The Story of Agnes

According to legend, as Constantine's daughter Constantina knelt at the tomb of Saint Agnes and prayed for her leprosy to be healed, she heard the voice of the martyr herself. The voice told her to go forth "constant" (the word constans, "constant," in Latin is etymologically related to Con-stantina, a deliberate word play) in the faith of Jesus who, she promised, would heal her disease. Constantina was cured of her leprosy, and Con-stantine was so grateful that he built a basilica in honor of Saint Agnes on the Nomentana Road in Rome. Dating from the time of Constantine, Agnes was one of the oldest saints venerated in Rome; she was included in the Codex-Calendar of 354 C.E. on January 21. Although her acts and miracles have centuries of embellishments, we possess several fourth-century texts that allow us to reconstruct her early veneration. There is an account in Ambrose's tract on virgins, called De virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem, "[A Tract] on Virgins to his Sister Marcellina," in sections 2.5-9 and 4.19, a hymn to Agnes (Agnes beatae virginis) attributed to Ambrose, a verse inscription by Damasus, and a poem by the Latin poet Prudentius (Peri-stephanon 14). By comparing these accounts, we can chart the booming popularity of the martyr cult of Saint Agnes, and we can see clearly the efforts of the papacy and the Christian aristocracy to use literary texts, a fusion of classical secular forms and Christian themes, to attract pagan aristocratic converts to the church.

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