Religious persecution resulted in the creation of martyrs, this we know. What we are not so sure about is the underlying attitude of Roman authority (Emperors and officials) to the new sect. It could be that Christians per se were seen as a group of subversives, miscreants even, given to strange and unlawful practices, so that the very fact of being a member was tantamount to breaking the law. Christian practice was undoubtedly viewed as at least deviant. Did they not make strange and illegal sacrifices to a King who threatened to topple the Empire`s ruler? Did they not have mysterious rituals surrounding the birth of their children and even it seemed indulged in a type of cannibalism? These and other stories accreted round the adherents of the new religion, so that Christianity itself was regarded as a criminal organization. Being a member made a person automatically an outlaw. There was a degree of paranoia exhibited by the Roman hierarchy towards this sect. This is what we may call the “secular” attitude i.e. concern with law and order on the part of Roman rule, but we know more of the religious attitude, which had to do with the acknowledgement of the Emperor as a divine type of ruler and willingness to worship what Christian believers saw as false gods.  At all costs these people had to be made to apostatize and deny their mistaken faith. Hence the resort to torture and , if that did not work, to killing. Some Rulers were less cruel than others, but all wanted to keep their citizens happy, so the killing of Christians in the Arena was resorted to for this purpose…panes et circenses, sums it up.

The first martyrdoms occurred in the reign of Nero,  who was the first to blame Christians for calamities. The burning of Rome in 64AD was thought to be Nero`s doing but to divert suspicion from himself he accused the Christians. The first martyr was Stephen in AD34, stoned to death by his Jewish countrymen, before Nero donned the royal purple, but worth mentioning here as it helps to put in context the tragic martyr era.  After the accession of Nero persecution and murder for the faith began in earnest. Sexual violence and prurience played no small part in theses persecutions , especially of females .It must be realised at this juncture that the numbers of Christian believers were by no means inconsiderable and that the number was increasing all the time despite horrific cruelty. In addition to this consideration was the perception that barbaric hordes were not too far away, and that belief in, and worship, of the many official gods was no longer universal. An element of uncertainty was creeping into the Roman psyche . Consequently, persecution of Christians began in full swing and new punitive edicts were promulgated against them by successive Emperors. That these edicts were obeyed to the letter  is clear from Eusebius, who gave details of the tortures and executions, as well as of the general horrific picture. Speaking of different parts of the far flung Roman empire, he speaks of there being ,”Everywhere numberless people were imprisoned, jails which had been built for murderers and violators of tombs were now so full of bishops , priests, deacons, lectors and exorcists that there was no longer room for common criminals. Nobody can say how many suffered martyrdom in the various provinces. The persecution was especially severe in Africa, Mauretania and in Egypt. From this last place some moved on to other cities and became famous in their death” (Ecclesiastical History, vol. 8; 6: 9-10)   Apart from Eusebius, the one who provides most information on the persecutions is the historian, Lactantius, writing in the late 3rd century and early 4th century, whose principal work is concerned with the beliefs and tenets of Christianity. However , for our purposes interest  chiefly lies in his “De mortibus persectorum” (circa 314) , concerning the deaths of the persecuted.

Of the large number of martyrs under Roman rule in these days, many were female. Like their male counterparts, they resisted the judges, but often in their own way, many if not all, having taken a vow of virginity. As far as can be judged, female martyrs exhibited a bolder attitude to their interrogators, often seeming to be deliberately provoking. One characteristic stands out in the accounts, and this is their determination to preserve their virginity at all costs. There are many narratives concerning the examination, and inevitable death of female victims, several of whom were noble and rich. Typical of them is the story of Crispina, (about whom more later) who came to the attention of the authorities because she flatly refused to offer incense to the gods. Brought before the judge, she was asked if she knew what was required by the relevant edict. “I do not know this edict.” was her reply.. The edict was explained to her, especially the need to sacrifice. Crispina replied: “I shall never offer this sacrifice. I offer sacrifice to one God only and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ who was born and suffered”. She was ultimately sentenced to death by beheading. (This occurred in the reign of Diocletian.) That age did not matter when accusing (as Trajan had decreed) is illustrated in the “case” of Pelagia, a fifteen year old girl, who was confronted in her own home by soldiers sent by authority. She pretended to welcome the soldiers but knowing what would probably befall her before she reached the place of interrogation , she asked if she could put on her best clothes to face the magistrates. She went to the top of the house, said a prayer to God and then threw herself down to her death. Even younger was  Agnes aged about twelve, who it seems was defending her virginity, when she was probably beheaded.  This account is attributed to Ambrose, (circa 340 -400) one of the four great “Doctors” of the Church (Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, the other three) and she is mentioned in the “Peristephanon” of Prudentius.

A persecution in Antioch, Syria, about this time (first few centuries BC) illustrates the “difficulties” in  the age of persecution facing Christian families. Domnina and her two daughters lived a strict religious Christian life – not easy in pagan Antioch. They decided to leave their home town  but the leaving had come to the attention of pagan officialdom. The husband was tortured to reveal his family`s exact whereabouts, On the journey back by boat, the three women flung themselves into the water, preferring drowning to  inevitable torture and probably above all, loss of chastity. The story of Julitta is of a widowed rich woman who fell victim to fraud originated by feelings of jealousy among some of her fellow citizens.. A vendetta ensued between Julitta and her influential and powerful adversary, so much so that when the matter came to court, he claimed that Julitta had no rights as a Christian and should make a display of worshipping the gods. Of course Julitta refused , answering “I am the handmaid of Christ”. Given the chice of sacrificing or being burnt at the stake, she chose the latter.  Theodosia`s story shows how much Christians thought about the power of a martyred person to intercede after death. She had gone to Caesarea to visit Christian friends, who may have been potential martyrs She was apprehended and arrested as a revolutionary. On this flimsy evidence she was tortured and finally drowned. She was eighteen years of age. These are but some of the many female martyrs who were cruelly put to death throughout the Roman Empire in the early centuries AD  The story of Afra (late third century) is worth mentioning in some detail to illustrate the procedures of an interrogation. . It seems Afra was a particularly interesting “subject” (for compilers of martyrologies.) as she had been by repute a prostitute in early life. She was however by the time of her arrest a practising Christian. She wished to give the money she had gained to Christian  causes but the money so gained was not acceptable to Christians. When arrested , she was invited to offer sacrifice, and told the alternative was a painful death. Afra replied that she had sinned enough already and no wish to add to her sins. Once more she was told to sacrifice by her judge,  Her reply: “to Christ alone I sacrifice; to him alone every day I confess my sins”. The judge: “You are a prostitute. Sacrifice therefore as you cannot be of the Christian God.”

“The gospels show that a prostitute bathed his feet with tears and had her sins forgiven her.”

“Sacrifice, for then you will be as acceptable to your clients as before.”

“You have lost any chance of Christ thinking you worthy of him. You have no proof for saying that he is your God.”

“I do not deserve to be called a Christian , as you say, but the mercy of God has allowed me the honour of his name.”

“How do you know he has shown you mercy?”

“I know I have not been cast off by God since I am being allowed to confess his glorious name.”

“Nonsense! Better to sacrifice to the gods through whom you will receive safety

“My safety is  Christ who promised the happiness of paradise .”

“Sacrifice or else in the presence of your lovers I will order you to be beaten.”

“I am not ashamed of anything except my sins.”

“ I have demeaned myself by arguing with you. If you will not sacrifice you will be executed.”

“This is what I desire if I am worthy so that I may come to eternal rest.”

“Sacrifice or I will have you tortured and then burnt alive.”

“The body with which I have sinned will accept the torments but I will not stain my soul with the sacrifices of the devil.”

The judge then passed sentence: burning alive.

Afra was lead outside, stripped as was the custom especially with female victims, and tied to a stake. While the fire raged she was heard praying, thanking Jesus Christ and offering herself as a sacrifice.

Some accounts of martyrdom are, it must be said, the stuff of legend, but who is to know the truth.? The story of St Rhipsime (as she later became)  is a case in point, but worthy of relation. She was of noble birth and a consecrated virgin, one of a like-minded community. A portrait of the beautiful Rhipsime came to the notice of Emperor Diocletian who determined to marry her. When she was told of the “honour” she was horrified and decided to flee the country, settling with some of colleagues in the distant country of Armenia. Her great beauty however could not be hidden and reports reached Diocletian. The Emperor send a deputation to bring her back but nearing her destination apparently Rhipsime prayed for deliverance. At once a great thunderstorm broke out scattering the horses and their riders. She escaped, but only temporarily, and was by force dragged into the Emperor`s presence. Overcome by her beauty he tried at once to embrace her but she resisted. Outraged , the Ruler ordered her to be imprisoned  but she managed to escape to rejoin her companions. Discovering next day her escape, Diocletian instituted a massive search; she was brought back and sentenced to death. She, along with her fellow Christians, was roasted alive. This happened, so we believe, about 310 AD.    Similar is the story about the death of Anastasia, which occurred circa the same date. Whether the narrative tells the genuine story depends upon individual credulity (or belief). Anastasia was also of patrician lineage, a Roman, and true to her Christian faith, brought succour to her fellow Christians in prison. She was in time arrested for her “illegal” activities and brought before the authorities,  A slow death of hunger and thirst was ordained for her: she was put in a boat and abandoned at sea, but as we are told, the spirit of a martyred female (saint) appeared and guided the boat to land. There was to be no happy ending as Anastasia was apprehended and put to death by burning, staked to the ground, with her arms and legs outstretched.

It has earlier been pointed out that the “Acts of the Christian Martyrs” is one of our most graphic (and trustworthy) sources for information about the early martyrs. Religious writers, who wrote in Latin,  of the first centuries after the death of Christ may have not always been scrupulous about historical truth  and accuracy, but they are largely what we must go on and there have been/are some great collections from about the seventeenth century onwards. One of the best translations (and collations of the Acts) is that of Herbert Musurillo (1972) and much that follows is taken from his work.  The “story” of the martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas (circa 200 AD) is worthy of citation, as it is reputed to be in their own words, obviously before meeting their deaths. Perpetua, aged about twenty-two,  was a  newly married Christian woman with a baby. She along with her Christian slave, Felicitas, were arrested. We have mentioned Perpetua earlier, but in her account of her arrest and subsequent events, she gives much interesting detail. After her “hearing” , in which she boldly stated that she was a Christian she was “condemned to the beasts,” as she puts it She recounts strange dreams and visions she had during this time,including fighting in the arena, and being transported by angels. She ends her narration with the words, “And then I woke up happy”. Her co-sufferer, Felicitas, suffered the same tribulations. Now the tale of Perpetua and Felicitas  is taken up by information in the Acts. It seems the pair acted defiantly in the arena, so much so that they were scoured before the enraged people. Then they were placed before bears and bulls, not surprisingly to be clawed and tossed. They did not meet the deaths by attacks from wild beasts but eventually by beheading. A passage in the Acts, concludes this account of the martyrdom of the two women: “Most valiant and blessed martyrs. Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts,honours and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old”.

Connecting narrative is by an anonymous writer.

Potamiaena was a Christian woman of the early third century,who was arrested, and charged with the crime of being a practising Christian. It is possible to surmise that as she had the repute of being a vigorous defender of her purity and chastity, her judge threatened to hand her over to the lust of his gladiators. She was of course condemned when she refused to recant. In the words of Eusebius, “After she had said this, she nobly endured the end: boiling pitch was slowly poured drop by drop over different parts of her body from her toes to the top of her head. Such was the struggle that this magnificent young woman endured”. (Ecclesiatical History, vi, 5). Apparently she had been singled out as a follower of Origen, followers who also paid the ultimate price. The account by Eusebius of Potamiaena`s death is it seems the first time mention was made of killing by boiling pitch.  (The inventiveness of the persecutors knew no bounds!)

It is appropriate here to look at the martyrdom of the Christian women Agape, Irene, Chione (along with four companions) in about 304 AD. Diocletian had just issued his edicts banning the reading of religious “sacred” books and ordering sacrifice under pain of death. (This summary account is taken from Musurillo`s  “Introduction” to his book, already mentioned, THE ACTS OF THE CHRISTIAN MARTYRS.)  It appears the three young women had fled to a mountainous region where they formed a consecrated group.  Unfortunately they were tracked down and arrested. Subsequently there were three “hearings”, or interrogations. After the first, Agape and Chione, being the eldest, are condemned to burning; the others remanded because of their youth. At the second hearing, Irene is faced with a prosecutor who refers to the two executed women as her sisters, and he tries to elicit information about the flight to the mountains. He also attempts to weaken her courage by sending her to a brothel, but is unsuccessful in his purpose. After the third hearing, Irene is burnt in the same place as her “sisters” .(  The details are taken from an original Greek manuscript translated into Latin which in turn Musurillo translated.)

We promised more information about St. Crispina, her trial and death. As she is one of the most “famous” of the early female martyrs, detail, I believe, is warranted..Having been brought before the proconsul Anullinus, Crispina said she was not aware of what was required.

“That you should offer sacrifice to all our gods for the welfare of the Emperors, in accordance with the law.”

Crispina replied: “I have never sacrificed and I shall not do so save to the one true God.”

“You are a stubborn and insolent woman and you will soon begin to feel the force of our laws against your will.”

“Whatever happens I shall be glad to suffer it on behalf of the faith which I hold firm.”

“Worship the sacred gods!”

“I worship daily but I worship the living and true God who is my Lord.”

“I will have you beheaded if you do not obey the edicts of our lords the Emperors.”

“So our gods are not acceptable to you?”

“I do not fear anything you say; that is nothing. But if I deliberately choose to commit a sacrilege the God in heaven will destroy me.”

“Revere the religion of Rome which is observed by our lords the unconquerable Caesars.”

“I shall not defile my soul with idols.”

Anullius spoke then to the court notary, saying, “Let her hair be cut off and her head shaved,” in an attempt to humiliate her.

“Do you wish to die in agony? If you continue to despise our gods, I shall order your head to be cut off.”

“I should thank my God if I obtained this. I should be very happy to lose my head for the sake of God.”

“Why should we suffer this impious Christian woman  further? Read back the minutes.”

“Seeing that Crispina has persisted in infamous superstition and refuses to offer sacrifice to our gods in accordance with the heavenly decrees of the Augustan law I have ordered her to be executed with the sword.”

Making the sign of the cross, Crispina put out her neck to be beheaded, for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Much helpful material on the “historicity” or reliablity of the reports of cases of  martyrdom is to be found in the article “Acts of the Martyrs” in the Catholic Encyclopedia (now on CD ROM). The article attempts to sift the wheat from the chaff, and mentions the comparative reliability of the accounts by some Fathers of the Church, notably, St. Basil, Chrysostom, Augustine, Peter Chrysologus and John Damascene. This of course has implications for our study in that I have attempted to mention only those (as far as one can tell) whose stories are to all intents and purposes genuine accounts  in the eyes of modern scholarship. An example of doubtful “provenance” is the story of St. Bibiana,  According to legend (for so we must call it)  she was persecuted under Julian the Apostate ,Roman Emperor, (361-366) ,  tortured and died as a result of her sufferings. Her body was entombed in a basilica in Rome. – so we are given to believe.

At this juncture it is opportune to look at Tertullian`s “Address to the Martyrs”, possibly his earliest work, circa 197AD. The address is lengthy so to give a flavour I have quoted passim from it.


“Amongst the aliments of the flesh which both Our Lady Mother the Church from her own bosom, and the brethren singly from their private store, supply to you in your prison , blessed martyrs elect, accept somewhat from me likewise which may serve to nourish your spirit also. …First therefore, blessed men, grieve not the Holy Spirit who hath entered with you into the prison; for if He had not now entered with you , neither would ye have been there this day. ….Wherefore, blessed men, consider that ye   have been  translated  from a prison to a place it may be of safe keeping. It hath darkness but ye yourselves are  light.. …Thou seest there no strange gods : thou comest not upon their images. Where thy heart is , there will be  thy treasure also. Let therefore our heart be there, where we would have our treasure. ….Be it now ,blessed men, that a prison is grievous even to Christians. We were called to the warfare of the living God….Ye are about to undergo a good fight , wherein the President is the living God….voluntary sought after [martyrdom] for the sake of fame and glory; not by men only, but by women that ye also  O blessed women may match you own sex.” (Here Tertullian gives a  list of famous women from antiquity who died violently.) He continues. “A woman hath of her own will eagerly encountered beasts….For it will be accounted a grace and a glory of an higher character in truth, if the soul rather than the body yield itself to scourgings. I pass over for the moment , the motive of glory….if we shall be afraid to  suffer for the Truth`s sake unto salvation those things which others hath made a display of suffering for vanity`s sake… often have wild beasts ….devoured men. For this let even the present times be a proof unto us how many persons and of what quality meet with deaths not to be expected either from their birth or their rank, or their persons.or their age, for the sake of man, either from himself if they act against him, or from his enemies, if they take part with him.”

This Address is clearly written in the “earlyish” days of persecution, as the whole tenor of the article reflects the days of potential martyrdom . It is interesting to see Tertullian`s references to females.

Sexual climate and tortures

In this regard, we can have a look at the prevailing sexual climate of early Rome, in the time when most martyrdoms took place. Let`s face it: pornography was well accepted by high and low. There were, for example some female gladiators who chose to fight with bare breasts for the delectation of the crowds. Generally the execution of female criminals was a very public affair. Appearing naked or in some very diaphanous covering was the norm . Often too, naked or seni-naked women were exposed to bulls or to “specially trained” dogs or goats, emphasising her sexual dishonour (especially if she was an adulteress.    Sometimes the young women were exposed to a cow, or heifer, as a symbol of degradation: the inference to be gained was that these victims were inferior, not worthy of being pitted against a bull. Sometimes the chosen animal was an ass, but with the intention to forcibly mate the woman with the beast. Often the women were not put to death but were threatened (or sentenced) to rape or placed in a brothel. Thus the threat of violation and sexual sadism were often resorted to by so-called judges, rather than a death sentence. Tortures of a basically sexual nature were resorted to in many cases. Spreadeagling, suspending a victim by one foot or leg, stripping and exposing to public gaze, cutting off breasts, were some devices. There is no doubt that females suffered as much torture and death as men – it is just that throughout history,  female martyrdom has .never received the same publicity as male. (Why, we will try to answer in the next chapter.)

St. Augustine wrote that “The crown is more glorious in the case where the sex is weaker”( “The City of God”). Also there was the prevalent attitude (among males) directed to women of misogyny as well as inferiority of a sexual nature. The courage displayed by female martyrs was usually downplayed (if  not actually marginalised) As Sarah Barnett says in her article “Death and the Maidens” ,  “Through their conduct, women martyrs transcended not only their gender but the limited expectation of it”. A paragraph in her article is succinct and telling:

“In their deaths and demeanour women martyrs demonstrated that virtus [strength] was not gender specific. In accepting threats of rape, torture, enforced prostitution or even just straight death, women martyrs, like their male counterparts showed astonishing strength of character and resolve. They were utterly convinced of their faith”.


However it is interesting to note that in Eusebius`s “Ecclesiastical History” only fifteen women are mentioned in his list of 120 martyrs. Long after their martyrdoms, accounts of the deaths of authentic victims, first began appearing  in the fourth century. After the end of the age of martyrdom, (Edict of  Milan, 313 ) the most immediate path to eternal glory was a form of ascetism: “the rigorous practice of self-denial and even mortification of the body through disciplines such as chastity and fasting , which itself led to a kind of symbolic martyrdom” (Article on “Women and Hagiography “ by Thomas Head, obtainable on the Web).  Stories of apocryphal female martyrs began to circulate, usually those featuring women who had been promiscuous in early life but had reformed and entered into a miraculously ascetic life. Reliable accounts of women martyrs (i.e. females who had really existed and  been killed) still formed a very small part of the hagiographies of the day (the Dark Ages and early medieval period). Not only this but accounts seemed to be concerned with victims from the upper strata of society, ignoring those from lower echelons. Head gives an interesting statistic: he says (op.cit.) that only 18 of the 150 or so people recognised as saints in the twelfth century were women. However, from the thirteenth century we can say that women did begin to force themselves on the attention. Their reputation for piety, coupled with fortitude at last won through. ( More on this later).

Unfortunately for compilers of authentic martyrologies, several (if not many) accounts are to say the least tinged with “inexactitude” (as Churchill would have said), We have mentioned this before but to illustrate the point well, it is instructive to look at the  story of Basilissa or Basilla a name well-known in  histories of the saint-martyrs, All we know rather uncertainly, is that Basilissa suffered death at the height of the Roman persecutions, from the first to the beginning of the fourth centuries. Accounts, stories, legends, call them what you will, appeared several times in different places about a Basilla or Basilissa, apparently a common name then. The problem is of course whether there were several martyrs called by that name, or whether some of them are simply duplicates.

A Divine Emperor

What made the crime of Christianity worse in the view of Roman authority was the belief , (or concept) that the Emperor was divine. Not performing obesiance to him was therefore a heinous crime, as we know, punishable by death. He had to be worshipped as a god. After the death of Augustus in 14AD, the idea of divinity became prevalent. The Roman historian Tacitus (55-120) gives the first secular account of Christian women dying for their faith,.in particular, one Pomponia in about 100 AD. Another early martyr, Eudicia,  was mentioned by Eusebius, whose death was in about 152. Once again the story goes that she had been formerly a prostitute who had “seen the light”. It seems that one night she overheard a monk reciting aloud that part of the Gospel where Christ judges the world. Stricken with remorse for her sins she sought to convert to the Christian faith and was first baptised. She gave away her wealth to the poor and later became the Superior of a desert community of holy women. She clearly came to the notice of the Roman authorities, and was arrested. After the usual mockery of a trial, she was condemned to death and was beheaded.

In an article by Marianne Dorman, entitled “Feminine Martyrs”, (posted on the Web, 2006,)  there is a telling paragraph, which tells of the persecution era: “Those years before 313  witnessed  the death and martyrdom of many virgins who had consecrated themselves as a bride of Christ rather than be subjected to marriage. Paul`s teaching on virginity struck a chord with women very quickly in the early Church. Hence there are many examples of young women who saw Christ as their spouse and thus refused betrothals, this often brought them into conflict with either their fathers or the betrothed….”

St.Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was one who determined to remain a virgin although for harmony`s sake she went ahead with the marriage ceremony. On her wedding night she told her husband that she had guardian angel who would slay him if he should “touch her body”.. Valerian (her husband) wished to see the angel and so Cecilia said to him, “Go find Pope Urban, tell him about the events and he will baptise you. After this return and you shall see the angel”. On his return, Valerian did see the angel as it were talking to his wife, and holding flowers. Cecilia made her home a refuge for persecuted Christians, but the two were eventually discovered burying martyred Christians. Cecilia was brought before the magistrate; she refused to sacrifice and was sentenced to death. The story continues that she was struck three times with the axe which failed to sever her neck completely. She continued to preach the faith for another three days before she died. There was  a saint and martyr called Cecilia, but whether all the details of her end are valid or apocryphal is open to speculation.

Of course early martyrdoms happened in many countries. There is a tendency to think that most occurred in Rome/Italy. But this would be erroneous. In fact there were martyrdoms in all lands that formed part of the Roman Empire. As we  know,  the full fury of persecution ceased after 313 when Constantine was Emperor. But this is not to say that killing having a religious motive ended totally; it may have in Rome and its subjugated lands but persisted in these early centuries in other European countries after the above date. One of the most “celebrated” instances was that of (St.) Ursula and her companions , who were murdered by the Huns, in Cologne, in about 450. Actually, Germany (as with the witchcraft craze many centuries later) was quite prominent in this regard. Their martyrdom took place when Attila, King of the Huns, led his huge army  of barbarians into Italy and all that remained of the western Roman Empire. Our source here is Gregory of Tours (538-594) a Frankish historian, related in his “Miraculum”, a hagiography. He tells of the devastation of Germany, and the wholesale massacre  of prelates, often in front of their own altars. Ursula and her companions were captured and of course threatened with  death if they refused to sacrifice their chastity. Ursula spoke to her companions passionately telling them that death was preferable to the alternative. They all determined to die rather than submit, and all were beheaded. The number of Ursula`s followers is not known but was reputed to be in the thousands:  it was clearly very numerous.

Coming up to later epochs, “no attempt has been made to enumerate either the number qof martyrs put to death by Hengist the Saxon, or by the Danes during their other raids into Britain, for the simple reason that no records exist of the numbers of victims who suffered for Christ during those dark days”. Succinctly put by William Fleming in his book, A COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH MARTYRS.

British martyrs

St. Emerita was the first British martyr (as far as can be discovered) who was killed about 330 in Germany. She had left Britain for France (why is not known) and from there entered Germany. She was martyred for being a Christian by the pagans of the district, Helvetia, and was buried there. It would be tedious I believe to give a list of British female martyrs from these early centuries, but those we have reliable records about are mentioned below (up to the first millenium)

Apart from St. Emerita, in 330, are the following:

St.Ursula (as above) c.450.

Almeda, 490.

(It can be taken that all mentioned were virgins and were later canonised. )

Osith, queen of East Anglia. 653

Lewina, 687

Ithware, 740

Ebba, (and her companions), 880

Lefrona, (an abbess), 1010.

Some words of Dionysius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria, written in a period of extreme persecution (under Decius) in about 250 AD, leads us into the next section. He is writing to a fellow Christian cleric (Fabius of Antioch):

“The divine martyrs themselves among us who now are assessors of Christ and share the fellowship of his kingdom and take part in his decisions and judge along with him, have espoused the cause of certain of the fallen brethren who became answerable for the charge of sacrificing…” (From Eusebius)

He is alluding to of course to people who had suffered martyrdom and especially to those who  “lapsed” or sacrificed under the threat of torture, and who lived to literally tell the tale. Eusebius develops this theme and echoes a strand of  Hippolytus (170-235), about a hundred years earlier , who was concerned with the “problem” or position of the “confessors” as they were called believing that martyrs could be living insofar as they had borne witness to the faith, albeit not making the final sacrifice of death. In this regard, Hippolytus speaks of female rage, domestic as well as public, and the many female martyrs unsung and unrecognised, “confessors” included. Subordination he recognises: “women should do all things with a blameless and seemly and pure conscience, yielding dutiful affection….”  Clement had first taken  up this theme (among others) , praising women among the martyrs. This particular Clement had been Pope from about 85 to 100,  first of the Apostolic Fathers, second maybe third successor of Peter. As Stuart Hall in his article, “Women among the Early Martyrs” appearing in the book MARTYRS AND MARTYROLOGIES,  ed. Wood.,  writes, “Their subordination is maintained , for they appear last in [Clement] but their achievement is as noble as that of the male elect, despite their bodily infirmity”.    (p.5)


Martyrologies as we have pointed out, are not always to be relied upon, and it is often difficult if not impossible to divine who is married and who is not, who is “free” and who is a slave, and so on. What however does always seem clear is that the  martyrdom of women seems to be a subordinate issue.  Usually martyrologies suggest that many female martyrs are guilty of voluntary suicidal acts. Hall goes onto speak of several women victims whose actions in the face of imminent death or degradation do seem to bear out the accusation of voluntary martyrdom. In  the well-known instance of the martyrs of Lyons there was a large group of women, some of who were thrown to the lions, some beheaded, some languished in prison to die of starvation. In each differing list the females are given last . As we look at the various “histories” of martyrology, it is evident that the prominence given to male martyrs is less emphatic; that the role and number of female victims is gradually more recognised. One of the “subordinating” factors was naturally the social position of women. It is interesting to read some words of Tertullian early on, where he seems to be emphasising the subservient role of women martyrs. “The very women, how pert they are! They are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures – it may even be to baptise.” (De Prescriptione, 41), However it is now clear that female martyrs can no longer be excluded from the Church`s leading canon.

St.Cyprian (c.200-258)  one of the early Fathers of the Church sought (among other things) to unify the Church and to treat all Christians as equals, including women as ministers and martyrs. His thesis was that Christ was immanent in martyrs, always with them, supporting them, and suffering with them even unto death, when they would finally triumph. Early martyrs considered themselves as participating in the Passion , experiencing the suffering of Christ , as John Knott put it, while others saw Christ suffering in them. Knott expresses it very well in DISCOURSES OF MARTYRDOM, where he says “All Christian martyrdom is in some sense an imitatio Christi because the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ established the pattern of winning spiritual victory through suffering and thereby overcoming worldly strength through apparent weakness”. (p.2). Lucy Grigg in her MAKING MARTYRS IN LATE ANTIQUITY, continues this theme when she speaks of “vicarious atonement” as a central element of Christian theology and a vital constituent of martyrdom. “The transformation of the death of Jesus from a shameful criminal execution to a triumphal act of redemption was one of the major tasks of first century Christianity …” (p.16).

As we have emphasised, much martyrology material is variable in its authenticity, St.Cyprian (above) being one author/letter writer who is credible in the main, along with much Gospel writing. It is known that “the Bible” does vary as regards content – largely dependent on the particular Church who gives it its imprimatur. Although the established “canon” contains invaluable material regarding Christianity, some of the “Apocryphal” texts (those which were not chosen as part of the canon fit for general consumption!) are even more illuminating . “Maccabees” is one such, (probably mid to end of the first century) which apart from describing the persecutions of its time, goes into very significant issues regarding the theology of martyrdom. One is that there is the clear belief that dead heroes will gain life everlasting, that the evil will be punished, that martyrs made their land better: “purified” it for future generations. The issue of voluntary death is also raised, a theme echoed by among others, Tertullian  whom we have already mentioned. There is an apt paragraph in Luch Grigg`s MAKING MARTYRS, where she writes, “Early Christians had a range of discourses and interpretations available regarding voluntary death and death for one`s faith. The early Church did not create martyrdom in a hermetically sealed religious vacuum, but through dynamic interchange” (p.11)

St. Agnes

Here we can relate the story of St.Agnes, which will bring us back to one of the main strands of this chapter, namely the particular interest (by prosecutors) in the sexual aspect of female martyrhood. Agnes represents the archetype of the virgin martyr, one of the first commemorated martyrs of Rome and the first to be venerated. She in fact became a cult figure and received a glowing tribute from Prudentius. The story is that Agnes, a beautiful 13 year old girl, is espied on her way home, by the pagan son of the district Prefect. He is “smitten” [in modern parlance] and declares his love for her, asking if she will marry him. Agnes replies that she already has a lover, Christ. The young man runs off to tell his father , who subsequently summons her to appear before  a tribunal. Agnes refuses to sacrifice and the Prefect sentences her to be sent to a brothel. Clearly the Prefect saw that Agnes wanted above all to preserve her chastity, so was all the more determined to rob her of it.. She is of course stripped naked but on her way miracles happened, a shining light surrounds her.;. her hair grows suddenly long and hides her body, and her admirer is struck down by God. After this, Agnes is condemned to the  pyre but the flames go out. Eventually she is killed by the sword.  Grigg interprets the story as illustrating explicit sexualisation.” Agnes takes Christ as her husband and wills penetration in the form  of a naked sword.” There are several other aspects of Agnes` death  regarded as explicitly sexual. St.Ambrose (339-397) discusses the death  of St. Agnes, and adopts the theme of the defence of female virginity, “inscribing it with the heroic drama of martyrdom” (Grigg, 84.). Ultimately, Grigg continues, Agnes` virginity is significant for her appeal to a far wider audience than a virgin one . She is, Grigg continues, consistently acclaimed dually :as both a virgin and as a martyr.84)


It is clear therefore that almost all virgin martyr  legends pose some threat to the victim`s virginity. – a threat that is related to religious persecution. These twin themes of sexual desire and “frustration” as Karen Winstead calls it, lead to persecution and so to her ordeals. It is also clear to see that as men are the persecutors, there is an implied suggestion that all men are sadists, at least in the eyes of the story tellers. It has to be said however that stories or legends about particularly female martyrs did in a sense, “appeal” to literate and illiterate alike. Therefore we often get emphasis on sexual violence in these stories concerning young and beautiful women surrounded by sexual predators.   Another, more spiritual reason for the interest in female martyrdom is in the aura of paradox , as Winstead delineates, in these deaths. “The virgin martyrs testify that the flesh can triumph over corporeal desires, that weakness can prevail over  strength. As women who transcended their gender to become manly , the virgin martyrs evoke the mystery of a God made man”. (VIRGIN MARTYRS: p. 12). They became role models, especially among women, but many male writers wrote, maybe for other males, stories of the deaths of the (virgin) female martyrs. It is hard  not to state  that many of these legends illustrate the triumph of clerical rather than feminine authority, ( a point made earlier),  asserting the superiority of clerical values, such as, celibacy, over lay values such as marriage. (Ibid, 101).


We can end this section (and chapter) by looking at E.J. Balasundaram`s book , MARTYRDOM IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, where he gives his interesting version of “reasons”  for martyrdom in Antiquity. The “confession” of Jesus Christ, is named as the first reason and by this the author means that martyrdom arose naturally out of a type of proclamation : God made man, died and rose again  – so Christians died specifically for Christ. The second reason arose from the aspect of refusal. Two different cultures (Christianity and Judaism) could not exist side by side. “What appeared to be an internal squabble within Judaism,  was found out by the Romans to have political consequences”(op. cit., 4) Thirdly the new sect had proselytizing ardour. Which meant that the divine right of Emperors had to be challenged.  Fourthly, martyrdom occurred as a result of mutual incomprehension between Christians and Romans, where the latter thought that punishment would dissuade – but as we know the opposite was true. Later on, with the rise of clerical power,  the Edict of Milan (313) issued by Constantine, actually helped to bring about martyrdom, when  the apparatus of State was brought to the help of the Christian Church.


We looked at the underlying thinking behind the Roman persecution of the early Christians at the beginning of Chapter 2 (and concluded it with the “reasons” given for it by Balasundaram. Several of the more notable stories of female martyrdoms were then related, those of the early centuries AD in the reigns of the first Emperors. Some so-called trials and “examinations” were given , with Eusebius as our chief source. We then looked at Tertullian`s “Address” to the potential martyrs intended to support them in their mission. Some  specific tortures (of females) were mentioned giving an idea of the merciless cruelty of the time (towards Christians). The reliability of some accounts cannot always be vouchsafed;  but most are credible. Some famous  “sources” are mentioned. It does seem as if female martyrs (no doubt not all) almost rejoiced in  death more than males,  as if they felt it was a  glorious act. Maybe above all, we can appreciate the (to them) overwhelming importance of defending and preserving  virginity.

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D