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E01983: The Martyrdom of *Potitus (child martyr with cult in southern Italy, S01131) is written in Latin at an uncertain date by the 8th c. at the latest, and presumably in Puglia (southern Italy). Potitus is a Christian child but his father pagan. He performs several miracles leading to mass conversions. He is tortured then put to death by the emperor Antoninus and buried in Puglia.

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posted on 02.11.2016, 00:00 by mpignot
Martyrdom of Potitus (BHL 6908)

Summary:

§ 1: Potitus is a child full of God’s spirit [variants include: ‘in the city of Serdica’]. His father Hylas is a pagan and tries to convince his son to sacrifice to the gods. Potitus however refuses and his father orders that he be sent to prison without food and drink to see if his god will feed him.

§ 2: Potitus asks for God’s help with references to biblical passages (Ps 34:1; Daniel in the lions den; the beatitudes in Matthew 5).

§ 3: His father implores him again to sacrifice, mentioning the emperor Antoninus’ order and the death penalty for those who refuse; Potitus is his only son. Potitus is unaware of the gods Jupiter, Arpa (or Arphan), Ariana and Minerva mentioned by his father, but instead offers his father an overview of the Christian God, Creator of the world and Saviour, providing biblical quotations (Ps. 95:5; Mt. 10:19).

§ 4: Although his father worries about him, Potitus explains that he will be protected by his lord Jesus Christ, referring to the story of David and Goliath. Potitus is ready to suffer for Christ since he believes in him; he tries to convince his father to believe as well, in order to be saved, arguing that the gods are nothing, offer no protection, and burn night and day. Idols destroyed cannot restore themselves, but remain silent; Christ however offers protection to those who suffer for him since he defeated the lion and the dragon (Ps. 90:13).

§ 5: Hylas is amazed by the words of his son and falls to the ground recognising the true God, acknowledging that he is a sinner and that his son is wiser than him. Instantly Potitus is taken by clouds and brought to a place called Jerusalem [variant: Ephirus]. There he prays that his father may know the only true God, and asks God to send his Spirit to his father so that he may know him and not be set apart from him.

§ 6: An angel appears to Potitus telling him that his prayer will be fulfilled, and that he will always be heard each time he invokes God. He also tells him to beware of a devil who will introduce himself as Christ. He will be able to recognise him by praying together with him: the devil's knees won’t touch the ground. The angel disappears and Potitus again prays with confidence (Ps 56:2).

§ 7: A devil comes and exhorts Potitus to go to his father’s house to eat. Potitus rejects him, although the devil says that he is Christ. Potitus asks the devil to pray and then observes that his knees do not touch the ground. The devil then becomes gigantic, but Potitus exorcises him in the name of God. The devil changes appearance and becomes likes a bull; Potitus makes a sign of the cross to block him. The devil asks to be freed; Potitus accepts after forcing him to swear that he will not harm any Christian.

§ 8: Being dismissed, the devil curses himself for having been defeated by a child. He tells Potitus that he will enter the daughter of the emperor Antoninus. He will never leave Potitus until his death; he will enter the hearts of the emperor Antoninus and of the governor (praeses) Gelasius and thus Potitus will be killed. Potitus replies that he will overcome every suffering thanks to Jesus Christ. The devil disappears, complaining over his defeat.

§ 9: Potitus goes to the forum of civitas Valeriana. The lady Quiriacis, spouse of the high-ranking (primae cathedrae) senator, Agatho, suffers from leprosy and nobody can cure her. Potitus presents himself at her residence as a poor man and asks for water from the eunuch [variants mention his name as Hyacinthus]. As he is questioned on his motives, Potitus tells the eunuch that he wants this house to hold the Christian faith. The eunuch is surprised to hear such words from a small child (infans) and asks him who he is. Potitus introduces himself as a servant of Jesus Christ who cured lepers and paralytics. As the eunuch assumes that Potitus can heal leprosy, Potitus explains that indeed Jesus Christ can cure through him, quoting Matthew 17:19. The eunuch asks Potitus to cure his mistress; Potitus agrees to heal her on the condition that she believes in Jesus Christ. He does not want any of the riches offered by the eunuch as a reward.

§ 10: The eunuch tells his mistress everything; Potitus is brought into the house. She asks for healing and promises to believe. Potitus tells her that she needs baptism to believe. She states her belief in God; Potitus prays quoting Matthew 10:8 and cures her. She believes together with all her household and half of the city, all blessing God for being forgiven their sins through a small child (infans). Potitus exhorts them to keep God’s commandments and leaves the house.

§ 11: The devil possesses Antoninus’ daughter and asks to see Potitus, while the prayers to the gods have no effect. The emperor sends the governor Gelasius with soldiers to the mountains where Potitus dwells, surrounded by wild beasts. Gelasius is afraid when they attack him, but Potitus orders the beasts to go away. Gelasius seizes him and brings him to the city (urbs) [perhaps the city of Rome]. In the palace, Gelasius tells the emperor about the wild beasts, who asks to see Potitus.

§ 12: Potitus states that he is a Christian; the emperor reminds him of the death penalty for those who do not sacrifice. The emperor asks him to cure his daughter in exchange of wealth. Wondering why his gods do not heal her, Potitus agrees to cure her, the emperor stating that he believes in God. As she is brought to him, Potitus expels the devil by blowing on her face. The devil becomes a dragon, many are amazed and praise God.

§ 13: The emperor believes that it is magic and thanks the gods for healing his daughter. Potitus tells him that he is wrong, but the emperor requires him to sacrifice and offers him wealth again. Potitus prefers the wealth found in heaven and does not fear any punishment. The emperor tells Potitus that he will put him to death, although reluctantly because he is a child; Potitus tells the emperor that he will perish in hell and burn with the devil.

§ 14: Potitus is stripped and beaten with sticks but prays to God with blessings. The emperor leaves Potitus with the choice of sacrificing to the gods Jupiter, Arpa, Ariana and Minerva or dying. Potitus asks where these gods are; the emperor brings him with a huge crowd to a temple. There Potitus prays, the idols fall and become dust. He asks again about the gods and wonders why they did not defend themselves.

§ 15: The emperors puts him in jail with an iron weight around the neck. Potitus prays for God’s help, evoking Joseph’s story. An angel appears in glowing light, the iron melts like wax. Potitus again prays to Jesus Christ, and a pleasant perfume fills the place. The guardians see everything and are amazed.

§ 16: The emperor organises games, forcing everyone to attend; Potitus is brought to the amphitheatre; he remains confident.

§ 17: Potitus is put on a rack, burned and tortured but stands firm. The people are amazed that a child bears these tortures [variants add that ‘the god of Peter is with Potitus’]. He is then thrown to the beasts that fall at his feet. Potitus tells the emperor that Jesus Christ is stronger and protects him.

§ 18: The emperor orders that his limbs should be cut and given to dogs; Potitus thanks God, stating that his body may belong to the emperor but not his soul. However, the emperor’s ministers are not able to touch him. Two thousand people believe in Jesus Christ. The emperor orders Potitus to be fried in a frying-pan with oil and to have molten lead poured over him, however when this is done Potitus is refreshed.

§ 19: The emperor orders a nail (acutus) to be hammered through Potitus’ head from top to bottom. Then Potitus prays to God, asks to be freed like Peter from his chains and that the nail should be placed in the head of the emperor Antoninus. An angel comes, takes the nail out and drives it into the emperor’s head. The emperor asks to be freed but Potitus refuses; the crowd is amazed and rejects the idols.

§ 20: Potitus says that Antoninus will not be freed unless his daughter comes. There is a great crowd, and all the senators are grieving. The emperor’s daughter named Agnes comes to the feet of Potitus and asks to be baptised. After her baptism, Potitus takes the nail from the emperor’s head, who thanks the gods Apollo, Arpha, Ariana and Minerva.

§ 21: The emperor orders Potitus’ tongue to be cut off and his eyes to be plucked out. However Potitus still sings to God (Ps. 33:2 and Ps. 71:2) and leaves the emperor defeated.

§ 22: Potitus tells the emperor that the only way to defeat him is to behead him. The emperor rejoices and orders Potitus’ beheading. Potitus asks the emperor to be beheaded in the place that he has chosen: he is brought to Apulia, to the place called Milianus between Sentianum and Mulianum. Potitus is beheaded at the river called Banus and his spirit resembles a dove. His body is kept for three days, then buried with great sorrow. Potitus was martyred under the emperor Antoninus on the Calends of January [= 1 January ] (variant manuscript readings: ‘Calends of February’; ‘Ides of January’). He was thirteen (variant manuscript readings: ‘twelve’).

Text: Saxer 2000-2001, 85-100. Summary: M. Pignot

History

Evidence ID

E01983

Saint Name

Potitus, child martyr under Antoninus Pius : S01131 Peter the Apostle : S00036

Saint Name in Source

Potitus Petrus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom

Language

Latin

Evidence not before

400

Evidence not after

750

Activity not before

138

Activity not after

750

Place of Evidence - Region

Italy south of Rome and Sicily

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Adriatic Sea Adriatic Sea Adriaticum Mare

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracles experienced by the saint Miracles causing conversion Miracle with animals and plants Miraculous sound, smell, light Changing abilities and properties of the body Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Exorcism Invisibility, bilocation, miraculous travels Other miracles with demons and demonic creatures Miracle at martyrdom and death Healing diseases and disabilities

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Children Pagans Relatives of the saint Monarchs and their family Officials Crowds Eunuchs Demons Aristocrats Soldiers Animals

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body

Source

Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Potitus is an anonymous literary account of martyrdom written long after the great persecutions of Christians that provide the background of the narrative. It is part of a widely spread literary genre, that scholars often designate as "epic" Martyrdoms (or Passiones), to be distinguished from earlier, short and more plausible accounts, apparently based on the genuine transcripts of the judicial proceedings against the martyrs. These texts narrate the martyrdom of local saints, either to promote a new cult or to give further impulse to existing devotion. They follow widespread stereotypes mirroring the early authentic trials of martyrs, but with a much greater degree of detail and in a novel-like style. Thus they narrate how the protagonists are repeatedly questioned and tortured under the order of officials or monarchs, because they refuse to sacrifice to pagan gods but profess the Christian faith. They frequently refer to miracles performed by the martyrs and recreate dialogues between the protagonists. The narrative generally ends with the death of the martyrs (often by beheading) and their burial. These texts are literary creations bearing a degree of freedom in the narration of supposedly historical events, often displaying clear signs of anachronism. For these reasons, they have been generally dismissed as historical evidence and often remain little known. However, since most certainly date from within the period circa 400-800, often providing unique references to cult, they are an essential source to shed new light on the rise of the cult of saints. The Martyrdom of Potitus There are two main versions of this Martyrdom. The earliest and most widespread is BHL 6908 (our focus here), with more than 30 extant manuscripts (see the database Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Manuscripta at bhlms.fltr.ucl.ac.be and a list in Saxer, 77-85). The two earliest manuscripts of this version are: Munich, Clm 3514, f. 18-29 (mid 8th c.); Würzburg, Mp Th Q 28a, f. 37-63 (8th c.). After the Bollandists, Saxer more recently published an edition of the Martyrdom based on the oldest manuscripts (with a discussion of the text transmission). The other version of the story, BHL 6911, which is not considered here, is only preserved in a single manuscript from Naples and seems to be a medieval rewriting of BHL 6908. BHL 6909 and 6910 are variants of BHL 6908, still unpublished, while BHL 6912 is a minor variant of BHL 6911.

Discussion

There is no late antique evidence outside our text about the cult of Potitus. For instance, the saint is not found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum. However, Potitus' cult is attested in Naples by the 9th century, first in the book of biographies of Neapolitan bishops (Gesta episcoporum Neapolitanorum I, XII), which claims that bishop Severus (363-410) founded a monastery dedicated to Potitus; then in the marble calendar of Naples (dated between 847 and 877), where Potitus’ feast is recorded on 13 January (Mallardo 1944, 133), while manuscripts of the Martyrdom record a number of different dates due to mistakes in the transmission (Saxer, 73). It is striking that the Martyrdom does not provide any clear clue about a cult site or even the burial place of Potitus. The only detailed indication given is about the place of Potitus’ death and one has to guess that it might correspond to the place where cult developed or at least was promoted by the hagiographer. The place of Potitus’ beheading is situated in Apulia between the towns of Sentianum and Velinianum (or Julianum/Mulianum) close to the river Calabius (the river Banus in our text, perhaps the river Carapelle). Concerning the exact location of these sites, Otranto, 165, suggests that the toponyms refer to an area of today’s northern Puglia, between the towns of Ascoli Satriano, Troia and Bovino (see also a discussion in Mallardo 1956). Before him, Maulucci even argued that the place could be located in Faragola close to Ascoli Satriano where a late antique villa and an early medieval town have been located thanks to excavations. Nevertheless, the recent results of excavations do not provide evidence of a cult building on the site (see Volpe-Turchiano). The other geographical markers are more difficult to interpret: Potitus' place of origin in our text, Serdica, could refer to the famous city, modern Sofia in Bulgaria, or, more plausibly, to a local town in southern Italy, Ordona or Ascoli Satriano. The civitas Valeriana cannot be easily identified but could refer to an Italian town along the Via Valeria, east of Rome. Our text also states that, after Potitus was arrested, he was brought to the city (urbs) to see the emperor Antoninus. No city name is provided and scholars have suggested that this could refer to Rome where the emperor was thought to reside and was always considered the Urbs of the empire par excellence. If so, the hagiographer suggests that Potitus travelled to Rome to be judged, before being beheaded in Apulia, at his own request. In any case, the end of our text shows clearly that the hagiographer aimed to connect Potitus' cult to the region of Apulia. The Martyrdom apparently succeeded in promoting the diffusion of Potitus' cult in Apulia and in southern Italy (in particular Naples). While the early spread of Potitus’ cult remains most difficult to trace, the Martyrdom clearly reached a wide diffusion, as attested by the substantial number of manuscripts preserved. For Potitus’ later cult, see Mallardo 1957, 27-28 discussing evidence of the translation of his body to Benevento in the 9th century under Sicard, and exploring developments in the following centuries. Finally, a striking coincidence, discussed in particular by Saxer, should be mentioned: besides a few other records of the name Potitus, a 3rd or 4th century epitaph from Rome, which may have been pagan or Christian, describes a certain Potitus who died at thirteen years of age, thus exactly at the same age as Potitus in the Martyrdom (CIL VI, 1537 / ILCV 129 (4) / AE 2001, 173 = AE2006, 150). Saxer, followed by Carletti, suggests that this inscription was seen by the hagiographer and employed in his story. Saxer goes further arguing that the narrative was designed in Rome on the basis of epigraphy to provide an explanation of Potitus’ origins, an otherwise obscure saint venerated in Apulia. Nevertheless (as already pointed out by Mallardo 1957, 25-26), a clear connection between the inscription and the Martyrdom cannot be demonstrated but the hypothesis only rests on the age of a boy named Potitus. However, the references to the emperor’s discussion with Antoninus in an urbs that might be Rome and the name of the emperor’s daughter Agnes (a saint particularly venerated in Rome), make it possible that the hagiographer was familiar with the city of Rome, while clearly setting Potitus’ martyrdom outside Rome. There is no clue to date the Martyrdom but it must have been written by the 8th century at the latest, when the earliest manuscripts preserved were copied. Saxer, arguing that the author must have used a 6th century inscription dedicated to Agnes by a certain Potitus in Rome (ILCV 1769B) for the connection made in the narrative to the Roman saint, argues that it was not written before the 6th century. Nevertheless, due to the popularity of Agnes, there is no compelling reason to suggest that the author took inspiration from that inscription.

Bibliography

Editions (BHL 6908): Acta Sanctorum, Ian. I, 754-757. Saxer, V., “San Potito tra storia e leggenda: dati dei codici, dei martirologi e dell’epigrafia,” Atti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 73 (2000-2001), 63-100, at 85-100. Further reading: Capriglione, F., La patria d’origine del martire Potito. Saggio di ricerca storico-critica (Ascoli Satriano, 1978). Carletti, C., “’Preistoria’ dell’epigrafia dei cristiani. Un mito storiografico ex maiorum auctoritate,” in: Fiocchi Nicolai, V., and Guyon, H. (eds.), Origine delle Catacombe romane. Atti della giornata tematica dei Seminari di Archeologia Cristiana (Roma, 21 marzo 2005 (Città del Vaticano, 2006), 91-119. Del Re, U., “Potito, santo, martire,” Bibliotheca Sanctorum 10 (Rome, 1968), 1072-1074. Mallardo, D., “Il Calendario Marmoreo di Napoli,” Ephemerides Liturgicae 58 (1944), 116-177, at 133. Mallardo, D., “S. Potito. Un martire dell’Apulia,” Rendiconti della Accademia di Archeologia, Lettere e Belle Arti , Società Nazionale di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, Napoli 31 (1956), 7-36. Maulucci, P., “Ascoli Satriano (Foggia), Faragola F. 175, IV, SO, I. G. M.”, Taras 19 (1999), 103-105. Otranto, G., “Agiografia e origini del cristianesimo in Puglia,” in: Bizantini, Longobardi e Arabi in Puglia nell’Alto Medioevo. Atti del XX Congresso internazionale di studio sull’alto medioevo (Savelletri di Fasano, 3-6 novembre 2011 (Spoleto, 2012), 163-184, at 164-165. Saxer, V., “San Potito tra storia e leggenda: dati dei codici, dei martirologi e dell’epigrafia,” Atti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 73 (2000-2001), 63-100. Volpe, G., Turchiano, M., Faragola 1. Un insediamento rurale nella valle del Carapelle. Ricerche e studi (Bari, 2009).

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