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October 26, 2017

Saint Demetrios and Emperor Leo VI the Wise

By John Sanidopoulos

Although Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (867-886) renovated a Church of Saint Demetrios in the city of Constantinople that had probably existed since the early eighth century, transferring in some respects the veneration of the Great Martyr outside of Thessaloniki to the capital of the Roman Empire, there is no indication that he had a special devotion to the Saint, since it was only listed as one among many other churches he built or restored, with no further information if he was a personal patron.

Demetrios took on a new role in the imperial court in the next generation. Like his father, Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) seems to have cultivated the patronage of a number of divine figures. Among these were the Prophet Elijah and the Holy Unmercenaries Kosmas and Damian. And despite the exclusive association of Saint Demetrios with Thessaloniki, Leo showed a keen interest in him. This may have to do with his ideas about the divine protection of the Roman army and the similarities between soldiers and martyrs. It would not be surprising therefore that he would set Saint Demetrios as a model for his his troops. Furthermore, Saint Demetrios became famous for protecting the city of Thessaloniki from all manner of calamities and enemies, furthering his status as a patron of the imperial army and expanding his veneration to the ever-besieged Constantinople.

Besides these points, there is another reason for Leo having a special interest in Saint Demetrios throughout his reign. We read in the Life of Theophano, the first wife of Emperor Leo, that when the couple was imprisoned by Emperor Basil I, they had a vision in which "a youth, clothed in the garb of a soldier, holding in his right hand a spear and in his left a shield," appeared to them and assured them of their release and future reign. Although the Saint is not named, he can probably be identified as Demetrios, since he is reported to have said, "I have not come here of my own will, but you have made me come from Thessaloniki." This early vision of Saint Demetrios to Leo, dressed as a soldier, is an indication of how Leo would later view the Saint from Thessaloniki. For up to that time, the iconography of the Saint did not depict him as a soldier, but as a preacher, unless he was engaged in combat. Moreover, this vision is one of the earliest examples of Saint Demetrios offering his protection to someone not connected with Thessaloniki. Leo seems to be drawing Saint Demetrios away from Thessaloniki, and including him also as a patron of the capital.

Leo's campaign to win the Saint's protection included, for example, sponsoring the construction of a palace church in his honor, which was only the second to be dedicated to the Great Martyr in Constantinople. He also made an ill-fated attempt to transfer the market for Bulgarian merchants to Thessaloniki in 893, which has been argued as a show of gratitude for the intercessions of Saint Demetrios. Further evidence of Leo's devotion to Saint Demetrios is found in the three homilies he delivered on behalf of the Saint. These may be the first homilies by a Greek delivered about Saint Demetrios by a non-citizen of Thessaloniki. Among his unique features in these homilies, which might be called embellishments, is his description of the military career of Demetrios. However, the main focus of these homilies is not the military career of the Saint, but his martyrdom. Leo also composed a hymn to Saint Demetrios which was incorporated into the procession that took place on the feast of the Saint. This hymn describes the Great Martyr's reception in heaven, and that he was the guardian of the soldiers of the mortal regiment.

Although the Thessalonians jealously guarded their exclusive veneration of Saint Demetrios, as evidenced by at least two occasions when previous emperors sought to acquire portions of his relics but they refused to grant it, Leo managed to acquire his patronage not by acquiring his relics, but by writing about him and building a church in his honor, as well as promoting him as a guardian of the military. And his devotion to Demetrios was exclusive as far as soldier saints are concerned, since he seems to not have showed any interest in another. Saint Demetrios was sufficient for him, and he eventually became very popular among the citizens of Constantinople.