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E02094: The Martyrdom of *Primus and Felicianus (martyrs of Numentum, near Rome, S00855) is written in Latin probably in Numentum, between the 5th and early 7th c. It narrates the trials, death, and burial of the martyrs under Diocletian and Maximian, and the building of a basilica in their honour at the fourteenth milestone from Rome.

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posted on 2016-12-09, 00:00 authored by mpignot
Martyrdom of Primus and Felicianus (BHL 6922)


§ 1: There is a great persecution at the time of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian against those who refuse to sacrifice to idols. The pagan priests tell the emperors that, because of Primus and Felicianus, who keep the Christian faith, no help can be received from the gods. They require the emperors to compel Primus and Felicianus to sacrifice. The emperors send soldiers to arrest Primus and Felicianus, who are Roman citizens. They are put in jail and chained, then an angel appears to them, comforts and frees them. The saints thank God for being freed from their chains like Peter the Apostle (cf. Acts 12:3-19) and hope to share his merits.

§ 2: Some days later, they are summoned by the emperors, and interrogated. They are required to sacrifice to Hercules and Jupiter to avoid death but they refuse, ready to sacrifice themselves to Christ and endure any suffering to be crowned as martyrs. Primus and Felicianus tell the emperors that it is unwise to venerate idols made of stone and wood that are unable to stand by themselves and that are guarded by dogs to avoid them being stolen. The angry emperors order the saints to be brought to the temple of Hercules and tortured if they still refuse to sacrifice. There, as they still reject sacrifice, they are beaten with rods. Again interrogated, they state their allegiance to the emperor of heaven who frees from hell, against the earthly emperors who will burn in hell.

§ 3: Hearing of their refusal, the emperors order them to be taken to the governor (praeses) Promotus of the city of Numentum, to be tortured and killed if they still refuse to sacrifice. Soldiers bring them in chains to the thirteenth milestone on the Via Numentana and put them in jail near the forum of the city. Primus and Felicianus pray and chant to the Lord to ask for freedom and help. An angel takes care of them. After a long time, the governor prepares a tribunal (tribunal), calls Primus and Felicianus and asks them to sacrifice to the gods, but they refuse, emphasising that idols are made of stone and wood, and cannot see nor help anyone.

§ 4: The governor orders Primus to be separated from Felicianus and interrogates the latter. He asks him to remember that he is now old and should sacrifice to Jupiter, but Felicianus replies that God will take care of his old age, since He preserved him in his faith since youth. He will not change his mind. The governor is furious and orders him to be struck with lead-weighted darts (plumbatae). Again asked to sacrifice, Felicianus notes that he is eighty, that he has acknowledged God’s truth and lived a good life in Christ for thirty years, and will be freed by God. The governor orders him to be bound to a post (stipes) with sharp nails fixed in his hands and feet, adding that he will remain there until he sacrifices to the gods. Felicianus chants Psalm 55:11 to the Lord, then the governor asks him again to sacrifice and to deny that he is Christian in order to be freed from further torture. Felicianus refuses to deny his creator and to adore empty gods. Full of rage, the governor orders him to be tortured for a long time. Felicianus thanks God and his Son Jesus Christ for being worthy of being associated with other Christian martyrs. The governor orders him to be kept on the post for three days and three nights with neither water nor bread. After three days Felicianus, nourished from heaven, is still praising God and asking for His help. The governor orders him to be scourged and then abandoned in jail.

§ 5: The next day, the governor summons Primus, tells him that his brother has sacrificed and has become a friend of the emperors; he invites him to sacrifice to enjoy the same friendship. Primus tells him that he lies, his brother has followed the heavenly emperors and not these empty men. Those who have received the Holy Spirit know everything. Felicianus has been tortured but did not change his mind and has been put in jail. Primus continues, telling that the same day an angel has told him about the trials endured by Felicianus so that he may resist sacrificing. The governor orders him to be beaten with sticks until he agrees to sacrifice. Under torture, Primus replies that, although the governor has power over his body, he has none over his soul. The governor asks Primus again to sacrifice, but he refuses. The governor orders Primus’ sides to be burned with torches. As he is put on a rack and burned, Primus chants Psalm 66:10 and thanks God for not feeling any harm. The governor suspects that Primus is employing magic, but Primus tells him that he is receiving Christ’s help. The governor orders him to be laid out on a couch and molten lead to be poured into his mouth, while Felicianus is brought to witness the torture, in order to convince him to sacrifice. Primus drinks the lead as if it were fresh water and he chants Psalms 133:1 and Psalm 118:103.

§ 6: Speaking to the governor, Primus remarks that Felicianus has not agreed to sacrifice but they are both there, confident that they will be freed for eternity, no matter what they now endure. The governor tells them to sacrifice, or they will be tortured by wild beasts. The martyrs ask the governor to abandon demons and believe in God and Jesus Christ to save his soul. The governor asks Felicianus to sacrifice, but he replies trying to convince him to follow the Lord, adding that otherwise the governor will dwell in eternal fire. The distressed governor orders them to be brought to the amphitheatre close to the forum of Numentum. Two large lions are brought in, terrifying with their roars all the people of Numentum. The lions run at the martyrs’ feet and with the same joy of a father and a son meeting after a long time, they rejoice at their feet. After the lions, bears are brought in, who become like lambs and lie at the feet of the martyrs. The martyrs tell the governor that beasts recognise their Creator while men, who are made in God’s likeness, fail to recognise him. The people are amazed and more than 1500 men believe in the Lord, with all their families. There was a crowd there of twelve thousand people from the neighbouring cities, excluding women and children.

§ 7: Seeing that he is defeated and that many believe in the Lord, the governor orders that they should be put to death. They are taken outside of the amphitheatre and beheaded, then their bodies are thrown to dogs. However no beast, bird nor fly can touch them. At night their bodies are stolen by Christian faithful who bring them to the Arcus Numentanus beside the arenarium (arcus Numentanos intra arenarium).

Et ibi fecerunt planctum magnum, et involventes ea in sindone nova cum aromatibus, juxta arenarium posuerunt; et in hymnis ac psalmis per triginta dies ac noctes in Dei nomine perdurabant; ubi multa beneficia exuberant usque in praesentem diem. Et si quis aegrotorum ibidem perductus fuisset; liberabatur, a quacumque infirmitate detentus esset. Quod etiam et nunc facere Christum, nullus ambigat usque in hodiernum diem. Et dum post aliquantos annos cessasset persecutio paganorum; multi Christiani, in honorem beatorum martyrum Primi et Feliciani, basilicam in nomine ipsorum construxerunt, sperantes se misericordiam consequi in nomine Domini nostri Jesu Christi: est autem basilica eorum ab urbe Roma miliario quartodecimo. Quorum natalis est V Idus Junii ...

'And there they wept greatly and, wrapping them with perfumes in new and fine cotton cloth, they deposited them close to the arenarium; and they kept chanting hymns and psalms for thirty days and nights in the name of God. Many favours (beneficia) abound there up to the present day. And the sick that were brought there, were freed from whatever infirmity they suffered from. That this was, and is now, done by Christ, no-one doubts to the present day. And when after a number of years the pagan persecution ended, many Christians built a basilica in honour and in the name of the blessed martyrs Primus and Felicianus, in the hope of obtaining mercy in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This basilica is at the fourteenth milestone from Rome. Their feast is the 5th day of the Ides of June [= 9 June] ...'

Text: Acta Sanctorum, Jun. II, 151-152; Summary and translation: M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Primus and Felicianus, martyrs at via Nomentana, close to Rome, ob. c. 305 : S00855

Saint Name in Source

Primus, Felicianus

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

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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

Numentum Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Chant and religious singing

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracles experienced by the saint Miracle at martyrdom and death Miracles causing conversion Miracle with animals and plants Healing diseases and disabilities Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future)

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Pagans Relatives of the saint Soldiers Officials Angels

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - unspecified


Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Primus and Felicianus 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 widespread literary genre, that scholars often designate as 'epic' Martyrdoms (or Passiones), to be distinguished from earlier, shorter 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 light on the rise of the cult of saints. The Martyrdom of Primus and Felicianus There is only one early version of the Martyrdom, BHL 6922. Lanéry 2010, 247-248, notes that BHL 6922d is a summarised version preserved in Germany, notably in the 15th century legendary of Hermann Greven, while BHL 6922e is a version rewritten in the 15th century by Giovanni Garzone. There are more than a hundred manuscripts of BHL 6922: see the database Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Manuscripta ( and an additional list in Lanéry 2010, 248 n. 529. The earliest are from the 9th century: Frankfurt am Main, Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek, I.46; Stuttgart, Würtembergische Landesbibliothek, HB XIV.13, f. 203v-207r; Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 516, f. 112r-113v; Vienna, ÖNB, lat. 357, f. 145v-150r (9th to 10th c.).


The Martyrdom provides evidence of the cult of Primus and Felicianus in Numentum. It gives the feast day, 9 June, refers to favours bestowed (beneficia), and healing miracles performed at their burial place. It also mentions the building of a basilica on the site, after the end of the persecutions, at the 14th milestone from Rome (on the via Numentana), which corresponds to the location of the ancient city of Numentum; for a comprehensive discussion, comparing topographical information in our Martyrdom with other literary and archaeological evidence, see in particular Passigli 1985. The Martyrologium Hieronymianum records the feast of the martyrs on 9 June and situates their burial site on the via Numentana at the fifteenth milestone (see E04846). However, it also records Primus and Felicianus on 28 May (see E04828), at the thirteenth milestone, perhaps matching information found in our Martyrdom, which states that the martyrs were brought to the centre of Numentum at the thirteenth mile, in the zone of the forum and of the amphitheatre, to be interrogated, tortured and killed. For Lanzoni 1927, 139-140, and Delehaye 1931, the date of 28 May was perhaps due to the redactor of the Martyrologium confusing the fifth day before the Kalends of June (28 May) and before the Ides of June (9 June). The feast of 9 June is clearly best attested (it is also recorded in an 8th century Gelasian sacramentary: see CCSL 159, 144). Later, the Liber Pontificalis records the transfer of the martyrs’ relics to Rome, apparently from the same site mentioned in our Martyrdom (in arenario ... via Numentana), during the papacy of Theodorus (ob. 649, see E01629). The Itinerarium Malmesburiense, written probably shortly after Theodorus’ papacy, confirms this, as it records that their bodies are found in the church of S. Stefano Rotondo on the Caelian Hill in Rome (see EXXXX). A mosaic commissioned by pope Theodorus representing the two martyrs is preserved today in the same church (see EXXXX). Thus, all this evidence shows that the cult of Primus and Felicianus developed in Numentum before the 7th century, and later in Rome. The Martyrdom is generally dated to the 5th or 6th century: Clavis Patrum Latinorum 2222; R. Gryson, Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques Latins de l’Antiquité et du Haut moyen âge, 2 vols. (Freiburg, 2007), I, 83. As the Martyrdom only focuses on the burial site of the martyrs, in use up to the time of writing, with no mention of the transfer of relics, it seems plausible that it was written before this transfer, at some point between the 5th and early 7th century. Lanéry 2010, 249-250 has argued that historical features in the presentation of the martyrs’ trial perhaps point to a dating in the 5th century, while Lapidge prefers to date it with uncertainty between 550 and 600.


Editions (BHL 6922): Mombritius, B., Sanctuarium seu vitae sanctorum, 2 vols. with additions and corrections by A. Brunet and H. Quentin (Paris, 1910), II, 411-414. The original edition was published c. 1480. Acta Sanctorum, Jun. II, 151-152. Translation: Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 413-419. Further reading: Acta Sanctorum, Nov. II: Pars posterior qua continetur Hippolyti Delehaye Commentarius perpetuus in Martyrologium Hieronymianum ad recensionem Henrici Quentin O. S. B. (Brussels, 1931): 28 May. Amore, A., I martiri di Roma (Rome, 1975), 86-88. 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 246-250. Lanzoni, F., Le diocesi d’Italia dalle origini al principio del secolo vii, 2 vols. (1927), 139-140. Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 411-413. Passigli, S., “Una questione di topografia cristiana: l’ubicazione della basilica dei ss. Primo e Feliciano sulla Via Nomentana,” Rivista di archeologia cristiana 61 (1985), 311-332.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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