Saint Eustace, also called Saint Eustachius or Saint Eustathius, is a Christian martyr of the second century. His story was especially popular among believers of the Middle Ages. Though it is difficult to discern which portions of his tale are fact and which are legend, most versions of Saint Eustace’s story have a similar sequence of events.
General Placidus—Eustace’s name before his conversion—served under Roman Emperor Trajan. According to the story, while out hunting one day, Placidus pursued a large stag. Suddenly, it turned toward him, completely still. Miraculously, there appeared a crucifix between its antlers, and a voice commanded Placidus and his whole family to be baptized that night by the Bishop of Rome. The voice also promised that they would suffer for Christ. Some accounts state that Placidus returned later to the same spot in the woods to receive the second part of this revelation.
Placidus obeyed the voice and was baptized, changing his name to Eustace, Latinized as Eustachius. His wife, who had been called Tatiana, changed her name to Theopista. Eustace’s two sons, Agapius and Theopistus, were also baptized into the Christian faith.
As promised, the family began to suffer. Through sickness and misfortune, Eustace lost much of his wealth, forcing the family to flee to Egypt. Theopista was not allowed to stay aboard the departing ship and was left behind. Eustace and his sons braved the voyage without her, eventually landing some distance from their destination. As they continued the journey on foot, they came to a river.
With no other options available, Eustace decided to carry his boys across the river one at a time. He successfully delivered one boy to the far bank, and he was halfway back across when a lion carried off the waiting son. He turned back toward the other son just in time to see another animal take him. Other versions of this story say his sons were carried off by Imperial Romans rather than wild animals. In both versions, Eustace was unaware that the boys were spared death and raised in nearby villages.
After fifteen years of hiring himself out for work, Eustace’s life changed again. A battle was imminent, either from an uprising or an invading enemy, depending on the account. Either Emperor Trajan or his successor Hadrian found Eustace, requiring his expertise as a general to lead the Roman troops to victory.
After the battle was won, the army stayed at a village. There, two soldiers shared their stories and realized they were Eustace’s sons, reunited at last. Their long-lost mother happened to be serving in the same house and overheard them; she happily became reacquainted with her children. The three of them then went to the commanding officer—who was Eustace, of course—to get permission to return to their native land. Upon hearing their story, Eustace recognized his family and rejoiced. God had brought them together again.
As the soldiers dispersed to return to their homes, Eustace’s family returned to Rome. The emperor credited the gods with the army’s victory and commanded the military leaders to offer sacrifices to the gods. Eustace refused. The emperor imprisoned him and his family, trying to convince them to worship the Roman gods.
When it became clear the family would never obey him, the emperor sentenced them to death. Some accounts describe how Eustace, his wife, and his sons were first thrown to the lions, but the beasts refused to harm the Christians. Other versions omit that part and simply recount how the saint’s family was burned inside a brass bull; miraculously, they sang and praised God for three days before their voices fell silent. When the bull was opened, the martyrs were found dead, but their bodies had not been physically harmed.
Today, Saint Eustace is considered the patron saint of hunters, firefighters, and anyone facing adversity. He is considered a “saint” by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in the Catholic Church, and his feast day is celebrated on September 20 in the Catholic Church and November 2 in the Orthodox Church.