Saint Susanna and Saint Gabinus
(martyred 293 AD)
Beneath the present floor of the church [The Church of Santa Susanna, Rome, Italy] are the ruins of a Roman house that was constructed about the year 280 AD. These were relatives of the General Gaius Aurelius Diocletian, who would become Emperor in 284 AD. Like the Emperor, they were from Dalmatia or what is now modern Croatia. The family included four brothers. Caius and Gabinus and Gabinus’s daughter, Susanna who lived here and two other brothers, Maximus and Claudius, who lived elsewhere in the city, and were a part of the Roman government. The family’s religious beliefs were divided. Caius, Gabinus and Susanna were Christians, while Maximus and Claudius remained followers of the old religion of Rome. Caius and Gabinus were not only Christians, they were priests. In December 283, Caius was elected Bishop of Rome. He would serve as Pope until his death in April, 296 AD. If the clergy of Rome elected Caius because of his relationship with his powerful cousin, Diocletian, they would be greatly disappointed. In 303 AD the Emperor Diocletian would launch the last great persecution against the Christian faith. From 280 AD when the house was completed until 293 AD this family residence served as a “domus ecclesia,” or house church. As the Christian Church was not legally recognized by the Roman state, homes and other large private buildings belonging to community members, served as the first churches.
After becoming Emperor in 284 AD, and in order to insure peace and stability, Diocletian adopted a form of government called tetrarchy, or divided rule. Diocletian ruled primarily in the east, and a joint Emperor, Maximian, another general who Diocletian had promoted, ruled in the west. In turn, each Emperor or “Augustus” was to appoint a junior ruler or “Caesar,” who had the right to succeed him. Maximian named Constantius (the father of Constantine), and Diocletian named Maxentius Galerius. In the year 293 AD in order to guarantee Maxentius’s succession, Diocletian prepared to marry this young general into his immediate family. Diocletian’s daughter, Valeria was married. The only unmarried young female in the family was Susanna, his cousin. So in the Spring of 293 AD, Diocletian announced the engagement of Maxentius Galerius to Susanna. This would lead to a family crisis and to martyrdom.
The story of what occured between members of the family comes from a 6th century account. Susanna refused the marriage proposal. Her father Gabinus and her uncle Caius supported this decision and encouraged her to keep her commitment to Christ. Her non-Christian uncles, Claudius and Maximus tried to persuade Susanna to marry Maxentius, after all this would make her Empress one day. In a conversation between the four brothers, Claudius and Maximus were converted to Christianity. The General Maxentius then came to the house, believing he could persuade Susanna to marry him. Susanna’s refusal soon led to the suspicion that she and other members of her family might be Christians. The Roman Consul Macedonius then called Susanna to Roman Forum and asked her to prove her loyalty to the state by performing an act of worship before the God Jupiter. She refused, confirming the fact that both she and other members of her family might well be Christian, There was no attempt to arrest her however, as she was a member of the Emperor’s family.
Susanna refused the marriage proposal, not only because she was a Christian but in addition, she had taken a vow of virginity. When Diocletian on the eastern frontier learned of his cousin’s refusal and the reasons why, he was deeply angered, and ordered her execution. A cohort of soldiers arrived at the house and beheaded her. Her father Gabinus was arrested and starved to death in prison. Maximus and Claudius, together with Claudius’s wife Prepedigna and their children, Alexander and Cuzia are all martyred. Ironically the only survivor was Pope Caius, who had escaped and hid in the catacombs. These murders within Diocletian’s own family would foreshadow the last great persecution against the Christian church which the Emperor began in 303 AD. Diocletian’s daughter Valeria was divorced, and in June 293 AD married Maxentius who would succeed Diocletian in 305 AD.
In the year 330 AD, a basilica was built over the site of the house of Susanna. It was first named San Caius in honor of the pope who had lived here. The bodies of Susanna and Gabinus were brought back from the catacombs and buried in the church. In the year 590 AD, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, in recognition of the cult of devotion that had grown up around the tomb of Santa Susanna, renamed the church in her honor. Saint Susanna’s feastday is August 11.
[Image credit: Theodora in the Mountains]