The centurion who came back
Join me today for the story of the centurion who outfoxed a governor to help the Christians of Caesarea.
Life: Late 3rd, early 4th century AD
Feast: January 3
It happened just as the persecutions seemed to be coming to an end. In 313 AD, the two co-emperors who ruled the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire issued the edict of Milan. Christianity would be tolerated in the Eastern Roman Empire, led by Constantine, and in the Western Roman Empire, led by Constantine’s co-emperor, Licinius.
All across the Roman Empire, Christians rejoiced that the persecutions had ended.
They celebrated too soon.
In the Western Empire, something was happening to Licinius. He had converted to Christianity from paganism. He had married the sister of Constantine, a sincere Christian. But Licinius was drifting away from Christianity. Some said he was returning to paganism. The historian Eusebius thought he was becoming drawn into a cult. Whatever his new views, he grew to hate the Church. The emperor tried to stop bishops from holding synods or even from communicating with one another. He forced Christians to worship outside, rather than in churches, and banned services where men and women worshipped together. Then he gave the officers in the military a choice: sacrifice to the old gods or lose their ranks.
In Caesarea, the capital city of the Roman province of Cappadocia (near modern Kayseri in central Turkey), the new decree from the emperor Licinius meant that one Roman officer in particular no longer had a job. His name was Gordius.
Gordius was a centurion. This was a middle rank: like many militaries today, the Roman army had enlisted soldiers and an officer corps drawn largely from the aristocracy. But in between the ordinary soldiers and the staff officers were the centurions, ordinary soldiers who had worked their way up to a position of seniority and respect. A centurion was usually in charge of 80 or 90 men, though centurions played many other roles, commanding geographic areas or fortifications and taking on bigger commands. You could dodge a lot of the fighting as a very senior officer, but if you were a centurion you were right there in the thick of combat with your men.
We can get an insight into the kind of officer Gordius was from something that Saint Basil attributes to him, which I imagine the men under Gordius’ command had heard on many occasions:
Make the necessary voluntary. (Blomfield Jackson translation)
There are a lot of things you don’t control - especially if a you’re a soldier. You don’t choose where you’re going or whom you’re fighting. But you can choose whether or not to do it voluntarily. You can, as we might say today, choose to own the situation. Gordius may well not have known that Stoic philosophers had used this insight as a foundation to explain what it was to live a good life. He didn’t need to know that, because it’s an idea that many men discover on their own. You can see the idea promoted nowadays by the retired Navy Seal officer Jocko Willink. Even something as small as getting up with your alarm is a test of discipline, Willink says. A strong man accepts the necessity of the alarm and chooses to start his day. A weak man is defeated there because he lacks self-discipline, and more defeat and compromise follows.
Gordius does not sound like he was a pushover or a soft touch. Now, somewhere throughout his career he had become a Christian. When Gordius got word that all officers would have to sacrifice to the gods or be pushed out of their posts, he considered what to do next. Gordius could have tried to get around the issue and stay in uniform. He could also have followed protocol, which would mean formally resigning his position as an officer and perhaps being demoted to the level of ordinary soldier again. Nobody really expected officers to do that, everyone understood that they were getting squeezed out.
So Gordius made the necessary voluntary. He left his things behind and walked out of Caesarea, heading on foot into the wild lands beyond. He would walk away from his job, his life, his extended family and his city, to seek God in the community of hermits, men who lived lives of discipline and prayer in the wilderness. In fact, Gordius had always lived a life of self-discipline. Now he was going to do it for God.
And Gordius would probably have spent the rest of his life there in the wild lands, if the he had not heard what the governor in Caesarea was doing to the Christians. The governor was no fan of the Church, and he was taking every chance to show it. Perhaps he was trying to curry favour with the emperor Licinius - a delicate task. Things were not going well between the co-emperors Licinius and Constantine. Co-emperors were supposed to govern their respective halves of Rome, but the two kept clashing. People who were against Christianity were hedging their bets, careful to stay on Constantine’s good side even if they took a kick at the Church while times were bad. But then the governor in Caesarea had an idea. He was going to throw a party. Who could complain about that?
The governor announced that he would be spending a lot of money on a big, civic celebration in honour of Mars, the god of war and bravery. Now attendance was 100% voluntary. But if you didn’t come you were missing out in a big way. There would be chariot races in the stadium. Then at the end of the day, there would likely have been a feast, the meat taken from the animals offered in the temple of the war god. But again, no one had to come. If you hated fun or free food, you were welcome to sit it out at home.
Out in the wilderness, Gordius got word of what was planned. He recognized exactly what was going on. He was used to making men do what he wanted. So Gordius realized that the governor had figured out a very subtle, very clever way of getting at the Church in Caesarea. Everyone understood that the Church would grow if it was persecuted. That had been happening for 300 years. So the governor wasn’t going to persecute anybody. He was going to make it boring to be a Christian.
To understand the plan, it’s important to know that in Roman religion, games could be sacred, and the governor was setting the chariot race up this way. In religious terms, everyone who came out was taking part in the sacred act, even the spectators. The governor knew that Christians were going to want to see the chariot races - who wouldn’t? He knew too that many Christian soldiers still worried about the opinion of the war god, Mars. And it would be so easy to just come out and watch the races, even though that was technically part of a pagan ritual. Sure, many Christians would go home and repent. But it would be easier to take part the second time. And the time after that.
When the day arrived, the event had been so hyped up that many masters realized their slaves were going to sneak out anyway and bowed to the inevitable. They gave their slaves the day off. Schoolteachers, we read in Saint Basil, were not so wise. But it didn’t matter: all the schoolboys snuck out of their lessons and went to the stadium. The stadium was packed.
And then, just as things were about to begin, a solitary figure walked out into the arena, approaching the box where the governor and his entourage were sitting. He was rail thin and his beard had grown long, but as he walked out alone, people began to recognize the old centurion. It was Gordius. Christians were glad to see him, though maybe a little bit embarrassed to be there in the middle of a pagan ritual. Gordius’ enemies started shouting that he should be put to death for deserting his post.
By the time he had walked up to the box where the governor and his entourage were sitting, no one was thinking about the chariots anymore. Everyone was wondering what was going to happen to Gordius.
The governor looked around at the audience and his entourage and smiled. Everyone knew he had a temper, but he wasn’t going to let it get the better of him today. He would deal with this interruption and the games would go on. The governor decided that a light touch would be best. He might just pardon Gordius for desertion, make that gift part of the war god’s holy day. So in kind and gentle tones, the governor asked Gordius who he was and what had brought him back to Caesarea.
Unfortunately for the governor, Gordius also understood the situation. He knew how to deescalate a situation. He also knew how to escalate one. And given the governor’s notorious temper, Gordius had a plan. He answered the governor’s question in the most inflammatory way possible.
His name was Gordius, he said. He mentioned his family. He told the crowd that he was a centurion of Rome. And then Gordius told the crowd and the governor that he had come to show his contempt, his utter contempt for what had been done to the army and against Christians. And looking straight at the governor, Gordius added that he had come specifically on this day, and to this place, because he heard that the governor was a real sick psychopath, a man who loved cruelty.
Now the smart thing for the governor would have been to laugh this off. When you’re a governor you don’t really have to argue with hermits in rags who show up to challenge you. But Gordius had insulted the governor in front of a stadium’s worth of people. And there must have been truth in his accusation as well, because what he said didn’t just strike a nerve. It made the governor go berserk.
The governor forgot about his plan. He summoned his guards and screamed at them to grab Gordius and go get the instruments of torture. All of them! He wanted wild animals, a wheel, a press, a rack, a cross, wood for a fire, and something to chop the head off this mouthy Christian. As the governor ranted he told the people up in his box that Gordius was lucky, lucky he could only be executed once.
From down below, Gordius interrupted and talked over the governor.
“What a bad thing for me that I cannot die for Christ again and again.”
And then Gordius looked at the men bringing the instruments of torture and calmly asked them what they were waiting for. He didn’t have all day.
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By now, though, even the governor must have realized that he was being pushed into making a mistake. Probably his advisers were trying to talk the governor down to avoid ruining the sacral games. The problem was that in Roman religion, the governor himself was an important part of the ritual: in some sense he was honouring the war god as the chief celebrant. One of the easiest ways to defile his ritual purity was to execute someone. If that happened, it would have to be offsite, and the governor would have to be ritually purified afterward. But on the other hand, if he let Gordius get away with expressing contempt for the Christian persecution at a huge public event, then the Christians of Caesarea would be massively encouraged. There seemed to be no way to win.
The solution was diplomacy.
The governor forced a smile onto his face. He called over his servants to bring Gordius some new clothes. Now this was a man, the governor said, grimacing toward Gordius. He had proved himself, a real tough soldier. Yes, he and Gordius had some disagreements. But they could work those out. To Gordius, the governor said that he was open to reinstating him as a centurion. And actually, why stop at centurion? Gordius could be looking at a very rare promotion into the senior officer class. All Gordius would need to do was to make a sacrifice.
And even that was negotiable! Friends from Gordius’ former life joined in and pointed out that he could technically comply and just keep his Christianity quiet. He wouldn’t even need to deny Christ in his heart. There were ways for him to check the box. Reading between the lines, some of the people giving Gordius this advice had probably taken such deals themselves. To them, Gordius sadly quoted Matthew 10:33, when Jesus says, “but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
And then Gordius turned back to the governor, and smirked at him. Was that all he had to offer? God was offering Gordius eternal life. And the governor was offering what, some new clothes? Another job? Money? Did the governor think Gordius was stupid? Did Gordius have to break this down for him?
And that was what it took to trigger the governor again. Back in a rage, the governor could think of nothing but dealing with Gordius. He couldn’t execute or torture Gordius within the city limits on the holy day of Mars. Fine! He would do it outside the city. So the governor gathered his entourage and had Gordius taken outside the city. And when the people of Caesarea saw that, they realized the games couldn’t start without the governor, so they went too. Soon the huge crowd that was assembled for the games had wandered out of the stadium and were standing around outside the city, waiting to see whether Gordius would give up his faith.
We don’t know what Gordius had to endure. We do know that he was tortured. And we know that eventually it became clear to everyone who was watching that Gordius wasn’t going to break. The governor ordered Gordius to be executed. When Gordius was led away, his step didn’t falter. He didn’t turn pale. Saint Basil tells us that he didn’t even lose his smile.
On the way he stopped, and spoke briefly to the crowd that had gathered to watch his execution. In just a few words he spelled out the philosophy of a manly saint. The way Gordius saw it, everyone dies. Some men have the chance to make their death one that matters. I have to imagine that the soldiers under his command had heard Gordius talk about this before when they risked their lives in war. Now it was being applied to something even more significant.
Death is the common lot of man. As we must all die, let us through death win life. Make the necessary voluntary. Exchange the earthly for the heavenly.
And then Gordius went to his execution.
By now, even the dimmest Christians would have figured out what had happened. They would have understood that Gordius had come to the festival and provoked the governor for their sakes. Gordius had valiantly, defiantly refused to deny Christ. He had sacrificed himself to give the Christians of Caesarea a second chance to take the same stand with him.
In order to restart the festival, the governor had to be ritually purified, along with his entourage. Saint Basil doesn’t even bother to fill in the details of what happened when they got back, perhaps because no one he knew went with them. Most of the Christians would have been thinking of Gordius’ example. And few would have wanted to be anywhere near the governor. What is more, there probably wasn’t enough time in the day to even do a race. If the execution took place in January, on Saint Gordius’ feast day, the sun sets in Caesarea around 5:30 PM. The governor had accomplished nothing that would impress the Christian-hating emperor Licinius.
As it turned out, the emperor Licinius did not have much time anyway. Within a few years the simmering tension with Constantine would boil over. The two emperors clashed in a land battle, and soon Licinius was in flight. Constantine’s sister convinced her brother to spare Licinius’ life. But then Licinius tried to conspire to be reinstated as emperor at the head of a barbarian army, and Constantine had Licinius executed. The persecutions of Christians were over.
In Caesarea, the example of Gordius and other martyrs had helped people to hang on. Caesarea would produce the saints we remember as the Cappadocian Fathers, men who would steer the Church through the turbulent theological storms that were already on the horizon. They also kept Gordius’ memory alive - and followed his advice, to make the necessary voluntary, to exchange the earthly for the heavenly.
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