(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, St. Agathi, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)
St. Agathi (Agatha)
An account of the lives of heroines of ancient times is made to read like the story of Beauty and the Beast with not quite the same ending, but the fact remains that, in spite of the grandeur that was Rome, it does not take a full reading of Edward Gibbon to conclude that the moral decay which led to the fall of the Roman Empire stemmed largely from the lack of Christian principles. The femme fatale, who had no small part in the Roman decline, had no place in Christianity, but did participate in the destruction of a follower of Jesus Christ, whose stand against immorality and paganism was taken at the cost of her life.
This martyred saint of ancient times was a girl named Agathi, who was born in Panormos on the island of Sicily into a prominent family of great wealth. The vast family fortune would have made her an attractive prospect for marriage if she had had the face of a gargoyle, but in addition to being the potentially wealthiest heiress on the island, she was also the prettiest. By the time she was fifteen, which was a marriageable age in that era, she was a much sought-after prize, but in her earnest desire to serve in the Church she had vowed to preserve her chastity and become the bride of the Messiah. Her devout Christian parents saw no future for her in this, but neither did they discourage her, accepting her decision as the will of God.
Agathi was not a hand-folding nun, but she was an active participant in church affairs, joining her parents, whose immense wealth they were willing to share with the poor of the island, of whom there were many. These church affairs, while not sanctioned by the state, were nevertheless tolerated because of Emperor Philip, who saw no danger imposed by people who sought not to govern but to live in peace. Unfortunately for Christianity, Philip was succeeded by Emperor Decius, an avowed enemy of Christianity, who tolerated nothing but persecutions and brutality and whose appointments to rule in all the regions of the empire were restricted to men as fiercely opposed to Christianity as he was. This policy resulted in the replacement of the Sicilian governor by Consul Kyndanos, who had a reputation for oppressive cruelty which preceded him.
When Kyndanos arrived in Sicily, Christians had already reverted to worshiping in secrecy. But before ferreting out the innocent Christians, he made it his duty to summon the beauteous Agathi, of whom he had heard because since the death of her parents she was considered the first lady of the island. It mattered little to Kyndanos that Agathi was a confirmed church member who was dispensing her vast wealth to the needy. He intended to put a stop to this and to make her his bride, never anticipating in his prideful confidence that she would dare deny the exalted ruler of Sicily.
Agathi obeyed the summons. The sight of her made Kyndanos all the more anxious to make her his bride and acquire her wealth as well as her beauty. Agathi’s reply was that she would consider the proposal only if he were to convert to Christianity, knowing she could not win him over for the Savior, nor for the people. The would-be groom scoffed at this idea and reminded her that in obedience to him she would have to disavow Jesus Christ and worship his idols. She then told Kyndanos that it was useless to consider marriage anyway since she had taken a vow of chastity in order to serve the Savior.
Kyndanos hit upon the idea of exposing this chaste woman to the ways of more worldly girls and had her placed in the house of a woman named Frontisia, whose nine daughters did a flourishing business entertaining anyone who would pay. It is to the credit of Kyndanos that his twisted mind conceived this idea but a reminder for all time of his stupidity in presuming that a chaste virgin placed among harlots could look upon them with anything but loathing. Frontisia had the girl sent back with the message that she was not only intractable but was turning away business.
When he had exhausted every form of persuasion, Kyndanos had the lovely Agathi tortured until she died. She was martyred on February 5. As a footnote it can be added that the tyrant who had her put to death was shortly thereafter swept off his horse while fording a stream, drowning in waters that carried him out to sea, never to be seen again.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GoArch.org.