Early Christian Female Martyrs in Rome
The last fifty years of historical studies have taught the church one clear lesson: there are not enough stories of women in church history.
The predominant narratives center on men in part because most historical eras hosted male leadership across sectors of society. Yet, women were influential, inspirational, and important in all of these eras. Jesus recognized and provided place for them in his ministry (Mark 15:40-41, Luke 8:2-3, John 4:6-26 and 20:11-18). Their stories were not always well-preserved, but contemporary research is helping to recover these stories.
With six visits to Rome in seven years, I have become more and more aware how the Catholic Church preserves the legacies of one group of women: early Christian female martyrs. Roman churches bear their names, over and over. This led me to research the stories behind these name sakes. The results are findings that are sometimes historical and sometimes legendary, but they share a common theme of commitment, perseverance, and sacrifice for the cause of Christianity. Without judging historicity too much in a blog, some of their stories are below. Legends says…
Agnes was only thirteen when her frustrated suitors could no longer bear with her commitment of virginity to Christ. When they charged her with religious sedition, she remained loyal to the faith before she was ordered to a brothel, hoping she would convert her confession from Christ to the emperor. Yet, she persevered until being beheaded about 303 under Diocletian rule. The Emperor Constantine built a funerary hall over her tomb at the request of his own daughter. Now, a Baroque church commemorates her martyrdom on the ever-popular Piazza Navona.
Bibiana was the daughter of a Roman prefect and a mother who shared her faith. Under the rule of Julian, called the Apostate for his rejection of Christianity, she was placed on trial with her family. The final survivor, Bibiana was submitted to numerous tortures, maintaining a posture of prayer and fasting during her ordeal. Finally, she was tied to a pillar and beaten until her death. With her mother and sister, she is supposedly buried under the altar of the church that bears her name.
Felicity was a devout mother who raised seven sons in the Christian faith. Under the rule of Marcus Aurelius, in 162 she was found unwilling to recognize the emperor’s authority in a way that points to religious sedition. Legend has it that one by one they died before her, as her executioners hoped for some compromise of her faith. Some of her bones supposedly rest in Rome at the Church of St. Susannah and the Roman bishop Gregory the Great later recognized her in a sermon.
Prudenziana and Prassede were sisters with a conviction to see fellow Christians receive an honorable burial. Their counter-culture trend against cremation was an act of faith in the hope of the resurrection of these bodies, an early Christian act that became a later popular practice of burial. Their charity drew the ire of Romans during the reign of Diocletian, and about the year 100 they were executed. Legend suggests that they are the daughter of one Pudens mentioned in 2 Tim. 4:21 and each is commemorated in a church in the old part of Rome on the Viminal Hill.
These women provide a model of perseverance for the faith. One of ancient Christianity’s greatest critics, a philosopher named Celsus, described how Christians “manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.” While Celsus might have seen the faith commitment of women a mediocre initiative, Jesus’ recognition of them has provided a clear and present asset to the history of the Christian church.