Memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Today is the Memorial of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, whose life ended when she was just a girl (12-13), though in her own day she would have been considered a girl on the cusp of adulthood. It was this precise fact that lead to her martyrdom and though many of the details of her life are shrouded in the mists of time, this reality is at the heart of her story. In the earliest centuries of the Church, martyrdom was not always a current issue, though acceptance by the ruling authorities could be and the Church often had an uneasy relationship with the Empire even when it was not experiencing overt persecution. It was actually just prior to the rise of Constantine and formal acceptance as a licit religion in the Roman Empire that persecution of Christians reached its apex. Two of these times were the reign of Valerian (253-268 AD) and the reign of Diocletian (284-305 AD) and it is in one of these reigns that St. Agnes was martyred (the sources disagree under which Emperor she died).

How does her life on the cusp of adulthood fit in the context of persecution and why would it lead to martyrdom? By the time of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, Christianity had become a notable minority religion in the Roman Empire and a profound counter-cultural movement. Part of the counter-cultural movement was celibacy, which had implications for the place of Christians in Rome due to the fact that marriage was not just a joining of two persons but of families. A rejection of marriage was in some profound ways a rejection of the Roman Empire. More than that, marriage was a requirement for young people. In our book on children, Cornelia Horn and I write concerning Paul’s advice regarding the marriage of young virgins in Corinth in the 1st century from 1 Corinthians 7:36-38:

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“The social assumptions underlying Paul’s option for virginity may be seen as that of a father who wished to keep his daughter as a virgin for the Lord, but who felt compelled to do otherwise by a previously existing marriage contract which was to take effect when his daughter was akmaios {at puberty}. At the time of Paul’s letter, however, she was already hyperakmos {beyond puberty}. In such a case, the father would be obligated to allow the marriage to take place. According to the Digest, Roman law suggested that a previously established marriage contract was binding and did not have to take place in the presence of the actual parties to the betrothal. Thus it could be contracted by two sets of parents, or by the father of the bride and the husband-to-be. The girl could be engaged to be married under the age of twelve, but not before the age of seven. In this case, the situation in Corinth could have involved a marriage contracted prior to the family joining the Christian church. Then Paul responded to a situation where a father, in light of Paul’s teachings, began to reevaluate the agreement. It is true that a contract for marriage could be annulled by the father of the daughter in potestas, but this also had limitations. The daughter could only refuse the marriage for limited reasons and the father himself only had limited ability to end the marriage without contracting for another. According to Digest 23.2.19, the father who refused to allow his daughter to marry could be forced to do so and could be forced to provide her with a dowry. It is conceivable that this was the reason why Paul stated that it was no sin if they married” (Let the Little Children Come to Me:” Childhood and Children in Early Christianity), 314-315 .

How does this fit with Agnes? According to an ancient report, Agnes had many suitors for her hand, but she rejected them all. In the New Catholic Encyclopedia it says, “a fully developed legend of the sixth century describes her as a beautiful young girl with many rivals for her hand. When she rejected them, she was delated to the governor as a Christian and sent to a house of prostitution. Those who came to see her were struck with awe. One who looked lustfully at her lost his sight but regained it through her prayers. Brought before the judge, she was condemned and executed and buried on the Via Salaria, in a catacomb eventually named after her” (178). Because the ancient reports developed much after the fact, it is possible that the rejected suitors represent a formal rejection of marriage made by Agnes.  As I wrote above, “The daughter could only refuse the marriage for limited reasons and the father himself only had limited ability to end the marriage without contracting for another. According to Digest 23.2.19, the father who refused to allow his daughter to marry could be forced to do so and could be forced to provide her with a dowry” (315). If father and daughter refused marriage, this could be the reason for her ultimate martyrdom. It mattered because marriage was the cornerstone of the Empire and the Christian challenge to the Empire was that the Kingdom of God was more important than the political and social structures of the Empire. St. Agnes would not be swayed from her vocation by torments or the threat, and then reality, of death. Martyrdom is not a desire for death, it is a desire to remain faithful to God in whatever vocation one has been called. St. Agnes remains a witness to her call.

(More information on St. Agnes, including the Church dedicated to her in Rome in the Piazza Navona, may be found at Fr. Z's Blog. Scroll down for the entry.)

John W. Martens

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Kang Dole
7 years ago
Agnes' story shares a lot of parallels with the even earlier tradition of Thekla, who turns away from her impending marriage to her betrothed after she hears the encratic sermons of Paul. Her own mother begs the governor to burn her to fend off the chaos that Paul has introdced into the social structure of their city by preaching continence. Having survived her first exection and being made subject to another in another town (for refusing the advances of a first citizen), all of the women seated in the arena and even the lioness meant to eat her revolt against the "godless judgment" handed down by the governor. She once more survives this execution, and (after baptizing herself in pool of anthropophagous seals) becomes an apostle in her own right.

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