The British Martyrs, Aaron and Julius

By Thornhill, Philip | Mankind Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The British Martyrs, Aaron and Julius


Thornhill, Philip, Mankind Quarterly


The paper explains the sub-Roman British 'martyrs' cult of Aaron and Julius in terms of the syncretic adaptation of pagan traditions, suggesting close parallels from contemporary Gaul and a direct link with these in the person of St. Germanus of Auxerre. It suggests that 'lulius' (and other 'saints' of similar name) represents a continuation of the Indo-European tradition of divinities in *dyew-, while Aaron (and other 'saints') represents the adaptation of ultimately non-IndoEuropean traditions that have left their trace in the toponymy. Derivatives of our syncretic figures and their antecedents (or close relatives thereof) are identified in medieval Celtic literature. An attempt is made to correlate the evidence for cult traditions in the hagiography, other literary sources, and the toponymy: thereby explaining certain facets of all of these.

Key Words: St. Aaron, St. Julius, Celtic paganism, early Christianity, IndoEuropean mythology

It has long been the tendency to accept Britain's three recorded Christian martyrs as genuine without serious question.2 The degree of certainty might seem rather surprising, given the limitations of the evidence and the considerable number of, more or less certainly, 'bogus' martyrs from parts of the Christian world for which our records are much better. The evidence in the case of `Aaron and Julius' - to whom the discussion here will be limited - rests almost entirely on the single mention in the De Excidio of Gildas, conventionally believed to have been written about 540 but in any case not likely to pre-date the sixth century3':

God therefore increased his pity for us .... as a free gift to us, in the time (as I conjecture) of this same persecution, he acted to save Britain being plunged deep in the thick darkness of black night; for he lit for us the brilliant lamps of the holy martyrs. The graves and the places where they suffered would now have the greatest effect in instilling the blaze of divine charity in the minds of beholders, were it not that our citizens, thanks to our sins, have been deprived of many of them by the unhappy partition with the barbarians. I refer to St. Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon (Aaron et lulium Legionum Urbis cives) and the others of both sexes who, in different places, displayed the highest spirit in the battle-line of Christ.

A clue to the quality of Gildas's source of information, here, is given by the fact that he had to make a guess about the actual date of the martyrdom: moreover this guess is now generally considered to be incorrect, because the persecution of Diocletian to which he attributes their martyrdom is now considered not to have extended to Gaul and Britain. Gildas was clearly basing his guess on what he had heard and read about the history of Christianity in the rest of the Empire: we might well wonder to what extent the cult of martyrs in Britain, in general, owed its existence to imitation of the model provided by other parts of the Empire (or ex-Empire) rather than to deep-rooted native Christian tradition. The reference to `the graves and the places where they suffered' suggests that it is the current, or recent, existence of local cults on which Gildas based his account of British martyrs: not on any kind of historical record.

This mention in Gildas, it is true, is backed up by the record in the Book of Llandaff (Rhys 1893: 225) of a territorium fanctorum martirum Iulij et aaron at Caerleon (a Welsh name equivalent to Legionum Urbis) in a twelfth century version of a charter from the ninth century (Davies 1979: 121). This has been thought likely to have reference to Bulmore, over the river from Caerleon, two miles to the East: it might be seen as a not un-typical location for an `extra-mural' church, built over the martyrs' grave.5 However this might also be a likely place for a rather artificial cult; based on the mention of the martyrs of Legionum Urbis in the work of the revered saint, Gildas, to have been established in the ninth century: the alternative (Smith 1979: 6-7) 'Carlegion' (or Legionum Urbis in Latin), Chester, will not have been chosen because that was now in the hands of the Saxons. …

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