Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Agnes, The Young Roman Virgin and Martyr

detail of the Saint Agnes of Rome stained glass window, Saint Joseph's Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; artist unknown; photographed by the author, summer 2003Article

Died A.D. 304.

At the beginning of the fourth century there lived in Rome a rich, noble and beautiful girl who was happily named Agnes. In accordance with her high birth, her parents had her carefully educated; but her chief glory was a stainless purity of soul, for she had consecrated her young heart to Heaven by a vow of virginity.

Beauty is the reflection of heaven in the human countenance. The soul as it grows lovely transforms in its turn the body which it animates, and thus the living mirror of the face reflects strength and gentleness, peace and purity.

As Agnes was one day returning from school, her modesty and fascinating beauty attracted the idle glance of Eutropius, son of the governor of Rome. In a moment he was desperately in love, for never before had he seen such a sweet angelic countenance. Day and night that vision of loveliness haunted his excited mind. At length he visited the parents of Agnes and asked her hand in marriage. But as their daughter was only twelve years of age, they did not encourage the young man’s proposal.

Not so easily, however, was Eutropius to be put off. He determined to speak to Agnes herself, hoping that she would listen better than her father and mother. He watched for her daily in the street. One day as she passed he ran up, told his love, and begged her to accept some costly and brilliant jewels which he held in his hand.

Agnes declined the gifts, and with great dignity and earnestness said: “Leave me! There is Another who possesses my whole heart. I love Him more than my own life and soul. He is so great, noble, and beautiful that I will ever remain true to Him”

It is not likely that the young Roman heathen grasped the full meaning of the Saint’s words. But he went away sad at heart. He became distracted with grief and disappointment, and in a short time fell sick.

When the governor of Rome learned the cause of his son’s illness, he sent a third person to the home of Saint Agnes to ask her to accede to the wishes of Eutropius. It was in vain. She gave a final refusal.

As may be readily conceived, this affair was talked over again and again in the governor’s residence. On one occasion an officer present remarked in a tone of sarcasm: “It is useless to waste time in the matter. Agnes, being a Christian, is a witch, and imagines Christ to be her bridegroom”

This was a new and delightful item of information. The governor immediately ordered her to be arrested. Under the pretext of proceeding against her as a Christian, he hoped to be able to gain another point by forcing her to marry his infatuated son.

The holy and beautiful Agnes soon stood an accused prisoner before his tribunal. In the sweetest words possible the governor urged his request a second time. He promised honors and estates, but soon saw he was wasting his breath to no purpose. Then he began to threaten with all the cunning of an experienced knave.

“Either renounce your Christ,” said he sternly, “and consent to the marriage, or, if you desire to remain a virgin, offer sacrifice to the goddess Vesta, and enroll yourself among the Vestals. Make your choice. If you refuse both offers, however, I will have you sent to an infamous abode, where the vilest wretches may treat you just as they please.”

Agnes quailed not before the dangers that now threatened her on every side. “It is in vain you hope for my consent,” replied the holy heroine. “I will neither renounce Christ nor offer sacrifice to Vesta. The one true God only do I adore. You threaten me with disgrace, but I have an angel of the Lord for protector. He will guard ray frail body. You shall soon learn that my God is a God of purity. He will bring your wicked purpose to naught.”

Such a bold and noble answer enraged the pagan governor. With all the malignity of a base nature, this monster ordered the pure, lovely girl to be stripped of her clothing and led in a state of complete nudity to a den of iniquity. But the great God was near, and took this occasion to work a grand and never-repeated miracle in order to prove His love for holy chastity. In a moment the rich hair of her head grew in such a profusion of length and thickness that it encircled her entire person like a close-woven garment.

When the abode of infamy was reached, Saint Agnes saw an angel of God who was sent there for her special protection. He handed her an exquisite dress whiter than snow. She put it on. A dazzling brilliancy now surrounded her divinely-protected person: and many whose brutal instincts brought them near turned away with feelings of awe and mysterious respect on beholding the shining grandeur of that spotless young maiden.

Eutropious alone had the wicked audacity to approach the dear Saint and offer violence; but in the twinkling of an eye he was struck blind by the angel, and fell trembling to the floor. He was dead. It was the swift punishment of an impure scoundrel.

Soon it became known that the governor’s son was killed, and a great outcry was raised through the whole city. Agnes was a wretched Christian and a witch, they exclaimed, and Eutropius had perished by her vile enchantments. The unhappy father rushed to the place and like a madman tore his hair in grief and anguish.

“O you sorceress and infernal monster!” shouted the furious governor, “born for my misery, why have you killed my son?”

“I have not killed your son,” answered the young Saint. “He perished by his own wicked rashness. Unlike others who came here, he did not heed the brightness of this room, or respect the great God and the angel who guards my virginity; and Heaven instantly chastised his blind and brutal obstinacy.”

The anger of the governor gave way to calmness, and he said: “Then I beg of you to restore my son again to life. If you do the world will know that he did not die of your magic.”

“Your hardened unbelief,” replied Agnes, “merits not that Almighty God should raise your son from the dead; but I will beg this favor of Him, that Rome may know His glory and greatness.” The sweet Saint prayed and lo! the dead Eutropius arose and said in a loud voice: “The idols are devils. The God of the Christians is the only true God, and He alone is to be adored!”

The news of this strange event passed rapidly over the city. The pagan priests began to fear that the worship of their idols was in danger, and stirred up the fury of the low and ignorant masses by proclaiming that Agnes was a sorceress, who plotted the downfall of the sacred gods. This sealed the fate of the Christian maiden.

A mob gathered, crying out: “Death to the sorceress! Death to the infamous and sacrilegious witch who blinds the minds of men by her enchantments!”

The governor did not desire the death of Saint Agnes, but the wild attitude of the mob frightened him; and though he refused to meddle in the case, he quietly placed it in the hands of his deputy, Aspasius. He was a mean dodger of duty. He belonged to that list of cringing cowards which history hands down to us headed by the infamous name of Pontius Pilate.

Agnes was brought before Aspasius, and condemned to be burned alive. It is said that she was transported with joy on hearing the cruel sentence. She went to death “more cheerfully,” says St Ambrose, “than others go to their wedding.’

She was placed on the funeral pile, the fire shot up on every side, and soon the heroic virgin was encircled by flames. But God worked another wonder. Agnes, thus surrounded, sat untouched and sang the praises of her Almighty Master.

The heathen priests, full of anger and malignity asserted that this striking wonder was the result of magic. They demanded that the Saint should be put to death in another way; and Aspasius ordered the executioner to thrust his sword through her neck.

The spectators wept to see that tender and beautiful girl subjected to such revolting punishments; but, with more than the fearless intrepidity of a veteran warrior, Agnes turned to the pale, hesitating executioner, and said: “Do not hesitate. Perish this body, which is pleasing in the eyes of those whom I desire not to please.”

As she raised her eyes to heaven, breathing a last prayer for the eternal safety of her stainless soul, the cruel sword of the executioner did its work, and the glorious battle was ended. Peerless purity was crowned by martyrdom. It was the famous victory of a child of thirteen, in 304, over the tender weakness of her years, the power of pagan Rome, and the malice of men and demons.

Saint Agnes was buried with all honor by her parents. Fondly they cherished the memory of their dear and beautiful daughter, often praying on her tomb. On the eighth night, however, after her martyrdom she appeared to them, shining with a radiance truly celestial, and said: “My dearest father and mother, mourn not as if I were dead, but rejoice with me that I am now in heaven, crowned with fadeless glory.”

Saint Agnes, bright gem in the grand court of heaven.
Whose jewelled gates glisten with jasper and gold,
What words to the children of earth have been given,
To speak of thy worth, of thy glory untold!
What pearl could compare with thy pure soul so holy?
What ruby’s rich depths with thy heart’s fervent love?
What amethyst’s glow with thy meek life so lowly?
What diamond with thy dazzling beauty above?

“Saint Agnes, sweet patroness, teach us to follow
The footsteps of Him whom thy young heart loved best,
That after life’s night-time of tears and of sorrow
May dawn a glad morning of peace and of rest.
With scorn thou didst look upon earthly ambition
And long from its fettering links to be free;
It seemed in thy sight but a vain apparition –
The real, the true One was waiting for thee!”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Agnes, The Young Roman Virgin and Martyr”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>