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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume III: March. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

March 17

SS. Many Martyrs of Alexandria, in 392

THEOPHILUS, patriarch of Alexandria, obtained a rescript of the Emperor Theodosius, to convert an old deserted temple of Bacchus into a Christian church. In clearing this place, in the subterraneous secret caverns, called by the Greeks Adita, and held by the pagans as sacred, were found infamous and ridiculous figures, which Theophilus caused to be exposed in public, to show the extravagant superstitions of the idolaters. The heathens in tumults raised a sedition, killed many Christians in the streets, and then retired into the great temple of Serapis as their fortress. In sallies they seized many Christians, and upon their refusing to sacrifice to Serapis, put them to death by cruel torments, crucifying them, breaking their legs, and throwing them into the sinks and jakes of the temple, with the blood of their victims. The principal ancient divinities of Egypt were Apis, called also Osiris, once a great king and benefactor of that country, who was worshipped under the figure of a bull, and the wife of Apis, named Isis, who is said to have taught or improved agriculture. 1  1
  The temple of Serapis, in Alexandria, was most stately and rich built on an eminence raised by art, in a beautiful spacious square, with an ascent of one hundred steps, surrounded with lofty edifices for the priests and officers. The temple was built of marble, supported with precious pillars, and the walls on the inside were covered with plates of brass, silver, and gold. The idol was of so enormous a size, that its arms being extended, they reached to the opposite walls of the temple: its figure was that of a venerable old man with a beard, and long hair; but with it was joined a monstrous figure of an animal with three heads: the biggest in the middle was that of a lion; that of a dog fawning came out on the right side, and that of a ravenous wolf on the left: a serpent was represented twining round these three animals, and laying its head on the right-hand of Serapis: on the idol’s head was placed a bushel, an emblem of the fertility of the earth. The statue was made of precious stones, wood, and all sorts of metal together; its colour was at first blue, but the steams or moisture of the place had turned it black. A hole in the temple was contrived to admit the sun’s rays upon its mouth, at the hour when the idol of the sun was brought in to visit it. Many other artifices were employed to deceive the people into an opinion of its miracles. No idol was so much respected in Egypt; and on its account Alexandria was looked upon as a holy city.  2
  The emperor being informed of the sedition, called those happy who had received by it the crown of martyrdom: and not to dishonour their triumph, he pardoned their murderers, but sent an order to demolish the temples in Egypt. When this letter was read at Alexandria, the pagans raised hideous cries; many left the city, and all withdrew from the temple of Serapis. The idol was cut down by pieces, and thrown into a fire. The heathens were persuaded that if any one should touch it, the heavens would fall, and the world return into the state of its primitive chaos. Seeing no such judgment threaten, they began themselves to deride a senseless trunk reduced to ashes. The standard of the Nile’s increase was kept in this temple, but it was on this occasion removed into the cathedral. The idolaters expected the river would swell no more: but finding the succeeding years very fertile, they condemned the vanity of their superstitions, and embraced the faith. Two churches were built on the place where this temple stood, and its metal was converted to the use of churches. The busts of Serapis on the walls, doors, and windows of the houses were broken and taken away. The temples all over Egypt were demolished, during the two following years. In pulling down those of Alexandria, the cruel mysteries of Mithra were discovered, and in the secret Adyta were found the heads of many infants cut off, cruelly mangled, and superstitiously painted. The artifices of the priests of the idols were likewise detected: there were hollow idols of wood and brass, placed against a wall, with subterraneous passages, through which the priests entered the hollow trunks of the idols, and gave answers as oracles, as is related by Theodoret, 2 and Rufinus. 3 Where the idols were cast down, figures of the cross were set up in their places. These martyrs suffered in the year 392. See Theodoret, Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, Fleury, b. 19. Tillemont in the history of Theodosius, art. 52–55.  3
Note 1. Those mistake the truth, who confound Serapis with Osiris, or who imagine him to have been the patriarch Joseph. Serapis was a modern divinity, raised by the Ptolemies. See Calmet, Banier on Mythology, &c. [back]
Note 2. B. 5. c. 22. [back]
Note 3. Ib. 2. c. 25. [back]