Maxima, Donatilla, and Secunda





Type of Persecution

Nature of Conflict

Primary Sources

Passion of Saints Maxima, Donatilla, and Secunda

Historical Context

The martyrdom is set during the reign of the Roman Emperor Maximian (286-305). Under the fourth edict of Diocletian, put into effect in the year 304, Roman officials were openly and legally persecuting Christians. The North African Christians at this time would have had access to texts such as the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, all of which contain elements mirrored in the trio’s martyrdom account. These writings would have provided template martyrs for the brutally persecuted North Africans.


Anulinus, the proconsul of Carthage, sent out Roman magistrates to gather up Christians. They come to a certain estate where all of those gathered claim to be Christians. The crowd is threatened with various forms of torture, and most, including priests and clergy, give in.

Two young virgins named Maxima and Donatilla refuse to yield. Anulinus has the two girls brought in front of him for questioning. When asked who authorized them to defy the god-fearing emperors, Maxima responds for the pair, claiming that she is authorized by her Christian faith. Anulinus asks how old they are, and Maxima blatantly ignores the question, choosing instead to fire back at Anulinus and accuse him of being a sorcerer. Maxima claims to know this information because she knows of the evil spirit manifested in him, as opposed to the Holy Spirit in Donatilla and herself. Anulinus circles back, asking again for her age. Maxima finally admits that she is fourteen. Anulinus threatens her with death should she not sacrifice to the gods. Maxima refuses, and though Anulinus warns her that a verdict is not far off, she claims to desire it, for death would be better than denying God.

Anulinus gives her multiple chances to think her decision over, but Maxima remains secure in her choice of death before denial. Donatilla is also briefly questioned and threatened with torture; she responds that the torture would be useful to her soul.

The pair is sent to the city of Thuburbo Maius and given neither food nor water, but rather gall and vinegar. Maxima and Donatilla claim that the food of the Most High will sustain them and perhaps Anulinus should keep the vinegar to sustain himself. This angers Anulinus.

At this point the last of the trio, Secunda, is introduced. Secunda, age twelve, had been engaged many times and rejected all of the suitors because of her desire for a spouse that will not corrupt her virginity; she desires a marriage to God. Despite her high social status, she openly despises wealth and only sees satisfaction in the Lord. She cries out to Maxima and Donatila hoping to join them. Maxima and Donatila attempt to persuade the young girl to stay with her aging father, but Secunda remains more loyal to her spiritual Father. Her love for Jesus erases any fear of inevitable death. Donatilla accepts the young girl, and the three are taken together to Thuburbo to be executed. At this point Secunda again falls out of the narrative; her sufferings and assumed death are not discussed.

At the tribunal, Anulinus asked Donatilla and Maxima again if they would sacrifice, and Maxima, who spoke for the pair, denies. Four days later Anulinus orders Donatilla and Maxima to be lashed. The two, protected by the Holy Spirit, do not feel the lashes. They are placed on beds of crushed shells, rubbed with lime, placed on the rack, and have burning coals are sprinkled in their hair, all to no avail. The girls feel no pain, while Anulinus becomes exhausted. Anulinus orders the girls to the amphitheater to fight the beasts. A bear that had not eaten for three days was brought to devour the women. Although Donatilla encourages the bear, the bear licks her feet and the virgins are executed by the sword. Just before they die both declare, "Thanks be to God."


The three women serve as images of ideal Christian women, and as inspiration for a population against which persecution was still occurring. At the time women were perceived as ideal when quiet, except with regards to their faith. The three women, notably “beautiful, consecrated virgins,” are highly outspoken about their unwavering devotion to God. Anulinus takes on the roll of a quintessential villain, because the Roman proconsul is persecuting not only women, but children as well.

Some interpret Secunda as an afterthought due to her late appearance in the text and lack of mention during the martyrdom itself. The justification for such an addition to the text would have been her youth and her wealth. Secunda would have driven home the point that all Christians should hold themselves to the martyr’s standards.

As their martyrdom occurred shortly before the split within the North African Christian church between the Donatists and the Catholics, the text became an important Donatist text. The text highlights that while deacons and church authorities praised false idols, the three saintly women did not. The Donatist splinter of the Christian church believed that true members of the church must remain faithful under all circumstances, even when presented with death. This belief gave martyrs a particularly important position as a political force marking legitimacy.


Baynes, Norman H. "Two Notes on the Great Persecution."  The Classical Quarterly 18.3/4 (1924): 189-194.

Christenson, Ronald. "The Political Theory of Persecution: Augustine and Hobbes." Midwest Journal of Political Science 12.3 (1968): 419-438.

Tilley, Maureen A. "Passion of Saints Maxima, Donatilla, & Secunda."  Pages 13-24 in Donatist Martyr Stories in Roman North Africa. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996.

Image Credit

Sts. Donatilla, Maxima, and Secunda, Martyrs and Virgins. Artist: Jacques Callot. Found through Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


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“Maxima, Donatilla, and Secunda,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed October 30, 2020,