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E03221: The Martyrdom of *Cantius, Cantianus and Cantianilla (martyrs of Aquileia, S01552) is written in Latin, presumably in Aquileia, at an uncertain date between the 5th and the 9th centuries. It narrates how the main protagonists, born in Rome and instructed by Protus, flee Diocletian and Maximian’s persecution to their estates in Aquileia; there, they try again to flee from persecutors but are arrested, beheaded and their bodies buried by the priest Zoilus; an epilogue found in variant versions adds that Zoilus, who raised the virgins *Agape, Chionia and Irene (presumably martyrs of Thessalonike, S00206), has a vision telling him of their martyrdom; it also adds that the sisters pray at the martyrs’ tomb with *Anastasia (martyr of Sirmium and Rome, S00602) before Zoilus dies.

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posted on 2017-07-11, 00:00 authored by mpignot
Martyrdom of Cantinus, Cantianus and Cantianilla (BHL 1543-1547)


§ I: Prologue starting ‘Omnia quae a sanctis gesta sunt vel geruntur’ praising the deeds of the saints and promoting the reading and writing of martyrdom accounts.

[The editor Mattaloni identifies three families at the origin of the preserved manuscript tradition: ξ (including the full prologue), ν (omitting it), and λ starting with an addition presenting the text as a letter from Ambrose, then further modifying and shortening the body of the prologue given by ξ.]

§ II: Cantius, Cantianus and Cantianilla are instructed in the Christian faith by the teacher (pedagogus) Protus. They are from the family of the Anicii, related to the emperor Carinus, born and raised in Rome in the 14th region (regio) at the time when Diocletian rulds in Rome, Maximian in Illyricum, and Carinus, who is tolerant towards Christians, in Gaul. After Carinus’ death, Diocletian and Maximian promulgate laws ordering Christians who refuse to sacrifice to be tortured. The martyrs decide to leave Rome pretending to visit their properties (praedia) in the suburbs and go to Aquileia where they have many estates (rura). However, in Aquileia the persecution is even more fierce than in Rome: very many Christians are imprisoned.

§ III: The governor (praeses) Dulcidius with the help of the count (comes) Sisinnius hears about the saints and summons them to offer incense to the gods; however they refuse, stating that they prefer to die for the name of Christ rather than going against his commandments.

§ IV: Dulcidius and Sisinnius write to Diocletian about the three brothers who have come from Rome, are Christian, and refuse to comply to the emperor’s order. Diocletian is angered and replies ordering them to be sentenced to death if they refuse to sacrifice. Hearing about the sentence pronounced against them, the martyrs flee from Aquileia with Protus on a chariot. Sisinnius goes after them with scouts (spiculatores).

§§ V-VI: The martyrs are captured when one of their mules falls down, not far from the city walls in the place called Ad Aquas Gradatas. The episode of Elijah ascending to heaven on a chariot provides a parallel showing that the martyrs were on their way to heaven on their chariot. Further, their flight on a chariot has a sound explanation: what they did was not to flee, as this was a most inefficient way of escaping, but to manifest to all on their way that they were Christians and to show them the path to be followed.

§ VII: Sisinnius orders them to be arrested and to offer incense to Jupiter. As they refuse, Sisinnius orders them to be sentenced to death. However the martyrs together with Protus rejoice, sing psalms, and pray to the Lord Jesus Christ, asking him to welcome their souls among the saints.

§ VIII: After the prayer they are beheaded, their blood seems like milk to those present. A priest called Zoilus takes their bodies, embalms them and buries them in a fine place. Zoilus dies shortly thereafter.

Versions then differ in the epilogue. According to Mattaloni’s edition, while family ξ has no addition, family λ simply includes a prayer to the martyrs of whom the memory is being celebrated, while family ν adds the following:

The martyrs appeared in a vision to Zoilus and said that Diocletian would soon arrest the virgins Agape, Chionia and Irene, whom he had raised. They would be comforted by Anastasia, while Zolius would rest among the saints. As Zoilus describes this vision, Anastasia enters the house and asks to see her sisters; they meet and rejoice. The sisters show her the place where the bodies of the martyrs rest; they ask her to stay to pray together. After spending the night with them, she goes back to Aquileia caring for those imprisoned. Then Zoilus dies.

The Martyrdom ends, mentioning that the martyrs Cantius, Cantianus, and Cantianilla were martyred on the day before the Calends of June [= 31 May] [there are variants in manuscripts for this feast day, see Mattaloni].

Text: Mattaloni 2013, 225-249. Summary: M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Cantius, Cantianus and Cantianilla, martyrs of Aquileia : S01552 Agapē, Chionē and Eirēnē, martyrs in Thessalonike, ob. 304 : S00206 Anastasia, martyr in Sirmium (Illyricum, modern Serbia), c. 302-305 : S00602

Saint Name in Source

Cantius, Cantianus, Cantianilla Agape, Chionia, Hirene Anastasia

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 Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Aquileia Rome

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

Aquileia Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Chant and religious singing

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Miracles

Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Observed scarcity/absence of miracles

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Monarchs and their family Relatives of the saint Aristocrats Officials Prisoners

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body


Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Cantius, Cantianus and Cantianilla 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 Cantius, Cantianus and Cantianilla There is one main and earliest version of the Martyrdom with a number of variants, mostly relating to the addition or omission of prologues and epilogues (BHL 1543-1545; BHL 1546-1548 being rewritten on the basis of the former, see a detailed discussion in Lanéry 2008, 435-445, and a summary in Mattaloni 2013, 159-169). BHL 1545-1547 notably include the prologue "Omnia quae a sanctis" promoting the reading and writing of martyrdom accounts which is also found in other late antique martyrdom accounts, in particular that of Anastasia (E02482). Moreover, BHL 1547, perhaps written in a Milanese context, begins by stating that it is sent as a letter of Ambrose and continues with a reworked version of the above-mentioned prologue. For Lanéry, BHL 1545 is the earliest version, circulating in Italy, and including the prologue, the mention of Zoilus’ death, and the feast day of 31 May. On the other hand, Mattaloni has provided a critical edition, which we have used here, encompassing the versions BHL 1543-1547 and distinguishing three main branches of the tradition (see our summary). The Martyrdom in its variant versions (BHL 1543-1548) is preserved in more than 50 manuscripts, the earliest from the 9th century: Cividale del Friuli, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, cod. XXII, f. 102v-106v (9th or 10th c.); Graz, Universitätsbibliothek, 412, f. 112r-114v; Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Aug. XXXII, f. 42r-43v; Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB. XIV.14, f. 182r-184r; Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, C. 10.i, f. 63v-65v. See Mattaloni for a list with a discussion of the manuscript transmission and a critical edition, and Lanéry 2008, 435-455.


The place and date of composition of the earliest version of the Martyrdom remain uncertain. It has often been thought to have been composed in Rome because of the Roman origin of the main protagonists and its prologue (see Lanéry and Mattaloni for an overview of scholarship). However, a composition in the region of Aquileia is also plausible, as suggested by Lanéry. The issue should remain open to debate and depends on the circulation of the sources employed by our Martyrdom: the martyrdom of Chrysogonus (part of the Martyrdom of Anastasia see E02482) and a sermon of Maximus of Turin (E05323). In particular, the ending about Zoilus and the virgins is taken from Chrysogonus’ martyrdom, and the explanation given of the saints’ flight (§§ V-VI) shows borrowings from the explanation given in Maximus’ sermon. Lanéry and Mattaloni have argued that although the sermon was used by the author of the Martyrdom, both sources probably also borrowed from a lost hagiographical tradition about the saints. BHL 1547, because of its pseudo-Ambrosian prologue and borrowings from Maximus' sermon, is generally dated around 450 (Lanzoni; Clavis Patrum Latinorum 2175; Gryson, R., Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques Latins de l’Antiquité et du Haut moyen âge, 2 vols. (Freiburg, 2007), I, 56). However, the Martyrdom, in its earliest variant versions, can only be more broadly dated between the 5th century and the 9th, when it is found in manuscripts. Lanéry suggests that it should be dated between the end of the 6th and the end of the 8th century, while for Mattaloni it was composed closer to the 5th than to the 9th century, particularly because of its prologue reacting against the pseudo-Gelasian decretum condemning the reading of martyrdom accounts (E03336).


Edition (BHL 1543-1547) Mattaloni, V., “Passio Cantianorum”, in: Colombi, E. (ed.), Le Passioni dei martiri aquileiesi e istriani, vol. II* (Rome, 2013), 225-249. Further reading: Lanéry, C., Ambroise de Milan hagiographe (Paris, 2008), 435-445. 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 320. Lanzoni, F., Le diocesi d’Italia dalle origini al principio del secolo vii, 2 vols. (1927), 866-872. Mattaloni, V., “Passio Cantianorum”, in: Colombi, E. (ed.), Le Passioni dei martiri aquileiesi e istriani, vol. II* (Rome, 2013), 137-224.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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