AS the fires of intolerance under the guise of "freedom of religion" rage all around us, we remember St. Apollonius and St. Philemon of Antinoopolis, two loving friends who died together as martyrs to religious persecution.
Antinoopolis was built upon the bank where Antinous had fallen into the Nile. From its birth the city was enshrouded with the specter of death.
The Religion of Antinous under the Curia of Antinoopolis was a death cult. The city's two major temples, that of the Egyptian faction and the larger Antinoeion which is the second possible site of the Lost Tomb of Antinous, were places for the perpetual lamentation of the death of Antinous, and for the passing of all beauty and youth in the world.
Antinoopolis was the flower of Greek civilization deep in the desert of the Thebaid, and it was a haven for dispossessed and exiled thinkers and theological revolutionaries of all sorts. But there came a time when even liberal-minded Antinoopolis fell under the sway of the fear and violence that had swept across the world.
The Christian faith was suffering one of the bloodiest persecutions in its history. In the 4th Century CE, as Antinoopolis was in full flower, Emperor Diocletian had sought to curb the rising tide of Christianity with brutal violence. He issued decrees that all citizens should be compelled to demonstrate their piety to the Roman Gods by offering sacrifice. It was a direct challenge.
Any person who refused was not only insulting the Gods of Rome, but also showing disloyalty to the Emperor and to Rome herself. Such treason was punishable by death. This was a legal way to persecute Christians. It was not an attack on the Christian doctrine, or its practices, but demonstrated an unavoidable line that no Christian would cross.
It is interesting to note that, although many of the Christians were executed by beheading or by being shot through with arrows, some were executed by being drowned in the Nile. This similarity between their deaths and the death of Antinous must have been very moving to the Ancient Priests of Antinous.
And it is also curious that the authorities apparently were not sensitive to the nature of this form of execution in the sacred city of a boy who had become a god simply by drowning in the Nile.
Of these Martyrs, the most profoundly moving are Apollonius and Philemon. Apollonius was a Deacon of the Church, also called a reader. The story goes that he was ordered to make a pagan sacrifice at Antinoopolis in order to prove that he was not a practicing Christian. He couldn't bring himself to do that, so he asked his "dearest friend" Philemon to make the sacrifice for him, since Philemon was a pagan.
Philemon is said to have been a flute player, an occupation notoriously held by homosexuals. While one was a young Christian priest and the other a pagan, it is indeed noteworthy that Apollonius the priest would have the confidence and trust to ask Philemon to take his place, and that Philemon would risk his life to aid the young priest. The two must have had a very close friendship, the nature of which has escaped the attention of the Christian martyrologists.
In the end, of course, the ruse was found out and they both died together by being drowned after the manner of Antinous, in the Nile.
One key element of the story is the irrefutable fact that Philemon, though not a Christian himself, refused under torture to renounce his friendship. In other words, he would rather die with his friend than renounce him and live on without him.
The details of the story of their martyrdom are shrouded in legend. In one version, they were tortured separately and were to be executed by archers.
But the story goes that the arrows bounced off their bodies. And in one version, an arrow point ricocheted back at Arian himself, blinding him in one eye.
Saint Philemon predicted that, after his martyrdom, Arian would be healed at Philemon's tomb on condition that he became a Christian. Arian did so, was cured miraculously -- and subsequently was put to death himself for being a Christian.
After arrows failed to kill them, Apollonius and Philemon, bloody but alive, were chained together and placed in a sack and thrown into the river. In one version, they were thrown into the sea at Alexandria.
Their deaths occurred on April 10th in the year 305.
What would cause a man to link his fate with that of another man, the two of them residents of a city founded in honor of a man who linked his fate with that of another man?
As for Apollonius, he must have been regarded as a rebellious hothead and self-destructive with his talk about this martyred Hebrew carpenter boy being an alternative to Antinous -- right there in the Sacred City of Antinoopolis!
What thoughts went through Philemon's mind as he was being bound up in chains together with his beloved friend and they were shoved into the river?
They probably weren't very nice men. Remember that actor/musicians were considered scum in ancient Rome. One was an actor and the other was a rabble-rousing religious fanatic. Not nice men.
Theirs was not a very pretty story. But then, few of the saints of any religious canon were very "sweet and nice" people to actually be around. "Nice" people obey the rules. "Nice" people obey the rules.
These people did not. They stood up against authority and convention. And their life stories generally are not very pretty.
But most of us are not very "sweet and nice" people, once you get past the smiling exteriors that most of us present to neighbors and co-workers. Most of our life stories are not particularly very pretty.
But "nice" people with pretty life stories don't become saints. Most saints are usually just ordinary people who were placed in an extraordinary situation and who did something extraordinary as a result. We read the lives of the saints because they shock us into facing the reality of our own not very nice selves and our own not very pretty little lives.
It is very fitting and appropriate that we remember Philemon and Apollonius, two friends from the Sacred City of Antinoopolis whose lives were linked by bonds of love and whose deaths were linked by bonds of chains.