What comes down to us about Sophia, a widow of Rome, is surprisingly rich when considering that information on many first and second century martyrs is sparse to nonexistent. Sophia and her three daughters, Vera, Nadezhda, and Lubov (Faith, Hope, and Love), suffered at the hand of Hadrian (117-138 BC). The charge against them was probably treason. Until the Edict of Milan (313 AD), the official policy was that refusal to take part in the cult of the emperor or the worship of pagan deities meant that Christians were, "enemies of the community and threatened its security by endangering the pax decorum."1 Persecutions, however, were more sporadic than systematic, and imperial action was often ambivalent.
Accordingly, Sophia and her daughters, ages twelve, ten, and nine, were brought before Hadrian, "humbly but firmly confessing their faith and refusing to offer sacrifice to the goddess Artemis."2 Details of their brutal torture and execution include stabbing, burning with boiling pitch and flames, followed by beheading. Afterward, Sophia gathered her daughters' mutilated bodies, buried them outside the city and stayed beside their graves praying for three days and nights until she also gave up her spirit to God. Sophia herself was not physically tortured, nor was she directly put to death for the faith. But at her daughters' graves this mother of martyrs was granted the "joy of those who mourn."
Sophia's exhortations to her daughters to suffer valiantly, found in the Prologue of Ochrid, are reminiscent of Solomonia's speeches to her sons, the seven Maccabee brothers who were similarly tortured by King Antiochus in 167 BC. Because of the unique and intimate connection between mother and child, the anguish of looking on helplessly as their children were burned and dismembered must have been even crueler for both women than the prospect of enduring violence themselves. Yet both mothers subdued their anguish and stirred up confidence in their children for the Resurrection of the Faithful.
Sophia encourages her daughters to endure to the end in this way:
Your heavenly lover, Jesus Christ is eternal health, inexpressible beauty, and life eternal. When your bodies are slain by torture, He will clothe you in incorruption and the wounds on your bodies will shine in heaven like the stars.3
Solomonia reminds her sons:
It is the Creator of the world, ordaining the process of man's birth and presiding over the origin of all things who in His mercy will surely give you back both breath and life, seeing that you now despise your own existence for the sake of His laws.4
The shared sentiment of the two mothers and the resolve of the children in the face of horror tell us something remarkable about the spiritual formation of their households. We are reminded that death could have been escaped by a mere show of compliance: for Sophia's daughters, tossing incense on the altar of Artemis; for Solomonia's sons, eating a small piece of pork. Each child was given a choice, yet each, in the example of their mother, remained steadfast as the siblings were slowly executed one by one, from the eldest to the youngest in succession. Indeed, they did not fear the executioner; they feared God.
The notion of fearing God has fallen from favor in these last several decades and no longer carries the profound and succinct ontological message it did for thousands of years in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Substituting a euphemism like revere for fear, for instance, does not inform us of our contingent existence which the "fear" does: contingent upon God that is, not man or the elements. Nor does it (the word "revere") impart the practical dimension of accountability: which the word "fear" does, namely, our expectation of justice and our hope in the life to come. Solominia's passionate appeal to her seventh and youngest son incorporates all these elements:
I implore you, my child, observe heaven and earth, consider all that is in them, and acknowledge that God made them out of what did not exist, and that mankind came into being in the same way. Do not fear this executioner, but fear God and make yourself worthy of your brothers. Make death welcome, so that in the day of mercy I may receive you back in the company of your brothers.5
In the prevailing pedagogy, fear is negative motivation that is psychologically harmful, as if the intent were to teach children to be "afraid" of God. Inherent in the biblical meaning of the word "fear", to the contrary, are the reciprocal benefits of God's goodness and His surpassing love for all. "Blessed is the man that fears the Lord, that greatly delight in His commandments" (Psalm 112:1, RSV). "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). Sophia, whose name means "wisdom", and Solomonia, whose namesake was King Solomon who wrote these words, were wise women. By instilling in their children what is most necessary, they not only gave them the foundation of a happy life ("Blessed is the man that fears the Lord always..." Proverbs 28:14, RSV), but equipped them to face every formidable circumstance, even that most formidable of all, death.
St. Sophia was not directly put to death for the faith, but at her daughters' graves this mother of martyrs was granted the joy of those who mourn. Let us emulate her wisdom by preparing our own sons and daughters in the faith, hope, and love of Christ Jesus, the Lover of Mankind, who has "trampled down Death by death, opening for us the Gates of Paradise."6
The Feast Day of Saint Sophia and her daughters is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on September 17.
1. Litt, M. Cary and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 3rd ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975) p. 488.
2. Velimirovic, Bishop Nikolai. The Prologue of Ochrid: Lives of the Saint and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, trans. by Mother Maria. (Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1986) p. 340.
3. Prologue of Ochrid, V. 111, p. 340.
4. 2 Maccabees 7: 23.
5. 2 Maccabees 7: 28-29.
6. Paschal matins.
Mary Kathryn Lowell is a graduate of the University of Kentucky where she has done postgraduate studies in history and philosophy. She is a poet with publications in Epiphany and The Word magazines and is co-author of the book Revelations: Visions of the Second Coming, (Viking Press: 1994). Mary is presently serving as Parish Council Chair at St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church, Lexington, KY. She is employed by Assessment Technologies, Inc. as a documentation and information specialist.