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E02095: The Martyrdom of *Symphorosa and her Seven Sons (martyrs of Tivoli, S01165) is written in Latin presumably in Tivoli near Rome in Late Antiquity. It narrates the trial and death of Symphorosa and her sons under the emperor Hadrian.

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posted on 2016-12-09, 00:00 authored by mpignot
Martyrdom of Symphorosa and her Seven Sons (BHL 7971)


Prologue [only found in the version published by Mombritius]:

Sanctus Eusebius historiographus memorat Aphricanum pene omnium de urbe regia atque de tota Italia Christi martyrium gesta conscripsisse. Nam Symphorosam dixit apud tyburtinam urbem cum septem filiis suis una die ab Adriano principe hoc ordine interfectam.

‘Saint Eusebius the history writer recalls that Africanus put into writing accounts about almost all martyrs of Christ from Rome and Italy. Thus he told that Symphorosa was killed in the city of Tibur (Tivoli) with her seven sons in one day by the emperor Hadrian in the following manner.'

§ 1: Hadrian builds a palace and sacrifices to the idols, who tell him that they suffer because of the widow Symphorosa and her seven sons who invoke God. The idols tell him that Symphorosa should sacrifice, so that they may fulfil his prayers. Hadrian summons her and her sons and asks them to sacrifice.

§ 2: Symphorosa recalls her husband Getulius and his brother Amatius, tribunes of the emperor who died for their Christian faith and are now among the angels and enjoy eternal life in heaven.

§ 3: Hadrian asks Symphorosa to sacrifice, otherwise he will sacrifice her with her seven sons. Symphorosa is amazed to be worthy of being offered to God, but Hadrian explains that she will be sacrificed to the gods. Symphorosa replies that she cannot be received by them as a sacrifice, but by Christ, and as a result his gods will burn. Hadrian asks her again to sacrifice or she will be put to death.

§ 4: Symphorosa tells Hadrian that she has no fear, but desires to rest with her husband. Hadrian orders her to be brought to the temple of Hercules and to be beaten with sticks and hanged by her hair. Then, however, as he cannot change her mind, he orders her to be thrown into the river with a huge stone hanging around her neck. Her body is recovered by Eugenius, the chief magistrate (principalis) of the curia Tiburina and buried in the suburbs of the same city.

§ 5: The next day Hadrian summons the seven sons and threatens them, in order to bring them to sacrifice, however without success. He then orders them to be bound to seven stakes near the temple of Hercules and tortured. Then the first, Crescentius, is pierced through the throat, the second, Julianus, in the chest, the third, Nemesius, in the heart, the fourth, Primitivus, in the navel, the fifth, Justinus, in the back, the sixth, Stracteus, in the side and the seventh, Eugenius, from head to bottom.

§ 6: The next day, Hadrian comes to the temple of Hercules and orders their bodies to be thrown in a deep pit, in a place called by the pagan priests 'at the seven Biothanatos' (Ad septem Biothanatos).

[Additional episode found in Mombritius’ edition: On the octave of the martyrs’ death, the daughter of the emperor Hadrian comes to the place where the saints are buried and the Devil speaks from her mouth and says that he has been burned by the seven brothers. The emperor is full of fear and his magicians and soothsayers lead him underground beneath the palace in Tivoli; they tell him that if he sees the light of day he will die. After spending a full year there, however, Hadrian goes outside eager to see sunlight and is immediately taken and assaulted by a demon until he dies. Christ starts to be feared.]

The persecution is then halted for a year and six months.

In quo spatio omnium martyrum honorata sunt sancta corpora, et constructis tumulis condita cum omni diligentia: quorum nomina descripta sunt in libro vitæ.

‘During that time the holy bodies of all martyrs were honoured, and tombs having being built, they were embalmed with every care. Their names are written down in the book of life.'

The feast of the martyr Symphorosa and her seven sons is celebrated on the 15th day of the calends of August (= 18 July) [alternative date according to the version published by Mombritius: ‘the fifth day of the calends of July (= 27 June)]. Their bodies rest on the via Tiburtina at the eighth mile from the city [alternative place according to the version published by Mombritius: ‘ninth mile’].

Text: Acta Sanctorum, Jul. IV, 358-359 (martyrdom account); Mombritius 1910, II, 552-553 for the prologue and additions. Summary and translation: M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Symphorosa and her seven sons : S01165

Saint Name in Source

Symphorosa et septem filii

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 north of Rome with Corsica and Sardinia

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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

Tibur Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - unspecified

Cult activities - Places Named after Saint

  • Other

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Punishing miracle Other miracles with demons and demonic creatures

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Children Monarchs and their family Officials

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body


Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Symphorosa and her seven sons 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 Symphorosa and her seven sons BHL 7971, the main version of our text, is attested in more than 30 manuscripts, see the database Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Manuscripta (, and an additional list in Lanéry 2010, 235-236 n. 507. The earliest manuscripts are from the 9th century: Koblenz, Staatsarch., Best 701 Nr. 759/54, f. 1r-1v; Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB XIV.13, f. 227-228. As summarised by Lanéry, BHL 7971a is an alternative version found in a number of Roman manuscripts, bearing a different ending, situating the bodies of the martyrs within the walls of Rome in the basilica of saint Michael, probably as a result of the development of the medieval cult of Symphorosa. The text of BHL 7971 was published by Mombritius in the 15th century and by Ruinart in the 17th (then reprinted in the Acta Sanctorum). There are a number of differences however among the manuscripts and editions of BHL 7971. Mombritius’ version includes a prologue referring to Julianus Africanus as the composer of the martyrdom, and the narrative about Hadrian’s death a year after the martyrs’ death, which are both omitted in some manuscripts and in the editions of Ruinart and the Acta Sanctorum. Lanéry has noted that the narrative about Hadrian’s death is found in manuscripts from the 9th century, and she has argued that it was part of the original narrative, perhaps employed to develop liturgical celebrations for the octave of the martyrs’ death. The prologue is similarly well attested in manuscripts. The reference to a corpus of martyrdom accounts known to Eusebius could perhaps be related to the tradition reported by Gregory the Great (see E02794) and the prefatory letters to the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (EXXXX) according to which Eusebius himself put together a corpus of martyrdom accounts, a tradition also mentioned in other late antique martyrdom accounts such as the Martyrdom of Anthimus (E02483). The Acts of Sylvester (E03229) are also often preceded by prologues attributing such a collection of martyrdoms to Eusebius. For Lanéry, the prologue was probably already in the Carolingian archetype of the text, but perhaps not written by the original author of our Martyrdom, particularly because of the contradiction between the prologue, stating that all were martyred in one day (una die), while the narrative distinguishes Symphorosa’s martyrdom from that of her sons (alia die). For Lanéry, the contradiction corresponds to the fact that at first Symphorosa was honoured alone on 18 July and her sons on 29 May and 27 June, when the hagiographer would have written his account, while later they were all celebrated together on 18 July as attested by the Martyrologium Hieronymianum. Nevertheless, it should be noted that all are also said to be commemorated on 18 July in the Martyrdom at § 7, while the entry in the Martyrologium mentions seven brothers but with different names than those given in the Martyrdom.


There is little early literary evidence for the cult of Symphorosa and her sons on the via Tiburtina, although excavations have unearthed a late antique basilica at the ninth milestone (see Stevenson 1878; Stapleford 1974). Perhaps in the 5th or 6th century, the Liber ad Gregoriam, uncertainly attributed to Arnobius the Younger, refers to written gesta and passiones, and mentions the veneration of Symphorosa and her sons as martyrs in Tivoli without naming them (see E02264). Similarly, the Martyrologium Hieronymianum refers on 29 May to ‘seven sons on the via Tiburtina’ and on 27 June, to ‘seven sons in Rome’ (see E04829, E04864). On 18 July (E04885), the Martyrologium has a fuller description, referring to Symphorosa, her seven sons, who are named (but the names do not correspond to our Martyrdom), also referring to written accounts (gesta). For an overview of early sources see S01165. The Martyrdom, particularly its prologue and ending, provides further evidence for the promotion of the martyrs’ cult in Tivoli, as it describes the building of tombs for the martyrs. It also names the burial place of the sons as Ad septem Biothanatos. Lanéry suggests that this Greek term referring to people who died in violence, which well fits with the presence of Greek-speaking communities in the region in late Antiquity (see for instance, as noted by M. Humphries for the Roman Martyrs Project: Inscriptiones Italiae IV, 1 for many examples of Greek inscriptions in Tivoli). A funerary inscription (Inscr. Italiae IV, 1, 599) may provide some clues on the origins of our Martyrdom. Found on the via Tiburtina, it honours a certain Sympherusa with her husband, Ti. Claudius Alcimus and her daughter Claudia Primitiva: DIS MANIB TI CLAVD ALCIMVS FEC SE VIVO SIBI ET CORNE LIAE SYMPHERVSAE CON TVBERNALI CARISSIMAE ET CLAVDIAE PRIMITIVAE FILAE SVAE ET SVIS POSTERISQVE EORVM It is possible that this inscription was used by the hagiographer when he wrote the Martyrdom, borrowing her name and the name Primitiva for one of her sons, named Primitivus. This inscription may also have inspired the hagiographer of the Martyrdom of Sebastianus (E02512) who mentions a certain Symphorosa and her husband Claudius, thus corresponding to the inscription (these references are taken from M. Humphries, The Roman Martyrs Project, Manchester University; for an example of inscriptions used in hagiography see Humphries 1997). The Martyrdom has traditionally been dated to the 6th or 7th century, without specific arguments (Clavis Patrum Latinorum 2238; Gryson 2007, I, 89). It is similar to the Roman Martyrdom of Felicitas (see E02494), a saint honoured on the via Salaria. The name Symphorosa, somehow the Greek equivalent of Felicitas, could also betray a connection to the Martyrdom of Felicitas, to be dated before the late 6th century, and itself based on the biblical episode of the martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees (see Consolino and Zocca). As underlined by Lanéry, the author of our Martyrdom also knew of the martyrs of the via Salaria, as suggested by the fact that he related Symphorosa to the martyrs Getulius and Amatius, honoured there (for their martyrdom see E03225). Therefore, for Lanéry, our Martyrdom has to be dated after that of Felicitas and before the mid 5th century, since Arnobius’ Ad Gregoriam and the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (entries of 29 May, 27 June and 18 July) mentioned the martyrs, respectively in the 430s and around 450 (following Delehaye’s dating hypothesis of the Martyrologium). However, the issue of the authorship and dating of the Liber ad Gregoriam is still unsettled (see E02264) and its reference to the names of the martyrs does not prove that the author had read the Martyrdom. The same applies to the supposed borrowings in the Martyrologium. The uncertainty of arguments based on such parallels is shown by the fact that, most recently, Lapidge has equally plausibly argued for the opposite thesis: it would be the Martyrdom, composed between c. 600 and 700, that borrowed from the entries on 29 May and 27 June, and/or from the 7th century itinerary De locis sanctis martyrum referring to the names of the saints and the location of burial (Lapidge 2018, 603-5). In summary, the various sources about Symphorosa and her seven sons do not provide a solid basis to date our Martyrdom, which can only be dated broadly between the 5th and the early 8th century, in the context of the development of cult of Symphorosa and her sons on the via Tiburtina. The earliest preserved manuscripts date from the 9th century, while the Martyrdom was already borrowed by Bede in his martyrology (E05583).


Editions (BHL 7971): Acta Sanctorum, Jul. IV, 358-359. Mombritius, B., Sanctuarium seu vitae sanctorum, 2 vols. with additions and corrections by A. Brunet and H. Quentin (Paris, 1910), II, 552-553. The original edition was published c. 1480. English translation: Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 605-607. Further reading: Consolino, F. E., “Modelli di santità femminile nelle più antiche Passioni romane,” in L’agiografia latina nei secoli iv-vii (1984), 83-113. Delehaye, H., Étude sur le Légendier Romain. Les saints de Novembre et de Décembre (Brussels, 1936), 121-123. Humphries, M., "Zeno and Gallienus: Two Gentlemen of Verona," Classics Ireland 4 (1997), 67-78. 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 233-238. Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 603-605. Stapleford, R.W., "The Excavation of the Early Christian Martyrs Complex of Sinforosa near Rome" (PhD Dissertation, New York University, 1974). Stevenson, E., Scoperta della basilica di S. Sinforosa e dei suoi sette figli al non miglio della Via Tiburtina (Rome, 1878). Zocca, E., “Il modello dei sette fratelli ‘Maccabei’ nella più antica agiografia latina,” Sanctorum 4 (2007), 121-128.

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