When Roman Centurion, Florian, was accused of failing to enforce the emperor’s command to persecute Christians and was ordered to be burnt at the stake, he declared: “I shall climb to heaven on the flames.”
PAT POLAND traces the story of St. Florian of Lorch, patron of the fire service.
Florian von Lorch was born in the Roman town of Aelium Cetiumin in present-day Sankt Polten, Austria, about the year 250 AD. He joined the Roman Army as a youth, and by study, hard work and determination, advanced through the ranks to occupy a high administrative post in the Roman province of Noricum.
Tradition holds that, in addition to his military duties, he also had responsibility for the Cohortes Vigilum– the Fire Service – which had been instituted by the Emperor Augustus around the time of Christ’s birth.
When Florian was thirty-four years old, Diocletian came to the throne. A man lacking in formal education and of lowly origins, he came up with an answer to the administration of the Roman Empire that had eluded his predecessors. In 286 AD he appointed his old comrade, Maximian, as co-Augustus, and some years later he co-opted Constantius and Galerius as Caesars. This ‘tetrarchy’ (Rule of Four) formed a ‘College of Emperors’ which would administer the Empire, one for each of its frontier regions (the Rhine, the Danube, and the East) with one member in reserve.
At the time, Christianity was a fringe sect, with the vast majority of Romans worshipping pagan gods. Christians, of course, rejected the pagan gods, and were therefore regarded as atheists. People however, largely got on with their lives, learning to accommodate this strange new cult, but the authorities thought otherwise.
When there was trouble in the Empire it signified that the gods were not pleased, and the source of their anger, they reasoned, were the Christian atheists in their midst.
A year before Florian was born, Emperor Decius had ordered that all citizens of the Empire must offer sacrifice to the traditional gods, and in 257 AD Emperor Valerian launched the first Empire-wide pogroms specifically aimed at Christians.
To him, the well-being of the Empire depended on the Pax Deorum, the fine balance between heaven and earth; between the pagan gods and Rome.
Now, in 304 AD during the persecution of Christians under Diocletian, reports reached Rome that Centurion Florian was less than enthusiastic in carrying out the Emperor’s orders in the area under his command.
In fact, it was whispered in some quarters that the officer was a closet Christian. A senior officer called Aquilinus – whom historians have labelled ‘a ruthless enforcer’ – was dispatched to eastern Bavaria to investigate and to directly order Florian to enforce the laws against the Christians.
In a confrontation with him it was reported that he replied: “Tell the Emperor that I am a Christian and will gladly suffer the same fate as my fellow Christians.”
Aquilinus then tried a different approach, offering Florian promotion, but he was adamant; under no circumstances would he enforce the edicts against the Christians.
Aquilinus was outraged and ordered Florian to be flogged and burned at the stake. Standing on the funeral pyre, Florian is said to have challenged his tormentors to light the fire, remarking that “If you do, I will climb to heaven on the flames.”
The superstitious Romans became alarmed at this, cut him down, flayed him alive and set his body on fire. Apprehensive that he was still not dead, Aquilinus ordered a large mill-stone to be tied around Florian’s neck and had him flung into the River Enns.
When the soldiers had departed, Valerie, described as ‘a pious lady’, had her servants recover the body and buried it reverently, in accordance with Christian rites, on her estate. Centuries later a monastery was erected nearby and subsequently the village of Sankt Florian grew up around it.
Later, the remains were disinterred and removed to the Augustinian Abbey of St Florian, near Linz. Following ancient custom, pilgrims assemble at the church attached to the monastery each year on 4 May, St Florian’s Feast Day, to participate in special services.
Saint Florian is widely venerated across Central Europe. He was adopted as the Patron Saint of Poland after Pope Lucius III consented to the request of the King of Poland, Casimir II, to send relics of the saint to that country. Krakow claims some of his relics, and one of its most important Catholic churches is named after Florian.
In present-day Bavaria and Austria, in particular, Christians regularly use the name Florian as one of the given names for a boy in the family to secure the saint’s patronage against fire. The so-called ‘Florian Principle’ (in German Sankt-Florians-Prinzip) recalls a somewhat bizarre prayer to St Florian: ‘O heiliger Sankt Florian, verschon’ mein Haus, zund’ and’re an’, roughly meaning ‘St Florian, please spare my house; let my neighbour’s burn down instead!’
In Austria and Germany, fire services use ‘Florian’ as a universal call-sign in radio communications, and the call-sign ‘Florentine’ is used in hand-held radio equipment. Statues of the saint are everywhere across the whole region. Every craft shop has its plethora of wood-carved Florian statues in polychrome, many costing ‘an arm and a leg’.
Perhaps the most famous is the life-size one by sculptor Josef Josephu unveiled outside the Vienna Fire Brigade (Wiener Feuerwehr) Headquarters, on the city’s main square, Am Hof, in 1935. After the station was bombed in 1945 towards the end of World War II, it was removed to the Fire Brigade Museum, where it reposes to this day.
For many centuries St Florian has been invoked against fire and is generally regarded in most Western countries as the Patron of the Fire Service.