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E02494: The Martyrdom of *Felicitas and her seven sons (martyrs of Rome, S00525), is written in Latin, before the late 6th c. It briefly narrates the arrest, trial and death of Felicitas and her seven sons.

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posted on 2017-03-08, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Martyrdom of Felicitas and her seven sons (BHL 2853)

§ 1: Under the emperor Antoninus, there is a revolt of pagan priests and the Christians Felicitas and her seven sons are arrested. Felicitas is a widow who has chosen to dedicate the rest of her life to God, praying night and day. The pagan priests see that she promotes Christianity and ask the emperor to bring her to venerate the gods in order to avoid their wrath. The emperor asks the prefect of the city Publius to compel Felicitas and her sons to sacrifice. Publius tries first to discuss privately with her, but he fails to convince her.

§ 2: Publius summons Felicitas and her sons to the forum of Mars. Felicitas exhorts her sons to persevere, then she is beaten.

§§ 3-4: Publius tries to convince her first son Ianuarius, without success, and orders him to be beaten and sent to prison. He then successively attempts to convince the other sons of Felicitas, Felix, Philippus, Silanus, Alexander, Vitalis, and Martialis, but they all profess their faith and refuse to sacrifice. Publius then sends a written report of what has happened to Antoninus.

§ 5: Antoninus sends them to various judges to be tortured. The first son is killed with scourges with leaden balls (plumbatae), the second and the third with sticks, the fourth is thrown down a precipice, the fifth, sixth and seventh receive capital punishment and the mother is beheaded. They all become martyrs of Christ, hastening to eternal rewards in heaven.

Text: Künstle 1894, 60-63 (paragraph numbers from the Acta Sanctorum edition). Summary: M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Felicitas, martyr in Rome and her seven sons (Ianuarius, Felix, Philippus, Silvanus, Alexander, Vitalis, Martialis) : S00525 Ianuarius, eldest son of Felicitas and martyr of Rome, buried on the via Appia : S02863

Saint Name in Source

Felicitas, Ianuarius, Felix, Philippus, Silanus, Alexander, Vitalis, Martialis Ianuarius

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 name in other Language(s)

Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Children Officials


Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Felicitas 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 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 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 Felicitas and her seven sons The earliest and most diffused version of the Martyrdom is BHL 2853 (BHL 2853a corresponds to a version with a slightly different ending). Reworked longer versions (BHL 2855, BHL 2855a, BHL 2855d, BHL 2854), ending with references to cult of the saints in Campania are of uncertain date (according to Lanéry, they were not composed before the 9th century; on these versions and different interpretations over their relation and dating, see Philippart and Lanéry). BHL 2853 is widely diffused, with more than 150 manuscripts preserved, the earliest from the 9th century: Brussels, Bibliothèque des Bollandistes, 14 (9th or 10th c.) Cividale, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 22, f. 96v-99r (9th c.) Graz, Universitätsbibliothek, 412, f. 209r-v (9th c.) Kalrsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Aug. XXXII, f. 2v-3v (9th c.) Koblenz, Staatsarchiv, Best 701 Nr. 759/54, f. 2v (9th c.) Paris, BNF, lat. 5296D, f. 70v-72v (9th c.) Paris, BNF, lat. 5299, f. 32r-34v (9th c.) Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 5771, f. 339r-339bisv (9th or 10th c.).


The Martyrdom is focussed on the narrative of the trial and death of the martyrs, modelled on the story of the Maccabean Martyrs, as is the case for a number of other hagiographical texts from Late Antiquity (S00303; see Consolino, 86-88 and Zocca 2007 for discussion). The narrative provides almost no clues on their cult, but it connects, perhaps because of the proximity of their cult sites, the characters of Felicitas (honoured on 23 November as clear from the Martyrologium Hieronymianum see E05028) and seven other martyrs from Rome, probably making use of the Chronography of 354 (E01052) listing the seven martyrs on 10 July. The composition has to be related to the developing cult of Felicitas and of seven martyr brothers in Rome as attested in particular through late 4th century inscriptions (see discussion in Lanéry 2010, 42-43; Lapidge 2018, 45-49). The precise date of composition of the Martyrdom remains uncertain, but it can be situated before the late 6th century. While the earliest manuscripts date from the 9th century, it was clearly already borrowed by Bede in his martyrology, compiled no later than 731 (E05578), while a martyrdom account about Felicitas is evoked by Gregory the Great in a homily (Hom. ev. I.3.3; Lanéry argues that it is BHL 3853). It may have been composed even earlier, if it was known to Peter Chrysologus (E02980) and the author of the Liber ad Gregoriam (E02264), although these sources are too generic to provide clear evidence of borrowing from the Martyrdom (the same goes for other references to cult of Felicitas or her sons, see S00525 for further evidence). The exact relationship to the Martyrdom of Symphorosa (E02095), also narrating the martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons near Rome, deserves further study, while it is possible, as suggested by Lanéry, that our Martyrdom was a source of inspiration for it. On the basis of these supposed early borrowings, Lanéry has suggested to date our Martyrdom to around 400. This is broadly followed by Lapidge, who suggested a composition around 420 in connection to the building of an oratory in honour of Felicitas in Rome (E01285).


Editions (BHL 2853): Acta Sanctorum, Iul., III, 12-13. Künstle, K., Haiographische Studien über die Passio Felicitatis cum VII filiis (Paderborn, 1894), 60-63. Translation: Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 49-53. 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, esp. 86-88. Delehaye, H., Étude sur le Légendier Romain. Les saints de Novembre et de Décembre (Brussels, 1936), 116-123. 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 35-45. Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 45-49. Philippart, G., "Grégoire le Grand et les gesta martyrum," in: Degl’Innocenti, A., et al. (eds.), Gregorio Magno e l’agiografia fra IV e VII secolo. Atti dell’incontro di studio delle Università degli Studi di Verona e Trento (Verona, 10-11 dic. 2004) (Florence, 2007), 257-283. Zocca, E. “Il modello dei sette fratelli ‘Maccabei’ nella più antica agiografia latina.” Sanctorum 4 (2007), 101-128.

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