Saint and Martyr, beheaded at Augsburg during the persecution of Diocletian (c. 304)
Saint and Martyr. The city of Augusta Vindelicorum (the present Augsburg) was situated in the northern part of the Roman province of Rhaetia on the river Lech, not far from its junction with the Danube. It was an important Roman colony, invested with municipal rights (municipium) by the Emperor Hadrian, into which Christianity had penetrated even before the time of Constantine, as is proved beyond question by the martyrdom of St. Afra. It is an indisputable historical fact that a Christian named Afra was beheaded at Augsburg during the persecution of Diocletian (c. 304) for her steadfast profession of faith, and that at an early period her grave was the object of great veneration. The so-called “Martyrologium Hieronymianum”, a compilation from various calendars and lists of martyrs, dating in its original form from the fourth century, mentions, under date of August 5 (in some MSS., 6 or August 7), St. Afra as having suffered in the city of Augsburg, and as buried there (Martyrologium Hieronym., ed. de Rossi and Duchesne; Acta SS., II, November,1 sqq.). In his poem on St. Martin, Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers in the sixth century, also mentions Augsburg as her burial place (Vita S. Martini, IV, 642 sq.; Pergis ad Augustam quam Virdo et Lica fluentant, Illic ossa sacrae venerabere martyris Afrae). There are extant certain Acts of the martyrdom of St. Afra (Acta SS., II, August, 39 sqq.; ed. Krusch in Mon. Germ. Hist.; SS. RR. Merovingic., III; 56 sqq.), in the opinion of most critics not a coherent whole, but a compilation of two different accounts, the story of the conversion of St. Afra, and the story of her martyrdom. The former is of later origin, and has not the least claim to historical credibility, being merely a legendary narrative of Carlovingian times, drawn up with the intention of connecting with St. Afra the organization of the church of Augsburg. It relates that the grandparents of Afra came from Cyprus to Augsburg and were there initiated into the worship of Venus. Afra was given over as a prostitute to the service of the goddess by her own mother Hilaria, or Hilara. In the persecution of Diocletian, Bishop Narcissus of Gerundum, in Spain, took refuge from his persecutors in Augsburg, and chanced to find an asylum in Afra’s house. Through his efforts the family was converted to Christianity, and baptized. Narcissus, on his departure, ordained presbyter (or bishop) a brother of Hilaria, Dionysius by name. To the same narrative clearly belongs the conclusion of the story of Afra’s martyrdom, in which mention is made of the mother and three handmaidens of Afra (Digna, Eunomia or Eumenia, and Eutropia or Euprepia), who, after the remains of the martyr were placed in the tomb, themselves suffered martyrdom by fire. The second part of the “Acts of Afra”, dealing with her trial and death (Ruinart, Acta Sincera, 482-484, Ratisbon, 1859), is more ancient. In the opinion of Duchesne it dates from the end of the fourth, or the beginning of the fifth, century. It may, therefore, have preserved, not only the fact of the martyrdom, but also reliable details concerning the Saint and her death. In this narrative Afra alone is mentioned, and there is no trace of those exaggerations and fantastic embellishments which characterize the later legends of the martyrs. According to this Passio, Afra (see Acts of the Martyrs) was condemned to the flames because she professed herself a Christian, and refused to participate in pagan rites. She was executed on a little island in the river Lech, and her remains were buried at some distance from the place of her death. The testimony of Venantius Fortunatus shows that her grave was held in great veneration in the sixth century. Her remains are still at Augsburg in the church of Sts. Ulrich and Afra, beside which stands a famous Benedictine abbey. Her feast is celebrated on August 7.
J. P. KIRSCH