The Account of Ambrose

According to all literary accounts Agnes was very young, only thirteen, when she was martyred. In his tract On Virgins, composed about 377 C.E., Ambrose tells us that she was so young and slight that there was not enough flesh for her even to be struck by a sword, and that no chains were small enough to hold her delicate wrists. Yet she was brave. At the age when young brides should be led forth to marriage, she, instead, freely embraced her death, as a consecrated virgin bride of Christ. While everyone around her wept, Agnes did not shed a tear, but instead she embraced her martyrdom and challenged the executioner to kill her. She boldly bared her neck for him. Ambrose emphasized Agnes' modesty and the importance of her virginity. At the conclusion of this tract, he tells us that Agnes obtained martyrdom and retained her virginity. In another work, De officiis ministrorum, "On the duties of the Ministers" (1.41.203), he tells us that when she was forced to choose between her virginity and her safety she protected her virginity and exchanged her safety for immortality.

Later than his On Virgins, but also from the late fourth century, Ambrose's hymn to Agnes entitled Agnes beatae virginis relates details omitted in the tract On Virgins (see Primary Document 4.2). Both describe her as young, courageous, and willing to face the sword for her faith; and in both she defiantly refuses to sacrifice to the gods. Missing from On Virgins, however, is the hymn's description of her terrified parents who try to lock her up to keep her from martyrdom (vv. 9-12), and the elaborate praise for her modesty: she took care that no one might see her uncovered and even hid her face with her hand as she slid to the ground modestly (vv. 26-32). Here we see a clear example of the well-educated Christian Ambrose using the familiar Latin classical (pagan) models of Roman female virtue to give resonance to the Christian story.

The motif of a maiden dying by sword to protect her virtue was well known from the Roman legend of Lucretia. The historian Livy (59 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) narrates the story in his History of Rome (1.57.6-58). In his account, the last of the Etruscan kings, Tarquinius Superbus, "Tarquin the Proud," and several Roman nobles, were dining and drinking after a long day of hunting when they began to discuss the virtue of their wives. Collatinus, one of the nobles in the king's court, was so sure of his wife Lucretia's excellence that he challenged his companions to surprise Lucretia that very evening, to judge for themselves how virtuous she was. As he predicted, Lucretia was at home busily spinning with her maids instead of feasting with the other wives at a luxurious dinner party. Tarquin was so impressed by Lucretia—her virtue, her beauty, and her devotion to her husband—that he violated her in her own home that very night. Lucretia was outraged and inconsolable. She confessed Tarquin's crime to her father and husband then killed herself in shame.

The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) wrote a version of the rape of Lucretia in his Fasti (2.685-834), a poem on the Roman calendar. He dramatically described Lucretia's shame as she confessed to her husband and father that Tarquin had raped her, and he then depicted her suicide before their eyes. Her last thought, he tells us, was that she had to guard her modesty even as she fell to the ground (vv. 833-34). Ambrose's treatment of the martyrdom of Agnes recalls the well-known story of Lucretia in Ovid's poem. Apart from the larger theme of female virtue and the courage of a delicate young woman in the face of death, the texts have unambiguous intertextual references. In both of his Agnes tracts—On Virgins and the

Agnes beatae virginis hymn—Ambrose tells us that in the final moments before her death, Agnes was concerned more than anything that she fall to the ground with modestly. In vv. 26-8 of the hymn, Agnes covered herself with her cloak so that no one would see her uncovered, and in vv. 30-33, the poet offers an elaborately detailed description of how she covered her face with her hand and fell to the ground by carefully bending her knee so that she remained covered as she lay on the ground.

0 0

Post a comment