Type of Persecution

Nature of Conflict


Primary Sources

Prudentius, On the Crowns of Martyrdom 14: The Passion of Agnes

Historical Context

During this time, Christianity was illegal in Rome, so a great persecution of Christians was occurring in the Roman empire. Roman emperors were demanding that their subjects worship the traditional Roman gods, but many Christians refused as they believed in only one god, the Christian god. One of the traditional gods was Minerva, a virgin, and in this story an alternative Christian virgin is highlighted.

In this time period, women were married much earlier in life than they are today. Although Agnes may seem to be a child to us, in this period it would have been her time to get married.


Near the time of her death, Agnes was still a girl. Although she was old enough to be married, she had no desire to do so. Her only true love was her God, so she resisted attempts to force her into marriage. Agnes faced a lot of trials because of her resistance. She was threatened by the words of a judge who was attempting to seduce her, but also by those threatening to torture her. However, Agnes did not succumb to fear, because she was unafraid to die for what she believed was right. Seeing Agnes combat these threats of torture, the judge, who is frequently referred to as the “savage persecutor,” believed that she did not value her life—that her dedication to purity was more important than her own life. So, he put it to the test.

The savage persecutor said, “I am resolved to thrust her into a public brothel unless she lays her head on the altar and now asks pardon of Minerva, the virgin whom she, a virgin too, persists in slighting. All the young men will rush in to seek the new slave of their sport.” Essentially, the judge threatened her by giving her the option of begging for forgiveness to a pagan god of virginity, or being put in a brothel to be raped by numerous men. Agnes believed that God would not allow her virginity to be defiled, so in response she states, “You may stain your sword with my blood if you will, but you will not pollute my body with lust.” The savage persecutor ordered that she be put in the brothel. Many avoided looking at her out of respect for her modesty, but one man looked lustfully. He was immediately struck with a thunderbolt through his eyes and blinded. Agnes then began to sing holy songs, and the brothel became pure. She gave praise to her God who had protected her, so she would remain pure. Upon request, Agnes even prayed for the man’s health and sight to be restored, and it was. By remaining a virgin, Agnes earned the first crown of martyrdom in heaven.

The judge was furious and felt that he was losing his battle against Agnes. He ordered a soldier to get a sword. When Agnes saw the sword and that she was going to be killed for her actions, she was thrilled. She rejoiced that a cruel man would be the one to send her into an honorable death of dying for her faith. Eager to become a martyr and unite with God in heaven, Agnes bowed her head to the executioner, saying, “…a virgin’s soul and a sacrifice to the Father.” The executioner then beheaded Agnes, and she felt no pain. By dying a martyr’s death, Agnes earned her second crown of martyrdom in heaven.

The narrative then includes a vision of her afterlife. When her soul left her body, she was surrounded by angels and looked back to the world as she was lifted up to heaven. She admired the universe around her and laughed at the world and what they saw as important: kings, power, desires, fear, pride, money, etc. The world under her feet, Agnes stomped on these worldly things and on the head of the serpent that had appeared. The serpent, known for being a symbol of Satan, kept his head bowed in defeat to Agnes. God then enters and places the two crowns of martyrdom on Agnes’ head.


Agnes was viewed as virtuous and holy in death, so she was named a patron of the city of Rome. More specifically, she is Rome’s patron of virginity. Dying a virgin martyr, she became a model for Christian men and women. Agnes is one of the most important female martyrs, because she is still widely recognized in the Catholic Church today. She held two martyrdom crowns (one for virginity, one for death), which is rare, as most martyrs earn their title only in death. She is said to be protecting those who pray and are pure.

In Rome, the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls holds shrines, artwork, and relics of Agnes, as well as the Catacomb of Saint Agnes. It holds significance because Agnes is honored there as the only martyr historically believed to have been buried in this catacomb.


Baert, Barbara. More than an Image: Virginity and Visual Memory. Translated by Irene Schaudies. Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2005.

Castelli, Elizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Denzey, Nicola. The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007.

Prudentius. Prudentius’ “Crowns of Martyrdom, XIV: The Passion of Agnes.” Translated by H.J. Thomson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Schroeder, Joy A. Virgin and Martyr: Divine Protection from Sexual Assault in the Peristephanon of Prudentius. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Streete, Gail Corrington. Redeemed Bodies: Women Martyrs in Early Christianity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Webb, Matilda. The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide. Great Britain: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.

Image Credit




“Agnes,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed October 30, 2020,