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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world

Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions (9.7.16) recalls the discovery in Milan (northern Italy) of the bodies of *Gervasius and Protasius (brothers and martyrs of Milan, S00313) by bishop Ambrose of Milan in 386. Written in Latin in Hippo Regius (Numidia, central North Africa), 397/400.

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Other

Major author/Major anonymous work

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine, Confessions 9.7.16

Tunc memorato antistiti tuo per uisum aperuisti, quo loco laterent martyrum corpora Protasii et Geruasii, quae per tot annos incorrupta in thesauro secreti tui reconderas, unde oportune promeres ad cohercendam rabiem femineam, sed regiam. Cum enim propalata et effossa digno cum honore transferrentur ad ambrosianam basilicam, non solum quos immundi uexabant spiritus confessis eisdem daemonibus sanabantur, uerum etiam quidam plures annos caecus ciuis ciuitati que notissimus, cum populi tumultuante laetitia causam quaesisset atque audisset, exiluit eo que se ut duceret suum ducem rogauit. Quo perductus impetrauit admitti, ut sudario tangeret feretrum pretiosae in conspectu tuo mortis sanctorum tuorum. Quod ubi fecit atque admouit oculis, confestim aperti sunt.

'Then Thou by a vision made known to Your renowned bishop [sc. Ambrose of Milan] the spot where lay the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, the martyrs (whom You had in Your secret storehouse preserved uncorrupted for so many years), whence You might at the fitting time produce them to repress the feminine but royal fury. For when they were revealed and dug up and with due honour transferred to the Ambrosian Basilica, not only they who were troubled with unclean spirits (the demons confessing themselves) were healed, but a certain man also, who had been blind many years, a well-known citizen of that city, having asked and been told the reason of the people's tumultuous joy, rushed forth, asking his guide to lead him there. Arrived there, he begged to be permitted to touch with his handkerchief the bier of Your saints, whose death is precious in Your sight. When he had done this, and put it to his eyes, they were immediately opened. Thence did the fame spread; thence did Your praises burn, shine; thence was the mind of that enemy, though not yet enlarged to the wholeness of believing, restrained from the fury of persecuting.'

Text: Verheijen 1981.
Translation: Pilkington 1887.

Cult Places

Cult building - independent (church)
Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Non Liturgical Activity

Saint as patron - of a community


Miracle after death
Healing diseases and disabilities
Apparition, vision, dream, revelation
Bodily incorruptibility
Miraculous protection - of church and church property
Miraculous intervention in issues of doctrine


Bodily relic - entire body
Contact relic - cloth
Making contact relics
Touching and kissing relics
Transfer, translation and deposition of relics

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops
Other lay individuals/ people


Augustine of Hippo was born in 354 in the north African city of Thagaste. He received an education in rhetoric at Carthage, and after a period teaching there moved to Rome, and then in 384 to a public professorship of rhetoric in Milan. In these early years of adulthood Augustine was a Manichaean, but then got disillusioned with this religion, and in Milan in 386, largely under the influence of Ambrose, bishop of the city, he converted to Christianity, and was baptised by Ambrose in 387. Returning to Africa in 388, he was ordained a priest in 391 at Hippo Regius (in the province of Numidia), and rapidly acquired a reputation as a preacher. In 395 he became bishop of Hippo, which he remained until his death in 430. Details of his early life were recorded by Augustine himself in his Confessions, and shortly after his death a pupil and long-time friend, Possidius, wrote his Life, focused on Augustine as an effective Christian writer, polemicist and bishop (E00073).

Amongst his many writings, the most informative on the cult of saints are his numerous
Sermons, the City of God, and a treatise On the Care of the Dead. The Sermons tell us which saints (primarily African, but with some from abroad) received attention in Hippo, Carthage and elsewhere, and provide occasional details of miracles and cult practices. The City of God records the distribution, and subsequent miracles, of the relics of saint Stephen, after they arrived in Africa from Palestine in around 420. On the Care of the Dead, discusses the possible advantages of burial ad sanctos (in other words, close to a saint), and theorises on the link between the saints who dwell in heaven and their corporeal remains buried in their graves. In these works, and others, Augustine reveals his own particular beliefs about the saints, their relics and their miracles.

Augustine wrote the
Confessions during the first years of his episcopate in Hippo (397-430). It is widely acknowledged that his narration is highly rhetorical and sometimes over-dramatised, but it reflects actual events.


This episode refers to an event which had been already described in detail by Ambrose himself, in his Letter 77 (see E05211) and Hymn 11 (see E05215) and which will be later retold in the Life of Ambrose by Paulinus of Milan (E00904). It is interesting to remark that Augustine is the first to mention Ambrose's vision, in which he was informed about the place of the martyrs burial. Ambrose himself refers vaguely to a 'zealous presentiment'. The woman whose 'fury' persecuted the Catholic community in Milan was the empress Justina who supported the Arians.


Verheijen, L., Augustinus, Confessionum libri XIII (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 27; Turnhout: Brepols, 1981).

English translations:
Pilkington, J.G. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY, 1887).

O'Donnell, J.J.,
Augustine, Confessions, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) [with commentary].

Record Created By

Robert Wiśniewski

Date of Entry


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00313Gervasius and Protasius, brothers and martyrs of MilanGervasius, ProtasiusCertain

Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Robert Wiśniewski, Cult of Saints, E01019 -