St Soteris, Virgin and Martyr

Gregory DiPippo

The church in Milan traditionally celebrates today as the feast of a relative of St Ambrose, a woman named Soteris who was martyred in the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. Ambrose’s family was from Rome, and a catalog of Saints incorrectly attributed to St Jerome, but certainly very early, says that she was buried in a catacomb off the via Appia, which was later named from her. In the mid-9th century, Pope Sergius II had her body brought to the Roman church of San Martino ai Monti on the Esquiline Hill.

Here is the conclusion of St Ambrose’s treatise De Virginibus, addressed to his sister Marcellina, which is one of the two passages in which he mentions Soteris. Having previously given examples of holy virgins from other parts of the world, he writes:

“Sed quid alienigenis apud te, soror, utor exemplis, quam haereditariae castitatis inspirata successio parentis infusione martyris erudivit? Unde enim didicisti, quae non habuisti unde disceres, constituta in agro, nulla socia virgine, nullo informata doctore? Non ergo discipulam, quod fieri sine magisterio non potest, sed haeredem virtutis egisti.

Qui enim fieri posset ut sancta Soteris tibi non esset mentis auctor, cui auctor est generis? Quae persecutionis aetate, servilibus quoque contumeliis ad fastigium passionis evecta, etiam vultum ipsum, qui inter cruciatus totius corporis liber esse consuevit injuriae, et spectare potius tormenta quam perpeti, carnifici dedit: tam fortis et patiens, ut cum teneras poenae offerret genas, prius carnifex caedendo defecerit, quam martyr injuriae cederet. Non vultum inflexit, non ora convertit: non gemitum, non lacrymam dedit. Denique cum caetera poenarum genera vicisset, gladium quem quaerebat, invenit.

(A stucco relief of St Soteris in the Roman basilica of St Sebastian, by Carlo Fontana, 1705-12)

But why do I use examples of foreigners to you, my sister, whom the inspired succession of hereditary chastity has taught by descent from a martyred ancestor? For whence did you learn, who had no one from whom to learn, living in the country, with no virgin companion, instructed by no teacher? You have played the part then not of a disciple, which this cannot be done without teaching, but of an heir of virtue.

For how could it happen that the holy Soteris should not have been the originator of your purpose, who is an ancestor of your race? And she, in an age of persecution, borne to the heights of suffering by the insults of slaves, gave to the executioner even her face, which is usually free from injury amid the tortures of the whole body, and watched, rather than suffered her torments; so brave and patient that when she offered her tender cheeks to punishment, the executioner failed to strike before the martyr yielded under the injuries. She moved not her face, she turned not away her countenance, she uttered not a groan or a tear. Lastly, when she had overcome other kinds of punishment, she found the sword which she desired.” (De Virginibus 3, 38-39)

Soteris’ unusual name, by the way, is a feminized form of the Greek word “sōtēr – savior.” An agent noun ending in -tēr would normally be feminized with -teira, but “sōteira” was used as an epithet for several pagan goddesses. It seems likely that Sōtēris, with the common feminine suffix “-is, – idos”, is a deliberate Christian coinage made to honor the Savior while avoiding pagan connotations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *