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E02498: The Martyrdom and Invention of *Gervasius and Protasius (martyrs of Milan, S00313) is written in Latin during Late Antiquity, in Ravenna or Rome (and perhaps in the 5th c.), in the form of a letter written by Ambrose of Milan. It narrates the martyrdoms in Ravenna of *Ursicinus (martyr of Ravenna, S01408) and *Vitalis (martyr of Ravenna, S02825), and of Gervasius and Protasius in Milan; the brothers' bodies are stolen by a certain Philippus and later discovered by Ambrose in a marble sarcophagus, together with a booklet narrating their martyrdom.

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posted on 2017-03-08, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Martyrdom and Invention of Gervasius and Protasius (BHL 3514)


The Martyrdom is written in the form of a letter falsely ascribed to Ambrose. Paragraph numbers start at §17 following the Acta Sanctorum edition.

§ 17: Ambrose to the bishops of Italy. As said by the Psalmist, the Lord’s justice and mercy should not remain hidden. Thus we will tell you about the invention of the bodies of saints.

§ 18: During the last Lent, as I was fasting and praying, half asleep, I had a vision of two young men with shining garments praying, but I could not speak to them and the vision vanished. I fasted more earnestly and at dawn the two young men again appeared, and a third time on the third night. This time they were with the Apostle Paul, who told me that these two men had been martyred in Milan and were buried in the place where I prayed. I would find them beneath the ground in a sarcophagus (arca), and build a church in their name. When I asked about their names he told me that I would find a booklet (libellus) by their heads about their origin (ortus) and end (finis). I summoned all the bishops of the nearby cities, told them everything and supervised the digging. We found a sarcophagus as promised by Paul and inside the intact and fragrant bodies of the saints and a booklet by their heads in which everything was put into writing.

The letter then quotes the booklet:

Ego servus Christi Philippus, intra domum meam Sanctorum corpora cum filio meo rapui et sepelivi: quorum mater Valeria, et pater Vitalis dicti sunt; quos uno ortu geminos genuerunt, et unum Protasium, alium Gervasium vocaverunt.

'I the servant of Christ Philippus, with my son, stole and buried in my house the bodies of the saints: their mother was called Valeria and their father Vitalis; they begot them as twins in a single birth, and called one Protasius, the other Gervasius.'

§ 19: Their father Vitalis is a soldier; he arrives in Ravenna with the judge Paulinus and witnesses the capital punishment of Ursicinus, a Christian physician from Liguria. The place where Christians are executed is called 'at the palm' (ad palmam). After having been severely tortured, Ursicinus is to be executed, but starts losing his resolve. Vitalis however exhorts him to martyrdom and Ursicinus is martyred. Vitalis steals the body and buries it in Ravenna. Paulinus orders Vitalis to be arrested because he is a Christian and has encouraged Ursicinus to be martyred.

§ 20: Paulinus orders him to be tortured on a rack, trying to convince him to sacrifice. As Vitalis refuses, Paulinus orders him to be brought ad palmam, then a small pit to be dug, Vitalis to be laid in it and be buried alive under stones. The priest of Apollo who suggested this manner of death is possessed by the devil and after seven days, which he spends shouting at Vitalis' place of martyrdom, he dies by jumping in the river. Vitalis is buried next to the city of Ravenna and bestows many favours to all those who believe in the Lord, up to this day.

§ 21: Christians, and Vitalis himself in visions, prevent Valeria, his wife, from taking his body away. On her way back to Milan, worshippers of Silvanus try to bring her to feast with them, she refuses saying that she is Christian. They beat her most severely, she is brought half dead to Milan, and dies after three days. Gervasius and Protasius sell the house and all the possessions inherited from their parents, giving the money to the poor. They retire for ten years, reading, praying and fasting, then they are martyred.

§ 22: The count (comes) Astasius comes by Milan as he is going to fight the Marcomanni. Pagans ask him to compel Gervasius and Protasius to sacrifice. He orders them to be arrested and brought to him, and tries to convince them to sacrifice, but Gervasius speaks against worshipping idols. Astasius orders him to be scourged until he dies.

§ 23: Similarly Protasius refuses to sacrifice, fearing no punishment. Astasius orders him to be beaten and again tries to convince him. Protasius tells him that he hopes that he will be forgiven, as Christ wished forgiveness on those who crucified him, and that he is ready for martyrdom. Astasius orders him to be beheaded.

The text ends:

Quod cum factum fuisset, ego servus Christi Philippus abstuli cum filio meo furtim nocte corpora sancta, et in domo mea, Deo solo teste, et in ista arca marmorea sepelivi, credens me orationibus eorum consequi misericordiam Domini nostri Iesu Christi, qui cum patre et spiritu sancto vivit et regnat in secula seculorum, Amen.

'After that, I, the servant of Christ Philippus, with my son, took away the holy bodies secretly at night and buried them in my house and in this marble sarcophagus, with God alone as a witness, trusting through their prayers to obtain the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever, Amen.'

Text: Acta Sanctorum, Iun., III, 821-822. Summary: M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gervasius and Protasius, martyrs of Milan (Italy), ob. 1st/4th c. : S00313 Ursicinus, martyr of Ravenna : S01408 Vitalis, martyr of Ravenna : S02826

Saint Name in Source

Gervasius, Protasius Ursicinus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region Italy north of Rome with Corsica and Sardinia Italy north of Rome with Corsica and Sardinia

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

titulus Vestinae Ravenna Milan

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

titulus Vestinae Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē Ravenna Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia Milan Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Miracles

Observed scarcity/absence of miracles Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Bodily incorruptibility Saint aiding or preventing the translation of relics Saint aiding or preventing the construction of a cult building Punishing miracle Other miracles with demons and demonic creatures

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Pagans Foreigners (including Barbarians) Relatives of the saint Soldiers Officials Physicians Demons

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body Discovering, finding, invention and gathering of relics Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Construction of cult building to contain relics Privately owned relics


Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom and Invention of Gervasius and Protasius 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 and Invention of Gervasius and Protasius There is one main early version of the Martyrdom, BHL 3514, our focus here (for variant versions see Lanéry 2010, 62 n. 102; the Martyrdom was translated into Greek as BHG 67a). Another account, narrating the martyrdoms of Gervasius and Protasius together with those of Nazarius and Celsus, is BHL 3515-3519. There are more than 330 manuscripts of BHL 3514, starting from the 9th century: Autun, Bibliothèque Municipale, S 38 (34), f. 108r-112r; Graz, Universitätsbibliothek 412, f. 173v-175r; Intra, Archivio Capitolare, 12 (10), f. 55v-58r; Paris, BNF, lat. 5299, f. 29v-32r; Paris, BNF, lat. 10861, f. 63r-64v; Paris, BNF, lat. 13376, f. 1r-2r (fragment); St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 563, p. 213-218 (9th-10th c.); Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB. XIV.13, f. 149r-152v; Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB. XIV.14, f. 64v-66r; Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 516, f. 79v-81v; Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, vat. lat. 5771, f. 65r-66v (9th-10th c.). See lists and discussion in Lanéry 2008, 305-311, and the attached CD-Rom, and an additional list in Lanéry 2010, 62 n. 105.


The Martyrdom is written in the form of a letter sent by bishop Ambrose. For Lanéry, while showing no knowledge of Ambrose’s actual letter about the invention of the saints (E05211), the text was written on the basis of the tradition, notably reported in the Life of Ambrose (E00904), according to which Ambrose had a vision revealing him the location of the bodies of the saints. The narrative was framed on the letter about the Invention of Stephen translated into Latin (BHL 7581). The precise place and date of composition of this Martyrdom remain uncertain, although it is certainly late antique and found in manuscripts since the 9th century. Repertories of Latin texts situate it in the mid 5th century, following Savio and Lanzoni (Clavis Patrum Latinorum 2195; R. Gryson, Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques Latins de l’Antiquité et du Haut moyen âge, 2 vols. (Freiburg, 2007), I, 69). Lanéry underlines that the author shows little knowledge of the Milanese traditions about Gervasius and Protasius and their links to Nazarius and Celsus. She also argues against the widespread assumption that the Martyrdom was written in Ravenna (Savio; Dufourcq), particularly on the basis of the author's focus on Ursicinus and Vitalis' martyrdoms in Ravenna and of evidence in the 6th century of potential borrowings from the Martyrdom in an inscription in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna (E06047). Lanéry suggests that the Martyrdom should be dated before that, in the 5th century, because a Milanese preface for Gervasius and Protasius (EXXXX) made use of the Martyrdom (Paredi, followed by Lanéry, dated the prefaces to 450, although this remains uncertain). In the 5th century, a basilica was built and dedicated to Gervasius and Protasius by pope Innocent I (401-417) in the titulus Vestinae in Rome (see E01276), which was named after Vitalis in the Acts of the Roman Synod of 595 (EXXXX). For Lanéry, the Martyrdom was composed in Rome in the titulus Vestinae in the aftermath of the dedication of this basilica, after the Invention of Stephen in 415, and before 450 (the supposed date of the prefaces).


Editions (BHL 3514): Acta Sanctorum, Iun. 3, 821-822 Fábrega Grau, A., Pasionario Hispánico (siglos VIII-XI), 2 vols (Madrid-Barcelona, 1953-1955), II, 279-282. Further reading: Dufourcq, A., Étude sur les Gesta martyrum romains, vol. 2 (Paris, 1907), 37-53 and 277-278. Lanéry, C., Ambroise de Milan hagiographe (Paris, 2008), 305-347. 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 61-68 (with further bibliography). Lanzoni, F., Le diocesi d’Italia dalle origini al principio del secolo vii, 2 vols (1927), II, 725-731 and 1004-1005. Paredi, A., I prefazi ambrosiani. Contributo alla storia della liturgia latina (Milan, 1937), 167-168. Savio, F., “Due lettere falsamente attribuite a S. Ambrogio”, in: Savio, F., Gli antichi vescovi d’Italia dalle origini al 1300, descritti per regioni: Milano (Firenze, 1913, reprinted 1971); first published 1898.

Usage metrics

    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity