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E02489: The Martyrdom of *Cornelius (bishop and martyr of Rome, 00172) is written in Latin, presumably in Rome, in the 5th or early 6th c. It narrates Cornelius' arrest and stay in prison in Centumcellae, his correspondence with bishop Cyprian of Carthage, his return to Rome, where he performs a healing on Sallustia the wife of Cerealis, and converts them both, along with 21 soldiers; his martyrdom together with the couple and the soldiers, and their burial by a certain Lucins in a crypt near the cemetery of Callixtus on the via Appia.

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posted on 08.03.2017, 00:00 by mpignot
Martyrdom of Cornelius (BHL 1958)


The emperor Decius begins a persecution of the Christians: the clergy are to be punished without trial. Bishop Cornelius and his clergy (both priests and deacons) are arrested and deported to Centumcellae; many Christians come to visit him in search of consolation; others write from prison to console him. The bishop Cyprianus writes to him too from prison, telling him about the suffering endured by the reader (lector) Celerinus.

Decius, on hearing of these numerous letters, sends Cyprianus to Centumcellae, while he brings Cornelius back to Rome, and has him presented in Tellure, before the Temple of Pallas at night. He interrogates Cornelius about his neglect of the precepts of the ancients (maiores), his lack of fear of the gods and of any sort of tortures, and the letters he received and sent against the state (res publica). Cornelius replies that none of his activities—particularly the receipt of letters—has been disloyal. Decius becomes angry and orders his mouth to be beaten with leaden scourges (plumbatae) and that he be brought to offer sacrifice before the temple of Mars; if he does not oblige, he is to be beheaded.

While Cornelius is led away, one of Decius’ soldiers, Cerealis, asks Cornelius to come into his house and cure his wife, who has been confined to bed for five years because of paralysis. When they reach the Arcum Stellae, where he lives, all the soldiers ask Cornelius to intervene. Cornelius goes into Cerealis’ house with two priests and one cleric (clericus). He prays to God to show His mercy and cure this woman. At the completion of this prayer, Cornelius takes the hand of the woman, who is called Sallustia, and tells her to get up, following the command of Jesus Christ. All reply ‘Amen’, Sallustia, gets up from her bed, proclaiming that Christ is the Son of God and asking Cornelius to baptise her. Water is fetched and Cornelius performs the blessing. At this point all the soldiers throw themselves at Cornelius’ feet and ask him to baptise them too so as to save their souls. Cornelius asks if they really do believe; they reply that they would all rather die with him happily than live unhappily, and that their faith in idols had been a result of their ignorance. They beseech him to purify them. Cornelius commands them to kneel and offer tearful prayers. Then all are baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and all take part in a celebration of the Eucharist.

When Decius hears that 21 soldiers have been baptised, he has all those at Cerealis’ house arrested, and brought to the temple of Mars. Either they must sacrifice or die along with the bishop. As they are led away, together they all offer praise to God in the highest. They come outside the walls by the Porta Appia before the temple of Mars, where they pledge that the demons will die, as will Decius. Cornelius is beheaded, and with him the 21 converts, as well as Cerealis and Sallustia. That night clerics, and Lucina and her household, steal the bodies of the holy martyrs and bury them on her land (ager) in a crypt near the cemetery of Callixtus. There prayers in their honour flourish, in praise of Jesus Christ, who rules with His Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever, Amen.

Text: Mombritius 1910, I, 373. Summary: M. Humphries, The Roman Martyrs Project, Manchester University; revised by M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Cornelius, martyr and bishop of Rome, ob. c. 253 : S00172

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom



Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Via Appia

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

Via Appia Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - crypt/ crypt with relics

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracles causing conversion Healing diseases and disabilities

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Monarchs and their family Soldiers Women

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body


Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Cornelius 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 novelistic 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 light on the rise of the cult of saints. The Martyrdom of Cornelius There is only one early, most widespread and short, version of the Martyrdom, BHL 1958, named the passio brevior ('shorter martyrdom account') by scholars, and our focus here; for other versions, only attested later (BHL 1959-1963), see Lanéry 2010, 109-110. BHL 1958 is preserved in more than 100 manuscripts since the 9th century: Autun, Bibliothèque Municipale, S 38, f. 40r-41v; Brussels, Bibliothèque des Bollandistes, 14, f. 94r; Graz, Universitätsbibliothek, 412, f. 162r-163v; Paris, BNF, lat. 5299, f. 79v-81v; Vienna, ÖNB, lat. 357, f. 170v-172r (see the database Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Manuscripta ( and an additional list in Lanéry 2010, 109, n. 224).


Despite the fact that Cyprian was never exiled to Centumcellae, Cornelius and Cyprian are artificially associated by the hagiographer in this narrative, particularly because they were both celebrated on the same day (14 September, although this date is not given in the Martyrdom). Moreover, although Cornelius is known to have died in exile in Centumcellae, the hagiographer narrates that he went back to Rome to die there, this is because Cornelius’ body was indeed translated to the crypt mentioned on the via Appia previous to the composition of the Martyrdom. The Martyrdom seems to have been written in Rome, as it shows a good knowledge of the local topography. Its precise date of composition is uncertain but it is generally dated to either the 5th or 6th century (Gryson, R., Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques Latins de l’Antiquité et du Haut moyen âge, 2 vols. (Freiburg, 2007), I, 59). Indeed it is already borrowed in the first recension of the biography of Cornelius in the Liber Pontificalis in the early 6th century (E00344). For Lanéry (followed by Lapidge), it should be dated after the 430s because it borrows the character Lucina from the Martyrdom of Sebastianus (E02512), which she ascribes to Arnobius Junior and dates to that period. Lanéry argues that the building of a basilica dedicated to Cornelius by Leo the Great around 450 provides a plausible context of composition.


Edition (BHL 1958): Mombritius, B., Sanctuarium seu vitae sanctorum, 2 vols. with additions and corrections by A. Brunet and H. Quentin (Paris, 1910), I, 373. The original edition was published c. 1480. English translation: Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 197-200. Further reading: Cooper, K., "The martyr, the matrona and the bishop: the matron Lucina and the politics of martyr cult in fifth- and sixth-century Rome," Early Medieval Europe 8 (1999), 297-317. Lanéry, C., "Hagiographie d'Italie (300-550). I. Les Passions latines composées en Italie,” in: Philippart, G. (ed.), Hagiographies. Histoire internationale de la littérature hagiographique latine et vernaculaire en Occident des origines à 1550, vol. V (Turnhout, 2010), 15-369, at 108-112. Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 195-197.

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