Christian saints, lovers and martyrs
"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" - Psalm 133
Inseparable in life, faith and even in death, Sergius and Bacchus were Christians, soldiers and possibly even gay lovers in the 3rd century. As with many martyrs of the age, little is known of them beyond accounts recorded much later. Their birthdates are not recorded, nothing of their upbringing or their lives until shortly before their deaths.
What is known comes mostly from a Greek document, whose Latin translation Passio antiquior SS. Sergii et Bacchi Graece nunc primum edita was printed in a Passion printed in the 9th century. Both were solders, officers in the army of Emperor Caesar Maximian - Sergius being a primicerius (commander) of the recruits school of the army, Bacchus being the secundarius (subaltern officer). Serge was also apparently a personal friend of the emperor, as well as having close associations with one Antiochus, and was able to pull strings to arrange for him to become governor of Augusto-Euphrates.
It was evident that they had distinguished themselves in military service, despite both being Christian converts (allegedly through the miracles of Saint Peter, although they must have heard about, rather than witnessed them). One thing is certain, that they were primarily soldiers of Christ.
At this time, it was quite common for anyone in a position of responsibility in the service of Rome to be required to offer sacrifices to the gods. Certain of Serge and Bacchus' associates were jealous of their position of closeness to the emperor, and they plotted to depose them.
In order to do this, they waited until both men were out of the emperor's company, and brought their accusations to him directly. "Such zeal for the cult of the holiest and greatest gods has your immortal majesty that in those holy rescripts of yours which are everywhere disseminated you have commanded that all unwilling to honor and worship them, and in submission to your righteous doctrine, should perish in great torment."
They further pointed out that both men were Christians, and that they had never been seen to offer praise or worship to Roman gods. Maximian's response was quick and clear: "I will go with them into the temple of mighty Zeus, and if they sacrifice and eat of the holy offerings, you yourselves shall bear the risk of the slander of which you are guilty. If they refuse to sacrifice, they shall incur the penalty appropriate for their impiety."
Faith and Sacrifice
Immediately the emperor summoned them, and took them with his court, to the temple of Zeus, where he offered libations and shared in eating some of the sacrifices with a number of his other officers. After doing this, he looked around for the accused men. Finding them not present, he sent some of his men to search for them. They were finally discovered outside the temple, in prayer.
They were brought back into the temple, where they were confronted by Maximian with the words "you have seen fit to disdain imperial law and to become deserters and enemies of the gods", warning them of the consequences if they failed to offer sacrifices. Serge and Bacchus responded with a long speech outlining their belief in God and Jesus, and confirming that they offered sacrifices only to the Living God. With one phrase "We do not sacrifice to stones or wood, nor do we bow to them" they made their feelings known, enraging the emperor, who gave their positions to their accusers.
They were stripped of their robes and symbols of authority, dressed in women's clothing and paraded through the streets, before being despatched to Antiochus in Augusto-Euphrates, via many other cities, where others tried to persuade them to abandon their false god and sacrifice to Zeus.
Antiochus met them on their arrival, read the emperor's orders concerning them, and put them to trial. They were imprisoned, to allow them time to recant, but in the military prison they prayed together to confirm their faith and ask for the strength to undergo the hardships they knew would follow. Maximian's letter was read to them, and Antiochus confirmed that "if you will now obey me and sacrifice to the gods to earn their goodwill, you could earn even greater honor and glory than before, and receive back your military rank and more besides".
The two men stood fast in their resolve. "We have left all and followed Christ...Do, therefore, what you will; we will not sacrifice to wood, nor worship stones". This enraged Antiochus, who ordered that Serge be thrown back into prison, whilst Bacchus would be flogged.
Bacchus was taken outside by Antiochus' men, who whipped him until they themselves were exhausted. Their accuser then ordered that he be turned over and beaten with whips of rawhide. This torture went on for hours, from the first hour until the evening - until "they wore away his flesh; blood flowed everywhere" and his internal injuries killed him.
It is said that at the moment of his death a voice was heard from heaven saying "Come, rest henceforth in the kingdom prepared for you, my noble athlete and soldier, Bacchus." Antiochus, furious that he had failed, denied him a decent burial, decreeing that he be left for the wild animals and dogs. The dogs and animals came, but were driven off by birds until local monks could collect his remains, and bury them in a cave. The date of his martyrdom is supposed to have been 1st October, 290.
Meantime, Serge was told of his friend's grisly end, and bemoaned his fate and his loneliness until visited by his companion's spirit, who encouraged him to continue until the bitter end. Antiochus decided that he would offer another chance, and took him to Souros to sacrifice but again, Serge declined. Finally, his fate was determined. Antiochus arranged for nails to be driven into Serge's shoes, and he was forced to run the nine miles (14km) to Rosafae, where he was finally gagged to stop his incessant witness to Jesus, and taken outside, where he was beheaded. The date was 7th October, 6 days after his companion's death.
So, were they lovers?
There is some dispute and controversy about this aspect of their lives. Certainly they were close. There is evidence to support it, however - Severus of Antioch stated that "we should not separate in speech [Serge and Bacchus] who were joined in life", and in a 10th-century document, Serge was described as the "sweet companion and lover" of St. Bacchus.
But it does not end there. An icon was discovered in the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, which is said to feature pictures of Serge and Bacchus. It depicts two men, with Christian haloes, between them being an image of a Roman pronubus (the equivalent of a best man), that image said to be Christ. This is often purported to be the final proof of their relationship, furthermore, one recognised and respected by the Church. Certainly, Roman sexuality was such that a love would not be considered necessarily abnormal, either.
So what remains today? They are remembered and celebrated on the dates of their martrydom, 1st and 7th of October. Many gay Christians call on them for support and point to their example. Finally, a church and monastery was built in their memory in the town of Malula in Syria (incidentally, said to be the only town which still speaks a dialect of the Aramaic common in Jesus' time).
Sergius is still honoured to a greater degree than his companion, poor Bacchus labouring with the name of the Roman god of wine, hence being largely ignored by the Church, although both have become icons in a new generation of gay Christians.