In her book Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History, Diana Lynn Severance points out that 170 of the known martyrs in the early church were women. And, although all of the martyrs served as testimonies to Christian faithfulness and caused many non-Christians to ask serious questions about a religion that could inspire this kind of commitment, it seems that the martyrdom of Christian women had a particularly large impact on both Christians and non-Christians alike. So some of the most famous stories of the early church involved the martyrdom of women like Perpetua and Felicity (pictured on the right), Blandina, and Agnes.
Although we have little information on many of these amazing women, we know enough to celebrate the tremendous faith and perseverance they displayed in the church’s earliest days. Here is a list of some of the more famous martyrs, taken from a table of martyrs Severance provides in Feminine Threads (pp. 48-50).
18 Women Martyred in the Early Church
Felicitas (c. 162): Roman lady who brought up her seven sons in the Christian faith. She was seized and called on to give up Christ to spare her family; but she remained faithful to Christ. Her sons too refused to sacrifice to the Emperor. They all were executed–Felicitas and her sons Januarius, Felix, Phillipus, Sylvanus, Alexander, Vitalis, and Martialis.
Blandina (177): Female slave martyred at Lyons. Though the weakest of the martyrs that day, she showed the most courage. She was thrown to the wild beasts and finally gored to death by a bull.
Donata (cf. 180): One of 12 Christians from the African town of Scilita who were martyred at Carthage. When called upon to sacrifice, she replied, ‘We render to Caesar as Caesar, but worship and prayers to God alone.’
Caecilia (c. 180): Referred to in many martyrs’ lists, but information on her is sketchy. She was a Roman Christian whose martyrdom is surrounded by many legends and has been used by many artists and writers (including Chaucer). Considered the patron saint of music. There is a Church of St. Caecilia in Rome on grounds which might have been her family’s property.
Potamiaena (late 2nd cent.): Martyr in Alexandria during the Severan persecution. Tortured and had burning pitch poured over her from head to feet.
Felicity and Perpetua (202-203): Famous martyrs from Carthage. Perpetua’s account of their imprisonment is the first writing extant by a Christian woman.
Caritas, Faith, Hope, and Wisdom (?): The date of their martyrdom is unclear, but the virgin sisters of Faith, Hope, and Charity and their mother Wisdom seem to have been real martyrs. The four are buried in St. Caecilia’s Church.
Apollonia (248): Martyr in Alexandria in her old age. She was beaten, her teeth were knocked out, and then she was brought to be burned outside the city. She threw herself into the fire to hasten her death.
Dionysia (251): Mother martyred at Alexandria.
Prisca (275): Roman convert to Christianity who was tortured and beheaded for refusing to abjure Christianity and sacrifice to idols.
Statonice (c. 300): Martyr at Cyzicum in Mysia with Seleucus her husband at the quinquennalia of Galerius during Diocletian’s persecution. Converted when she saw a large number of Christians tortured, and she converted her husband. Her father became her accuser when he could not win her back to paganism. She and her husband were beheaded and buried together, and Emperor Constantine built a church over their tomb.
Agnes (303): 12-13-year-old virgin who died under the Diocletian persecution. She rejected her suitors, saying she had consecrated herself to a heavenly spouse. Suitors accused her of being a Christian, thinking this would change her mind. She was beheaded, and Emperor Constantine built a church in Rome in her honor.
Anastasia (c. 303): Christian martyr in Rome under Diocletian. Father was a pagan but mother was a Christian who instructed Anastasia in the faith. After her mother died, she married a Roman knight, Publius Patricius, who obtained a rich patrimony. when he discovered his wife was a Christian, he treated her harshly and spent her wealth. When he died, Anastasia spent her fortune on the poor and imprisoned. She and three female servants were arrested and told to sacrifice to idols. When they refused, the three servants were put to death, and Anastasia was burnt alive.
Lucy (305): Born at Syracuse. She devoted herself to religion and refused to marry. She gave her fortune to the poor to try to prevent a suitor’s advances. The young man was enraged and reported her Christianity to judge Paschasius. She was then executed.