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E01916: The Martyrdom of *Agatha (virgin and martyr of Catania, S00794) is written in Latin, presumably in Catania (Sicily) between the 5th and the late 7th c. It narrates the trial, martyrdom and burial of the young virgin and aristocrat in Catania. After her death an angel visits her tomb and leaves a prophetic inscription foreseeing Agatha's miraculous power of protection against volcanic eruptions from the nearby Etna (on which see E02035). The Martyrdom, in variant versions, has an early and wide diffusion.

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posted on 2016-10-11, 00:00 authored by mpignot
Martyrdom of Agatha (BHL 133)


§ 1: Agatha was martyred in Catania under Decius at the time of his third consulship [= 251] on the Nones of February [= 5 February].

§ 2: The consecrated virgin Agatha is famous and therefore arrested by the governor of Sicily, Quintianus. He wants to show his power and give way to his lust for the virgin.

§ 3: Agatha is entrusted to the matrona Aphrodisia who, together with nine other girls, try to pervert her for thirty days. However, Agatha, weeping and praying, holds fast to Christ the rock in the middle of the flood of their words. She is ready for martyrdom.

§ 4: Aphrodisia tells Quintianus how she tried everything to change Agnes' mind, in particular offering her great wealth, but failed. Quintianus then summons Agatha to question her. He accuses her of behaving like a slave, while she praises serving Christ as utmost nobility, and sees pagan aristocracy as slavery to sin and idolatry.

§ 5: Quintianus orders Agatha to sacrifice to the gods, but Agatha mocks him and the gods Jupiter and Venus who behave like ordinary men.

§ 6: Quintianus orders her to sacrifice or she will be put to death. Agatha states that she does not fear any kind of punishment since Christ and the angels will help her. Quintianus puts Agatha in jail.

§ 7: The next day as she still refuses to adore the pagan gods, he tortures her on a huge rack. She sees torture as necessary: like grain milled into flour, her body is ground to let her soul enter paradise.

§ 8: Quintianus orders her breasts to be ripped off; Agatha notes that Quintilianus' cruelty is such that he cut from her the body part that he himself had suckled, when fed by his mother as a baby. Quintilianus then puts her back in prison, ordering that she should receive no water, food, nor any type of care.

§ 9: In the middle of the night, an old man visits Agatha with the help of a boy guiding his way. He wants to cure her wounds, but Agatha refuses to receive any bodily care, not because she would be ashamed of showing her body but because Christ is her only protector. The old man reveals that he is the apostle of Christ sent to help her and announces to her that she will be saved; then he disappears.

§ 10: Agatha thanks God and realises that her wounds are healed. A bright light illuminates her cell during the whole night, frightening the guards who flee leaving the jail open. Other prisoners tell Agatha to escape, but as she desires the crown of martyrdom she refuses.

§§ 11-12: Four days later, Quintianus convokes Agatha and as he tortures her on burning broken pottery, the city of Catania is shaken by an earthquake, the wall of the tribunal crumbles and kills the governor’s assistant Silvanus and his friend Falconius. The crowd then starts to protest against Quintianus who sends Agatha back to jail and escapes from the crowd and the earthquake. Entering her cell and raising her hands, Agatha thanks God, yields up her spirit, and dies in front of many witnesses.

§ 13: The crowd quickly takes her body and places it in a new sarcophagus with perfume. A young man that nobody had ever seen in Catania before and would never see again, expensively dressed and accompanied by more than a hundred beautiful servants, comes to the grave and leaves a small marble tablet close to her head, bearing an inscription praising Agatha's holiness, as one who freed the land. He waits there until the tomb is closed. Then he leaves not to be seen ever again. We therefore suspect that he was an angel. Those who saw the inscription made it known to all Sicilians; Jews, pagans and Christians alike start venerating the tomb.

§ 14: Quintianus who wanted to get hold of Agatha's wealth, drowns in the river Symaithos. His body is never found. This further reinforces the people's devotion for Agatha's tomb.

§ 15: Some years later, the inscription placed on her tomb by the angel is fulfilled: around the time of Agatha’s anniversary, Etna erupts and threatens Catania, thus pagans come in great numbers from the mountain to her grave, take the veil covering it, and employ it as a protection against the fire, which is extinguished. The eruption started on the Calends of February and ended on the Nones, the anniversary day of Agatha's burial, demonstrating that she freed her countrymen from death and fire.

For more on the inscription and the miracle of the veil see $E02035.

Text: Acta Sanctorum, Febr. 1, 615-618. Summary: Lanéry 2010 translated, adapted and expanded by M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Agatha, 3rd-century martyr in Sicily : S00794

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Italy south of Rome and Sicily

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Catania Adriatic Sea Adriatic Sea Adriaticum Mare

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Acceptance/rejection of saints from other religious groupings

Cult Activities - Miracles

Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather) Miracle during lifetime Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Miracle after death Miraculous protection - of communities, towns, armies Miracle at martyrdom and death Miracles experienced by the saint Miraculous sound, smell, light Miraculous behaviour of relics/images

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Crowds Jews Pagans Aristocrats Officials Women The socially marginal (beggars, prostitutes, thieves) Monarchs and their family Angels

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body Contact relic - cloth

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects



Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Agatha is an anonymous literary account of martyrdom written long after the great persecutions of Christians that provide the background of the narrative. It is part of a widely spread literary genre, that scholars often designate as "epic" Martyrdoms (or Passiones), to be distinguished from earlier, short and more plausible accounts, apparently based on the genuine transcripts of the judicial proceedings against the martyrs. These texts narrate the martyrdom of local saints, either to promote a new cult or to give further impulse to existing devotion. They follow widespread stereotypes mirroring the early authentic trials of martyrs, but with a much greater degree of detail and in a novel-like style. Thus they narrate how the protagonists are repeatedly questioned and tortured under the order of officials or monarchs, because they refuse to sacrifice to pagan gods but profess the Christian faith. They frequently refer to miracles performed by the martyrs and recreate dialogues between the protagonists. The narrative generally ends with the death of the martyrs (often by beheading) and their burial. These texts are literary creations bearing a degree of freedom in the narration of supposedly historical events, often displaying clear signs of anachronism. For these reasons, they have been generally dismissed as historical evidence and often remain little known. However, since most certainly date from within the period circa 400-800, often providing unique references to cult, they are an essential source to shed new light on the rise of the cult of saints. The Martyrdom of Agatha As summarised by Lanéry, the Martyrdom is preserved in a number of different versions, the most common being BHL 133 (our main focus here), often also circulating with minor variants (BHL 136-136g). Then there are: the version circulating in England in the early middle ages (BHL 134) which has a different beginning situating the martyrdom under Diocletian, and the version circulating in Spain from the 9th century (BHL 135), which has been rewritten in many parts. There is as well a reworking combining elements of BHL 133 and 135 discovered by Morini 1991. There are more than 200 manuscripts of the Martyrdom in its divergent versions, see the database Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Manuscripta at, and D’Arrigo, Morini 1993 and Lanéry for corrections and additional lists. The earliest surviving manuscripts are from the late 8th and 9th centuries. Earliest manuscripts of BHL 133: Munich, Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4554, f. 146v-150v (third quarter of the 8th c.); St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 548, f. 149-159 (last quarter of the 8th c. or early 9th c.); Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale D. V. 3, f. 66v-72v (end of 8th c.; for a study of this manuscript with diplomatic edition see Goullet). Minor variant BHL 136a: Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB XIV.14, f. 159-163 (9th c.). Earliest manuscript of BHL 134: Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek, Mp Th Q 28B, f. 14r-16r (8th c., fragment). Earliest manuscripts of BHL 135: St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 559, f. 82-94 (9th c.); Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, lat. 552, f. 12v-21v (9th c.) The Martyrdom was also written in Greek: although this is still debated among scholars (see an overview in Lanéry), the two Greek versions preserved (BHG 36-37) seem to derive from the Latin version BHL 133.


The cult of Agatha is attested from an early date. The possibly earliest, although uncertain, evidence comes from funerary inscriptions. A now lost funerary inscription in Greek from Ustica near Palermo mentions Agatha (the stone has: 'ΛΟΥΚΙΦΕ / ΑΘΑΝΕΝ / ΚVΡΙΑCΑ / ΓΑΘΗC' published by Morso, S., Giornale di scienze per la Sicilia IV (Palermo, 1823), 168 see EXXXX). Another Latin inscription from the early 4th century found in Catania (CIL X, 7112) referring to the young Iulia Fiorentina buried close to a martyrs' shrine (see EXXXX) has been evoked as further proof for the veneration of martyrs in Catania, perhaps including Agatha. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) refers in a letter to a church dedicated to the saint, perhaps near Rome (see E02007). The second redaction of the Liber Pontificalis also refers to the building of a church to saint Agatha in Rome by Pope Symmachus (498-514), see E01350. Pope Gregory the Great refers to the dedication to Agatha of a formerly Arian church (see E04501 and a Life of Gregory referring to the same event: E01419). Agatha's cult also spread to Milan, as is clear from liturgical evidence (see below) and to Ravenna: a chapel was dedicated to her by Galla Placidia and Agatha is portrayed in the famous mosaics of the church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (SE05950). The final passage (§ 15) of the Martyrdom provides evidence for Agatha's role as a protector of Catania, particularly against eruptions of Etna: see E02035. The Martyrdom (BHL 133/136 versions) is generally dated to late antiquity (Clavis Patrum Latinorum 2158; Gryson, R., Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques Latins de l’Antiquité et du Haut moyen âge, 2 vols. (Freiburg, 2007), I, 50). Following a widespread assumption among scholars, the text may even have been based on authentic acts of martyrdom, since it brings together epic elements and more realistic references to the late antique trial procedure and the Decian persecution. The mention of the earthquake also could correspond to historical records of an earthquake in 252 AD.The precise date of composition of the Martyrdom is difficult to ascertain, but it must have been written by the late 7th century at the latest, since one of its versions (BHL 134) is known to have been used by Aldhelm (EXXXX and EXXXX), while the earliest manuscripts are from the 8th century. The Martyrdom is also used in hymns difficult to date, whether pseudo-Damasian ("Martyris ecce dies Agathae", RH 11271-11272, see EXXXX) or pseudo-Ambrosian ("Agathae sacrae virginis", RH 716-717, see EXXXX). Moreover, the Milanese prefaces (liturgical prayers of the Church of Milan), include a preface for Agatha clearly alluding to episodes narrated in the Martyrdom (see EXXXX). Lanéry, accepting the dating of these prefaces to around 450 hypothesised by Paredi, concludes that the Martyrdom has to be dated before the mid 5th century. However, as noted by Pasini amongst others (see also for instance Heiming), Paredi's dating hypotheses are not fully assured. It is therefore problematic to narrowly date the Martyrdom on the basis of the liturgical prefaces. Since the Martyrdom cannot have been written after the late 7th century, and since liturgical evidence borrowing from the Martyrdom can be broadly said to have been composed between the 5th and the 7th centuries, it can be suggested that the Martyrdom was written sometime between the 5th century and the late 7th, and perhaps more probably before the 7th century because of its late antique features and wide early circulation in variant versions. The spread of Agatha's cult in the late 5th and during the 6th century provides a plausible context for the composition of this martyrdom account.


Edition (BHL 133): Acta Sanctorum, Febr. I, 615-618. Further reading: D’Arrigo, S., Il martirio di Sant’Agata nel quadro storico del suo tempo, 2 vols. (Catania, 1988). Dufourcq, A., Étude sur les Gesta martyrum romains, 5 vols. (Paris, 1988; first ed. in 4 vols., 1900-1907), II, 194-210. Goullet, M. (ed.), Le légendier de Turin. MS. D.V.3 de la Bibliothèque Nationale Universitaire (Florence, 2014). Heiming, O., “Das mailändische Präfationale,” Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 1 (1950), 128-132. Lanéry, C., "Hagiographie d'Italie (300-550). I. Les Passions latines composées en Italie,” in: Philippart, G. (ed.), Hagiographies. Histoire internationale de la littérature hagiographique latine et vernaculaire en Occident des origines à 1550, vol. V (Turnhout, 2010), 15-369, at 278-287. Morini, C., “Una redazione sconosciuta della Passio s. Agathae, Ms. Auxerre, BM 127,” Analecta Bollandiana 109 (1991), 305-330. Morini, C., La Passione di s. Agata di Aelfric di Eynsham (Alessandria, 1993). Morini, C., “La Passio S. Agathae. La tradizione latina tardo-antica e medievale,” Cultura e Scuola 35 (1996), 94-105. Morini, C., “La Passio S. Agathae. La tradizione medievale inglese,” Rivista di cultura classica e medioevale 42 (2000), 49-60. Paredi, A., I prefazi ambrosiani. Contributo alla storia della liturgia latina (Milan, 1937), 133-134. Pasini, C., “Chiesa di Milano e Sicilia: punti di contatto dal IV all'VIII secolo,” in: Pricoco, S., Rizzo Nervo, F., Sardella, T. (eds.), Sicilia e Italia suburbicaria tra IV e VIII secolo. Atti del Convegno di studi (Catania, 24-27 ottobre 1989) (Soveria Mannelli, 1991), 367-398, esp. 389-396.

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