Commemorated on April 21
The wife of a ruler – whether president, prime minister, king or emperor – can lead a difficult life. She is expected to be diplomatic at all times, to be unmoved by the criticisms given her husband, to be a gracious hostess, and to support worthy charitable causes. She is constantly scrutinized for her attire, her demeanor in public, and the opinions which she only rarely expresses. We would say that the wife of a ruler would have to be a saint!
In the first centuries of the Christian Church, there was such a woman and she was truly a saint. St. Alexandra was the wife of the Emperor Diocletian, who has been remembered in all the centuries since his death as the most cruel persecutor of Christians that the world has known.
Diocletian had risen to power through military service, and while he continued to be engaged in numerous military conflicts, Alexandra went about her public tasks with dignity and gained the respect of the people. The Emperor first appointed a co-ruler, Maximian, and they divided territory and responsibilities between them. Later (in 293), a tetrarchy was formed with Constantius (who was married to Maximian’s daughter, Theodora) and Galeria (whose wife was Valeria, the daughter of Diocletian and Alexandra) joining the other two in responsibility for the Empire.
The year 299 was the beginning of much torment for Christians. Diocletian and Galeria sacrificed to the Roman gods and sought a prediction for the future. The pagan priests, attempting to find portents in the entrails of slaughtered animals, claimed that they were unable to predict the future because of the Christians in the imperial household. There was an immediate order for all associated with the royal household to sacrifice to the gods and letters were sent to all military commanders demanding that the army be purged of Christian soldiers. It was in this purgation that George – who had been a high-ranking, decorated member of the military – declared himself a Christian and was imprisoned and tortured.
When Alexandra heard of disturbances among the military forces and in the prisons, she thought it her royal duty to investigate in case there was something she could do to alleviate any unpleasantness. What she found changed her life. She met the former soldier, George, in his prison cell after he had endured severe torture. Alexandra found that he was strangely calm, despite apparent pain, and she asked to speak with him about his motivation. The man who was to become a revered saint of the Church quietly told the empress about our Savior, his teachings about love, his miracles of healing, his Crucifixion and his Resurrection from the dead. Alexandra was mesmerized and her heart was opened to see the truth of Christianity. When George was sentenced to be beheaded, the Empress professed her belief in Christ to her husband.
This was not what Diocletian wished to hear. He was angry with his wife for being “taken in” by the Christian sectarians. He was shocked by her willingness to give up the traditional religion of Rome and embarrassed by her public proclamation.
In some versions of St. Alexandra’s life, this is where the story ends. She was ordered to be imprisoned and also beheaded but she died of natural causes in her cell two days before the execution of St. George. In other accounts, exile is given as Alexandra’s punishment and she retreated to Syria to live. She was banned from the imperial palaces and public duties but was able to quietly practice her new-found faith.
Diocletian increased his persecution of Christians as well as adherents of other religions, particularly the Manicheans (who had sympathizers in Persia, Rome’s arch enemy). In Antioch, a deacon refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and had his tongue cut out before being killed; a newly-constructed church in Nicomedia was torn down, the Scriptures burned and the liturgical vessels stolen by the government. Galeria was even more fervent than Diocletian in his hatred for Christians and everything bad that occurred (such as two fires in an imperial palace) was blamed on them. Tortures and executions were increased.
Diocletian resigned as Emperor in 305 and retired to his homeland of Dalmatia. There he tended to his garden, living in his palace in what is now the city of Split, Croatia until his death in 311. One of the great ironies of history is that the mausoleum which Diocletian, the great persecutor, built for himself in this palace was later turned into a Christian cathedral.
Meanwhile, in the ever-changing political landscape of the Roman Empire, Galeria also died and the new Emperor, Maximinus, wanted Valeria for his wife. She refused and so he banished her to live with her mother in Syria. Soon Licinius and Constantine were emperors.
By this time an edict of toleration for Christians had been published and Alexandra and Valeria felt safe in returning to Nicomedia. But Licinius – who had co-signed the Edict of Milan with St. Constantine – did not honor his agreement and ordered that the former empresses should be beheaded as common criminals, enemies of the state because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Like the soldier whose courage in the face of torture and death had inspired her eleven years earlier, St. Alexandra received the crown of martyrdom in the year 314. Her body and that of her daughter were thrown into the sea to prevent veneration of her relics by other Christians. We honor St. Alexandra on April 21 (or on April 23). May she intercede for all who are persecuted for their faith, for all who are married to rulers, and may holy Alexandra pray for us.