Two young men were found drowned. Such events took place in antiquity at least as often as such tragedies happen today. But there may be more to it all.
Naucratius was one of the sons of a remarkable family. If he had a Roman style name, we don’t know of it. The family lived on a large landed estate just outside Neocaesarea in Pontus, a province in what’s now northern Turkey. They were well established by the fourth century AD and had slaves.
The story of Naucratius and Chrysapius is told by his elder brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and takes up two chapters in his Life of Macrina, a family hagiography, since Macrina was sister to both men.
|Icon of St Macrina; from Kiev, 11th century|
Neocaesarea, originally known as Cabira (and in Turkish today as Niksar, derived from its Roman name), stood at the junction of the rivers Iris and Lycus. It was the capital of Pontus and Mithridates the Great lived there, and while came from nearby. Its references to Caesar seems to follow its Greek name Sebaste, city of the prince.
The city had a tiny Christian community in the third century, yet it was given a bishop for its seventeen communicants. This was Gregorius Thaumaturgus, Gregory the Miracle Worker (213-270), who was so famous locally that large numbers of local boys were given that name. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a book about him too. Christian practice in this area seems to be focused on a small band of people, some family members and some closely associated with each others.
Thaumaturgus was bishop of the area in the middle of the third century, when the Goths invaded from across the Black Sea; local people who had converted to Christianity were abducted by the Goths (possibly with the cooperation of local ‘pagans’ glad to see the back of them); a century later, one of them was Wulfilla, apostle to the Goths, the man who invented the Gothic alphabet and translated most of the Bible into Gothic; the slaves had over the years become Goths and yet retained Christianity and a working knowledge of Latin and Greek for a century.
It is possible that Thaumaturgus was related to the family of Naucratius. The place was not particularly large and nobles and major landowners tended to marry each other. The wonder worker only became a bishop at age forty, having been a lawyer before that. His miracles therefore took place between c.253 and his death in 270, only seventeen years, so they must have made a big impression.
Another connection with Naucratius may have related to the latter’s name. Thaumaturgus had travelled to the near east in his youth on the staff of a Roman governor. The young man’s name relates to the major port city of Naucratis in Egypt. There does remain however a possibility that the name was given to him post mortem, as it means ‘sea victory’, perhaps symbolising how he somehow conquered death by martyrdom.
That the family lived on their landed estate rather than in the city may have to do with the destruction of Neocaesarea in an earthquake in AD344, which is recorded in Jerome’s Chronicle. This was part of a massive series of earthquakes in the eastern Mediterranean in the 340s, destroying several eastern cities in 341, Durres in Albania in 346 (whose aftershocks, Jerome says, were felt in Rome), as well as Nicomedia and others in 358 and Nicea itself in 368. The disruption to civic life this created may be what led to serious famines in places like Phrygia in 370.
|The family of St Basil. Naucratius third from left, front row. All the other brothers were bishops (and have crucifixes on their robes)|
So when we hear of large numbers of people moving to the family estate, these may have been people in Neocaesarea and elsewhere putting themselves under the protection of a powerful patronage dynasty. Gregory again, concerning his youngest brother, Peter: ‘Once when a severe famine had occurred and crowds from all quarters were frequenting the retreat where they lived, drawn by the fame of their benevolence, Peter's kindness supplied such an abundance of food that the desert seemed a city by reason of the number of visitors.’ (Life of Macrina, translated 1916).
The story of the death of Naucratius is sufficiently short to quote verbatim.
The Tragic Death of Naucratius
Then there fell on the mother a grievous and tragic affliction, contrived, I think, by the Adversary, which brought trouble and mourning upon all the family. For he was snatched suddenly away from life. No previous sickness had prepared them for the blow, nor did any of the usual and well-known mischances bring death upon the young man. Having started out on one of the expeditions, by which he provided necessaries for the old men under his care, he was brought back home dead, together with Chrysapius who shared his life. His mother was far away, three days distant from the scene of the tragedy. Some one came to her telling the bad news. Perfect though she was in every department of virtue, yet nature dominated her as it does others. For she collapsed, and in a moment lost both breath and speech, since her reason failed her under the disaster, and she was thrown to the ground by the assault of the evil tidings, like some noble athlete hit by an unexpected blow.
Naucratius had been living with another young man ‘Chrysapius who shared his life’. When they both died from drowning, Naucratius’ mother Emmelia ‘collapsed, and in a moment lost both breath and speech, since her reason failed her under the disaster, and she was thrown to the ground by the assault of the evil tidings, like some noble athlete hit by an unexpected blow’. This sounds very much like an ancient attempt to describe a stroke. She died some time later, on 30 May 375.
If we go back to the previous chapter, we get some context:
The Story of Naucratius
The second of the four brothers, Naucratius by name, who came next after the great Basil, excelled the rest in natural endowments and physical beauty, in strength, speed and ability to turn his hand to anything. When he had reached his twenty-first year, and had given such demonstration of his studies by speaking in public, that the whole audience in the theatre was thrilled, he was led by a divine providence to despise all that was already in his grasp, and drawn by an irresistible impulse went off to a life of solitude and poverty. He took nothing with him but himself, save that one of the servants named Chrysapius followed him, because of the affection he had towards his master and the intention he had formed to lead the same life. So he lived by himself, having found a solitary spot on the banks of the Iris, a river flowing through the midst of Pontus. It rises actually in Armenia, passes through our parts, and discharges its stream into the Black Sea. By it the young man found a place with a luxuriant growth of trees and a hill nestling under the mass of the overhanging mountain. There he lived far removed from the noises of the city and the distractions that surround the lives both of the soldier and the pleader in the law courts. Having thus freed himself from the din of cares that impedes man's higher life, with his own hands he looked after some old people who were living in poverty and feebleness, considering it appropriate to his mode of life to make such a work his care. So the generous youth would go on fishing expeditions, and since he was expert in every form of sport, he provided food to his grateful clients by this means. And at the same time by such exercises he was taming his own manhood. Besides this, he also gladly obeyed his mother's wishes whenever she issued a command. And so in these two ways he guided his life, subduing his youthful nature by toils and caring assiduously for his mother, and thus keeping the divine commands he was travelling home to God.
In this manner he completed the fifth year of his life as a philosopher, by which he made his mother happy, both by the way in which he adorned his own life by continence, and by the devotion of all his powers to do the will of her that bore him.
His mother, Emmelia, would not be the first not to understand that her son was gay. After all, the construction of someone who is exclusively heterosexual or homosexual is a modern one, and to the Romans in the pre-Christian era, the only obligation was to parent sufficient children to pass on the family name and wealth; what either sex did beyond that achievement was considered their own business.
Chrysapius is described in the 1916 translation as a servant, but people didn’t have servants then, and the life of a waged servant, who could be dismissed, was hardly desirable either. Put simply, Chrysapius was a slave. He went with Naucratius no doubt with the permission of an overseer, who would have consulted the head of the family resident on the landed estate, which was Macrina, the eldest of the siblings; her father had died shortly after the birth of Peter, we are told, and legally the mother was not a member of the family, so it would have been Macrina who decided.
There are hints at their relationship. Chrysapius went with Naucratius because of ‘the affection he had towards his master and the intention he had formed to lead the same life’. This seems to me to be an indicator of a loving homosexual relationship, in what seems a rural idyll almost like Thoreau’s Walden. We are told the two men lived three days travel from the family estate, which would have been too far for the family to drop in, as every young person living away from the family for the first time would crave. It’s hard now to understand what the role of a free born citizen might be with regards to a slave, hetero of homosexually. Since a slave was not legally a person, would a citizen at that time be capable of being termed ‘chaste’
His name may actually have been Chrysaphius not Chrysapius. There was a famous eunuch minister at the court of Theodosius II in Constantinople called Chrysaphius.
It may seem odd that Naucratius was not ordained, since three brothers were, and the eldest sister, Macrina, was a nun (we are told that Emmelia gave her daughter a secret name, Thecla, at birth; Thecla was a female apostle associated with St Paul).
As he was not a priest, the only way he could have been a saint in those days was as a martyr. Who might have killed him? Well, in that same year, AD374 there were condemnations from Gregory of Nyssa (the brother of Naucratius) and by his kinsman, Gregory of Naziansus, against a cult known as the Hypsistarians, worshippers of Hypsistos, the ‘most high god’. He seems to be derived from the Cappadocian god Sabazios, who may be connected to Sabaoath, one of the sacred names of the Hebrew god. So the Cappadocian Christian leaders of a rich powerful clan in the area were drawn into a dispute with followers of a religion which fused local beliefs with elements of Judaism, expressed through Greek terminology.
|Altar to Hypsistos, first century AD|
I can quite see that a religion condemned by local Christian zealots might strike out at the most vulnerable member of that group. Since Naucratius’ father had been born a ‘pagan’, might he too have been a follower of Hypsistos? If so, it could be revenge on Christian antagonism. What we can’t know is cause versus effect. Did the works condemning Hypsistos provoke the murder of Naucratius and Chrysapius (Chrysaphius), or were they to condemn the Hypsistarians, following the murder of the beloved son and his lover?
|Temple Statue of Zeus Hypsistos, decapitated, perhaps by Christians|
We may never know, but the deaths caused Emmelia to have a stroke, and Macrina died not long after, weakening her body with starvation. Was that her penance? The surviving members of the family followed St Jerome to Bethlehem soon after.
For sure, Naucratius and his lover were murdered: martyrdom implies murder. Whether he was murdered as a member of a family cult, vulnerable because of his chosen exile, or for his sexuality by rival Christians or by Hypsistarians, will never be proven.