About a mile from the Porta Pia, beside the Nomentine road that leads from Rome to the bridge over the Arno and to Montana, are the basilica and catacomb of Saint Agnese. We are there on high ground, and here the parents of the saint had a villa and vineyard.
They were Christians, and their garden had an entrance to a catacomb in which the faithful were interred. We know this, because some of the burials in the passages underground are of more ancient date than the martyrdom of Saint Agnes, which took place in 304.
A little lane, very dirty, leads down hence into the Salarian road, and there is a mean dribble of a stream in a hollow below.
The rock is all of the volcanic tufa that is so easily cut, but which in the roads resolves itself into mud of the dirtiest and most consistent description.
New Rome is creeping along the road, its gaunt and eminently vulgar houses are destroying the beauty of this road, which commanded exquisite views of the Sabine and Alban mountains, and the lovely Torlonia gardens have already been destroyed. Nor is this all, for the foundations of these useless and hideous buildings are being driven down into more than one old catacomb, which as soon as revealed is destroyed.
Where now stands the basilica of Saint Agnese was the catacomb in which her body was laid. The church is peculiar, in that it is half underground. One has to descend into it by a staircase of forty-five ancient marble steps, lined with inscriptions taken from the catacomb. The cause for this peculiarity is not that the soil has risen about the basilica, but that when it was proposed to build the church over the tomb of the saint who was below in the catacomb, the whole of the crust of rock and earth above was removed, so that the subterranean passages were exposed to light; and then the foundations of the sacred edifice were laid on this level, and were carried up above the surface of the ground.
But this is not the only church that bears the name of Saint Agnes: there is another in Rome itself, opposite the Torre Mellina, on the site of her martyrdom, in the Piazza Navona, which occupies the place of the old circus of Domitian. It is a very ugly building of 1642, but contains a tolerable representation, in relief, of the martyrdom of the saint.
Unfortunately we have not got the Acts of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes in their original form. It was the custom of the Church to have scribes present at the interrogation and death of a martyr, who took down in shorthand the questions put and the answers made, and the sentence of the judge. These records, which were of the highest value, were preserved in the archives of the Roman Church. Unhappily, at a later age, such very simple accounts, somewhat crude maybe in style, and entirely deficient in the miraculous, did not suit the popular taste. Meanwhile the stories of the martyrs had been passed from mouth to mouth, and various additions had been made to give them a smack of romance; the account of the deaths was embellished with marvels, and made excruciating by the piling up of tortures; and then the popular voice declared that the persecutors must have been punished at once; so it was fabled that lightning fell and consumed them, or that the earth opened and swallowed them.
Now, when the Acts of Martyrs were found to contain nothing of all this, then writers set to work – not with the intention of deceiving, but with the idea that the genuine Acts were defective – to recompose the stories, by grafting into the original narrative all the rubbish that had passed current in popular legend. Thus it has come to pass that so few of the Acts of the Martyrs, as we have them, are in their primitive form. They have been more or less stuffed out with fabulous matter.
The Acts of Saint Agnes are in this condition, although not so grossly meddled with as some others have been. That she was a real martyr, and that the broad outlines of her story are true, there can be no doubt.
The martyrdom took place during the reign of Diocletian.
In 304 he was in Italy. He had come to Rome the preceding year to celebrate the twentieth year of the reign of his colleague, Maximian, and at the same time the triumph over the Persians. He left Rome in ill humour at the independence of the citizens, after having been accustomed to the servility of the Easterns; the day was December 20th, and he went to Ravenna. The weather was cold and wet, and he was chilled, so that he suffered all the rest of the winter, and became irritable as his health failed. However, he went back to Rome; and at this time several martyrdoms ensued, as that of Saint Soteris, a virgin of the noble family from which sprang Saint Ambrose, also the boy Pancras, and Saint Sebastian. But the most notable was Agnes.
She was aged only thirteen, and was the daughter of noble and wealthy parents, who were, as already said, Christians.
Her riches and beauty induced the son of a former prefect to seek her hand in marriage. Agnes, however, refused. She had no desire to become a wife; at all events, at so early an age; and, moreover, she would on no account be united to a pagan. “I am already engaged to One,” she said: “to Him I shall ever keep my troth.”
Not understanding what she meant, he inquired further; and she is reported to have replied in an allegorical strain: “He has already bound me to Him by His betrothal ring, and has adorned me with precious jewels. He has placed a sign upon my brow that I should love none as I love Him. He has revealed unto me treasures incomparable, which He has promised to give me if I persevere. Honey and milk has He bestowed on me by His words. I have partaken of His body, and with His blood has He adorned my cheeks.”
It must not, however, be supposed that this was actually what she said. There was then no scribe present to take the sentences down; they are words put into her mouth at a later period by a romance writer.
The young man was incensed, and complained to her father, who would in no way force his daughter’s inclinations. The youth, unquestionably, did not understand her, and supposed that she had already given her heart to some earthly lover.
Presently it all came out. Agnes was a Christian, and, as a Christian, would not listen to his suit.
Then, in a rage, the young man rushed off and denounced her to the prefect, who sent immediately for her parents, and threatened them. They were weak in the faith; and, returning home trembling, urged their daughter to accept the youth. She, however, steadfastly refused.
There was now nothing for it but for her to appear before the Prefect of Rome. She stood before his tribunal with calmness and confidence.
“Come,” said he, “be not headstrong: you are only a child, remember, though forward for your age.”
“I may be a child,” replied Agnes; “but faith does not depend on years, but on the heart.”
The prefect presently lost his temper, and declared roundly: “I will tell you what shall be done with you; you shall be stripped and driven naked forth to the jeers and insults of the rabble.”
Then the clothes were taken off the slender body of the girl. Thereupon she loosened the band that confined her abundant golden hair, and it fell in waves over her body and covered her to the knees.
“You may expose me to insult,” said she; “but I have the angel of God as my defence. For the only-begotten Son of God, whom you know not, will be to me an impenetrable wall and a guardian; never sleeping, and an unflagging protector.”
“Let her be bound,” ordered the judge, sullenly.
Then the executioner turned over a quantity of manacles, and selected the smallest pair he could find, and placed them round her wrists.
Agnes, with a smile, shook her hands, and they fell clanking at her feet.
The prefect then ordered her to death by the sword.
The Roman tradition is that she suffered where is now her church, by the Piazza Navona; but executions were never carried out within the walls of Rome. She was taken to the place where she was to die. Here she knelt, and with her own hands drew forward her hair, so as to expose her neck to the blow. A pause ensued; the executioner was trembling with emotion, and could not brandish his sword.
The interpolated Acts say that before this an angel had brought her a white robe, which she put over her. What is probable is that the magistrate, ashamed of what he had done, suffered one of those angels of mercy, the deaconesses, to reclothe the girl.
As the child knelt in her white robe, with her head inclined, her arms crossed on her breast, and her golden hair hanging to the ground, she must have looked like a beautiful lily, stooping under its weight of blossom.
“And thus, bathed in her rosy blood,” says the author of the Acts, “Christ took to Himself His bride and martyr.”
Her parents received the body, and carried it to the cemetery they had in their vineyard on the Nomentian Way, and there laid it in a loculus, a recess cut in the side of one of the passages underground. It was probably just under one of the luminaria, or openings to the upper air, which allowed light to enter the Catacombs; for here, two days later, Emerentiana, a catechumen, the foster-sister of Agnes, was found kneeling by her grave; and the pagan rabble, peering in and seeing her, pelted her with stones, stunned, and then buried her under the earth and sand they threw in.
Constantine the Great built the church over the tomb, removing the upper crust; but it was rebuilt by Honorius I, between 625 and 638. It was altered in 1490 by Innocent VIII; but retains more of the ancient character than most of the Roman churches.
The day on which Agnes suffered was January 21st. The memory of her has never faded from the Church. It is said that her parents dreamed, seven days after her death, that they saw her in light, surrounded by a Virgin band, and with a white lamb at her side. In commemoration of this dream – which not improbably did take place – the Roman Church observes in her honour the 28th of January as well as the actual day of her death.
So ancient is the cult of Saint Agnes, that, next to the Evangelists and Apostles, no saint’s effigy is older. It appears on the ancient glass vessels used by the Christians in the early part of the century in which she died, with her name inscribed, which leaves no doubt as to her identity.
Mrs. Jameson says of the Church of Saint Agnese, in Rome: “Often have I seen the steps of this church, and the church itself, so crowded with kneeling worshippers at Matins and Vespers, that I could not make my way among them; principally the women of the lower orders, with their distaffs and market baskets, who had come thither to pray, through the intercession of the patron saint, for the gifts of meekness and chastity.”
In the corrupted Acts, it is told that Agnes was set on a pyre to be burned to death, but that the fire was miraculously extinguished. This is purely apocryphal. It originates in a passage by Saint Ambrose, in which he speaks of her hands having been stretched over the fire on a pagan altar, to force her to do sacrifice. This has been magnified into an immense pyre.
“At this age,” said he, “a young girl trembles at an angry look from her mother; the prick of a needle draws tears. Yet, fearless under the bloody hands of her executioners, Agnes is immovable under the heavy chains which weigh her down; ignorant of death, but ready to die, she presents her body to the edge of the sword. Dragged against her will to the altar, she holds forth her arms to Christ through the fires of the sacrifice; and her hand forms, even in those flames, the sign which is the trophy of a victorious Saviour. She presents her neck and her two hands to the fetters which they produce for her; but it is impossible to find any small enough to encircle her delicate limbs.”