Type of Persecution

Nature of Conflict

Primary Sources

The Passio Altera (Alternative Passion) and Martydom of the Holy Great Martyr Demetrios

Historical Context

Demetrios was from an upper class family of senatorial rank. He made his career in the military as a military secretary, and later became the proconsul of Greece under Maximian. However, he was a Christian and taught the divine Logos, the word of God, with passion, boldness, and effectiveness. 

Maximian was an augustus (imperial ruler) of the Roman Empire, also known as Hercules,” who came to Thessaloniki during the time that Demetrios was the proconsul of Greece, approximately 304 CE. Maximian persecuted many Christians, including Demetrios, the focus of this account. This was at a time when the emperors of the Roman Empire would occasionally attempt to force people to worship many gods and goddesses (polytheism) or pledge allegiance to the Empire. However, many Christians refused to do this, because they worshiped the one and only true God. Refusing to worship the idols, many Christians were persecuted for their faith and became martyrs. The word martyr comes from the Greek word martureo, which literally translates "to bear witness for one’s faith."


The two texts, The Passio Altera (the longer text) and the Martrydom of the Holy Great Martyr Demetrios (the shorter text), depict Demetrios as a teacher of the faith, capable of interceding on behalf of the faithful and with the power to produce miracles in Thessaloniki. However, the longer version contains episodes which serve to elevate the postmortem authority of Demetrios. These episodes do not disrupt the general order of events of the martyrdom of Demetrios that are recorded in the shorter version.

Demetrios was the proconsul of Greece, and even though he was working for the Empire, he was a strong believer in Christ and would teach the word of God with much compassion. When Maximian’s soldiers discovered Demetrios was a Christian, he was arrested and held captive. As Demetrios was held captive, a scorpion tried to sting him, and when he made the sign of the cross over it, the scorpion died. As he did this, an angel of the Lord came and placed a crown upon his head and said to him, “Peace be with you, O Victorious One of Christ, be strong and manly.”

In those times Maximian was intrigued by the gladiatorial games, and his favorite fighter was Lyaios, who was considered one of the best and was feared by many people. Lyaios was challeneged by a youth named Nestor, who showed barely any signs of facial hair. Nestor was a believer in Christ, taught by Demetrios. Before this duel, Nestor went to Demetrios to ask him to call upon Jesus Christ and pray for Nestor as he battles Lyaios. Nestor then defeated Lyaios, and Maximian was enraged when he discovered that it was the power of Christ through the prayers of Demetrios that allowed Nestor to be victorious. Maximian then orders Demetrios to be stabbed with lances.


After Demetrios’ martyrdom and because of the miracles ascribed to him, the prefect Leontios built a basilica dedicated to him in Thessaloniki. Ever since then, Demetrios has been the patron saint of the city. Demetrios was known as the vigilant protector of Thessaloniki. He healed the sick through miracles, saved the city from famine, and rescued prisoners. According to John of Thessaloniki in his collection of the Miracles of Saint Demetrios, in July of 586 Thessaloniki was devastated by an outbreak of plague. The people flocked to the basilica, and those who remained in the church of Demetrios during the plague were spared their lives more than those who stayed at home. Demetrios was known to some people as the “patron and savior” or the “champion” against invaders and assaults to the city of Thessaloniki.

What is unusual, however, is that Demetrios’ actual relics are not to be discovered to this day. There have been a few requests by different emperors for the relics of Demetrios. Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire (527-565 CE) requested a relic of Demetrios. An envoy sent by Justinian along with many other clergymen and believers of Demetrios went to the lower level of the church of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki, where the bones of the saint were to believed to lie. As they began to dig, something miraculous happened. A mysterious flame appeared, and an unidentified voice forbade the people digging to continue. When the people saw this, they immediately stopped what they were doing and left.

Thus, there is a martyr without relics and a cult for that martyr without relics. This creates an interesting situation for the city and for the basilica in his honor. A cult for a martyr exists, even if there are no physical remains proving the existence of that martyr. Some may think, as John of Thessaloniki did at the time, that the faithful of the city do not need the visible sight of holy bones to establish and strengthen their faith. However, because the relics are not to be found, some scholars question whether the account is historical or not.


Byeus, Cornelius. Miracles of St.Demetrius (Book III). In ActaSS 51, October 4, 104-60, 162-89, 190-97

Cormack, Robin. The Making of a Patron Saint: The Powers of Art and Ritual in Byzantine Thessaloniki. In Irving Lavin, ed., World Art: Themes of Unity and Diversity. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1989

Edson, Charles. Cults of Thessalonica. Harvard Theological Review 41 (1948) 153-204 

Skedros, James Constantine. Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki: Civic Patron and Divine Protector, 4th-7th Centuries CE. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999


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“Demetrios,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed September 21, 2020,