St Genesius of Rome
Actor and Martyr
According to an ancient Roman tradition, St Genesius was an actor of some renown who was martyred for the Christian faith. A seventh century document claiming to be the Acts of his martyrdom, relates that Genesius lived in Rome at the turn of the 3rd/4th centuries, and died in the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian around the year 303 AD. Diocletian’s persecution was the most severe in the Roman period and claimed the lives of many Christians – men, women and children; while many of these are now honoured as saints, most remain unknown.
Giovanni Battista Pozzo: The Conversion of St Genesius
According to the Acts, Genesius was a gifted actor, comedian and playwright and the leader of a troupe of actors. Despite his talents, his position within Roman society would not have been distinguished. Acting at that time was not considered to be a very respectable occupation and it is most likely that he was not a Roman citizen, even if he had been born in the city: at that time actors were classed as slaves or labourers at best. Theatre in this period had declined and those who worked in the profession would rarely have performed the great dramas of the Greek and Roman playwrights. Mimes and pantomimes were the fare at the theatre and these tended to be boisterous and at times risqué in the extreme.
When Diocletian initiated his great persecution, Genesius, who was a pagan, hatched a grand scheme to construct a play parodying the Christian faith. Diocletian was due in Rome in the summer of 303 to celebrate his twenty years as emperor (it would be his only visit to the city during his reign – he hated the politicking and squalor of Rome) and various civic and cultural events were being organised for the visit. Given the emperor’s hatred of Christians, a farce mocking Christianity performed during the jubilee celebrations would not only amuse the emperor, but might also win Genesius favour at the Imperial court and could prove quite lucrative. Genesius was an ambitious man and perhaps he had his sights set on a position in the Imperial palace in Nicomedia. But first of all he had to do his “research”.
Approaching members of the Christian community Genesius managed to persuade them that he wanted to convert. It is a credit to his acting skills that he managed to convince the Christian leaders who at this time would have been very wary of infiltration by spies. Genesius was accepted, enrolled as a catechumen, and he began the period of instruction which would eventually lead to baptism. Given that Christians were now living in fear of their lives, Genesius’ scheme was risky – if caught in a raid his plan could cost him his life. He was particularly interested in baptism – the concept of water washing away sinfulness and the old way of life fascinated the Romans whose love of water and bathing led them to be open to its spiritual significance. Discussing the sacrament at great length with his teachers, Genesius decided that this would form the theme of his comedy. When he had done enough research he abandoned the catechumenate. Gathering his troupe of actors he explained the scenario of his farce, and together they composed the comedy: Roman mimes and pantomimes were mostly improvised. The Acts tell us that as he was directing the troupe what he had learned from the Christians was occupying his mind and he found himself struggling to resist believing in Christ.
As he had hoped the emperor was present at the performance and Genesius himself led his troupe of actors in the farce: he was playing the role of a sick man confined to bed who was crying out for baptism. As the play grew more outrageous – to the delight of the emperor, an actor playing a priest came on stage to “baptize” the ailing catechumen. As the actor poured the water over his head, Genesius was suddenly struck by the grace of God: he saw the truth of Christianity and began to profess his faith in Jesus Christ. It soon became clear to the emperor and the audience that he was no longer acting.
According to the Acts, Genesius addressed the emperor himself and called on him to embrace Christianity:
I came here today to please an earthly Emperor but what I have done is to please a heavenly King. I came here to give you laughter, but what I have done is to give joy to God and his angels. From this moment on, believe me, I will never mock these great mysteries again. I now know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God, the Light, the Truth and the Mercy of all who have received his gift of baptism. O great Emperor, believe in these mysteries! I will teach you, and you will know the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God.”
The performance was stopped and Genesius and his troupe were arrested. While his colleagues were released having convinced the emperor they had nothing to do with Christianity, possibly offering sacrifices to the gods to convince the paranoid emperor, Genesius continued to profess the Christian faith. When persuasion failed, he was handed over to the prefect of the praetorium, Plautian, who tortured him in an effort to make him recant and offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. This torture was horrific: he was beaten with rods, racked, lacerated with iron hooks and burned with torches – his insult to the emperor required a definitive recantation, yet Genesius remained steadfast. After much suffering he was finally condemned to death and was beheaded. According to the Acts, his last words are believed to have been: “Our Lord Jesus Christ is God and we shall have life in his name”. While Genesius’ mock baptism was not valid since the intention of his fellow actor was not to baptise, through his martyrdom he is considered to have been “baptized by blood”.
Hearing of his death, the Christians realised that Genesius had been converted and put to death for the faith. They managed to secure his body and buried him in the Cemetery of St Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina with other Christian martyrs. When the persecution ended and following the Christianisation of Rome, his remains were exhumed and later solemnly enshrined in the Church of San Giovanni della Pigna near the Pantheon in Rome. Pope Gregory III honoured him in 741 by beautifying his tomb and the Church. In 1591 his relics were transferred to a tomb in the Church of Santa Susanna where they lie to this day. Since early times Genesius has been considered the patron saint of actors, actresses, comedians and those who work in the theatrical arts; with the advent of cinema, he is also regarded as its patron. He has also been adopted as a patron of epilepsy. His feast day is celebrated on the 25th August.
Given that little is known of the life of St Genesius, in recent years some historians have cast doubt over his very existence, as they have with St Christopher, St Catherine of Alexandria and St Philomena. It has been suggested that he is a Roman version of St Genesius of Arles (Southern France), a notary who also died in the persecution of Diocletian. This St Genesius (or St Genès) was a catechumen who worked for the Roman governor. When asked to record the decrees of Emperors Maximian and Diocletian initiating the persecution of Christians in Gaul (France) he refused. He fled and went into hiding but was later captured and put to death on the banks of the Rhône river. While both martyrs bear the same name and died during the same persecution, one cannot immediately assume that they are the same person.
There is, however, evidence of devotion to St Genesius the actor-martyr in Rome from as early as the fourth century just decades after his death and in the lifetime of people who would have either known him or known of him. Both the existence of his tomb and a tradition of his burial in Rome also seem to argue in favour of the authenticity of the tradition. While the Acts of his martyrdom were written quite late, this is not unique: the acts of many martyrs were also written quite late. St Genesius’ Acts are also notable for their simplicity, devoid of many of the miraculous events which fanciful writers tended to embellish the Acts of many martyrs: this simplicity is also an indication of veracity. The renowned historian, Louis-Sébastien Tillemont, known for his accuracy, detail and conscientiousness, accepted the authenticity of the Acts in his work Mémoires pour servir á l'histoire ecclésiastique des six premiers siècles, (cf. Mémoires IV s. v. Genesius).
While devotion to Genesius has not been very strong for some time, in recent years it has been growing again. Numerous theatrical groups recognise him as their patron and some even bear his name – not all of them Catholic. Recent publications on the saints now feature the story of his life, accepting the veracity of the tradition and the Acts.
© The Fraternity of St Genesius 2007
Genesius before Diocletian
Praying for those involved in cinema and theatre