To the Empress
The wife of the emperor died by beheading,
Finding the bridegroom King to be incorrupt.
To Porphyrios and the 200 Soldiers
With your soldiers Porphyrios you go towards the sword,
Eager to arrive alone as the general of all.
The following account, as written by St. Dimitri of Rostov, took place after St. Katherine debated the fifty philosophers and rhetoricians, who were converted to Christianity and subsequently martyred. It concerns the conversions and martyrdoms of the Empress and the General Porphyrios along with 200 soldiers, who are commemorated with Saint Katherine on November 25th.
The Emperor [Maxentius] could think of nothing but how he might bring Saint Katherine to accept his impious beliefs. Unable to accomplish this through philosophic debate, he sought to lead her astray by flattery and deceit, saying, "Hear me, my good daughter. As a loving father I counsel you to worship the great gods, especially Hermes, the patron of eloquence, who has bestowed upon you the gift of understanding the mysteries of philosophy. The gods are my witnesses that I will divide my empire with you and you shall live with me in unceasing happiness."
But the wise saint understood his deceit and wicked intentions and said to him, "Lay aside your wiles, 0 Emperor, and cease to play the fox. I have already told you that I am a Christian and have betrothed myself to Christ. He alone is my Bridegroom, Guide, and the Adornment of my virginity. I prefer the robe of martyrdom to the imperial purple."
"You compel me to dishonor you and to cover your fair body with many wounds even against my will," warned the Emperor.
"Do as you wish," the saint replied, "for fleeting dishonor will gain for me glory eternal. Moreover, it is my hope that a great multitude of people will come to believe in Christ through me, and that many will abandon your palace for the mansions of heaven."
God looked down from the heights as the saint said these things, and brought her prophecy to pass.
The Emperor became very angry and commanded that Katherine be stripped of her purple robe, left naked, and beaten mercilessly with leather straps. For two hours the servants lashed the martyr upon the shoulders and belly until the whole of her virginal body was covered with stripes. The wounds left her as unsightly as she was fair and comely before, and the ground was dyed red with blood that flowed like a river from them, but the saint endured with such bravery that those who beheld her could only marvel. After this, that beast ordered that Katherine be cast into prison, permitting her neither food nor drink while he pondered how to put her to death.
Augusta, the Emperor’s wife, conceived a strong admiration for Saint Katherine and greatly desired to meet her, having heard report of Katherine’s virtue, wisdom, and courage. After she saw Katherine once in a dream, her heart was so filled with love for her she could no longer sleep. When the Emperor was compelled to leave the city because of some matter and was not to return for several days, a convenient opportunity was presented the Empress to achieve her desire. Augusta told her secret to one of the great princes, a general by rank and faithful friend of the Emperor named Porphyrios, who was a prudent man. She said, "Several nights ago, I beheld in a dream Katherine, who was seated in the midst of a multitude of youths and fair virgins clad in white garments. Such was the radiance of her face that I could not bear to gaze upon her. She sat me down beside her and placed on my head a golden crown, saying, "The Master Christ sends you this crown." Since that time I have been filled with such desire to see her that my heart can find no rest. Therefore, I entreat you to help me find a way to meet her secretly."
Porphyrios answered, "I will do as you say, my lady."
When night fell, the General took two hundred soldiers and went to the prison with the Empress. They gave money to the guard and were permitted to enter the saint’s cell. The Empress was amazed by the radiance of Katherine’s face, which shone with divine grace, and straightway falling at her feet, tearfully said to the martyr, "I count myself truly fortunate and blessed, because I have been deemed worthy to see you! With boundless desire I wished to behold you, and to hear your sweet tongue speak. Now that I have satisfied my longing, I shall not grieve if I am deprived of my life and the Empire of which I am mistress. How my heart and soul rejoice, illumined by the light of your fair countenance! You are blessed and deserving of praise for having cleaved unto a Master Who has bestowed upon you such gifts!"
"You also are blessed, O Empress," said Katherine, "for I see angels holding a crown above your head. This crown will be given you in three days, after you endure only a few torments, and you shall depart unto the true King to reign forever."
"But I fear torture, and I especially fear my husband, since he is a cruel, heartless man," exclaimed Augusta.
The saint replied, "Take courage, for Christ will dwell in your heart and come to your aid. No torment will touch your soul, and your body will suffer pain merely for a short time. Then you will rest forever."
Porphyrios asked, "What gifts does Christ bestow upon those who serve Him? I also wish to believe in Him and to become His soldier."
Said the saint, "Have you never read or heard what is written in the Christian Scriptures?"
"From my youth I have served in the army," answered Porphyrios. "Military affairs have been my sole concern."
The saint declared, "No tongue can tell of the good things the most blessed God, Who loves men, has prepared for those who love Him and keep His commandments."
Porphyrios was filled with boundless joy, and he, the two hundred soldiers, and the Empress believed in Christ. All reverently kissed the martyr and then departed.
The merciful and man-loving Christ did not forsake His holy bride but took thought for her like a father concerned for his child. Every day He sent a dove that brought her food. The Judge of the contest also appeared to her Himself in great glory, accompanied by all the hosts of heaven. He urged her to take courage and filled her with boldness, saying, "Fear not, My beloved bride, for I am with you, and no torment shall overcome you. By your patience you will lead many to Me, for which you shall be deemed worthy of numerous crowns."
Having consoled her with these words, the Lord departed.
The next morning, the Emperor sat upon his judgment seat and commanded that Katherine be brought before him. She shone with such spiritual grace and sweet light that all those present were astonished by the radiance of her beauty. The Emperor also marvelled greatly and supposed that her body had not grown feeble and her face remained beautiful after so many days because someone had given her food while she was imprisoned. He wished to punish the guard, but Saint Katherine, who did not desire that anyone suffer unjustly for her sake, confessed the truth, saying, "Know, O Emperor, that it was not the hand of man that gave me food. My Master Christ, Who cares for His servants, fed me."
The Emperor again sought to tempt Katherine with flattery, saying, "O maiden fair as the sun, more beautiful than Artemis herself, you were born to reign, my daughter! Come, I entreat you, and sacrifice unto the gods so that you may rule with us, living out your days in great felicity. I do not wish to destroy your beauty with torments."
"I am earth and dust," answered the saint. "Beauty wilts like a flower, vanishing like a dream before some slight illness or old age, or destroyed utterly by corruption after death. Therefore, O Emperor, take no thought for my beauty."
As the saint was speaking, the Eparch Khursaden, a cruel man and a merciless persecutor, wishing to gain Maxentius’ good will, said, "I know a torture, O Emperor, that will enable you to prevail over this maiden. Command that four wooden wheels be fixed to a single axle, and have spearheads and other sharp weapons of iron driven through their rims. Order two wheels turned to the right and two to the left. Have the maiden tied down beneath them, and the turning wheels will tear apart her flesh. But first show the wheels to her! Having seen them, I believe she will consent to obey you. If she refuses, then deliver her to a cruel death."
The Emperor was pleased with the Eparch’s counsel and ordered that the wheels be prepared. The saint was led to the place of torture, and the wheels were spun before her with great force so that she would be frightened. The persecutor said to her, "Do you see the torments prepared for you? Bitter will be your death, if you do not worship the gods!"
"I have told you many times that I intend to remain a Christian. Waste no more time and do as you wish," the saint replied.
Seeing that he could neither frighten her nor turn her from Christ, the Emperor commanded that Katherine be tied down and the wheels turned vigorously, so that her members would be severed by the sharp instruments and she would perish cruelly. But as soon as the torture began, an angel descended from heaven and loosed the saint from her bonds, preventing her from being injured. The wheels he broke into pieces, which flew in every direction from the force of the blows, killing numerous unbelievers. Seeing this glorious rescue, the crowd cried out, "Great is the God of the Christians!"
Anger darkened the Emperor’s mind, and he became crazed, unable to think of anything but new torments for the martyr.
Learning what had occurred, the Empress came out of her chamber and began to revile the Emperor, saying, "Truly, you are a fool, imagining you can do battle with the living God and torturing His handmaiden unjustly!"
The Emperor was not accustomed to hear his wife say such things and became furious, more like a beast than a man. Leaving Saint Katherine, he turned his wrath upon his wife, forgetting the natural bonds of love for her. He commanded that a large crate be brought and filled with lead so that it could not be moved, then had his wife’s breasts placed over the edge of the crate and its top nailed down. The Empress’ breasts were pressed down with such force that they were torn off, but the blessed Augusta was happy to bear for the true God the indescribable pain. As she endured this mutilation, she prayed to the Lord, asking that He send her help from on high. Her blood flowed like a river, and all who stood nearby were filled with pity: they could not help but feel compassion for their Empress as she suffered such bitter, unendurable torment. However, the merciless blood-drinker had no pity on his spouse and ordered that her head be cut off with the sword. Augusta rejoiced upon hearing the sentence and begged the saint, "Pray for me, handmaiden of the true God!"
"Go in peace to reign with Christ forever!" Katherine answered.
The blessed Empress was beheaded outside the city on the twenty-third day of November. General Porphyrios took her body by night and buried it reverently. The very next morning, Porphyrios and his soldiers, who had come to believe in Christ, went before the Emperor and declared, "We also are Christians, soldiers of the great God!"
Plunged into grief, the Emperor sighed from the bottom of his heart and lamented, "Woe is me! I have perished, for I have lost the wondrous Porphyrios!" Then he turned to the soldiers and said, "Have you also gone astray, my beloved soldiers, abandoning the gods of your fathers? What evil have the gods done you that you have forsaken them?"
They answered him not a word, and only Porphyrios replied, saying, "Why do you remain silent before the head and converse with the feet? Address yourself to me!"
"You, wicked man, are the cause of their perdition!" cried the Emperor.
Unable to speak any longer because of his anger, the Emperor commanded that Porphyrios and his soldiers be beheaded. Thus they fulfilled the prophecy Saint Katherine made before the Emperor, saying that many from his palace would believe in Christ God.