On the eve of the start of Holy Week in both western and eastern churches, it is appropriate to highlight the life of Leonidas and companions, martyred for their faith in Corinth while celebrating Pascha sometime in the mid-third century AD.
The Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church notes April 16 as the day commemorating the martyrdom of Leonidas, Charissa, Nike, Galina, Kalisa, Nunekhia, Vasilissa, and Theodora. Like most Corinthian saints, we know very little about Leonidas, and even less about his companions. His fame certainly paralleled Kodratos, martyr and bishop of Corinth, and clearly he numbered among Corinth’s most famous saints and church leaders. The site of his martyrdom (west of the harbor Lechaion) was historically associated with an enormous basilica-style church of 6th century date–among the largest early Christian basilicas of the eastern Mediterranean.
Leonidas and the seven virgins
Leonidas and the seven virgins are listed in the Acta Sanctorum, April, II, as part of a larger group of Corinthian martyrs celebrated on April 16. But as the editors of AS explain, some of these names reflect different documentary traditions of the martyrdom of Leonidas.
Callistus, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Charisius, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Leonides, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Christiana, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Galla, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Theodora, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Lota, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Tertia, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Caristus, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Chariessa, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Nice, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Gallena, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Nunechia, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Basilissa, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Calis, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Acta Sanctorum, April, II, pp. 402-404, also collects the different manuscript traditions for their suffering, and these different ancient and medieval traditions explain the variety in modern accounts of their passion. It would be valuable at some point to post English translations of these different accounts. For now, we can provide two brief overviews.
The Orthodox Church of America provides this brief summary:
The Holy Martyr Leonidas and the Holy Martyrs Charissa, Nike, Galina, Kalisa (Kalida), Nunekhia, Basilissa, and Theodora suffered at Corinth in the year 258. They threw them into the sea, but they did not drown. Instead, they walked upon the water as if on dry land, singing spiritual hymns. The torturers overtook them in a ship, tied stones around their necks and drowned them.
John Sanidopoulos of the Mystagogy blog produced a useful overview of Leonidas (“Newly-Revealed Martyrs Leonidas and His Companions“) which summarizes his life, details his modern veneration in New Epidaurus and Troezen, and describes the Lechaion basilica. Sanidopoulos provides a short bibliography and links to additional material, including Bill Caraher’s interesting piece, “Some Thoughts on St. Leonidas and Baptism in Lechaion in Greece” that highlighted the relationship between the martyr account of death by sea, the sacrament of baptism, his death on holy Saturday, and the position of the Lechaion basilica on the coast. Sanidopoulos’ summary:
Leonidas was a teacher of the Church in Troezen of Peloponnesos. He was brought to Corinth for trial for his Christian faith before the governor Venousto during Holy Week along with the seven women who were later martyred with him. Venousto tried to convince Saint Leonidas and the seven women to recant their faith, but they remained steadfast. Saint Leonidas was tortured by being hung up high and scraped with a sharp instrument. When all tortures failed, Venousto condemned them all to be drowned in the Gulf of Corinth.
Before being thrown into the sea, Saint Leonidas looked up to heaven and said: “Behold! And with this second baptism today have I been baptized, which makes the man within us more clean.” They were thrown into the sea but the sea received them not. They walked upon the sea as upon dry land and it is said that Saint Charissa sang to God with the words of the Prophetess Mariam: “On the field of battle, I ran O Lord, and the army pursued me; O Lord I did not deny You; O Lord, save my soul!” Seeing them, the heathens, at first were amazed, but after they overtook them in a ship as the saints continued chanting the hymn. They tied stones around their necks and again threw them into the depths of the sea and they drowned. Their martyrdom occurred on Holy Saturday.
Their martyrology dating from the 13th century offers the following note after the bodies of the martyrs were washed ashore: “Pious men, dragging the bodies of the saints lying on the beach, having attended to them in honor they buried them, having built a church on the spot, where [the bodies], both augustly venerated and extolled everlastingly, to those who approach faithfully they make to gush out healings each time.”
In several of the manuscript traditions, the group was arrested on Saturday evening, while singing hymns as part of the Easter vigil.
Another summary of the passion can be found on pp. 450-452 of V. Limberis, “Ecclesiastical Ambiguities: Corinth in the Fourth and Fifth Century,” in Schowalter and Friesen (eds.), Urban Religion in Roman Corinth, Cambridge, MA 2005, 443-457. And Amelia Brown, in her recent dissertation on Late Roman Corinth, also discusses the life briefly and includes citations to the different hagiographic sources.
The Lechaion Basilica and Baptistery were excavated by the Greek archaeologist Demitrios Pallas in the late 1950s, and published in modern Greek in the 1960s. Useful English summaries and analyses of the site, the architecture, chronology, and the historical significance of the monument can be found in:
William Caraher, Church, Society, and the Sacred in Early Christian Greece (Dissertation, Ohio State 2003)
Richard Rothaus, Corinth:The First City of Greece, Leiden 2000. [see also his article on Lechaion]
G.D.R. Sanders, “Archaeological Evidence for Early Christianity and the End of Hellenic Religion in Corinth,” in Schowalter and S.J. Friesen (eds.), Urban Religion in Roman Corinth, Cambridge, MA, 2005, 419-42.