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E02475: The Latin Martyrdom of *Agnes (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00097), is written, presumably in Rome, during Late Antiquity, certainly before the late 7th c. It tells of how Agnes, a young woman of noble birth, embraces chastity, is exposed in a brothel, and is eventually martyred. She is buried on the via Numentana. Near her grave *Emerentiana (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00496) is also martyred; Constantia, daughter of the emperor Constantine, is cured there, leading to the building of a basilica for Agnes and a mausoleum for Constantia.

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posted on 2017-03-07, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Martyrdom of Agnes (BHL156)

The Martyrdom is written in the guise of a letter from Ambrose bishop of Milan (374-97) to a community of holy virgins.


§ 1: Ambrose writes to the sacred virgins. He exhorts them to celebrate the feast day of Agnes with psalms and readings (lectiones). He then recalls Agnes’ martyrdom. She died in her thirteenth year, young in age, body and appearance, but mature in mind, soul and faith.

§ 2: The son of the Prefect of the City sees Agnes returning from school and falls in love with her. He tries to tempt her with gifts, in particular precious stones, that Agnes refuses. He redoubles his efforts, offering her even more riches.

§ 3: Ambrose provides the text of her speech of refusal: she says that she is already promised to, and more richly adorned by, a far greater lover, who has offered her the most beautiful and precious jewellery and garments. He has placed his mark (signum) on her face so that she will accept no other lover. He has promised her treasures that cannot be equalled. She has already received honey and milk from his mouth, and he has chastely embraced her; her body has been united to his body and blood. He is born from a virgin and served by angels, he gives life to the dead and heals the weak, he has infinite riches. She is faithful to him. Her love for him will keep her chaste and virgin, and their children will be without painful labour.

§ 4: Hearing this refusal the young man falls sick: doctors diagnose love. His father, hearing this, asks Agnes to reveal to whom she is engaged, emphasising that he is the Prefect and there is no better match for a wedding. One of his hangers-on (parasiti) points out that she has been Christian from infancy, and occupied in magical arts which lead her to say that she is betrothed to Christ.

§ 5: The Prefect coaxes, then threatens, Agnes to come before the tribunal, but she scorns him. The Prefect Symphronius then appeals in vain to Agnes’ parents. He cannot compel them, since they are aristocrats (nobiles), so he summons her on the grounds of them being Christian. However, he fails to convince her. He therefore requires her to reject the superstition (superstitio) of Christians and suggests that she should become a Vestal Virgin.

§ 6: Agnes tells him that if she refused his son, a living and rational being, for love of Christ, she cannot worship dumb and deaf idols. The Prefect replies that he can excuse her blasphemy because of her youth, but that she should beware of the gods. Agnes remarks that she is is young in body but not in faith. She does not fear the gods and waits for them to speak for themselves.

§ 7: Symphronius orders Agnes to choose between becoming a Vestal Virgin or being employed in a brothel (lupanar). She responds that God will protect her from either: an angel of the Lord protects her body; the Son of God protects her as an impassable wall. The gods are made of copper and stone, materials that could be put to better use. Divinity resides in heaven, not in stone or metal. The Prefect should abandon such cult to avoid being punished by eternal fire.

§ 8: The Prefect orders Agnes to be stripped and taken to a brothel, but her hair hides her nakedness better than clothes. When she gets there, an angel envelops her in blinding light. As she prays to the Lord, a shining white and perfectly-fitting long robe (stola) appears, surely made by angels. She wears it and thanks the Lord Jesus Christ.

§ 9: The brothel becomes a place of prayer (locus orationis); everyone emerges purer than when they entered. The son of the Prefect comes with a gang of young men to insult and abuse Agnes. Seeing others who first entered come out with great respect and amazement, he mocks them and rushes into the place where Agnes is praying. He sees the light around her, rushes to it but dies before being able to touch her, suffocated by the Devil. Friends waiting for some time outside think that he is busy with obscene deeds; one of them enters and finds him dead. He accuses the prostitute (meretrix) Agnes of having killed him with magic.

§ 10: All gather at the theatre, arguing about Agnes’ guilt. The Prefect, hearing that his son died, comes to the theatre, sees the dead body and accuses Agnes of cruelty for having killed his son with magic. Agnes tells what happened: he was killed by an angel because he tried to touch her, while all others treated her respectfully. He challenges her to ask the angel to revive his son. She agrees but asks to go outside the theatre, where she used to pray to the Lord. All gather there, she prays to the Lord asking Him to revive the young man. An angel appears to her and revives the young man. She praises God with a loud voice and exhorts everyone to abandon the gods.

§ 11: Soothsayers (aruspices) and pagan priests (pontifices) stir up the people, accusing Agnes of magic. The Prefect is astounded but afraid of proscription (proscriptio) if he opposes them. He leaves his deputy (vicarius) Aspasius to deal with the popular revolt, and retreats with sadness, because he is unable to save Agnes. Aspasius orders a huge fire to be built and throws Agnes into it. However the fire divides around Agnes, and burns the mob instead. People think that it is magic, not divine power. Agnes thanks God with a long liturgical prayer for the heavenly dew with which she is suffused.

§ 12: At the end of Agnes’ prayer the fire is suddenly and completely extinguished. Aspasius orders a sword to be plunged into Agnes’ throat. Christ consecrates her as his spouse and martyr.

§ 13: Her parents, rejoicing, take Agnes’ body and bury it on their property on the via Numentana, not far from the city. Pagans (pagani) attack a crowd of Christians gathered there, who flee. However, Emerentiana, a holy virgin and catechumen (catechumena), stands her ground and lectures them. She is stoned, and dies near (iuxta) Agnes’ tomb. There is no doubt that she was baptised in her own blood, as she confessed the Lord. An earthquake with lightning and thunder immediately follows, killing most of the mad (insani) people. There is no further pagan harassment at the tombs of the saints (ad sepulchra sanctorum). Agnes’ parents come with priests (sacerdotes) at night, take Emerentiana’s body and 'bury it on the border of the small estate of the most blessed virgin Agnes' (sepelierunt illud in confinio agelli beatissimae virginis Agnetis).

§ 14: The parents hold vigils at Agnes’ tomb: she appears to them in the middle of the night, with other virgins, all wearing a golden state-robe (cyclas), and at her right hand a lamb whiter than snow. They are astonished; she tells them not to mourn her death but to share her joy, because she is joined with the one she loves.

§ 15: The vision becomes public knowledge, and some years later (post aliquantos annos) it is told to Constantia, the daughter of the emperor Constantine. Constantia was queen (regina) and virgin, but gravely wounded all over her body. Hoping to regain health, she prays at Agnes’ tomb at night with a pagan (pagana) and credulous (credula) disposition. She falls asleep, and sees Agnes telling her to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ son of God who will heal her. Constantia awakes cured, with no sign of scars.

§ 16: She returns healed to the palace and tells the news to her father, the Augustus, and her brothers, the emperors (imperatores). The whole city rejoices. Constantia asks her father and brothers to build a basilica for Agnes, with a mausoleum for her. The news spreads and many go to the tomb and are healed. This continues to happen up to this day. Constantia remains a virgin, and encourages women of all classes to take the veil. Up to the present day many Roman virgins follow Agnes’ example.

§ 17: All this, I Ambrose, servant of Christ, have found written in hidden volumes and have decided not to hide in silence. I wrote this to honour such a martyr and copied her gesta as I found them. I sent this to you, virgins of Christ, for your edification.

Text: Acta Sanctorum, Ian. II, 351-354. Summary: Catherine Conybeare (Manchester University, Roman Martyrs Project), adapted and expanded by Matthieu Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Agnes, martyr in Rome (ob. c. 304) : S00097 Emerentiana, virgin and martyr of Rome : S00495

Saint Name in Source

Agnes Emerentiana

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom Literary - Letters


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

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

Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Acceptance/rejection of saints from other religious groupings

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracle at martyrdom and death Miracle after death Miracles experienced by the saint Punishing miracle Miracles causing conversion Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather) Healing diseases and disabilities Healing diseases and disabilities Power over life and death Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Miraculous sound, smell, light

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Crowds Unbaptized Christians Relatives of the saint Pagans The socially marginal (beggars, prostitutes, thieves) Monarchs and their family Aristocrats Officials Angels Physicians Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body


Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Agnes 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 novelistic 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 c. 400-c. 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 Agnes There is one main early Latin version of our Martyrdom, BHL 156. Lanéry 2008, 349-353, argues that the hypothesis of Franchi De’ Cavalieri, according to which BHL 156 is based on an earlier lost text, only focussing on Agnes and without Ambrosian authorship, does not hold in view of the manuscript transmission. Other versions of our Martyrdom contain only minor variants, or are summaries or extracts of the main version (BHL 156a-b, BHL 157, BHL 2527-2527a), on which see Lanéry 2010, 195. The manuscript evidence for BHL 156 and its variant versions is extremely abundant, with more than 400 manuscripts preserved. See the lists in Lanéry 2008, 347-349 (full list attached on cd-rom), and Lanéry 2010, 195 n. 407. The earliest are from the 8th c.: Munich, BSB, Clm 4554, f. 150v-155v (BHL 156b; 8th c.); Paris, BNF, lat. 12598, f. 86v-93v (BHL 156; 8th-9th c.); Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, D.V.3, f. 79r-83v (BHL 156; 8th c.); Vienna, ÖNB, lat. 1556, f. 100r-106r (BHL 156; 8th-9th c.). In parallel with the Latin, there are two main Greek versions: BHG 45 and BHG 46, the latter being a translation of BHL 156. BHG 45, however, only shares the brothel episode with BHL 156, otherwise portraying Agnes as an adult virgin who dies by fire. The relation between BHL 156 and BHG 45 is complex and cannot be easily solved. Lanéry, in her studies on our Martyrdom, because of archaic features of the Greek, has argued in favour of the hypothesis that it was written first and that the author of our Latin Martyrdom later borrowed from it. BHG 45 was also translated into Syriac (BHO 34).


The Martyrdom of Agnes provides evidence for the cult of Agnes near Rome on the via Numentana, corroborating other early sources (see S00097). It relates the promotion of Agnes’ cult to the daughter of Constantine, named as Constantia, attesting the building of a basilica and a mausoleum at the burial site of the saint. It also clearly shows that a community of virgins was attached to the cult place at the time of writing. Finally, it relates Agnes to Emerentiana, noting that they are buried close to each other. All this strongly suggests that the Martyrdom was written in Rome. The Martyrdom is introduced as a work of Ambrose by its author; however, this attribution is clearly a forgery (see Lanéry 2008, 355-57). The Martyrdom was written before the late 7th century, when Aldhelm borrowed from it (E06584 and E06659), while the earliest manuscripts are from the 8th century. A pseudepigraphic sermon, formerly attributed to Ambrose or Maximus of Turin, written perhaps in the 6th century and certainly before the 8th century, also clearly makes use of the Martyrdom (E02616). The Martyrdom of Agnes can thus be broadly dated to Late Antiquity, probably before the 7th century. Many attempts have been made to narrow the dating, by comparing our Martyrdom with other sources, most scholars suggesting a composition in the 5th or 6th century (see a list of hypotheses in Tomea 2010, 22-23). Thus, our Martyrdom shares details such as the death of Agnes by the sword and her young age with Ambrose (see E05212 and EXXXX), and the miracle of the hair could have resulted from the reading of an inscription set up by Damasus, bishop of Rome 366-384 (E07189). There seems to be no clear connection, however, with the poem for Agnes written in around AD 400 by Prudentius (E04418), which shares the story of Agnes being compelled to enter a brothel, but differs in many of its important details. Although a direct borrowing from well-dated early sources cannot be demonstrated, the fact that the author presents himself as Ambrose, bishop of Milan 374-397, shows that at he did not write before the late 4th century. Plausible contacts with other, less easily dated, late antique sources have been evoked to better situate the composition of our Martyrdom. First, the episode of the brothel may either have been directly borrowed from the Greek martyrdom account BHG 45 (if this was early), or from a common early source. Then, Dufourcq 1907, followed by Lanéry, suggested that our Martyrdom may come from the same environment as the Martyrdom of *Gervasius and Protasius (E02498), pseudo-Ambrosian, and perhaps written in letter form by a member of the clergy of the titulus Vestinae, who were in charge of Agnes' basilica from the time of Innocentius I (401-417) (E01276). For Lanéry, our Martyrdom, although dated later than the Martyrdom of Gervasius and Protasius, was written by a cleric of the same titulus, creating yet another pseudo-Ambrosian hagiographical text in letter form with the objective of promoting the supposed Constantinian origins of Agnes' monastery attached to the basilica. Scholars have also noted that the author may have used a dedicatory inscription of Constantina (misnamed as Constantia in our Martyrdom), the daughter of Constantine, formerly found on the arch of the apse of the basilica dedicated to Agnes (EXXXX). Further potential parallels in Latin late antique martyrdom accounts are summarised by Lanéry: our Martyrdom may have borrowed narrative features from the Martyrdom of *Clement (E02488), the Martyrdom of *Nereus and Achilleus (E02033) and the original version of the Martyrdom of *Eugenia (E02490). In turn, our Martyrdom may have influenced BHL 2666, the rewriting of the Martyrdom of *Eugenia (E02490), and the Martyrdom of *Gallicanus, Iohannes and Paulus (E02520). Although most of these texts are difficult to date, on the basis of these parallels, Lanéry, followed by Lapidge, suggests that our Martyrdom was composed between the mid 5th and early 6th century, arguing that the pontificate of Symmachus (498-514), with the renovation of Agnes’ basilica, provides a plausible context.


Edition (BHL 156): Acta Sanctorum, Ian. II, 351-354 (and Patrologia Latina 17, 735-742). English translation: Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 353-362. Further reading: Dufourcq, A., Étude sur les Gesta martyrum romains, vol. II (Paris, 1907), 53-56. Franchi De’ Cavalieri, P., S. Agnese nella tradizione e nella leggenda (Rome, 1899), reprinted in Franchi De’ Cavalieri, P., Scritti agiografici 1, Studi e Testi 221 (Vatican City, 1962), 293-381. Lanéry, C., Ambroise de Milan hagiographe (Paris, 2008), 347-383. 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 192-203. Lanéry, C., “La légende de sainte Agnès: quelques réflexions sur la genèse d’un dossier hagiographique (IVe-VIe s.),” Mélanges de l’école française de Rome 126/1 (2014): Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 348-353. Tomea, P., “Corpore quidem iuvencula sed animo cana. La Passio Agnetis BHL 156 e il topos della puella senex nell’agiografia mediolatina,” Analecta Bollandiana 128 (2010), 18-55.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity