupiter with him. If they didn’t sacrifice or eat holy offers, said Galerius, they shall incur the penalty appropriate for their impiety. For the gods would not have the shield-bearers of my empire be impious and ungrateful.”
The rumours proved well-founded. When he summoned them they would not enter the temple until commanded, but commands for them to sacrifice and worship were denied:
“The emperor’s countenance was transformed with anger; immediately he ordered their belts cut off, their tunics and all other military garb removed, the gold torcs taken from around their necks, and women’s clothing placed on them; thus they were to be paraded through the middle of the city to the palace, bearing heavy chains around their necks. But when they were led into the middle of the marketplace the saints sang and chanted together, ‘Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, Lord.’”
Back at the palace, they were summoned before the emperor, who called Christ “son of a carpenter, born out of wedlock of an adulterous mother.” Galerius compared unholy Christ and his trials to those of the more palatable Hercules.
The Christians would not relent, so they were marched to Duke Antiochus, who owed his success to Sergius. While his treatment of Sergius and Bacchus was mild at first, he soon grew angry of their “accursed and unholy superstition.” He had them separated and Bacchus flogged to death. Upon dying, a voice from heaven welcomed him to kingdom prepared for him, and when the Duke had his body disposed of to feed animals outside of the city, a holy power compelled birds to protect the body from ravenous scavengers until it could be borne away by hermits and buried properly.
According to The Passion, Sergius found himself alone and heartbroken in prison that night when Bacchus appeared, “face as radiant as an angel’s, wearing an officer’s uniform, and spoke to him. ‘Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union . . . Hurry then, yourself, brother, through beautiful and perfect confession to pursue and obtain me, when finishing the course. For the crown of justice for me is with you.’”
That’s the unfortunate thing about being sainted martyrs, isn’t it? You have to suffer and die to become one. Still, a beautiful thought.
Thus began the trials of Sergius. The Duke had shoes with nails in the soles fashioned for him and made Sergius run nine miles from Syrum to Tetrapyrgium. When Sergius did nothing but sing psalms and have his feet miraculously healed, the process was repeated, another nine miles to a castle in Resafa. Still unrepentant, the duke had Sergius gagged, bound and taken for beheading.
The Passion says that after a great deal of bewailing from gathered men, women, children and inarticulate, becalmed beasts, a heavenly voice spoke, welcoming Sergius to heaven and a chasm formed where his blood touched, miracles abound “wherever his holy relics were.” Another win for Christianity.
“It is evident . . . that the passion of Sergius and Bacchus cannot be accepted at its face value,” wrote classics studies historian David Woods in an essay on the tale. “Angelic visitations, supernatural healings, voices from heaven, a miraculous chasm and tame wild-animals, all serve to undermine our confidence in this text as an accurate historical record.”
“There are a number of serious anachronisms also which must further contribute to any scepticism in this matter,” Woods continued. “The result is that this passion has often been dismissed as an ‘epic passion,’ a total fiction.’”
Whether fiction or a somewhat true story passed down through time, some analysis puts Sergius and Bacchus as married in the eyes of their faith at the time, but other religious scholars and historians have contested this. The gay Christian community has glommed onto the pair as symbols of tolerance in the Church — Robert Lentz’s famous image of two beautiful, haloed, pink robed pretty boys was the first time I’d ever heard of them. The heartbreaking aspect being, at the time, that homosexuality was celebrated more under Roman rule than the growing cult of Christianity and the many sexual neuroses the faith developed early on.
There’s also an implication in the passion; the inevitable move from heathenism to shining, benevolent, superior Christianity, one that rankles the sensibilities of this queer atheist. As romantic as it is to seek out queer saints and their place in Christendom, who were Sergius and Bacchus to say that one god was better than another? That one way of life was the right one?