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E05210: Ambrose of Milan, writing in Latin in Milan (northern Italy) in 377, adapts a sermon (Concerning Virgins) given on virginity on the feast day of *Agnes (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00097). He praises and gives accounts of the martyrdoms of *Thekla (follower of the Apostle Paul, S00092), *Soteris (virgin and martyr of Rome, buried on the via Appia, S00548), *Pelagia (martyr of Antioch, S01903) and another unnamed martyr of Antioch.

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posted on 2018-03-18, 00:00 authored by frances
Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Virgins, 1.2

Ambrose extolls the 'birthday' (dies natalis) of Agnes, in other words the day of her martyrdom and rebirth into Heaven.

Et bene procedit, ut, quoniam hodie natalis est uirginis, de uirginibus sit loquendum et ex praedicatione liber sumat exordium. Natalis est uirginis, integritatem sequamur. Natalis est martyris, hostias immolemus. Natalis est sanctae Agnes, mirentur uiri, non desperent paruuli, stupeant nuptae, imitentur innuptae.

‘And my task begins favourably, that since today is the birthday of a virgin, I have to speak of virgins and the treatise has its beginning from this discourse. It is the birthday of a virgin, let us pursue chastity. It is the birthday of the martyr, let us offer the victim. It is the birthday of St Agnes, let men admire, let children take courage, let the married be astounded, let the unmarried imitate take courage.’

Ambrose continues to praise Agnes’ willingness to suffer, in spite of her youth, and her steadfastness in the face of imprisonment, persecution and execution. He narrates her martyrdom. She willingly offered herself to the executioner and remained dry-eyed as all around wept. The executioner threatened her, but she only prayed and bent her neck.

Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Virgins, 2.3

Ergo sancta Maria disciplinam uitae informet. Thecla doceat immolari, quae copulam fugiens nuptialem et sponsi furore damnata naturam etiam bestiarum uirginitatis ueneratione mutauit. Namque parata ad feras, cum aspectus quoque declinaret uirorum ac uitalia ipsa saeuo offerret leoni, fecit ut qui impudicos detulerant oculos pudicos referrent. Cernere erat lingentem pedes bestiam cubitare humi, muto testificantem sono quod sacrum uirginis corpus uiolare non posset. Ergo adorabat praedam suam bestia et propriae oblita naturae nostram induerat quam homines amiserant.

‘Let, then, holy Mary instruct you in the discipline of life, and Thekla teach you how to be offered, for she, avoiding nuptial intercourse, and condemned through her husband's rage, changed even the disposition of wild beasts by their reverence for virginity. For being made ready for the wild beasts, when avoiding the gaze of men, she offered her vital parts to a fierce lion, caused those who had turned away their immodest looks to turn them back modestly. The beast was to be seen lying on the ground, licking her feet, showing without a sound that it could not injure the sacred body of the virgin. So the beast reverenced his prey, and forgetful of his own nature, put on that nature which men had lost.’

Ambrose continues to state that Thekla provides an example which virgins should follow.

Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Virgins, 2.4

Ambrose narrates the martyrdom of an unnamed virgin of Antioch. She was beautiful but avoided being seen in public. In the face of plots against her chastity, she prepared for martyrdom and made a public profession of chastity and religion. But when her persecutors saw her modesty and willingness to undergo torture, they condemned her to make a sacrifice to the gods or live in a brothel. After some consideration, she decided her religion was more important than her chastity. She was taken to the brothel and as she entered she prayed to God. A man who looked like a warrior entered, and swapped clothes with her. As he desired, the warrior was condemned to death. The virgin also went to the place of execution and offered herself willingly to the sword. She remained a virgin and they were both martyred.

Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Virgins, 3.7

Ambrose relates how Pelagia, a fifteen-year-old virgin and sister of virgins, lived in Antioch. She shut herself in her home and saw those who would remove her faith and purity around her. She prepared herself for martyrdom, adorned her head, put on a bridal dress and left the house. The persecutors also sought her mother and sisters. The family fled and their escape was cut off by a river. They fearlessly entered the centre of the river and drowned. Their bodies were not washed away by the river, providing evidence of their sanctity.

Ambrose continues by recounting the martyrdom of Soteris, one of his ancestors.

Qui enim fieri posset, ut sancta Soteris tibi non esset mentis auctor, cui auctor est generis? Quae persecutionis aetate seruilibus quoque contumeliis ad fastigium passionis euecta etiam uultum ipsum, qui inter cruciatus totius corporis liber esse consueuit iniuriae et spectare potius tormenta quam perpeti, carnifici dedit tam fortis et patiens, ut cum teneras poenae offerret genas, prius carnifex caedendo deficeret quam martyr iniuriae cederet. Non uultum inflexit, non ora conuertit, non gemitu uicta lacrimam dedit. Denique cum cetera poenarum genera uicisset, gladium quem quaerebat inuenit.

‘For how could it come to pass that holy Soteris should not have been the originator of your purpose, who is an ancestor of your [his sister's] race? Who, in an age of persecution, borne to the heights of suffering by the insults of slaves, gave to the executioner even her face, which is usually free from injury when the whole body is tortured, and rather beholds than suffers torments; so brave and patient that when she offered her tender cheeks to punishment, the executioner failed in striking before the martyr yielded under the injuries. She moved not her face, she turned not away her countenance, she uttered not a groan or a tear. Lastly, when she had overcome other kinds of punishment, she found the sword which she desired.’

Text: Gori 1989. Translation: de Romestin 1896.
Summary: Frances Trzeciak.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Agnes, virgin and martyr of Rome : S00097 Thekla, follower of the Apostle Paul : S00092 Soteris, virgin and martyr of Rome, buried on the via Appia : S00548 Pelagia, martyr in Antioch : S01093

Saint Name in Source

Agnes Thecla Soteris Pelagia

Type of Evidence

Literary - Sermons/Homilies


  • 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

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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

Milan Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Ambrose of Milan

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Sermon/homily

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Oral transmission of saint-related stories

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Ecclesiastics - bishops Other lay individuals/ people Relatives of the saint


This tract, De Virginibus, which Ambrose addressed to his sister, Marcellina, is based on a sermon delivered in the third year of his episcopate (377). It circulated in Rome and is referred to by Jerome in his Letter 22 to Eustochium, a young virgin (written in c. 384), and by Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana 4.48-50 (written in c. 397). It is often considered in the context of Ambrose’s ongoing conflict with the Homoian/Arian Christians in Milan: it is a relatively uncontroversial tract focusing on topics of common belief between the two groups. Ambrose preached and wrote on virginity throughout his career. Yet in no other text did he dwell on the saintly careers of the virgin martyrs to such an extent, preferring to turn to biblical exemplars.


A similar account of Agnes' martyrdom can be found in a hymn devoted to this martyr, also probably composed by Ambrose (see E05212). Many of the same details were included in Prudentius’ hymn on Agnes, composed around 400 (E04418), and in her Martyrdom, which was composed in the fifth century and falsely attributed to Ambrose (E02475). This passage in the De Virginibus is one of the earliest and fullest surviving written accounts of Agnes' martyrdom. Some narrative material is included in an inscription dedicated to Agnes, created under Pope Damasus, in Rome (see EXXXXX), but this inscription is much briefer.


Edition: Gori, F., Opera omnia di Sant’Ambrogio (Milan: Biblioteca Ambrosiana, 1989), vol. 14,2. Translation: de Romestin, H., with E. de Romestin and H.T.F. Duckworth, Selected Works and Letters of St Ambrose (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 10; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896). Further Reading: Dunkle, B., Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). McLynn, N., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Williams, D., Ambrose of Milan and the End of the Arian-Nicene Conflicts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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