St. Agnes of Rome: a gladiator for Christ

21 January is the Feast of St. Agnes.  The first entry for this day in the Roman Martyrology reads:

Romae passio sanctae Agnetis, Virginis et Martyris; quae, sub Praefecto Urbis Symphronio, ignibus injecta, sed iis per orationem ejus exstinctis, gladio percussa est. De ea beatus Hieronymus haec scribit: “Omnium gentium litteris atque linguis, praecipue in Ecclesiis, Agnetis vita laudata est; quae et aetatem* vicit et tyrannum, et titulum castitatis martyrio consecravit.”

At Rome, the passion of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr; who, under Prefect of the City Symphronius, after being thrown into flames which were extinguished by her prayers, was struck down by the sword.  Of her blessed Jerome wrote: “Among all peoples of every script and tongue, especially among the churches, the life of Agnes is praised; for she conquered both the age* and the tyrant, and consecrated the title of chastity by her martyrdom.” (my translation; see the “translation note” at the end of this post for an explanation of the word aetatem)

…she conquered both the age and the tyrant…

These militantly triumphant words from Jerome seem pure irony both to modern man and to the Romans of the “age” which Agnes supposedly conquered.  This “age” was the age of Diocletian, master of persecutors, by whose decree the flock of Christ across the empire was cut down like lambs at the slaughter and brought to the brink of extinction.  At Symphronius’ command, Agnes died by a soldier’s sword in a Roman stadium, in the sight of citizen and slave alike, like a humiliated and defeated gladiator.  Born into a noble family, she fell from patrician grace and thus fell into the ground; yet Jerome insists that Agnes conquered. By the logic of the world, this is utter, tragic nonsense, but through the logic of the Logos, through ratio divina, the “folly of the Gentiles” becomes the “wisdom of the Cross” (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-31). Agnes, filled with this wisdom, “would not as a bride so hasten to the bed, for as a virgin she went happily to the place of punishment with quickened pace, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ,” wrote Jerome’s rival, the mighty Ambrose of Milan (of whom Jerome wrote that great polemic: …heri catechumenus hodie pontifex…).

Roman paganism did not recognize an eternal life in the profound sense that Christians understand.  Great figures only “lived on” through their permanence in the memory of the people.  Thus the Caesars commissioned statues, arches, and monuments bearing their names and likenesses; chronicles of worldly their achievements were etched in marble in an attempt to ensure their immortality.  Conversely, men who obtained the hatred of the people and of succeeding emperors were punished after their deaths through the so-called damnatio memoriae; their statues were effaced, their inscriptions erased, any records bearing their names were destroyed, heirs were often murdered or exiled, and mere mention of them was treated as a crime.  If you “killed” the memory and posterity of a man, it was if he never existed.

Jerome (347-420 AD), writing within only two generations after Agnes (died 306 AD), experienced a Rome completely different from that of the young virgin.  Just seven years after Agnes’ execution, Constantine not only legalized Christianity but decreed reparations for the persecutions  (313 AD).  From the ashes and shadows of the catacombs, the flock of Christ emerged into the light of blessed freedom, now testifying the truth of the Gospel without the specter of a sword hanging overhead.  The relics of many saints were brought from the ancient crypts outside the city and returned to the places of their final Testimony, whereupon Christians built shrines as new τρόπαια or trophies, new battle monuments to commemorate the victory won there.  Soon enough, these shrines became places of pilgrimage; some old monuments fell into neglect and ruin, while others were stripped and rebuilt into Christian sanctuaries.  Visions of these public, above-ground Christian edifices in the midst of deteriorating pagan artifices must have been on Jerome’s mind when he wrote the aforementioned words.  To him, the damnatio memoriae of pagan trophea in favor of the new Christian τρόπαια was sure proof that that Agnes, like so many Roman martyrs, had finally “conquered”.

One such τρόπαιον testifying to the victory of martyrdom is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, seen in the photo above.  Its impressive, 17th century facade dominates Piazza Navona and dwarfs Bernini’s majestic “Fountain of the Four Rivers” which lies before the church.  Built upon the foundations of an earlier shrine dedicated to Agnes, the present edifice stands on the traditional site of her martyrdom.  In fact, the basilica’s qualifying epithet in agone refers indirectly to the “agony” that Agnes and many others suffered here (although Wikipedia mistakenly says that “The name of this church is unrelated to the ‘agony’ of the martyr”). The Greek ἀγωνία means “struggle” or “competition”, whence agone, a reference to the gladiator fights and chariot races which took place in what is now called Piazza Navona.  (“Navona” is just an old local corruption of the Greek agone.)

If today you enter this gorgeous piazza from the south end and read one of the plaques telling you where you are, you will not read Piazza Navona but Stadio Domiziano— the Stadium of Domitian, named for the emperor who built this arena for these violent matches.  The perimeter of its track corresponds exactly to the ancient race track, and the surrounding buildings of today were built from the stadium’s old arcades.  In this setting of public display, where gladiators slaughtered each other for the people’s entertainment, Agnes entered into her own ἀγωνία, her own struggle, and refused to falter in the face of Roman infidels.  Today, Borromini’s towering cupola and campanili mark the spot which Agnes made holy by her blood, and her head is kept here for the veneration of the faithful.

…et titulum castitatis martyrio consecravit

Back to Jerome: he writes that Agnes “consecrated the title of chastity by her martyrdom”. Such a phrase may appear strange and curious to us modern Christians, for time has obscured much of the delightful Latin and Greek wordplay in early Christian writings.  Agnes’ name comes from the Greek Ἁγνή (hagne), “chaste”.  By her martyrdom, she became known as Saint (or Holy) Agnes.  Thus in her native Greek tongue, the Christians called her by a snappy, alliterative title: Ἁγία Ἁγνή (hagia hagne), which means “Saint Agnes” or “Holy Agnes”– hence she personified “Holy Chastity”, and her chastity was sanctified through her death.  Accordingly, Ambrose wrote of her, “in one victim there is twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom”.

In art, Agnes is often depicted with a lamb, due to the similarity between her name and the Latin agnus, lamb. But the masters of the Renaissance, cultured and learned as they were, kept the motif despite the linguistic error.  Instead, the masters knew that though the literal sense was violated, the profound spiritual sense found wonderful expression through the error.  They recognized the obvious parallel to Christ, the Lamb of God, who, “like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, was silent and opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).  So too was Agnes like the sacrificial lambs of old: young, innocent, and without the blemish of carnal knowledge, she made of herself an oblation most acceptable to God, “consecrating the title of chastity by her martyrdom.”

Every year on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (29 June), the Pope bestows the Pallium, a mantle made of lamb’s wood, upon each of the metropolitan archbishops appointed over the last year.  The wool is taken from lambs which were blessed by the Pope on the previous 21 January at the church of Sant’Agnese in Via Nomentana (St. Agnes outside the walls), the original site of Agnes’ burial and the place where the rest of her body lies today.  As the Pope imposes the Pallium on the archbishops, he recites a prayer that says in part: sit vinculum caritatis et fortitudinis incitamentum— may the Pallium “be a bond of charity and fount of strength”. Much is made of the Pallium’s symbol as a bond of charity; it is worn on the shoulders as a “yoke”, symbolizing the special and direct bond between each metropolitan archbishop with the Pope, who likewise wears his own Pallium.

However, not much is said of the fortitudinis incitamentum; but taking into account that the wool of the Pallium is blessed at the tomb of Agnes on her feast day, sewn at the tomb of the martyr Cecilia (at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere), and bestowed at the tomb of Peter, the archbishop must realize that the spiritual weight of the Pallium far exceeds its physical weight.  He is thus called to remember Peter (who made the first Christological confession), to remember Cecilia (who at her death professed the Trinity), and to remember Agnes (the chaste lamb of the Roman Church). The Pallium therefore reminds the archbishop of the martyrs’ sacred courage, which he must imitate by unabashedly proclaiming the faith while persevering in holy chastity.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco receives the Pallium from Pope Francis

Concluding thoughts

If today you ask an average Roman, “Who was Diocletian?”, you might hear mention of his horrific persecutions, his establishment of the ill-fated Tetrarchy, and his abdication into shame.  Then if you ask, “Who was Symphronius?”, you will more often than not elicit silence, blank stares, confusion, or ignorance. The memory of Symphronius means nothing to those who came after him, except through his connection to a Christian girl named Agnes.  Over the centuries, a slow, subtle damnatio memoriae has taken effect on Symphronius and to a lesser extent on Diocletian, while innumerable churches and countless women throughout the world possess the name of that holy virgin.

Now if you ask a Roman, “Who was Agnes?”, he’ll tell you the story of a noble girl who refused the perverted advances of pagan men; when her insulted suitors revealed her faith to the Prefect, she was arrested and sent to a brothel, but by some miracle no man was able to touch her; then she was brought to Domitian’s circus agonalis, where the fuel to burn her body failed to catch sufficient spark; and finally, with her head bowed and arms outstretched as in the manner of the Lord, she received a swift sword upon her neck, never flinching, but with joyful countenance; wherefore in eternity she beholds the joyful countenance of Him for whom she poured her blood.

Regarding Diocletian and Symphronius, the memory of the modern Roman is weak and thus his verdict is harsh; but ask him about Saint Agnes, and he will point you to her τρόπαιον, to that splendid victory monument which to this day holds her severed head as an earthly reminder of her divine Testimony– and in this manner, the Roman will justify Jerome, proving that Agnes has indeed “conquered both the age* and the tyrant.”

[*TRANSLATION NOTE:  It’s come to my attention that most English versions of the Martyrology say “Agnes overcame tender age” (or use similar verbiage), meaning that though she was a child, she had not the fear of a child.  In such translations, aetatem signifies the temporal duration of one’s life, rather than a reference to a long historical period.  I used this latter meaning of aetatem to emphasize Agnes’ enduring legacy, which has overtaken (vicit, conquered) that of the pagan powers that killed her.  Both usages of aetatem are correct (though mine is less common in the English editions), and the poetic ambiguity in Latin can simultaneously point to both meanings– another demonstration of Latin’s outstanding rhetorical possibilities.  If Jerome intended to refer exclusively to Agnes’ age in years, he most certainly would have written aetatem suam (“her age”) or the even clearer term iuventutem (“youth”); alas, he didn’t, and all the better for us who can enjoy his splendid prose.]
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
qui infirma mundi eligis ut fortia quaeque confundas,
concede propitius,
ut, beatae Agnetis martyris tuae natalicia celebramus,
eius in fide constantiam subsequamur.  
Per Christum Dominum nostrum.  (from the Collect of the Feast of St. Agnes)

Saint Agnes, Massimo Stanzione

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