Saint NameFelicitas, 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 SourceFelicitas, Ianuarius, Felix, Philippus, Silanus, Alexander, Vitalis, Martialis
Type of EvidenceLiterary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom
Evidence not before350
Evidence not after600
Activity not before138
Activity not after193
Place of Evidence - RegionRome and region
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Rome
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsComposing and translating saint-related texts
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesWomen
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.).
DiscussionThe 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).
BibliographyEditions (BHL 2853):
Acta Sanctorum, Iul., III, 12-13.
Künstle, K., Haiographische Studien über die Passio Felicitatis cum VII filiis (Paderborn, 1894), 60-63.
Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 49-53.
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.