One of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of Christian antiquity, Agatha was put to death during the persecution of Decius (250–253) in Catania, Sicily, for her determined profession of faith.
According to the 13th-century Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, fifteen-year-old Agatha, from a rich and noble family, made a vow of virginity and rejected the amorous advances of the low-born Roman prefect Quintianus, who thought he could force her to turn away from her vow and marry him. His persistent proposals were consistently spurned by Agatha, so Quintianus, knowing she was a Christian during the persecution of Decius, had her arrested and brought before the judge. He was the judge.
He expected her to give in to his demands when she was faced with torture and possible death, but she simply reaffirmed her belief in God by praying: "Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil." With tears falling from her eyes, she prayed for courage. To force her to change her mind, Quintianus sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel, and had her imprisoned there. Agatha never lost her confidence in God, even though she suffered a month of rape, assault, and efforts to get her to abandon her vow to God and go against her virtue.
Quintianus sent for her again, argued, threatened, and finally had her put in prison and had her tortured. She was stretched on a rack to be torn with iron hooks, burned with torches, and whipped. Amongst the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts with pincers. After further dramatic confrontations with Quintianus, represented in a sequence of dialogues in her passion that document her fortitude and steadfast devotion, Saint Agatha was then sentenced to be burnt at the stake, but an earthquake saved her from that fate; instead, she was sent to prison where St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds.
Saint Agatha died in prison, probably in the year 251 according to the Legenda Aurea. Although the martyrdom of Saint Agatha is authenticated, and her veneration as a saint had spread beyond her native place even in antiquity, there is no reliable information concerning the details of her death.
- Saint Agatha, c. 231 – c. 251 AD