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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

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

The Greek Martyrdom of *Catherine/Aikaterina (martyr of Alexandria, S00765) recounts the marvellous tale of a young woman who defied the emperor Maxentius, defeated the finest orators of the realm in a public contest of knowledge, escaped being tortured on a giant wheel and was finally martyred gloriously. The text was perhaps written sometime around the 6th-8th century, either in the context of the monastery on Mount Sinai or elsewhere in the Greek-speaking East.

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom

Martyrdom of Aikaterina (BHG 30)

Brief summary:

1-8. Emperor Maxentios commands all the people of the world to come to Alexandria to sacrifice to the pagan gods, and a great multitude gathers bringing forth manifold animals for sacrifice. In the city there lives alone in her late father's palace the daughter of a king, Aikaterina, who is not only exceedingly tall and beautiful, but has learned all the literature of rhetoric, philosophy and poetry, and is fluent in the seventy-two languages. A Christian, she is dismayed to see the people being led into perdition, and confronts the emperor, who has her seized and brought to him for questioning. Unable to stand his ground in a theological argument with her, the emperor announces she will engage in a public contest of words with the most learned orators.

9-21. Fifty orators are summoned and they promise to defeat the virgin, but an angel appears to Aikaterina and reassures her she will be victorious. The most prominent of the rhetoricians tests her with many questions from Plato and Aristotle, but she always knows the answer; when at last he can think of no more questions, Aikaterina turns the tables on him, proclaiming the wisdom of God which renders useless the wisdom of the world. The rest of the orators refuse to even attempt to beat her, and as they are being led to their deaths by an angry Maxentios, they turn to the God of Aikaterina and die as martyrs, on 17 November. The emperor, exasperated at being unable to sway Aikaterina, has her lashed and imprisoned to await her fate.

15-22. As she lies in a cell, the emperor's spouse, Augusta, approaches the saint through the faithful general Porphyrion, and is converted, as is the general, together with two hundred soldiers. Aikaterina lies in her cell for twelve days and is fed by a shining dove. Finally Christ appears to her, flanked by angels, and promises her he will be with her. The emperor summons Aikaterina and tries to win her over one last time; when he fails, he orders the construction of a set of four great wheels, furnished with spikes and rotated by mechanical means, initially in an attempt to intimidate her and then to torture or slay her; however, an angel rescues the saint and the wheels spin out of control, killing fourteen thousand pagans. The empress Augusta and the general Porphyrion with his soldiers both confront the emperor in turn and are martyred, the empress only after violent torture, on 23 November [
in text B Porphyrion and the soldiers on 24 November].

23-27. The emperor finally commands that the saint be beheaded. Aikaterina prays at length to God, requesting, since many expect to obtain a part of her body, that no part may be found on the earth, but that anyone invoking her name in prayer should receive healing and protection from evil, absolution from sins, as well as protection against poor harvests. The Lord answers her, confirming His acceptance of the saint's request and welcoming her to Heaven. Aikaterina is then beheaded and four angels take her body to mount Sinai. This account was composed by the saint's personal slave and tachygrapher Athanasios. Saint Aikaterina was martyred on Friday 24 November.

Text: Viteau 1897, 5-23.
Summary: N. Kälviäinen.

Cult Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Non Liturgical Activity

Composing and translating saint-related texts


Miracle at martyrdom and death
Punishing miracle
Miracles causing conversion
Healing diseases and disabilities
Apparition, vision, dream, revelation
Material support (supply of food, water, drink, money)
Miraculous protection - of people and their property


Bodily relic - entire body

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Monarchs and their family


The early Greek Martyrdom of Aikaterina is known to be preserved in three main versions, called by the editor Viteau A (= BHG 30), B (= BHG 30a) and C (= BHG 31). Reflecting the saint's popularity during the Middle Ages, the Pinakes database lists a combined total of around 60 manuscripts for these three versions (not including later medieval reworkings), ranging in date from the 10th to the 17th century (there is also a single 11th c. manuscript containing a text from which the beginning has been lost, designated BHG 31b by Halkin): (BHG 30-30a) (BHG 31) (BHG 31b)

Of these texts, A and B are textually very close to each other, the main difference being that, unlike in A, in B the central theme of the heroine's learning and rhetorical skill is more fully developed. In particular, a large section is devoted to her contest with the chief orator, with lengthy speeches from both sides given in full in an often almost incomprehensible pseudo-learned jargon. On the other hand, the third text, C, seems to have been rewritten to a large extent and made to conform to a somewhat higher, more rhetorical style; in it the para-rhetorical gibberish of B is replaced by comprehensible arguments drawing on e.g.
Iliad 1.394-406 and resembling earlier Christian apologetic discourse.

It is therefore likely that the original form of the text was closer to that of A or B than C; on the other hand, the thematic and structural similarity of B and C, as opposed to A, which is pointed out by Constantinou 2005, 22, is perhaps simply due to C being essentially a rewriting based on B with the incomprehensible speeches replaced by a more coherent rhetoric. However, a thorough philological investigation of the entire dossier is required before the question of the interrelation of these versions can be resolved.

The text summarised here is that of version A.


In the absence of any concrete evidence for the saint's cult and the text of the Martyrdom before the 8th century (Constantinou 2005, 21), the texts relating to her martyrdom are almost impossible to date with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, it can be noted that with their low stylistic level and predilection for the wondrous and phantasmagorical, versions A and B are clearly products of the late antique literary current of "epic" Martyrdoms, and bear certain similarities to e.g. the Martyrdom of Saint George (E06147). The best educated guess might therefore place their composition somewhere in the 6th to 8th centuries (with a date towards the end of this period being perhaps more probable than an earlier one), if not in the context of the Sinai monastery which came to bear her name (and which would be suggested by the detail revealing that her relic lay buried there), then somewhere in the Greek-speaking East. The saint's request that no part of her body be made available i.e. that no division of her relics should occur would allow for the cult to be propagated by means of the text alone (since invoking her in prayer one could obtain the benefits of her protection), regardless of whether the text was connected to Sinai or not.

These texts, straddling the threshold of the ancient and medieval worlds in more ways than one, are especially interesting for their literary aspects, including the socio-linguistic and socio-educational perspective they provide in the form of the depiction of Catherine's fabled learning: the kaleidoscopic farrago of pseudo-learned verbal pyrotechnics exchanged by the saint and the orator in version B probably reflects a somewhat comic (possibly even intentionally tongue-in-cheek) attempt by a semi-learned author to apply the best extent of his skills to imagining what an especially 'wise' (in the sense of worldly wisdom) discourse might sound like. The poetic colouring of many of the words used, fanciful either in themselves or in being strung together in long nonsensical chains, betrays the author's familiarity with the second level of traditional classical education in which grammar was learned through close parsing of the poets and especially Homer.

Nevertheless, the constant repetition of the same, ultimately rather restricted, lexical material (such as the untranslatable σφιρμιγγίλιον) clearly reveals the author's literary limits. The result is a captivating depiction of how a vivid parody of traditional classical learning might have been used by a semi-educated author to entertain and enthral his audience, which itself will probably have ranged from the illiterate or semi-literate to people with a basic literary education resembling that of the author. Another aspect of the same phenomenon is provided by the list of classical authors mastered by Catherine, in which Plato, Homer and Galen rub shoulders with Sibylline prophecies and the magical knowledge of Iannes and Mambres, as well as the phrasing 'the seventy-two languages', a traditionally significant number indicating a kind of oecumenical universality (cf. the seventy-two pagan kings in saint George's martyrdom account).


Viteau, J., Passions des saints Écaterine et Pierre d'Alexandrie, Barbara et Anysia (Paris, 1897), 5-23 (BHG 30), 23-39 (BHG 30a), 43-65 (BHG 31).

Further reading:
Constantinou, S., "The Authoritative Voice of St. Catherine of Alexandria", Acta Byzantina Fennica 2 (2005), 19-38.

Cf. also Constantinou, S.,
Female Corporeal Performances: Reading the Body in Byzantine Passions and Lives of Holy Women (Uppsala, 2005), 25-26 and 30-58.

Record Created By

Nikolaos Kälviäinen

Date Last Modified


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00765Catherine/Aikaterina, martyr of AlexandriaΑἰκατερίναCertain

Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Nikolaos Kälviäinen, Cult of Saints, E07797 -