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Category Icon   Jan 24, 2004, 05:00 PM
St. Nicholas: a myth from the Roman era
by Wayne Sayles

Pages: 1
Words: 1667
Views: 10848
This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol. 11, No. 12, December 1997, p. 6.

Myth: a real or fictional story,
recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of
a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to
deep, commonly felt emotions. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Many personalities from the ancient world have left timeless and
indelible impressions through their remarkable spirit or exploits. If one
were to make a list of such legendary figures it might include notables
like Gilgamesh, Solomon, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Marcus
Aurelius and jolly old St. Nick! Yes, it's true there is (or at least
was) a Santa Claus. In fact, much of the modern legend
of Santa Claus, or Baba Noel as he is known in Turkey, is derived from
a myth that is nearly 1,700 years old.

Santa Claus is merely a
corruption of the name Saint Nicholas. The New York Dutch who settled in
America brought with them the tradition of Sint(e) Klaas, which was by then
a long established tradition in Europe. There, he is more commonly
known as Saint Nicholas. Americans still refer affectionately to this highly
commercialized icon of Christmas as St. Nick, but few realize that the
personification is actually derived from an historic figure. The modern image
of Santa Claus is a product of cartoonist Thomas Nash, who
characterized Santa in a Harper's Weekly cartoon
of the 1860s.

The fame of St. Nicholas spread throughout the world during
the Middle Ages, and thousands of churches were dedicated to him.
He was even made the patron saint of Greece and Russia, not to mention
a number of smaller kingdoms and quite a long list of special groups. The
underlying cause of his popularity is a tradition of anonymous gift giving
that appeals universally to the conscience and the altruistic nature of humankind.

The legends of St. Nicholas
were first collected and published in the
tenth century by Metaphrastes.
That the legend goes back earlier is attested by a church built in his honor
at Constantinople during the reign of Justinian I (AD 527-565).

The historic person behind this myth is one Bishop of Myra who
lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. This was a time of great
consequence for the Christian church and Nicholas played an active role in church affairs.
Little factual information is available about the life and nature of the
individual, but from the strength of folklore about him it may safely be
concluded that he was widely recognized and popular in his own time—or
at least shortly thereafter.

St. Nicholas was born into a
family from Patara (Lycia) which became wealthy through the cereal trade.
He eventually inherited that wealth and often gave money anonymously
to help the poor and underprivileged. As one tale goes, a poor man,
apparently living within the Bishopric of Myra, had three daughters of marrying age.
Unfortunately, this impoverished fellow did not have enough money to
pay their dowries, and their future was bleak. In desperation, one of
the daughters planned to sell herself into slavery so that the other two
could have dowries and marry. Nicholas, hearing of this plight, secretly
visited the home and left a bag of gold for the oldest daughter so that she
could marry. As the next oldest reached the customary age, another visit
provided another bag of gold. Finally, the third daughter reached the age of marriage.
Determined to discover who the benefactor was, the father of these
girls kept a vigil and caught Nicholas leaving the third bag of gold. It was
supposedly in this way that the legend of St. Nicholas and his anonymous
generosity began—as well as the conception of Santa sneaking in with gifts.
Like most legends, the stories expanded over time and all sorts of
miraculous claims were advanced on behalf of the Lycian bishop. From
at least the 12th century, many countries have celebrated the giving of gifts
on St. Nicholas day, recognized as December 6, the traditional
anniversary of his death.

Aside from the legends, there are
a few known details which appear to be fact. As a young man, he
apparently travelled to Palestine and Egypt, perhaps to study. Nicholas became
the archbishop of Myra, and was reportedly imprisoned during the
persecutions of Diocletian. Some accounts have him martyred during this
period, but they are surely in error. He was supposedly released from prison
by Constantine. Nicholas may have participated in the first Council of
Nicaea (AD 325). His portrait appears in frescoes of scenes depicting this event,
but his presence cannot be verified because his name does not appear on
any of the surviving church rolls from that assembly.

Nicholas probably died at Myra
in about AD 340 to 350. During the reign of Justinian, a church was built
there in honor of the saintly bishop, and his remains were interred there. It is
possible that this church was rebuilt on the foundations of an earlier
church (perhaps the seat of the bishopric) that
had been destroyed by an earthquake. In AD 1087, his remains
were taken from the church at Myra by western Christians and transferred
to Bari in Italy. There, the Basilica of St. Nicola was built as a shrine.
This place became an important center of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, and
his bones are presumably still there.

Myra was an important Lycian
city located about 50 kilometers to the east of Antiphellus (modern Kas).
The modern city of Kale (Demre) has sprung up on the southern end of
the ancient city which is now buried under a rich alluvial plain. The city
was situated on the river Myros, about two miles from the sea. In Roman
times, the Myros was navigable. The city's port of Andriace was also nearby,
and connected by a channel, giving Myra a doorway to the sea. The site was
important in the Greek period, although the Lycians were not Hellenized
until the time of Ptolemy I. In the Roman period, it was prosperous enough to
be allowed its own mint. According to Pliny, the city was one of five
which shared the title "Metropolis of the Lycian Nation".

A visit in AD 18 by
Germanicus and Agrippina was commemorated by statues found at the site, and It
was here that St. Paul was transferred, under arrest, to a ship bound for Rome.
Myra was also the point of departure for the grain ships which
supplied Rome, and Hadrian had large granaries built at the port. The ruins
may still be seen. These facilities stored grain from Egypt awaiting
transhipment. Among the ruins which lie above the alluvium near the main
part of the city, one can still see an acropolis with a citadel of the Romaion
(Byzantine) period, extraordinary rock tombs of the 5th to 4th centuries
BC, and a Roman theater. The only excavated ruins (1964) are those of
the church of St. Nicholas.

The theater was destroyed in AD 141 by an earthquake, and was
rebuilt through the beneficence of Opramoas of Rhodiapolis. It consisted of 35
rows and doubled as an arena for gladiatorial games. The facade was lined
with ornate theater masks and mythological scenes, some of which may be
seen lying throughout the rubble.

The coinage of Myra is fairly straightforward. The mint seems
to have been active only sporadically. A third century BC silver
hemidrachm with heads of Athena and Artemis has been attributed to Myra, and
Lycian League coinage of the Masikytes monetary district was issued after 168 BC.
The latter are standard types of Apollo on obverse and Lyre on reverse.
Contemporary with these, small bronzes were struck in the name of Myra alone.
The types also bear typical obverse portrayals of Apollo and Artemis,
with lyre or stag reverses. Silver drachms were struck for Myra independently during this period.

The only other period of major
activity seems to have been during the reign of Gordian III, although a
couple stray bronzes of the first century have also been attributed to this city.
Under Gordian, a series of bronze coins of about 30mm diameter were
struck in standard provincial style. The obverses feature a bust of Gordian
or Tranquillina, while the reverses all depict the local cult statue of
Artemis Eleuthera, usually within a temple. At least one variety (Von Aulock
4368) depicts the statue in isolation. Another (BMC 11) depicts an
extraordinary narrative scene of the cult statue, placed in a tree, which is attacked by
two men with double axes and defended by two
snakes. It has been suggested that these coins of Gordian
were issued in connection with sacrifices following the earthquake of AD 240.

They would surely have been in circulation at Myra during the lifetime of
Nicholas. It seems a bit ironic that, in his early years at Myra, the bishop
would have been paying the expenses of the church with coins struck to implore
the protection of a pagan goddess.

It may be true that the legend
of Nicholas has been embellished a little over time. In fact, lacking solid
evidence of supposed miracles, the church stripped Nicholas of his
sainthood in 1969. Still, it cannot be denied that a solitary man from
Myra, through his own selflessness, touched a chord of human emotion that has
yet to stop reverberating.

(Note: all of the historical and
geographical information in this article is available on the world wide
web through keyword searches of Lycia and
Myra. Coins of Myra may be found in SNG Von Aulock
and BMC: Lycia, Pamphilia and Pisidia.)
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