The Life of a Saint
3rd Century – Roman Empire
S Sebastian was born midway through the 3rd century AD into a noble family in the Roman colony of Narbonne in the south of Gallia Narbonensis (France). He grew up and was educated in Milan and later followed in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a career in the Roman Army. He quickly climbed the ranks to become captain in the 1st company of the Praetorian Guard under emperor Diocletian.
The captain of the Pretorian Guard, frequently a favourite and confidante of the emperor’s, was a rank conferred only upon young men from the most distinguished families within the Roman nobility and Sebastian was the perfect candidate. Having been brought up to enter the upper echelons of Roman society he was accomplished in all the skills required of a captain of the guard.
But unlike many of the other young men who rose to such ranks within the Roman army, Sebastian was a christian. His parents had instilled him with the values of the new religion and the young nobleman secretly preached and spread the word of Christ.
Up until the 4th Century AD, christians, even those considered venerable citizens, were persecuted and punished by the Roman authorities, something to which Sebastian was a witness and would eventually fall victim.
Paradoxically it was emperor Galerius, originally one of the chief instigators of such repressive measures against followers of Christ, who finally put an end to the persecution of christians in 311 AD with the publication of his Edict of Toleration in Nicomedia. In 313 AD Emperor Constantine I established religious freedom across the entire empire (Edict of Milan) and in 380 AD, under the reign of Theodosius I the Great, Christianity became the official religion of Rome (Edict of Thessalonica).
Sebastian first entered the imperial palace in 284 AD, the same year in which Diocletian was proclaimed emperor. He took advantage of his position as captain of the Praetorian Guard to help out fugitives and offer support and encouragement to christians who were being imprisoned and tortured in the Roman dungeons. According to Saint Ambrose, the young centurion performed miracles, turning many pagans into devout Christians. When the emperor learned that Sebastian, one of his favourite officers, had been helping the Christians, he was enraged.
Diocletian: ‘Ingrate, I have given thee the first rank in my palace, and thou hast striven against me and my gods!’
Sebastian answered: ‘For thee and for the State of Rome I have always prayed God Who is in Heaven! I have not insulted the gods of Rome but have worshipped the only God in heaven.’
The emperor could not forgive Sebastian’s betrayal and ordered him to be shot to death by arrows. As the young officer enjoyed huge popularity in the Roman army, Diocletian chose to entrust the task to a troop of Numidian (Algerian) archers. The archers led Sebastian to a field and, after stripping him naked (removing the uniform that he had dishonoured) tied him to a tree and showered him with arrows. There they left him to slowly and painfully bleed to death, but it was not to be. Irene, herself the widow of the martyred saint Castulus, untied Sebastian, carried him to a safe place, treated his wounds and nursed the young nobleman back to health.
Instead of fleeing, however, Sebastian presented himself once again before emperor Diocletian and openly harangued him for his cruel treatment of christians. Diocletian, taken aback by the appearance of a man he believed dead, ordered that Sebastian be arrested and taken to an amphitheatre where he was publicly clubbed to death.
The saint’s body was thrown into a Roman sewer and, according to Christian lore, Sebastian, twice martyred, appeared in dreams to a lady was Lucina and told her where his body could be found. He was later pulled out of the infected waters and buried in a holy grave alongside saints Peter and Paul in Roman catacombs which today bear his name.
Opinion varies on the actual date of Sebastian’s death. Those who have studied christian history, particularly the life of the saint, say he died on 20th January 288 AD. Others dispute this, claiming that the actual year of his death was 304 AD.