Tag Archives: early Roman martyrs

St. Agnes, January 21st.

Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Church of St. Agnes, Via Nomentana. Rome

Agnes, a popular Roman woman martyr of the 3rd century, ranks high among the seven women mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer. “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia…”

That prayer goes back to St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Some say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women, all strong women who died for their belief. They come from all parts of the church of their time. Felicity and Perpetual are from North Africa, Agatha and Lucy from Sicily, Agnes and Cecilia from Rome, Anastasia originally from Greece.

Details of the story of Agnes, from 5th century sources, may be questioned, but the essential facts about her are true.

St. Agnes, Via Nomentana

A young Roman girl of 13 or so,  Agnes was put to death because she rejected the offer of a highly placed Roman man to become his bride. Incensed, he tried to force Agnes to change her mind; eventually she died for continuing to refuse him.

Women were expected to marry young in those days, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. They were to produce children for Rome, especially soldiers needed for the empire’s many wars.

Agnes’ refusal then to marry one of Rome’s elite was a dangerous decision. With no support from family or friends, alone in a male-dominated society, at a time suspicious of Christians and their beliefs, the little girl sought strength in Jesus Christ. She was a martyr put to death for her faith.

The Golden Legend, a favorite saint book  from the Middle Ages, says that Agnes was true to her name. She was a lamb (Agnus) who followed the Good Shepherd. Though young, she followed truth, never turning away from it. God gave her strength beyond what’s expected for her years.

The story says they put Agnes among the prostitutes found near the racecourse then on the Piazza Navona in Rome. God warded off those who tried to rape her. A church in her honor stands today in the busy piazza; another church over her grave is on the Via Nomentana in Rome. (above)

They finally killed her with a knife to her throat. Heavenly signs surrounded Agnes even then, her story says, assuring her that her faith was not in vain. The One she loved was with her as she struggled.


Agnes, the prayer for her feast says, is an example of how God chooses “what is weak in this world to confound the strong.” The young girl was stronger than her powerful killers.  “May we follow her constancy in the faith, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”

Martyrdom of Agnes

Early Roman Martyrs

Contemporary historians have problems with the accounts of early martyrs of the Roman church like Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, Sebastian, Lawrence, John and Paul– all honored in the Roman liturgy and commemorated in ancient churches throughout the city. We’re celebrating Sebastian, January 20, and Agnes, January 21, this week .

In an age that wants facts, real evidence, how much of what is written about these early saints is true, historians ask? One thing I find helpful when considering the early accounts of the Christian martyrs is to remember that Diocletian, the emperor who unleashed the last and greatest persecution of Christianity, wanted to completely obliterate Christianity throughout the Roman empire, so besides putting Christians to death, he tried to destroy all their written records, scriptures, prayerbooks, including accounts of heroes honored in their church. He wanted no record left at all. The emperor succeeded in destroying most of the records kept by the church of Rome.

Stories about the Roman saints were then reconstructed by Christians after the persecutions, and these accounts, instead of looking like court records–a form they often took before– appeared as embellished legends.

What core of truth in these stories should we remember? For one thing, let’s remember that a range of people believed so strongly in Jesus Christ that they died for their belief. Not only popes, like Fabian, deacons like Lawrence, but young girls like Agnes, women like Cecilia, soldiers like Sebastian witnessed to their faith by dying for it.

The historian Peter Brown, in one of his brilliant books on early Christianity, offers an important insight into the martyrs. He says that the Romans were not impressed so much by the bravery of these Christian martyrs–the Romans prided themselves for their ability to die bravely. Rather, they marveled at the vision of another world they revealed as they died. They believed they were entering another world, more glorious than this one, and Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior, calling them on.

Are legends of martyrs like Agnes, who dies surrounded by heavenly visions and miraculous signs, meant to show a heavenly world already revealed now in this one? I think so.

Take a look at the video on Saint Sebastian, above.