Elizabeth Goodine

Female Martyrs in Early Christianity


The era of Christian persecution and martyrdom is difficult to date exactly. Christian tradition generally ascribes the title of first Christian martyr to the disciple, Stephen, whose death in approximately 36 C.E. is recorded in the New Testament book of Acts . The earliest actual martyrology, however, describes the death of St. Ignatius of Rome sometime between 98 and 117 C.E. The period of sporadic persecution is usually considered to have ended with the rise of the Emperor Constantine and the subsequent acceptance of Christianity as a valid religion in the early to mid-fourth century. Yet, this date does not take into account the Donatist martyrs of North Africa who died at the hands of other Christians in the late fourth century. While the start and finish of the era may be inexact, it is clear that throughout the period, women and men alike chose to die rather than renounce their faith in Christ. Some died alone; others died with their male companions. The following are early female martyrs of note.

177 C.E., Lyon: Martyrs of Lyon and Vienne.
Among this group of martyrs were three women: a slave named Blandina, her mistress, and Biblis. Blandina is especially significant for the inspiration she provided to others in the midst of torture and for the manner in which the account reports her as a re-presentation of Christ in the midst of death.

180 C.E., Carthage: The Scillitan Martyrs.
Twelve men and women executed by the sword after refusing to recant their confession of Christ.

Date uncertain (either about 165 C.E. during the reign of Marcus Aurelius or 251 C.E. during the reign of Decius), Pergamum, Asia Minor: Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonicê.
After several rounds of torture, Carpus and Papylus are finally nailed to the stake and burned. As they die, the crowd exhorts Agathonicê to have pity on her child but she replies that God will care for him. Then, she too is burned.

202–203 C.E., Carthage: Perpetua and Felicitas.
Perpetua, a young Roman matron with a child, is executed along with her slave-woman, Felicitas, who had just given birth. The account is particularly important since the first portion reproduces Perpetua’s own diary, written during her captivity.

205–210 C.E., Alexandria: Martyrdom of Poamiaena and Basilides.
After enduring severe torture and repeated threats of sexual assault, Poamiaena was executed, along with her mother, Marcella. Basilides, the young soldier who had led her to death, was moved to confess Christ himself, after asserting that Poamiaena had appeared to him three days after her death. He was subsequently beheaded.

Circa 304 C.E., Thessalonica: Martyrdom of Agapê, Irenê, Chionê and Companions.
After refusing to renounce Christ and to eat meat sacrificed to the gods, Agapê and Chionê were burned. Irenê, initially spared because of her young age, was charged with hiding Christian documents. Ultimately, after being stripped naked and sentenced to time in a brothel, she too was executed.

304 C.E., Tebessa, North Africa: Martyrdom of Crispina.
Executed by the sword. She refused to renounce Christ even after an order was issued that her head be shaved bald in an effort to shame her.

304 C.E., Mérida, Spain: Eulalia.
A young Roman woman (12–14 years old) who was said to have taunted her tormentors even as she was being tortured and burned at the stake.

304 C.E., Rome: Agnes.
A young Roman noblewoman (twelve to thirteen years-old) who dedicated herself to Christ. She is said to have spurned any would-be suitors who then brought charges of being a Christian against her.


The word, “martyr,” derives from a Greek word meaning “to bear witness.” Thus, in Christian tradition, a martyr refers to one who bears witness to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ through his/her own death. Following the death of Jesus in approximately 33 C.E., communities of “Christians” began to develop and eventually to spread throughout the Roman Empire. These Christians devoted themselves to the exclusive worship of their god. They sporadically drew the ire of Roman authorities who, while not caring if they worshipped Jesus, expected that they also do their civic duty by publicly worshipping and making sacrifices to the gods of Rome.

In the clashes that ensued over Christian exclusivity to Christ, the martyrs came to be viewed by their fellow believers not as the victims that Rome had intended to make of them but rather, as victors over evil and death; harbingers of hope, ordained by none other than their god. In the bodies of the martyrs, weakness became strength, shame became honor, and earthly death became eternal life. As the stories of martyrs were recorded and spread from community to community, they fueled the growth of the church. As the second century church leader, Tertullian, declared, “the oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Tertullian, Apology:50).

Echoing the view of Tertullian, modern scholars have argued convincingly that through the telling and re-telling of the stories of the martyrs, Christians constructed a group identity based on suffering as empowerment and death as victory. The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus, the incarnate Christ, served, of course, as the quintessential example of such victorious suffering. Jesus lived in the body, taught in the body, suffered and died in the body; and for Christians, it was this very human body that was understood as the conduit between God and believers. It was, then, no accident that the bodies of the martyrs became the locus of activity in the unfolding drama that transformed powerlessness into power. In the stead of Christ, the suffering martyr served as mediator between God and the world. In the body of the martyr, death was unmasked as the gateway to eternal life. As Christ’s death and resurrection were understood to redeem the world, the Christian martyr, through death, continued that work of redemption on behalf of Christ.

Thus, the body is central to this process of attaining victory; yet the martyr’s imitation of Christ through the female body is complicated: how does a female body imitate the body of a male god? It is not, as one might guess, that at some point the body ceases to matter. Rather, in the world of these early martyrologies, the body itself carried meaning that far surpassed its physical parts. Here, the ancient view of the human body and the body’s relationship to virtues are critically important. In antiquity, the human body was understood hierarchically, with the male sex representing the standard and the female the sub-standard on a continuum. Furthermore, virtues were associated with biological sex; that is, the highest (justice, self-control, wisdom and courage) were considered to be male virtues; while the lesser virtues (gentleness, modesty, chastity, beauty) were understood as female. In order, then, for the martyr to stand in the stead of Christ, s/he had to be seen as exhibiting the highest of virtues while in the midst of suffering and dying, even as Jesus himself had done while on the cross. On the hierarchical continuum, this meant moving upward toward the pinnacle, that is, toward maleness, via the taking on and display of manly virtues.

Narrators of the martyrologies depict female martyrs (like their male counterparts) as far surpassing their persecutors in terms of the manly virtues. Perpetua, [Image at right] for instance, was so courageous that she stared down her executioner and then, taking his hand, guided the dagger to her own throat. In such shows of manly virtue, males and females alike imitated Christ, the most virtuous one of all. Yet, in these re-presentations, the bodies of the female martyrs carried a double burden. Within the context of the Roman world, these women, like their Christian brothers, had to be seen as more manly in virtue than their persecutors. In relation to those Christian brothers, however, they had to be seen as the most virtuous of women as well. Thus, while Perpetua shows manly courage in taking up the dagger for herself, she also exhibits the very feminine quality of modesty in pulling “down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain” (Mursurillo 1972:129). Thus, in attempting to understand the place of female martyrs in early Christianity, it is not only the role of the martyr as one who imitates Christ, and who re-presents him to the world, that is critical. In addition, it is also necessary to comprehend the ancient hierarchical view of the human body, the place of men and women on that hierarchical framework, and the attachment of specific virtues to either the male sex or the female sex.


In the act of dying as martyrs, women, like men, served as intercessors between God and their Christian communities. Standing in the stead of Christ who suffered, died, and was believed to have risen again, they made real the possibility of resurrection victory for all who believed. As depicted in the martyrologies, however, the female martyr faced the additional challenge of being and remaining female even as she moved up the hierarchical continuum toward greater and greater maleness, and ultimately to Christ. Her exhibition of great manly virtue emphasized her superiority to her male persecutors; at the same time, her show of feminine virtue illustrated that which was deemed a more proper subservient role in relation to her Christian brothers. Thus, in her body, the female martyr surpassed Roman gender norms and simultaneously reinforced them.

It should also be noted that the impact of the martyr on the world did not end with her death, but rather started there. As faithful believers whose role had been to stand in the stead of Christ, martyrs were considered holy persons. Consequently, they were highly honored. Although not always possible, Christians often sought to gather their remains after death, which led to the custom of the veneration of relics, as well as the construction of many shrines and places of worship organized around the bodies of the saints, both women and men.


As seen, under the ancient paradigm of the body (and its associated virtues) as hierarchical, the female was at a clear disadvantage. In relation to the male, she was everything that was less. For the female Christian facing death for Christ, this was clearly a challenge. Yet, in the hands of the narrators of many of the martyr stories, this weakness often became the martyr’s greatest strength. In several cases, the narratives show that it is specifically because the woman martyr started out as the lowest on the hierarchy that she comes to be understood in death as having achieved a height that is perceived as equal to, or even higher, than that achieved by her male counterparts. For instance, of Blandina, [Image at right] the young slave woman, it was said, “tiny, weak, and insignificant as she was she would give inspiration to her brothers, for she had put on Christ, that mighty and invincible athlete and had overcome the Adversary…” (Musurillo 1972:75). Likewise, in his account of the terrors faced by early Christians, the fourth century Church historian, Eusebius, writes, “the women were not less manly than the men in behalf of the teaching of the Divine Word, as they endured conflicts with the men, and bore away equal prizes of virtue” (Eusebius 1982:8.14.14). The sense given is that of the difference between a competitor who starts at level seven and moves to level ten versus the contestant who starts at level one and moves to ten.

In the ancient world, the female always began at a lower level than the man. Nevertheless, the strength of the martyr, like that of Christ, was revealed in his/her weakness. In Christian martyrologies that point was portrayed most vividly in the body of the woman who died in the process of re-presenting Christ. Even so, the ancient understanding of the female body as inferior to the male body and the subsequent valorization of the female martyr’s weak body, specifically because it achieves the status of male, raises serious questions for Christians. Are the accounts of female martyrs useful as texts of resistance today; and are they still valuable in building up people of faith in our modern world? Or, are they merely paternalistic texts that gloss over and serve to reinforce the inequality between women and men that has been so dominant in Christian tradition?

Christian women have offered a variety of answers to these questions. A number of feminist thinkers have questioned the basic Christian belief that Christ suffered and died for humanity, and that his death (or any death, for that matter) can be redemptive. They assert that such a theology glorifies suffering; that it attempts to make beautiful that which is truly only hideous, and should never be viewed otherwise. These thinkers assert that the image of Christ’s death on the cross implies that suffering is good, and that such a notion only encourages attitudes and actions that victimize and abuse the least powerful within society. For women, often already culturally conditioned to sacrifice their own needs and well-being for others, this line of thinking can be especially dangerous. As Pamela Dickey Young has noted, “Jesus’ suffering as redemptive has been taken in the history of the tradition to suggest that this suffering is an example to be imitated by the faithful. But it strains credulity to suggest to the woman who is being battered that she is acting according to the example of Jesus Christ and should endure the suffering with patience. To place suffering at the center of the Christian tradition does not affect everyone equally” (Young 1995:344–45). Furthermore, while certainly less explicit in our own world than in that of the ancient martyrs, the view that women might make unusually good sacrifices specifically because they are exceptionally vulnerable, is seen by some as reprehensible; that is, as a mode of thinking that preys on the most marginalized, and even rewards their oppressors (Daly 1973). Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker state forcefully that, “To glorify victims of terrorization by attributing to them a vulnerability that warrants protection by the stronger is to cloak the violation. Those who seek to protect are guilty. Justice occurs when terrorization stops, not when the condition of the terrorized is lauded as a preventive influence” (Brown and Parker 1989:13).

Nonetheless, the conviction of redemption for humanity through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is intricately woven into the fabric of Christianity. Christian feminists who continue to believe in the redemptive power of Christ’s death emphasize that the Christ who suffered and died on the cross is a relational god, a Trinitarian god, who became incarnate and lived and died in solidarity with suffering humanity. They assert that the key point is neither the male-ness of Jesus nor his horrific death as payment for sin. Rather, the crucial factor is that God chose to redeem humanity by entering into communion with humanity, even in all of its brokenness. It is this solidarity between suffering humanity and God to which the martyr bears witness. This witness is efficacious regardless of gender since, “The image of Christ does not lie in sexual similarity to the human man Jesus, but in coherence with the narrative shape of his compassionate, liberating life in the world, through the power of the Spirit” (Johnson 1977:73). As God, Jesus, in the flesh, blurred the boundary between God and humanity. As imitators of Christ, Christian martyrs did, and continue to do, the same. As Jon Sobrino so poignantly writes in regard to four North American churchwomen killed in El Salvador:

I have stood by the bodies of Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. . . . The murdered Christ is here in the person of four women. . . . Christ lies dead here among us. He is Maura, Ita, Dorothy and Jean. But he is risen, too, in these same four women, and he keeps the hope of liberation alive. . . . Salvation comes to us through all women and men who love truth more than lies, who are more eager to give than to receive, and whose love is that supreme love that gives life rather than keeping it for oneself. Yes, their dead bodies fill us with sorrow and indignation. And yet, our last word must be: Thank you. In Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean, God has visited El Salvador (Sobrino 1988:153–56; also cited in Johnson 1997:74; and Gandolfo 2007:41).

As imitators of Christ, the martyrs, whether female or male, were understood as participants in the drama of redemption. The body of the martyr, no matter how lowly, served as the vessel through which that martyr became one with Christ, and through which Christ, God incarnate, would then become visible in the world and empowered to touch the world. Hence, even of one so low on the spectrum as the slave woman, Blandina, it was said that onlookers beheld not the woman being brutalized on a stake but rather, “in the form of their sister, him who was crucified for them” (Eusebius 1982: 5.1.41).

For believers, such a transformation was powerful. It illustrated that in Christ, “everyone [even a slave and a woman] who suffers for the glory of Christ has fellowship always with the living God” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.41). In that possibility, hope for a new life, one free of inequity and injustice, was made available to all. Throughout Christian history, the stories of the martyrs have served as emblems of such hope. In Christ, victim became victor; and at least in the view of many, real strength was made perfect in weakness. The martyrs embodied this belief.


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Image #1: Mosaic depiction of Saint Perpetua.
Image #2: Drawing of Blandine.
Image #3: Photograph of participants at a memorial service holding photographs of four American churchwomen killed in El Salvador.

Post Date:
30 April 2016