The 5 Most Gruesome Female Martyrdoms In Early Christianity. Part Two: St Agnes

Hello everyone and welcome back- finally -to my countdown of the top most gruesome female martyrdoms in Early Christian history. Today I will be discussing the death of a young woman named Agnes, so without further ado lets get started!

Trigger warning; violence against women and rape discussed below.

According to sources, Agnes was born into a Christian but noble Roman family in around 291 A.D. Like most female martyrs, Agnes was also purportedly exceptionally beautiful and as such had a plethora of young suitors positively begging for her hand in marriage. The attention of young suitors however did not sit well with Agnes due to her staunch Christian faith and decision to remain a virgin and as such, she rejected every single man who attempted to plead his case. This rejection however would have deadly consequences.

2872-saint-agnes-domenichino.jpg
St Agnes by Domenichino 1620. Image taken from Wikipedia

Why? Because being a Christian in 291 A.D was especially problematic due to one of the reigning emperors at the time; the one and only Diocletian.

The ‘Diocletianic Persecutions’, also known as the ‘Great Persecution’ were arguably the most systematic and severe persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire and the edicts put forward by Diocletian and fellow members of the Tetrarchy, ensured the deaths of countless Christians around the empire. So for Agnes, being a Christian at this time was fairly risky, made even riskier by the bruised egos of rejected lovers. It was these rejected suitors, slighted by her devotion to Christianity, that submitted her name to the authorities, signalling her out as a devout member of the Christian faith.

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer by Jean Leon Gerome 1883. Image taken from Wikipedia

Like, Eulalia, Agnes was brought before a tribunal of sorts and asked by the Roman authorities to reject Christ but Agnes was steadfast in her faith. Following her verbal rejection of the Roman religion, the prefect in charge ordered that she be dragged through the streets naked and placed in a brothel, the intention being that she be raped by the suitors she rejected. However, before they could rape her, the story states that long hair grew and covered her whole body, shielding her from the eyes and hands of her would be rapists, one of whom was blinded when he looked at her. Maddened by his failed attempt to humiliate Agnes the prefect then ordered that she be brought to the stake to be burned alive. However, the flames could not touch Agnes and she passed through this torture unscathed; or so the story goes.

How then did Agnes die?

Agnes was finally killed at the hands of an executioner, who stabbed her through the throat and later beheaded her. Like Eulalia, Agnes was only 12 years old at the time of her death.

Agnes was venerated as a saint we believe as early as the time of St Ambrose in the late 300’s and she is buried in the Sant’Agnese Fuori le mura in Rome, a church built over the catacombs which hold her remains.

Sant'agnese fuori le mura - esterno - 1911.jpg
Sant’Agnese Fuori Le Mura, 1911. Image taken from Wikipedia

Now some of you may be thinking that this martyrdom doesn’t sound that gruesome in comparison to the martyrdom of Eulalia who endured nearly 13 tortures until she finally died, especially when according to the tale Agnes felt no pain when being burned etc. However the martyrdom of St Agnes is brutal and gruesome in different ways, my opinion on why I think this is below.

To me, her martyrdom is brutal because she was to be, simply put, gang raped at the age of 12 in order to strip her of her virginity, something which she fundamentally wanted to keep as it was intrinsic to her and her faith. Thus, the Roman authorities wanted to hurt and humiliate her in one of the most sickening ways imaginable. Whilst the sources say she thankfully avoided this due to divine intervention, the intent remains and that in itself is horrifyingly gruesome to contemplate. Furthermore, she was tied to the stake whilst they tried to burn her alive. Yes, according to the sources, God intervened and she was spare any pain but in reality if she was tied to the stake and burned before she was stabbed through the throat, the pain she must have endured would have been horrific. Again, like the attempted rape, the intent behind these actions is what makes this martyrdom so horrific.

What makes this martyrdom so awful to me is that the Roman authorities weren’t content with a simple execution, they wanted Agnes to be hurt and humiliated in some of the worst ways imaginable. For the Romans, the 12 year old Agnes had to be humiliated and tortured, played with almost, for there to be any validation in her death and in their war on Christianity which I think you all can agree is super messed up.

So there it is folks, the martyrdom of St Agnes of Rome. Not a happy tale but martyrdoms rarely involve a happy ending.

On that cheerful note, tune in next week for part three of this lovely, chirpy series! Happy history folks x

Bibliography

Burrus, V. (1995), ‘Reading Agnes: The Rhetoric of Gender in Ambrose and Prudentius’, JECS 3: 25-46.

Grig, L. (2005) ‘The Paradoxical Body of St Agnes’, in A. Hopkins and M. Wyke, eds., Roman Bodies, London.

Vorster. N. J (2002) ‘The Blood of Female Martyrs as the Sperm of the Early Church.’ Religion and Theology Vol 9 pp.8-41

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