The list of famous Thessalonians is long and storied. It includes such famous historical figures as Cyril and Methodius, the brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet and brought Christianity into the consciousness of Slavs, masterful poets both ancient and modern such as Antipater of Thessalonica and Nazim Hekmat, fabulously wealthy merchants and bankers like Ioannis Papafis and Jacob Modiano. These are just a few of the notables who made their mark on history and the city. As I learned during my time visiting the city, there is one native son who rises above all the rest. Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki is the city’s superstar. No other Thessalonian, living or dead, can come close to Demetrios’ influence on the city’s history and its citizenry today. This is particularly amazing, considering that Demetrios died over 1,700 years ago.
Hidden Faith – A Secret Life
Long before he was revered as a Christian saint, Demetrios was a member of the Roman nobility and son of the proconsul (governor) of Helles province. During his upbringing, Demetrios showed a great deal of athleticism, intelligence and martial skill. This was recognized by the Emperor Galerius Maximian who believed Demetrios would be able to protect the city from barbarian attacks. Demetrios was soon following in his father’s footsteps when the Emperor appointed him as the next proconsul and given command of Thessaly’s military forces. Demetrios turned out to be an excellent choice, possessing strong leadership skills, personal bravery and a keen grasp of military tactics. Little did the Emperor know that Demetrios came from a Christian family that had practiced the faith in secret for years.
Once in power, Demetrios proved adept as both an administrator and soldier, but he kept his Christian practices out of the public eye, knowing that this could lead to deadly consequences. He was still intimately involved in propagating the faith. Soon word of his activities leaked out. This was the cause of great consternation among the pagan populace. After a series of military triumphs in the East, Maximian returned to Thessaloniki which he had declared as his seat of power. He was soon informed by pagans in the city that Demetrios had been preaching the Christian faith in direct contravention of Roman law. To make matters worse, Demetrios had done this while having a mandate to rout out and persecute Christians.
To say that Maximian was furious would be an understatement. He thought his visit to the city was going to be a celebration of his recent military triumphs over the Scythians. This was to include offerings of thanksgiving to the pagan gods. Instead, he learned that Demetrios was using his official imperial position to promote Christianity. Maximian had made it clear that he detested Christians, was involved in actively persecuting them and had ordered that anyone practicing or professing their faith in Christianity must be put to death. Demetrios was supposed to have been enforcing this imperial policy, Instead, he not only had failed to enforce it, but was doing the complete opposite. Such an act of faith-based insubordination would not be tolerated by Maximian.
Miracles & Martyrdom – The Spirit Still Lives
Maximian summoned Demetrios to explain his proselytizing. Rather than deny his actions, Demetrios admitted them to the emperor. Furthermore, he told Maximian that the idolatry and worship of pagan gods was wrong. Maximian proceeded to have Demetrios imprisoned in a basement cell below a Roman bath complex. He then ordered celebratory games in the circus to commemorate his military victories in the East. The emperor had brought along with him to Thessaloniki his favorite gladiator, Lyaios, a barbarian of towering height and unrivaled strength. He offered to fight any Christian. At first no one dared take up Lyaios on his offer, because it would have meant almost certain death. Then one of the faithful took up the challenge. As the story goes, a Christian acolyte of Demetrios, by the name of Nestor, believed that the power of Christ could defeat the emperor’s chosen gladiator. Nestor needed Demetrios assistance to make this a possibility.
Nestor was a small man who lacked the requisite physical toughness to take on Lyaios. Nevertheless, Nestor visited the imprisoned Demetrios who blessed him with the sign of the cross. Boosted in confidence by this visit, Nestor took up the challenge of opposing Lyaios. When the giant barbarian rushed at him, Nestor was able to sidestep the hard charging Lyaios. Nestor then managed to kill Lyaios. This came as a profound shock to everyone who witnessed the event. It confirmed for many the power of Christianity. This turn of events enraged Maximian who believed the Christians were employing the darkest of arts to thwart imperial rule. He had Nestor arrested and beheaded outside the city walls. He also sent soldiers to Demetrios’ cell where they surrounded and ran him through with spears.
Festive Findings – A Symbolic Savior
Varying accounts state what happened next. One story relates how Roman soldiers threw Demetrios’ body in the street to be devoured by wild dogs, but his followers were able to save his remains from despoilment. Another account states that Christian followers of Demetrios were first-hand witnesses to his murder and were able to recover the body for burial. In the centuries after his death, Demetrios fame grew in Thessaloniki. When the Edict of Milan in 313 AD was proclaimed allowing for religious toleration across the empire, a small place of worship was set up over the site of his martyrdom. Later, a Christian church would be constructed on the same spot. The magnificent Church of Saint Demetrios (Hagios Demetrios) stands there today. After Thessaloniki became the main Roman military base in the area during the mid-5th century, the veneration of Demetrios was credited with saving the city from numerous attacks by Slavs, Saracens and Arabs.
When myrrh began oozing from below Demetrios’ tomb, acolytes gathered this substance in small vials. Soon fountains were setup for the many pilgrims who would come to visit the site. They began to collect myrrh and attest to Demetrius miracle working powers. The Feast of Demetrios brought traders from as far away as the Middle East and Africa to the city. Festivities are still celebrated each year in Thessaloniki on October 26th, the date of his martyrdom. Through the ages, Demetrios has become more than a martyr to the city, he is its symbol and savior, a holy warrior offering divine blessings to those Thessalonians who invoke his spirit. He has become one of them and part of them.