Your RDA of Irony

Patrician Noster

January 21st, around 304: Agnes Lives Up To Her Name

This is the feast day of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr.  (Yes, the two are often synonymous).  Agnes was a young Roman patrician…and so were Saints Agatha, Lucia, Cecilia, Catherine, etc.  Why must they always be young Roman virgin aristocrats?  Was the Early Church so snobbish that it would not let a shepherdess or fishmonger throw herself to the lions?  And the stories are always the same: rather than marry a pagan, the young lady chooses death.  Well, a Church that needs four Gospels to tell the same story is not blessed with originality; and the redundancy of these martyred debutantes might suggest why plagiarism is not a cardinal sin.

Ironically, the very triteness of these stories proves that they are reasonably true.  (We still might doubt that, when threaten with rape, Saint Agnes immediately grew billows of body hair that deterred even Latin men.)  All this incredulous repetition is the fault of the Romans.  The Empire was specifically persecuting Christian patricians.  Pagans are usually quite tolerant; what difference is one more God in the pantheon?  In fact, the imperial authorities were quite prepared to accept Christianity within certain constraints.

The evangelists were welcome to preach sufferance to peasants and slaves.  Sedating the lower classes did the Empire a favor.  (What a pity Jesus missed Spartacus by some 90 years.)  Furthermore, Christianity seemed a very nice religion for women.  Virtue, mercy and charity are delightful household precepts; but they are no way to run an empire.  The Christian principles might undermine the martial ardor that built and maintained Rome.  The religion could not be allowed among patrician males.

By the third century, many patrician families kept a theological balance.  The women were permitted to be Christian while the men were required to be pagans.  The women’s Christianity was not even a secret.  Consider the names Agnes, Agatha, Lucia and Catherine.  They were not traditional Roman monikers but reflected the Christian policy of naming a child for a virtue. Their names respectively mean chaste, good, light and pure.  (Cecilia must have had a domineering conservative father; her name adheres to Roman custom and identifies her as a member of the Caecilii family.) 

So long as Christianity remained a woman’s fad, there were no problems.  Unfortunately, some dogmatic maidens did not know their place.  Agnes, Agatha, Lucia and Catherine revolted against all propriety by refusing to marry eminently eligible pagans.  That was a scandal.  And Cecilia was worse; she actually tried converting patrician males.  That was a crime!  Since these young ladies demanded attention, they got the most fatal form of it.

Agnes died during the last major persecution of Christians. It was in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who incidentally had a Christian but discreet wife.  In 304 there was an up-and-coming Roman general named Constantine.  He, too, grew up in a theologically mixed household, with a pagan father and a Christian mother; in his case, however, Constantine turned out to be a a mama’s boy.  If only Agnes had shown a little patience and tact, she could have been persecuting pagans.

  1. Peg Pruitt says:

    I attended a Catholic girls’ high school at which the entire student body was divided into two teams: St. Margaret and St. Agnes. They competed for merits and points.

    A girl chose her team upon first registering as a freshman. As my given name is Margaret, the nun signing me up declared with a smile that she knew what team I would be on. At that point a perverse little devil whispered in my ear, and I chose the St. Agnes team. The poor lady was at a loss. I guess the convent didn’t have too many non-conformists.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Peg,

      Which Saint Margaret? The Church has quite a few, ranging from the obligatory virgin martyr to a Queen of Hungary.


  2. Peg Pruitt says:

    Actually, I have no idea. I rather fancy the Queen of Hungary, but I’m sure the nuns preferred the obligatory virgin martyr.

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