Written c. 306
IN THOSE DAYS there lived in Antioch a young woman named Prunella. Renowned for her unsurpassed beauty and modesty, she was a devout if simple Christian, although as yet still a catechumen. Her brother Prudentius, however, was a pagan lawyer who scorned the teachings of Christ. However, they had both been raised as wards of the holy bishop Babylas, after their parents of senatorial rank had been drowned at sea.
Now the long peace the followers of Christ enjoyed had allowed the church to grow there marvelously. So many believers there were that houses were too small for all to meet on the holiest days. The Christians gathered on those occasions where they could, sometimes outside, sometimes in public spaces like theatres or even some places defiled by the worship of false gods.
For many years they were not molested. So when persecution came again, it struck them like a thunder-clap.
Having recently reluctantly accepted the purple at the insistence of his troops, the Emperor Decius sought to secure his position with some unassailable power. When he heard tales of the many wonders the saints performed, his curiosity and avarice were awakened. And so he journeyed to Antioch.
There with his troops, he unexpectedly presented himself before the basilica the Christians were using and demanded entrance. Such an event would be dreadful enough even if the Emperor were more of a true Augustus and less of a tyrant than Decius was. In any case, the bishops and deacons would try first to save the Sacred Scriptures and the Body and Blood of Our Lord before themselves. But this occasion presented an even greater difficulty.
Lapsed Christians, lamentable it is to say, whether for gold or after torture but most assuredly damning themselves thereby, had told the Emperor of the most advantageous time to surprise the brethren. So Decius arrived during the celebration of the of the very night that Our Lord had instituted the washing of feet and the sacred meal. As Babylas was preparing to administer the holy rite on those preparing for baptism including his beloved ward Prunella, word came to him of Caesar’s arrival.
The holy widows and virgins had just brought the Sacred Basin in its iron frame down from their mountainous retreat. Before they could even unveil it, there the Emperor stood at the door insisting to be let in. The congregation was thrown into a tumult of fear while the holy bishop rushed outside to forestall Decius’ intrusion.
Meekly he spoke, “If we knew of the Emperor’s interest I would be delighted to speak to Your Highness at length. But now, mighty Augustus, is really not a good time to witness our sacred rites. Not prepared for such an important visit, our simple ceremonies would no doubt appear crude and rustic to you. We would not wish to disappoint Your Magnificence. And though we constantly pray for our God’s protection for you, before witnessing these holy rituals you must first do penance like any man.”
“I am the pontifex maximus,” Decius haughtily proclaimed, “high priest of the traditional gods, and member of the sacred college of augurs. How dare you suggest I am impious or an evildoer!” But though he hesitated due to his many crimes, the Emperor would not be deterred. “It’s not your prayers, but this magic vessel I’ve heard so much of that I want. Bring it to me.”
“I fear you are misinformed. We have no magic vessel, great Augustus,” the bishop replied. “Naught but dishes like those used by tradesmen.”
So Decius had him arrested. He demanded that the congregation come out immediately surrendering all their sacred vessels and books or the building would be burnt down around them.
To prove their loyalty, they would then be marched directly to the Temple of Jupiter, there to make sacrifice by offering incense and pouring a libation to the idol. Any who refused would be put to death.
Almost all of the catechumens, most of the baptized, and not a few deacons meekly rushed out with holy books and implements to comply. While the consecrated virgins and widows escaped through the rear with the Sacred Basin, the entrance stood wide open. Yet one person still bravely blocked the Emperor’s way. It was Prunella.
Decius was angered to see such a young girl so boldly defy him. “Are you mad, child? Stand aside! What could be in that place worth your life?”
“No earthly riches to be sure, oh great Caesar,” Prunella humbly replied, but she stood her ground. “My treasure is in a different world, for I am a Christian.”
“What of this enchanted pot, then?” Decius demanded.
“Great lord, the Sacred Basin is no more magic than I; like me, merely a simple clay vessel touched by the Holy Spirit.”
“Have a care, lest you shatter then,” the Emperor declared. “Out of my way!”
With his soldiers, Decius swept past her into the now-empty chamber. In a rage, he turned on Prunella and had her arrested also. With Babylas and the all the believers, she was bound and dragged to the Temple of Jupiter.
There before the idol, the Emperor personally presided over the trials. Babylas would not sacrifice and proudly admitted his faith, and thus was put into chains and cast into prison.
Prunella was next and likewise refused. But just then her brother Prudentius rushed in. “O great Caesar, have mercy,” he cried. “My sister is not herself; these Christians, even her own guardian Babylas have put a spell on her. She is a simple soul, whose head was turned by their wild tales of the glory of suffering for their mad beliefs. Let me take her home and care for her, I pray you, Augustus.”
“I would not have it said that I am a wanton destroyer of beauty like some barbarian. Make her sacrifice here before me and then she may go free.”
So Prudentius tried, first with earnest exhortation, then pleadings, finally with threats. But Prunella would not be moved, therefore finally Prudentius seized her hand and put incense in it, closing his fist around hers. Then he forcefully dragged her over to the tripod before the great statue of Jupiter and held her hand near the fire.
“There, sister, feel the flames! Imagine them running, burning, over your whole body. This will be your fate if you do not offer the incense.”
“Then let my living body be burnt as incense to my God,” Prunella declared, “that my agony shall smell as sweet as perfume to Him,” and she thrust their hands still closed into the flame.
Prudentius cried aloud in despair and dragged her back. “My Emperor, see?” he said. “She is mad or possessed.” But the people were encouraged and murmured.
“Do you, girl, cherish your chastity?” Decius asked.
“Aye, lord, I am still a modest virgin, a vestal for my Lord Christ,” she replied. “And it is my intention to always remain so.”
“That sounds mad to me, all right,” he answered. “But we would test this. If you do not sacrifice, you will be exposed naked in a brothel, stripped, your pale white flesh sold for pennies for the amusement of mule-drivers and cloth-dyers.”
Prunella said nothing but bowed her head. So she was led forth. And as they went, she turned to her guards. “If this must be,” she said, “please allow me to change my garments. If I need be stripped to the jeers of men, let me first dress as a lady.”
And the guards were moved by her great beauty and the spiritual comeliness of her modesty. And so they reluctantly agreed and took her to her home.
There she changed her gown and slipped away. She sought not to escape, however, but climbed up to the roof of the house, there to throw herself from the parapet.
But Prudentius who followed, discerned her intent, and prevented her.
And so, accompanied by her brother, she was dragged swiftly to the nearest bordello. There Prunella was tied between two pillars and all her clothes removed. No word of protest or fear or distress escaped her lips, not even under the lash.
Though many eagerly crowded in to gaze in lust upon her humiliation, no man nor group, no, not even drunken camel-drivers from newly-arrived caravans, had the audacity to lay hands on her. There was not one, not even when the madam offered her free for the taking.
“I thank thee, Lord,” Prunella prayed, “for supplying even these, little better than brutes of the field, with natural shame.”
So bound, she could not see that Prudentius had hired the mightiest gladiator in all the East, Murexius, to stand over her and guard her all that day. None dare approach her while he silently watched from behind like a looming wall crowned with spikes. And gazing upon her innocence from the rear, Murexius, the Scourge of Syria, was strangely moved by her courage.
So she hung in chains until the evening when she was taken to the prison. There she was cast in a small cell alone by herself, the better to fear the worst.
And throughout the long night she implored God for strength.
“Alas,” Prunella wept in despair, “if only I had seen the Sacred Basin! Surely that would have given me the strength to face even the greatest of torments. I am but a simple girl, Lord Christ,” she entreated earnestly, “but I would have the iron heart of a soldier. Grant me courage that I might win the crown.”
The moon rose as she prayed. And shining through the window she beheld through her tears a glowing form in the light like the Sacred Basin. So she gave thanks, saying, “May the blood of my deliverance be as cleansing as the water in which you dipped the Apostles’ toes. O Lord, would that I could drink that water!”
The next morning, she was taken again with the others to see the Emperor. And as they waited, she told Babylas and the others what she had seen. So she greatly encouraged them to resist, that they should rather be roasted alive than taste anything, however savory, that had been offered to idols, or to sprinkle even a grain of sweet incense on their coals.
But Decius, hearing of her brave words, decided she must be killed. Though Prudentius’ objections counted for naught, he did persuade the Emperor not to burn her, but subject her to the arena. For Decius marveled at the bravery of the martyrs. “What great power is this love they bear for their magic pot, that they would suffer so!” he said.
“Great Caesar,” replied Prudentius, “it is not love of God but hate for the world and scorn for their place in it that drives these wretched Christians to suffer. To these slaves their revered washpot means that the master should serve them even as his cross shows he must die for their love. For there are no crueler masters than they themselves would be.”
The Emperor much liked this saying, and favored Prudentius from that day on. But that day, the young girl and many of her companions were hauled onto the sand, already mired with blood from the morning’s sport.
And wild beasts, driven mad with hunger, were set on them to the delighted howls of the mob. The fearless Christians, men, women, and children, many whose names are lost to us, sang hymns, embraced the savage creatures, and perished.
But Murexius leaped into the arena and slew all that approached the blessed girl.
“Oh, cruel man,” Prunella cried, “would you deny me my victory?”
“Nay, you have already conquered me,” he replied. “the greatest gladiator in the world. Prunella, I would save you out of love: I will plead with the Emperor for your life.”
And she made as if to embrace him, but smiling, thrust herself upon his sword. “And thus, with love, you save me,” Prunella said with her dying breath. “I give thee thanks, sweet monster.”
So the great Murexius, who had slain men like cattle and women like dogs, wept. And thus distraught, he threw down his sword and tore off his armor. Declaring himself a Christian, he freely offered himself to the torment. And so it was done.
Tortured for his daring all that day and night, after great suffering, Murexius soon became an immolation for Christ. He was burnt alive the following afternoon in the same arena to the edification and delight of the children.
Decius had Prunella’s body burnt to ashes along with him on his pyre, lest the Christians worship it. Together they burned as a great torch for the faith long into the night, until all was consumed.
And so the two, Murexius the gladiator and Prunella the virgin, while not lovers in the flesh, were united through their disdain of it.
Yet some of the brethren there were who secretly retrieved the mixed fragments of their bones from the arena. By putting them into small golden boxes, Prunella and Murexius were the first such saints to be venerated, and still are today.
But the Emperor did not dare lift a finger against beloved Babylus the bishop for fear of the mob. So the holy man was imprisoned in Antioch until he died not long after. Many years later, his became the first saints’ bones to be moved from one church to another.
Yet Prudentius, through his cunning arguments, grew great in the counsels of Decius. And he became as fierce a prosecutor of Christians as ever Saul had been.
Relentlessly he pursued the followers of Christ from one end of the Empire to another, obtaining great riches and esteem among the pagans. However, in the end, his wits failed him as his guilt drove him mad.
Convinced he had been cursed and become a scapegoat of the Jews, Prudentius ended his days eating grass like Nebuchadnezzar and starving to death in the midst of plenty thereby. Thus the martyrs of Christ were avenged and God greatly glorified. Amen.