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Military men who found a higher calling


Rome’s ancient pagan rituals were strictly observed by its legions—no exceptions. While many Christians seem to have served as legionaries without incident, some paid a high price for their faith. In July 298 the centurion Marcellus, while in Tingis (Tangier), stood in front of his legion’s standards, removed his belt and sword, and refused to renew his military oath (sacramentum) because of his Christian beliefs. Marcellus was arrested and tried but would not recant. Found guilty of breaking his sacramentum and bringing disgrace to the office of centurion, he was beheaded by sword, as befitted his high status. He is now a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Born in the Roman province of Pannonia (roughly modern Hungary), Martin was conscripted into the Roman army at the age of 15. Around 337 he was serving in Amiens when he saw a poorly clad beggar shivering in the cold. Martin thereupon cut his soldier’s cloak in two and gave half to the man. His conversion was prompted by a vision he had of Christ wearing the same cloak, a sign of approval for Martin’s selfless gesture. Soon after Martin’s baptism, he realized that he could not reconcile his continued military service with his new religion. In 357 he was imprisoned in Gaul for refusing to join Caesar Julian’s fight against the invading Germanic barbarians. Released when the fighting ended, Martin was discharged from the army and became a monk. In 372 he was named bishop of Tours in Gaul and served until his death in 397. During his episcopate he founded many monasteries and introduced Christianity to the rural, pagan areas of Gaul.

Armenia became the first officially Christian nation in 301, but the conversion disturbed the Zoroastrian kings of neighboring Sassanid Persia. The Persians had long considered the Armenians to be Aryan cousins but now worried that they might become more friendly with the Christian emperor of Rome. King Yazdegert saw it as his duty to bring the wayward Armenians back to the true faith and in 449 instituted measures against Christians, including an edict calling on them to abandon their religion. When the Armenians balked, Yazdegert invaded Armenia. The Armenians chose Vardan Mamikonian as their commander. An experienced soldier who had previously served alongside the Persians on dozens of occasions, Vardan led a fierce defense of his homeland. At the Battle of Avarair in May 451, he commanded his army against a vast Persian host said to number 300,000. The Persians at last overcame the Armenians, and Vardan was slain. Despite that defeat, the Armenians continued their stubborn resistance, and the Persians came to see that there was no profit in persecuting Armenian Christians. In 484 a new Persian king, Balash, recognized Armenian autonomy and the right of Armenians to practice Christianity. Vardan is recognized as a saint in the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Grand Duke Vladimir was a descendant of the Scandinavian Vikings who had plied the rivers of medieval Russia on their way to trade with Byzantium. Settling down, these “Rus” established a number of strongholds, including Novgorod and Kiev. The son of the prince of Kiev, Vladimir went north to become prince of Novgorod in 970. Infamous for his brutality and barbaric practices, he was ejected from his seat by his half-brother Yaropolk in 977 and fled to Scandinavia. He then returned with soldiers, retook Novgorod, and slew Yaropolk. As sole ruler of Kievan Rus, he sent 6,000 warriors to support Emperor Basil II of Byzantium in his civil war. In return Vladimir was given Basil’s sister Anne in marriage, on condition that he convert to Orthodox Christianity, which he made the state religion of Kievan Rus. That led to his sainthood in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

The youngest of 11 children in an aristocratic Basque family, Ignatius was mainly interested in war and gallantry as a young man. In 1521 he took part in the conflict between Spain and France, and while defending besieged Pamplona, he was wounded by a cannonball. Recuperating from his injury in Loyola, he asked for knightly romances to read but instead was given a book on the life of Jesus, which spurred his spiritual yearning. Determined to devote himself to God, Ignatius went to the Abbey of Monserrat, made a three-day confession, and hung his sword upon a statue of the Virgin Mary. He spent a year in prayer and penance at nearby Manresa, where he wrote his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius went on to form a small company of seven men, who had taken vows of chastity and poverty and were devoted to the service of God. In 1541 Ignatius was elected first general of the Society of Jesus order, more commonly known as the Jesuits. He died in 1556 and was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 1622. MHQ


Attorney Marc G. DeSantis is a frequent contributor to MHQ. His upcoming book, Rome Seizes the Trident, will be published by Pen & Sword.

PHOTO: Martin of Tours cutting his soldier’s cloak and giving half to a beggar. Ambrogio Lorenzetti/Yale University Art Gallery


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: War List | From Soldiers to Saints.

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