On this day, 21 January 304, Thirteen-Year-Old Agnes Is Martyred

Martyrdom of Thirteen-Year-Old Agnes

Agnes of Rome

WHEN AGNES WAS A GIRL of twelve in fourth-century Rome, boys began vying for her hand in marriage. Thirteen was a common age for a girl to marry in those days, especially if her family were well-to-do. Agnes, it seems, was from a noble family. However, she was not interested in marriage. Having become a Christian, she was devoted to Christ.

According to a persistent legend, one of her suitors was named Symphronious, the son of a prefect (Roman magistrate). His desire for the girl drove him to distraction. When the prefect learned of this, he brought Agnes in and pleaded with her to marry his son. She refused, revealing that she was a Christian.

The prefect ordered Agnes to sacrifice to Vesta, the virgin goddess of hearth and home. When she made the sign of the cross instead, he was furious. Tradition says he tried to break her spirit by throwing her into a public whorehouse. At the very least, he humiliated her. Bishop Ambrose of Milan (who lived later in the same century) said the prefect had her stripped naked. Despite this effort to shame her, Agnes clung to her integrity and her faith.

Next the prefect is supposed to have threatened to burn the girl alive, but the fire would not burn her. Whether fire was merely a threat, or the wood slow to catch fire, we do not know. She died on this day, 21 January 304,* when an executioner either stabbed her in the throat or cut off her head. Accounts vary.

The execution shocked Rome. Romans asked what was so threatening about a thirteen-year-old girl, especially since the law forbade execution of virgins. That a young girl should be killed merely over a refusal to marry outraged nobler-minded citizens. Agnes’s fortitude despite her sex and age made a deep impression on them. Possibly her death helped bring the persecution to an end.

Agnes quickly became a favorite saint. The church added her to its calendar of martyrs. Constantine erected a church at the site of her grave. Pope Damasus wrote an epitaph for her. Prudentius composed a hymn in her honor. Legendary acts (stories of saints) appeared which told about her. Ambrose spoke of her in his book De virginitate (On virginity). John Keats, a Romantic poet, even wrote a poem called “The Eve of St. Agnes” in 1819 about a girl who elopes—an action completely contrary to the spirit of the martyred girl.

The memory of Agnes even affects the consecration of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church. Her symbol is a lamb because her name, which means “pure” in Greek, is similar to the Latin “Agnus,” which means lamb. When popes want to show that a bishop is legitimate, they send him a cloth called a pallium, woven from the wool of lambs consecrated on St. Agnes’ Day.

Agnes’s parents buried her in a tomb on the Via Nomentana. Her bones have been examined by experts who say she really was just thirteen years old.



* Some scholars think the evidence points to a third-century execution.

Other Notable Events

Pope John Paul II begins a visit to Cuba, emphasizing the need for fundamental human freedoms.

Elders of the Little Flock and twenty-eight other Christian leaders in Shanghai are arrested. They had carried on the work begun by Watchman Nee now in prison.

The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau is organized in New York City to inform the general public about The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

At the Academy of music in Kansas City, Charles Parham preaches his first sermon dedicated soley to the experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues.

Birth of Julia Harriette Johnston in Salineville, Ohio. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she will devote herself to Christian work, serving as superintendent of the children Sunday School for forty-one years, writing Sunday school lessons, and authoring hundreds of hymns, including the popular “Marvelous Grace of Our Loving Lord.”

Newly-ordained missionary Christian Friedrich Schwartz embarks from London for Tranquebar, the seat of the Danish Mission in India. Four months after arriving, he will preach his first sermon in Tamil and afterwards will conduct a successful work.

A Bedford, England, congregation calls John Bunyan as its pastor. He is in prison at the time for preaching.

The English parliament passes “An Act for Uniformity of Service and Administration of the Sacraments throughout the Realm” which establishes the first Book of Common Prayer in Edward’s reign.

Anabaptists come into being in Zurich when Conrad Grebel baptizes George Blaurock.

Hans Denck, a schoolmaster who argues that Lutheran reform is empty unless accompanied by the inward light of the Spirit, is banished from the city of Nuremberg.

Matthew Paris is clothed as a novice. He will be remembered as a monk who chronicled English history.

Death of Pope Paschal. During his troubled pontificate, he had been faced with four anti-popes and suffered captivity at the hands of Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, who extorted concessions from him.

Pope Adrian III rules in favor or Rothad who had deposed a priest for unchastity and called a church council. Bishop Hincmar had argued that Rothad, as a suffragan (assistant) bishop, did not have authority to do either.