From the Archives: Agnes: the Virgin Martyr

FROM THE BITTER PERSECUTION of Diocletian (303–305), a heroine emerged. Agnes embodied the two ultimate devotions of Christianity: virginity and martyrdom. Since church fathers often spoke in glowing, almost worshipful, terms of both virgins and martyrs, it was natural that they would hail this young girl, martyred in about 304 A.D. The early-5th-century poet Prudentius takes up the story:

So brave a girl, a martyr famed

Was Agnes, who in Romulus’ home

Lies buried in a tomb. She sees

In death Rome’s towering roofs

And so she keeps her people safe.

She also shields the pilgrims there

Who pray with pure and faithful hearts.

A double crown of martyrdom

Sets this noted girl apart:

Virginity free from any fault,

Then honor from a death she chose.

Hardly old enough to wed,

She was a little girl, they say,

By chance a child of tender years,

But aglow for Christ, with manly heart,

She defied the shameless laws.

For pagan idols she would not

Desert her holy, sacred faith.

First lured by many skillful tricks—

Now the lures of fawning judge,

Now the raging butcher’s threats—

She stood her ground tenaciously,

Of savage strength she freely gave

Her body to the harsh abuse;

She did not flee impending death . . . .

By Prudentius

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #17 in 1988]

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