Saint George (AD 275–281 to 23 April 303), according to legend, was a Roman soldier and military officer in the Guard of Emperor Diocletian of the Roman army, who ordered his death for failing to recant his Christian faith. As a Christian martyr, he later became one of the most venerated saints in Christianity.
In hagiography, as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and one of the most prominent military saints, he is immortalised in the myth of Saint George and the Dragon killing in Beirut, Lebanon. His memorial, Saint George's Day, is traditionally celebrated on the Julian date of 23 April (currently 6 May according to the Gregorian calendar). Numerous countries, cities, professions and organisations claim Saint George as their patron.
According to some sources his parents were Christians of the noble Roman family of the Anici. Other sources say his parents were Christians of Greek background; his father Gerontius (Greek: Γερόντιος Gerontios) was a Roman army official from Cappadocia, and his mother Polychronia was a Christian and a Greek native from Lydda in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina (Palestine). Accounts differ regarding
whether George was born in Cappadocia or Syria Palaestina, but agree that he was raised at least partly in Lydda.
Historians have argued the exact details of the birth of Saint George for over a century, although the approximate date of his death is subject to little debate. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia takes the position that there seems to be no ground for doubting the historical existence of Saint George, but that little faith can be placed in some of the fanciful stories about him.
The work of the Bollandiste Daniel Papebroch, Jean Bolland, and Godfrey Henschen in the 17th century was one of the first pieces of scholarly research to establish the historicity of the saint's existence via their publications in Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca and paved the way for other scholars to dismiss the medieval legends. Pope Gelasius I stated that George was among those saints "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God".
The traditional legends have offered a historicised narration of George's encounter with a dragon. The modern legend that follows below is synthesised from early and late hagiographical sources, omitting the more fantastical episodes. Chief among the legendary sources about the saint is the Golden Legend, which remains the most familiar version in English owing to William Caxton's 15th-century translation.
Saint George likely was born to a Christian noble family in Lydda, Syria Palaestina, during the late third century between about 275 and 285. He died in Nicomedia in Anatolia. His father, Gerontius, was from Cappadocia, an officer in the Roman army; his mother, Polychronia, was a native of Lydda. They were both Christians from noble families of the Anici so their child was raised with Christian beliefs. They decided to call him Georgios, meaning "worker of the land" (i.e., farmer). At the age of 14, George lost his father; a few years later, George's mother, Polychronia, died. Eastern accounts give the names of his parents as Anastasius and Theobaste.
George then decided to go to Nicomedia and present himself to Emperor Diocletian to apply for a career as a soldier. Diocletian welcomed him with open arms, as he had known his father, Gerontius — one of his finest soldiers. By his late 20s, George was promoted to the rank of Tribunus and stationed as an imperial guard of the Emperor at Nicomedia.
On 24 February AD 303, Diocletian (influenced by Galerius) issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods of the time. However, George objected, and with the courage of his faith, approached the Emperor and ruler. Diocletian was upset, not wanting to lose his best tribune and the son of his best official, Gerontius. But George loudly renounced the Emperor's edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes he claimed himself to be a Christian and declared his worship of Jesus. Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering gifts of land, money, and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods; he made many offers, but George never accepted.
Recognizing the futility of his efforts and insisting on upholding his edict, Diocletian ordered that George be executed for his refusal. Before the execution, George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. After various torture sessions, including laceration on a wheel of swords during which he was resuscitated three times, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia's city wall, on 23 April 303. A witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians, as well, so they joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr.
Edward Gibbon argued that George, or at least the legend from which the above is distilled, is based on George of Cappadocia, a notorious Arian bishop who was Athanasius of Alexandria's most bitter rival, and that it was he who in time became Saint George of England. According to Professor Bury, Gibbon's latest editor, "this theory of Gibbon's has nothing to be said for it." He adds that: "the connection of St. George with a dragon-slaying legend does not relegate him to the region of the myth".
In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson published a book of essays entitled English Traits. In it, he wrote a paragraph on the history of Saint George. Emerson compared the legend of Saint George to the legend of Amerigo Vespucci, calling the former "an impostor" and the latter "a thief." The editorial notes appended to the 1904 edition of Emerson's complete works state that Emerson based his account on the work of Gibbon, and that current evidence seems to show that the real St. George was not George the Arian of Cappadocia. Merton M. Sealts also quotes Edward Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson's youngest son, as stating that he believed his father's account was derived from Gibbon and that the real St. George "was apparently another who died two generations earlier".