On December 5, in the year AD 304, a wealthy Roman matron named Crispina was executed by beheading for the crime of being a Christian during the persecutions of the Roman emperor, Diocletian. A transcript of her trial has come down to us, and it is considered authentic, owing to the subsequent fame of this martyr who was worthy to be named several times by Saint Augustine in sermons about a century later. She is also featured in the procession of female martyrs in the nave of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna from the mid-6th century AD. The image above is a detail from this mosaic, featuring St. Crispina (center).
Here is the transcript of St. Crispina’s trial, taken from St. Alphonsus de Ligouri’s Victories of the Martyrs, originally written in 1776 (English translation by Fr. Eugene Grimm, 1887):
St. Crispina was held in high veneration all through Africa, and is honored by St. Augustine in various parts of his works, in which he speaks of her martyrdom. She was a noble lady, very rich, and the mother of several children. When she found herself in danger of losing her children, her possessions, and her life, in the persecution which was then raging, instead of being intimidated, she was filled with a holy joy, not unworthy of the Christian education which she had received from her most tender years.
Being arrested in her native city of Thagara by order of the proconsul Anulinus, and brought before his tribunal, he inquired of her whether she was aware of the imperial edicts which commanded that all persons should sacrifice to the gods of the empire. She replied: “I have never sacrificed, nor will I sacrifice to any other than to one God, and to our Lord Jesus Christ his Son, who was born and suffered for us.”
Anulinus then said: “Leave this thy superstition, and adore the gods.”
“Every day,” said Crispina, “I adore my God, and besides him I know of no others.”
“I perceive now,” said the judge, “that thou art obstinate, and dost contemn our gods: thou must be made to experience the rigor of the laws.”
“I shall suffer most willingly,” replied the saint, “whatever may be exacted as the testimony of my faith.”
“I will give thee to read,” said the proconsul, “the edict of the emperor, which it behooveth thee to observe.”
The saint replied: “I observe the commands of my Lord Jesus Christ.”
Anulinus: “But thou shalt lose thy head, unless thou wilt observe the commands of the emperor, as they are observed throughout Africa.”
Crispina: “No one shall oblige me to sacrifice to demons: I sacrifice to the Lord only, who made heaven and earth.”
Here the proconsul began to exhort her to obey the edicts and to avoid the terrible consequences of the emperor’s wrath.
The saint courageously replied: “I fear not the anger of men. All they can do is nothing: I fear only God who is in heaven; and I should be lost forever were I to offend him by sacrilege.”
“Thou shalt not,” said the proconsul, “be guilty of that crime by obeying the princes and adoring the gods of the Romans.”
But Crispina, raising her voice, exclaimed: “Wouldst thou then have me guilty of sacrilege before God, in order not to appear sacrilegious to the eyes of men? It never shall be! God alone is great and omnipotent, the Creator of all things. Men are his creatures. What, therefore, can they do?”
Anulinus, seeing that the saint continued firm in the faith, after some other invectives and threats, ordered that her head should be shaved, as a token of degradation, adding, that if she continued obstinate he would condemn her to a most cruel death.
The saint answered: “I care not for the present life, and am only anxious for the life of my soul. I fear eternal torments only.”
“Instantly obey," exclaimed the proconsul, “or your head shall at once be struck off!”
The saint meekly answered: “I shall return thanks to my God, for making me worthy of this blessed lot. God is with me, that I may not consent to thy suggestions.”
Here Anulinus exclaimed: “Why do we any bear with this impious woman?” Then, having caused the process of her trial to be read over, pronounced the final sentence, that Crispina should lose her head, for obstinately refusing to sacrifice to the gods, in obedience to the edicts.
Crispina, having heard the iniquitous sentence, calmly and with holy joy said: “I return thanks to Jesus Christ, and I bless the Lord who has vouchsafed thus to deliver me from the hands of men.”
She consummated her martyrdom on the 5th December, about the year 304.Here is an excerpt from Saint Augustine’s Sermon on Psalm 120 which was given about 100 years after St. Crispina’s martyrdom:
May the Lord guard your soul. Yes, your very soul. May the Lord guard your going in, and your coming out henceforth and for ever. It does not say He will guard your body, for the martyrs were slain as to their bodies; rather may the Lord guard your soul, because as far as their souls were concerned, the martyrs did not yield.
The persecutors turned their rage against Crispina, whose birthday we celebrate today. They unleashed their savagery against a rich woman delicately nurtured; but she was strong, because the Lord was for her a better defense than the hand of her right hand, and He was guarding her.
Is there anyone in Africa who does not know about these events, brothers and sisters? Scarcely, for she was extremely famous, of noble stock and very wealthy. But all these advantages belonged to the left hand and were under her head. The enemy attacked, intent on striking her head, but all that was presented to him was the left hand, which was beneath her head. The head was on top, and Christ’s right hand was embracing her from above. Had the persecutor power to do anything, even against so delicate a woman? She was of the weaker sex, perhaps enfeebled by riches and quite frail in body in consequence of the life to which she had been accustomed. But what did all this signify, compared with the bridegroom whose left hand was beneath her head, whose right hand was embracing her? Was the enemy ever likely to overthrow one so fortified? He struck her, certainly, but only in the body.
What does the psalm say? May the Lord guard your soul. The soul did not yield, though the body was struck down. And even the body was only slain for a time, for it is destined to rise again at the end. He who graciously willed to be the Church’s head surrendered his own body to be killed, but only for a time. He raised his flesh to life again on the third day, and he will raise ours at the end. The head was raised that the body might wait expectantly and not faint.Preached by Saint Augustine on December 5, AD 406 or 407. Read the entire sermon in Expositions of the Psalms 99-120 by Maria Boulding, OSB, beginning on page 510.