The stories of Sts. Agatha and Lucy, virgins and martyrs, are together a powerful example of the impact the witness (what martyr literally means in Greek) of one martyr can have many years after her death. Sts. Agatha and Lucy were both natives of the island of Sicily. Although Sicily is now controlled by Italy, it was originally a Greek colony and was therefore culturally Greek. Rome eventually conquered Sicily was its province when it attacked the island as part of the First Punic War against Carthage in 242 B.C.
Over four centuries later, the Roman emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, usually referred to simply as Decius, began the first persecution of Christians throughout the Empire. The first persecutions, under Nero and Domitian, had been fierce but mostly confined to Italy and Asia Minor. Later persecutions were regional, most notably at Lugundum (Lyon) in A.D. 117 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and at Carthage in A.D. 203 during the reign of Septimius Severus.
Due to these persecutions, Aurelius and Severus are often considered persecutors, although it is almost certain they did not order the persecutions and entirely possible that they were at most vaguely aware of them. On the other hand, the emperor Trajan certainly did know of a persecution that occurred during his reign in the province of Pontus, because Pliny the Younger, who was governor of that region wrote to the emperor in order to ask him some questions regarding judicial proceedings against accused Christians. In his reply, Trajan instructs Pliny that if a person is accused of being a Christian, then he must prove he is not by offering sacrifice to the gods. If he refuses, he is to be punished. However, Trajan advises Pliny not to seek out Christians nor to accept any anonymous accusations. Trajan’s successor Hadrian softened this stance by ruling that Christianity itself was not a crime and that a Christian could only be punished as one if he or she was found to be guilty of another, separate crime.
The Decree of Decius
However, the third century was a time of catastrophic crisis for the Roman Empire. A.D. 248 had seen six emperors on the throne, all of whom died violent deaths. The last of these was succeeded by Philip the Arab, who himself was eventually overthrown by Decius. An ardent pagan, Decius believed that all the calamities that had befallen the Empire were due to Romans failing to honor the traditional gods of Rome. Therefore, in A.D. 250, Decius issued an imperial edict requiring all citizens of the Empire offer sacrifice to the gods by a specified day.
The decree did not demand that all Romans routinely appear at a temple and offer or attend a sacrifice on a regular basis. It was a one-time thing and was witnessed by a magistrate, who then issued a libellus. The libellus was an official document, certifying that the person had offered sacrifice and was therefore a loyal Roman. Yet even this one-time sacrifice was considered apostasy by Christians and they therefore would not do it. Thus were many martyrs made.
St. Agatha of Sicily
St. Agatha was one of these martyrs. She was born to a noble family in Catania, on the island of Sicily. As she grew up, she was very beautiful but had made a vow to consecrate her virginity to Christ. As often happened in this situation, she was romantically pursued by a pagan suitor. In Agatha’s case, it was Quintianus, who was either prefect of governor of the region. After repeatedly rebuffing his advances, Agatha revealed the reason she would not accept his marriage proposals. Enraged, Quintianus denounced her as a Christian and she was put in trial.
Agatha was first sentenced to be sent to a brothel but she remained a Christian with her virginity intact. Quintianus then resorted to physical torture, which included being stretched on a rack, burned with torches, whipped and having her flesh torn with iron hooks. The most brutal torture that she underwent was having her breasts removed with iron pincers. For this reason, she is pictured in iconography with her severed breasts on a plate and is the patron saint of those afflicted with breast cancer.
St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her in prison during the night after her tortures and healed her wounds. She appeared the next morning before Quintianus fully healed. Rather than marvel at the miracle, the hard-hearted prefect simply ordered her to be executed. She gained her crown in A.D. 251, mere months before Decius himself was killed in battle, bringing to an end his mercifully short reign and persecution. Six years later, the emperor Valerian renewed the edict of Decius. This persecution lasted three years but also ended with a catastrophic military defeat: Valerian was captured in battle, and later killed, in A.D. 260.
Fifty Years of Peace
With the repeal of the edicts of persecution by Valerian’s son and heir Gallienus, a period began known as the Little Peace of the Church. As Christians began to practice their faith more openly, it was necessary to keep and honor the memory of the martyrs who had suffered, especially in contrast to the lapsi who had apostatized and wanted to be readmitted to the Church. In Rome, the most notable martyrs were memorialized was by offering Mass at their tombs. It is likely that there were similar customs elsewhere. By assisting at the Holy Sacrifices offered at the tombs of the martyrs, it was believed that Christians participated in the victory and triumph of these martyrs and prayed that they might share in the eternal life the martyrs had won.
Pope St. Damasus I, who was born just as the Great Persecution ended in A.D. 304, placed epigraphic inscriptions on the tombs of the martyrs in Rome, including the virgin-martyr St. Agnes. This had the practical purpose of identifying these tombs for posterity, but the language reflects the same belief regarding “entering into” the passion of these martyrs by praying at the tombs.
St. Lucy of Syracuse
One person who prayed at the tomb of St. Agatha was a woman of Syracuse named Eutychia. Syracuse was another city of Sicily. When Carthaginian general Hannibal dealt a devastating defeat to the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., the people of Syracuse thought this was their chance to free themselves from the Romans, and joined the side of the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War. This led to their eventual sacking by the resurgent Romans in 212 B.C.
Eutychia’s husband died when their daughter Lucy was five. Unbeknownst to her daughter, Lucy had made a vow of virginity, just as Agatha before her had. Fearing for the future of her daughter, Eutychia had arranged for her to marry a young man from a prominent pagan family. When Lucy learned of this, she convinced her mother to travel to Cattania, which was only 50 miles away, on a pilgrimage to pray for a cure to the bleeding disorder from which she suffered. In Cattania, Eutychia was cured through St. Agatha’s intercession and Lucy prevailed upon her mother to not only honor Lucy’s vow but to distribute what would have been her dowry to the poor. In gratitude for the cure, Eutychia acquiesced.
When Lucy’s betrothed heard that the money he would have received when he married her was being given to the poor, he confronted the women, who revealed that Lucy would not be marrying him and the reason. In anger, the spurned suitor denounced her to Paschasius, the governor of Syracuse, who ordered her to offer a sacrifice to the image of the emperor. When she refused, she was sentenced to be sent to a brothel.
Since this happened to both Sts. Agnes and Agatha, it is common for scoffers to claim that the Actae of these virgin martyrs are simply the same story retold with different names and slightly different details. However, it is likely that this was standard practice for the Romans, who had a documented hang-up with killing virgins. Also, unlike the aforementioned saints, Lucy never made it to the brothel. When the soldiers came to drag her there, they were unable to move her, even after hitching a team of oxen to pull her there. Now fearful that she was a witch, they piled bundles of wood around her to burn her, but they were not able to light them. Lucy then received her martyr’s crown via a sword thrust through her throat.
It is said that before her death, St. Lucy prophesied that Diocletian, Augustus of the East, and Maximian, Augustus of the West, would cease to rule and that the Persecution would soon end. Assuming that her feast day, December 13, is the day of her death, less than six months later Diocletian and Maximian abdicated and were succeeded by their Caesars: Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, respectively. Although Galerius himself had been the mastermind of the Presecution and continued to persecute Christians in the East, Constantius had somewhat of a sympathy toward Christians, likely due to St. Helena, the mother of his son Constantine, who may have already been a Christian. The territory of Constantius included Italy, thus the Persecution ended there, fulfilling. Even Galerius, before his death in A.D. 311, would end the Persecution and ask for the prayers of the Christians for his health.
St. Lucy is traditionally depicted in iconography with her eyes on a small plate. The tradition differs on how exactly her eyes were removed. Either it was done as part of her torture or she removed them herself to give to a young man who expressed admiration for them, saying she would no longer need them where she was going. When she was buried, the eyes had miraculously been restored, even more beautiful than they had been in life.
Thus, from Sicily, come two virgin-martyrs who suffered not only for their Faith, but for their decision, born out of that Faith, to consecrate their whole selves to their God and Savior, the true Bridegroom. Of course, for Romans, such a thing was unheard of as even the Vestal Virgins eventually married at the end of their terms of service. For the Romans, a woman either belonged to one man or was available for every man to use, thus the condemnation to the brothel. It is also noteworthy that both Sts. Agatha and Lucy are portrayed in sacred art with a plate holding a part of their body, normally associated with feminine beauty, that had been removed as part of their tortures but what was miraculously restored.
Sts. Agatha and Lucy, virgins and martyrs, orate pro nobis!