The Seven Sleepers

Published on June 29, 2021

During the reign of Emperor Decius, early Christians faced one of the periodic persecutions imposed by the Roman Empire. Although over two centuries had passed since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the apostolic age, the nascent religion was still very much out of step with Roman cultural mores.

In 250 AD, Emperor Decius issued an edict requiring all subjects to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and to the well-being of the emperor. The emperor exempted Jews from this requirement, respecting their ancient religion, but viewed Christianity as a breakaway sect, not as a legitimate religion. Christians had to choose between betraying their religious beliefs or suffering the consequences, including exile or execution. High rank did not offer protection. Pope Fabian himself died a martyr.

Edward Gibbon, in his epic history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empiretells the tale of the Seven Sleepers, a group of seven young Christians who attempted to conceal themselves in a cavern in the side of a mountain near the ancient city of Ephesus. They were discovered and the entrance to the cavern was sealed with rocks. At this point, the fable says that the seven youths fell into a deep slumber which lasted a very long time — one hundred and eighty-seven years in Gibbon’s estimation.

Around the year 437 AD, the slaves of a local landowner removed the rocks to use as materials for a new building. Miraculously, the seven sleepers woke up thinking that they had been asleep for just a few hours. Not knowing that the world had changed and being very hungry, the group selected one young man to venture into town to buy bread using some of the coins bearing the image of Emperor Decius.

To the shock of the young man, he found a large cross displayed over the main gate leading into Ephesus. He recognized no one in town and observed that people were dressed differently. When he presented his ancient coins to the baker, he was hauled into court on suspicion of harboring an ancient lost treasure. To his shock, Christianity was not being persecuted anymore and was now the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

There are lessons here that go beyond a simple and implausible ancient fable. Gibbon wrote the following after presenting his account of the Seven Sleepers:

We imperceptibly advance from youth to age without observing the gradual, but incessant, change of human affairs; and even in our larger experience of history, the imagination is accustomed, by a perpetual series of causes and effects, to unite the most distant revolutions. 

But if the interval between two memorable eras could be instantly annihilated; if it were possible, after a momentary slumber of two hundred years, to display the new world to the eyes of a spectator who still retained a lively and recent impression of the old, his surprise and his reflections would furnish the pleasing subject of a philosophical romance.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 3, p. 391-2

During a reasonably long lifetime, human beings witness many changes in the world that seem to progress slowly but have massive cumulative effects. We see one version of history unfolding before our eyes, not necessarily cognizant of the fact that many alternative histories could have unfolded based on forks in the road that were not taken. 

When the seven sleepers fell into their long slumber in 250 AD, they had no way of knowing that only a half-century later, Emperor Constantine would take power and put the Roman Empire on the path of eventually making Christianity the state religion. They could not conceive of the sequence of events that led to that massive shift in the course of human history.

As Gibbon points out, viewing history retrospectively is very different from viewing it going forward, in real-time. Just imagine someone who was in a terrible accident in 1996 and fell into a long coma only to awaken in 2021, emerge from the hospital, and see people wearing masks, staring at small glass objects while walking down the street, and wearing things in their ears resembling plastic white earrings while appearing to talk to themselves.

Then, imagine this person sitting down to read a list of major events that took place over the past quarter century and trying to interpret the cause and effect of various developments. Without being subject to the conventional wisdom of popular narratives, might this person form a more nuanced and accurate interpretation of what actually took place?

The fable of the Seven Sleepers has captured the imagination of people for over a thousand years and has been incorporated into stories in Christianity and Islam. It is not a story that I was familiar with prior to reading Gibbon but I think it has lessons to teach us regarding the narrative fallacy and hindsight bias. Gibbon wrote in the late 18th century but his insights seem just as timely today.

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The Seven Sleepers