The Story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
During the reign of the Emperor Decius, seven noble men—Achillidis (son of a prefect), Diomedis, Diogenus, Probatus, Sambatus, Stephanus, and Quiriacus—were prominent figures in the palace, and held in great affection by the emperor. Even so, they were appalled by his worship of idols, and after a time converted to Christianity and were baptized, taking the names Maximianus, Malchus, Martinianus, Constantinus, Dionisius, Johannis, and Serapion.
When Decius arrived in Ephesus, he ordered that Christians be sought out and compelled to offer sacrifice to the gods. Seeing this, the seven converts sprinkled themselves with ashes and fervently prayed to God for deliverance. Their actions were made known to the emperor, and he raged against them. Brought to him in chains and challenged to sacrifice, they replied “Our God is the one, true God… We know that those names which you urge us to worship under the name of gods are absolutely nothing. And so those who worship them are by the sanction of the prophets condemned to become like them.”
Once more, the emperor raged against them, but his affection for them was such that he was unwilling to put them to torture. And so he had them freed until he returned once again to the city, when he would test them a second time. Returning to their homes, they gathered their possessions and gave them to the poor, and then retired to a cave on Mount Chilleus with only enough money to sustain them. One of them, Malchus, was chosen to keep the purse, return to the city for food and to inquire about the emperor and the fate of their fellow Christians.
When the Decius once again returned to Ephesus, he inquired about Maximianus and his comrades to their parents, who revealed where they were. Malchus, having returned to the city for food, heard of this and reported back to his comrades. In fear for what might come next, they fell down in prayer. Because God knew they would be needed in the future, he caught up their souls into heaven, and left their bodies in the cave as if in a sweet sleep.
Still unwilling to put them to torture, Decius ordered his men to seal up the cave and leave them to their fates. Among those sent were two Christians who wrote the story of the Seven on lead tablets and placed them at the entrance to the cave, so that whenever God willed their blessed bodies should be revealed, others could know of their sacrifice. Thus was the cave sealed, and the seven sleepers left within.
Time passed, Decius died, and yet the sleepers remained preserved, their bodies and even their clothing not undergoing decay. Almost two centuries later, a new emperor—Theodosius, son of Arcadius—rose to power. The empire, however, was now Christian, and although the persecutions had ended, error still stalked the land. New teachings were in the air, among them the notion that the body would not experience a physical resurrection. In desperation to do the right thing, Theodosius prayed for some revelation that would teach him the truth.
At the same time, shepherds were building enclosures on Mount Chilleus using the rocks from the mouth of the cave. Thus was the cave opened, and the breath of life returned to the sleepers. Thinking they had slept a single night, they sent Malchus to the city to inquire about Decius and return with news and food.
When Malchus approach the gates, he saw a cross raised high above them, and within the city he heard to the name of Christ and saw priests going about their business. “What is this miracle?” he wondered. “Has the emperor converted overnight?”
Now the silver Malchus had was imprinted with the image of Decius, and when he tried to pay for food with it, the merchants thought he had found ancient treasure. Because of his obvious confusion, they brought him to the bishop and the prefect, who told him that Decius had been dead many years.
“I thought that I with my brothers had slept only one night, but as I learn, the course of many years has passed during our sleep. And now the Lord has aroused me with my brothers that every age might know that the resurrection of the dead will come to pass. Therefore follow me and I will show you my brothers who have arisen with me.”
Saying this, he led them to the cave, and all the city followed with him. And there at the entrance they found the tablets engraved with their story, and learned that all Malchus said was true. The bishop sent messengers to the emperor, urging him to hasten to the location “for a great miracle has been manifested so he will know that the hope of the resurrection is real.”
And Theodosius fell to the ground in thanksgiving to God for answering his prayer, then mounted his horse and hastened to the location. He embraced each of the sleepers and did them homage, saying, “I see your faces as if I saw my Lord Jesus Christ when He called Lazarus from the Tomb.”
Maximianus replied, “The Lord ordered us to rise again to strengthen your faith. Trust always in him that resurrection of the dead will come to pass, since today you see us resurrected and telling of the greatness of God.”
Having said this, the seven stretched themselves out upon the ground, and slept once more until the trumpet shall summon them once more to the resurrection of the flesh.
I adapted various sources to retell the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, but primarily St. Gregory of Tours (538-594), whose version became the standard and was hugely popular. I’ve attempted to preserve the folkloric feel of the material, which is a notable feature of various retellings. Earlier versions survive in Greek and Syriac, with Gregory was probably using the latter. The story was later retold in the Koran (Surah 18: 9-26), which adds a dog for some reason, and is found in a homily by Aelfric (#23 on the Saints).
Different caves are cited as the location, and one account of a pilgrimage (De situ terrae sanctae, by the deacon Theodosius, early 5th century) mentions such a site of veneration in a grotto on a mountain in Ephesus. Numerous burials have been found around this location, indicating the desire to be buried close to saints and holy sites, a practice which St. Augustine strongly opposed.
The narrative begins in the reign of Decius (249-251) and culminates in the reign of Theodosius II (407-450). This places the origin point in the large-scale Decian persecutions that began in 250. As the story relates, these persecutions were triggered by the insistence that all citizens perform acts of worship to the gods. Once they had done so, they were given a certificate of proof. A surviving example of this kind of document reads:
”We have always followed the practice of sacrificing to the gods, and now while you are present we have sacrificed, have made libations, and have tasted the offerings in accordance with the regulations and we request you to certify this.” (Winter, Papyri in the University of Michigan Collection: III Misc. Papyri)
Naturally, a Christian could not do this, so there was widespread persecution.
The end-point of the narrative also provides interesting historical context. The 5th century saw the rise of controversies over Christology, as well as continued debate about the legacy of Origin, particularly how Christians should view the resurrection of the body. Theodosius II, presided over two theological disputes 20 years apart. The first was triggered when he named Nestorius Archbishop of Constantinople. Nestorius is kind of a hapless figure, since in attempting to find a middle way between two theological positions (that Christ was both God and man and that God could not be born in the flesh) he wound up with a heresy named for him. Essentially, he denied the hypostatic union—that full humanity and divinity exist in Christ—before anyone really understood what the hypostatic union was. To resolve the issue, Theodosius called the Council of Ephesus in 431 and Nestorius lost. Twenty years later, Theodosius convened another council (the Second Council of Ephesus) to resolve once again the Monophysite heresy, which suggested a fusion of the divine and human natures. The results were chaos, and Leo the Great later dubbed it the Robber Council and nullified its acts.
All of which is to say that the character of Theodosius who appears in the Seven Sleepers was carrying a lot of meaning for the readers of Gregory’s time. That the sleepers awaken to convince him of a truth about resurrection and the body suggests that the story had a pedagogical purpose. The characters, narrative, and language of the story have the feel of a folktale rather than a history. Gregory of Tours was a historian, and although there is debate about the accuracy of his History of the Franks, there’s no question that he could write in a purely historical way. His shaping of the material in his story of the Seven Sleepers doesn’t have that feel, and thus any historical core to the story is beside the point. This is a tale with a purpose: to amaze and inspire while also delivering a lesson about the body and the resurrection. It is certainly built on a tradition related to Decian martyrs, as is obvious from the graves located near the pilgrimage site in Ephesus, but given the sketchy information about most Roman martyrs, its historical content must remain uncertain.
Main image from the Menologion of Basil II