Before the Triumph of the Church, when Emperor Constantine decriminalized Catholicism and became a great patron of the Church, being faithful to the Lord in the Roman Empire was a high crime, often punished by death. Religious persecution ran rampant under Emperor Decius, who issued an edict compelling all citizens in the Roman Empire to perform a sacrifice to Roman pagan gods under the witness of a magistrate. This was the first time in the history of the persecution of Christians they faced legislation that forced them to choose between their Faith and death.
Around the year 250 AD, seven young men during the persecution of Emperor Decius were accused of being followers of the Church. They were offered a period of time to renounce their Faith by the Emperor. They chose instead to give all their worldly possessions to the poor and retreated to a mountain cave to pray in hiding. Once inside the cave, they fell into a deep sleep. After Decius saw they had not recanted their Faith and didn’t turn towards Paganism, he had the mouth of the cave sealed rather than execute them outright.
Many years passed, and the cave and the men sealed inside were forgotten. As time passed, Catholicism became tolerated in the Roman Empire. Around the reign of Emperor Theodosius II from year 408 to 450, the landowner at the time decided to open the cave, intending to use it as a cattle pen. Upon opening the cave, he found the Seven Sleepers still inside, and miraculously alive.
When they awoke, they thought they had only slept for the night. The group sent one of the sleepers to Ephesus to purchase supplies and warned him to be careful lest the pagans take him prisoner. When he arrived, he was astounded to find the city adorned with Crosses. Upon arriving in the city, this person was astounded to find buildings with crosses attached; the townspeople for their part were astounded to find a man trying to spend old coins from the reign of Decius. The Bishop of Ephesus interviewed the sleepers who told him their miraculous story, and they later died, praising God.
The earliest version of this story comes from the Syrian bishop Jacob of Sarug (c. 450–521), which is itself derived from an earlier Greek source, now lost. The best-known Western version of the story appears in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.
On the slopes of Mount Pion (Mount Coelian) near Ephesus (near modern Selçuk in Turkey), the grotto of the Seven Sleepers, with ruins of the church built over it, was excavated in 1927–28. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were found on the walls of the church and in the graves. This grotto is still shown to tourists.
The Roman Martyrology mentions the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus under the date of 27 July (June according to Vatican II calendar). The Byzantine Calendar commemorates them with feasts on 4 August and 22 October.