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The military saints or warrior saints (also called soldier saints) of the Early Christian Church are prominent in the history of Christianity. The persecution of Christians under Diocletian or other Roman Emperors usually furnished the background for soldier-saint hagiography which has a common theme: a soldier of the Empire who has become a Christian finds that his devotion conflicts with traditional religious practices of the Roman military. Refusing to participate in rituals of loyalty to the Emperor (see Imperial cult), he is subjected to corporal punishment that escalates to torture—which miraculously may not affect him—but he does not deny his faith and is martyred. Such a saint was an "athlete of Christ" (athleta Christi).
In Late Antiquity other Christian writers of hagiography, like Sulpicius Severus in his account of the heroic, military life of Martin of Tours, created a literary model that reflected the new spiritual, political, and social ideals of a post-Roman society. In a recent study of Anglo-Saxon soldier saints (Damon 2003), J.E. Damon has demonstrated the persistence of Sulpicius's literary model in the transformation of the pious, peaceful saints and willing martyrs of late antique hagiography to the Christian heroes of the early Middle Ages, who appealed to the newly converted societies led by professional warriors and who exemplified accommodation with and eventually active participation in holy wars that were considered just. A similar development in the cult of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki has been observed; although always described as a soldier, depictions of him were in civilian dress for centuries until around the turn of the millennium, after which he is nearly always shown fully armed.
The angelic prototype of the Christian soldier-saint is the Archangel Michael, whose earliest known cultus began in the 5th century with a shrine at Monte Gargano. The cult of soldier-saints followed the transformation of Michael into a Christian figure.
The Orthodox military saints are on the whole more prominent in the respective devotions of their churches than the Catholic ones, especially as the military crisis of the Byzantine Empire deepened. They are usually shown fully equipped for fighting, unlike many Catholic military saints. The most important are Saint George, Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (these two very often paired, riding on horseback or on foot in icons), Saint Theodore the General, and Saint Theodore the Recruit. It is noticeable that a historical basis for all of these is essentially lacking.
Of these St George was imported to the West during the period of the Crusades; becoming perhaps the most important military saint depicted "on active service" in the Catholic world - St. Sebastian was nearly always depicted as a martyr. Like his Byzantine comrades, George is usually depicted fully armed.
A later type of soldier-saint is Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who gave up military service to form a religious order.
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