The Veneration of Martyrs in Rome

Emma Garfield
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Fall 2014]

In Ancient Rome, Christianity was not legally accepted until the time of Constantine, who decriminalized the religion in 313. However in the 4th century and the centuries preceding it, many Christians were persecuted, and many martyred, under the rule of previous emperors. Among these emperors to persecute the Christians, both Nero and Diocletian played key roles.  One saint, Saint Agnes, provides a particularly clear example as to how many of the others were persecuted, and her story helps to explain how in the 4th century, many basilicas rose on the sites where their dedicated saints had been martyred, or in some cases buried.

Saint Agnes

According to Jacopo da Voragine's 'Golden Legends', Agnes was a beautiful young girl who was extremely devoted to God and Christianity. She also had many suitors - and due to her devotion to chastity, she denied these suitors. Angered by this, they submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christ during the time of Diocletian's persecution of Christians (mid to late 3rd century and first decade of the 4th). Agnes was dragged through the streets naked to demonstrate what happens to Christians – it is said that as she was dragged, she prayed and her hair grew to cover her body. When they saw this, they tied her to a stake and set it on fire, at which point the flames parted and did not burn her. In the end, there are several renditions, but ultimately it is believed that she was either beheaded or stabbed in the throat. Horrific as these stories are, they were quite common amongst the saints, each with a different story of their own.

map of 4th century basilicas

A series of saints who died during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians were heavily promoted. In the 4th century map of the major basilicas around Rome, we see that each one represents such saints. Within these basilicas, there are statues, mosaics, paintings, and reliefs that tell their story. In particular, this was the system’s propaganda to promote the virtues that Christian’s should aspire to have. For example Agnes promotes purity, while Sebastian promotes courage. It is also believed that Constantine built the mausoleum for his daughter attached to the old St. Agnese in Agone because he wanted to relate his daughter to a saint that was pure, devout, and emulated goodness. In the case of images (of any medium), saints are almost always depicted with specific attributes – in some cases telling us how they died. Agnes is often accompanied by flames or locks of hair. Sebastian often has arrows embedded in his flesh, and St. Andrew with the cross on which he was martyred. St. Thomas is shown with a spear, but for examples other than the means of martyrdom, sometimes a square to tell us he was a builder. Likewise Agnes sometimes has a lamb, as it represented her purity.

statue of Saint Andrew

Ultimately, the sites on which these basilicas were built were not chosen at random, and almost all were officially built in the 4th century. They were all built on the site the saint was killed, martyred, or previously worshiped – a fact that alludes to the idea that they were acknowledged some time before Christianity was even considered legal. Therefore we know that the veneration of saints came along with or before the persecution, rather than years later with Constantine.

more from Emma's sketchbook
Basilica of Saint Agnes
the leaning tower of Pisa
the Parthenon, Athens
new and old basilicas of Sant'Agnese and Mausoleum of Santa Costanza