Notes upon the Acts / Passion of St. Saturninus

An online forum asked about an ancient text named the Acts of St. Saturninus.  I had not heard of these, and my investigation is perhaps worth writing up.

The Passio S. Saturnini is a text which describes the death of Saturninus and other martyrs of Toulouse in Gaul during the Decian persecution.  It belongs to that category of martyrdoms which Ruinart labelled “sincera”, i.e. authentic rather than merely a later invention.[1].  The text is numbered BHL 7495-6.  (Note that a later, 7-8th century text is much longer and numbered BHL 7491, and  was edited in 2002 and published by Herder).

In its current state, the Passio S. Saturnini is a late text, edited in the second decade of the 5th century (certainly before 450 AD), two centuries after the death of the bishop, at the moment when his cult began, thanks to the translation of his relics from the modest tomb where he had been buried into a new basilica. The author of it is very definitely a clergyman of Toulouse living at the time of bishop Exuperius, or soon afterwards.[2]

Cabau wrote notes on the bishops of Toulouse in this period, which may be found here.


  • Patrice Cabau, “Opusculum de passione ac translatione sancti Saturnini, episcopi Tolosanae ciuitatis et martyris. Édition et traduction provisoires”, in: Mémoires de la Société archéologique du Midi de la France 61, 2001, p. 59-77.  This includes a full bibliography.  Online here.

French translation:

  • Pierre Maraval, Actes et Passions des martyrs chrétiens des premiers siècles. Introduction, traduction et notes, in: Sagesses Chrétiennes, Cerf, 2010, pp. 181-192.  Online here.

I have found no sign of a translation into English, unfortunately.

  1. [1]Thierry Ruinart, Acta Martyrum sincera et selecta, 1689, p.109-113; 2nd ed.  here has text on p.128 f, and a list of manuscripts used on p.lxxix.
  2. [2]From the introduction to Marival’s translation.

13 thoughts on “Notes upon the Acts / Passion of St. Saturninus

  1. So yet another example of St. Athanasius’ proof — the stopping of pagan oracles and magic.

  2. Many thanks for this, Roger. I am presently attempting to compile a list of all the known bishops of the dioceses of the patriarchate of Rome up to the seventh century (it keeps me busy and provides me with a purpose in life), and the information you have flagged up on the dioceses of Gaul will come in very useful.

    By the way, thanks too for publishing your English version of the Life of Mar Aba. I should have written earlier to encourage you to keep up the good work. I have been enjoying reading it in its ‘serialized’ version. One chapter of hagiography a day is about as much as I can take, even when the element of the miraculous is fairly small, as it is in Mar Aba’s Life; and you have served up his Life in very palatable chunks. I’m doing something similar with Chabot’s French version of the Chronicle of Seert at present, aiming to do one chapter a day, but translating from French is considerably easier than translating from German. I salute you!

  3. Correction! I meant Addai Scher, of course, not Chabot. Why do we always notice mistakes 2 seconds after pressing the ‘Submit Comment’ button? The old ‘esprit d’escalier’ has found a new lease of life in the digital age.

  4. Thank you so much for your encouragement. I need to get back to Mar Aba – only about 10 chapters remaining.

    Glad I’m not the only person who finds French easier than German!

    Your list of bishops can only be useful. It’s the sort of painstaking task that people don’t do nearly enough these days.

  5. The story says that the oracle in town stopped working, and the local townspeople blamed St. Saturninus for being a Christian bishop who lived close to where the oracular temple was. There’s no particularly elaborate martyrdom involved, and it really does sound more like a freaked-out mob than the usual stuff invented by politicians to get up good games and promote themselves.

    You know, that bit from Athanasius’ “On the Trinity.” We talked about it before; some of the translations are more dramatic than others. But the gist was that if you were a pagan and wanted to find out if Christianity was true, just walk down a street full of pagan temples, say the name of Jesus Christ, and watch all the sacrifices and oracles go awry or stop working.

    A lot of pagans agreed that this was so, although not on why and how Jesus’ name was a word of power, which was part of why there were so many Roman occult amulets, etc. with Jewish or Christian names for God included. So yeah, Christians were sure that Christians using Christ’s power could shut off the demonic power of false gods’ false miracles, whereas pagans were generally sure that the gods were offended by Christians’ atheism (or their horrible unnatural baby bloodfeasts, much more satisfying for rabblerousing), or by their use of their God’s name.

    Anyway, usually you see martyrdom because of not sacrificing to the Emperor’s genius, or because the crops failed or plagues came. You don’t normally see this sort of direct god vs god, priest vs priest thing, except in areas of pagan god tourism (like oracles, or Ephesus’ idolmakers).

  6. Okay… it seems that the old Tolosa of the Gauls was a big Gaulish pilgrimage city, notorious for all the gold in its temples and shrines. (A lot of which came from Celts pillaging Delphi, and dumping the bits they actually stole from the Temple in sacred lakes or otherwise giving it to gods, to take the curse off it.)

    The Romans ended up building a new city, Palladia Tolosa or Tolosa Narbonensis, and there was a big capitolium temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. (Or possibly to Gaulish gods under the Roman names.)

  7. Re: no particularly elaborate martyrdom, they tied him to a bull and had the bull drag him down steps. Head vs marble loses pretty much right away. However, as one typically does in stories (or in Achilles being mean to Hector), the bull was allowed to drag the corpse all over town and outside the walls. The place where the rope broke (and two Christian girls grabbed Saturninus’ body and buried it) is now the Church of Notre Dame du Taur, and the main street is Rue du Taur.

    The really interesting bit is that part of the trouble was caused by the Christians having a church that wasn’t in/at the bishop’s house; he was commuting to church by walking past the capitolium. So Christians must have been doing okay prior to the sudden persecution, or somebody had given them access to a bigger building.

  8. I don’t really see any connection to Mithras (despite a lot of talk in the Wikipedia article) or to Tarvos Trigaranus, the Gaulish bull god. The only thing that’s unusual is that he got martyred on a day that’s not a standard pagan Roman holy day.

  9. Interesting – thank you!

    I’m afraid my memory is so poor these days that I do not recall us talking about that passage in Augustine. Do you know whereabouts in De Trinitate it is?

    The Acts of Saturninus really do sound interesting! I’ve not heard back from my colleague, but I suspect a translation might exist in Musurillo, “Acts of the Christian martyrs”. I have it on order anyway.

    I suspect the supposed Mithras connection is a load of bull.

  10. I just ran the French thing through Google Translate, because I’m lazy and don’t speak French. 🙂

    Nope, it’s my memory that’s bad, because it’s Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Ch. 5, paras. 30-32; and again in Ch. 8, 47-48. Particularly para 48!

    “Anyone, too, may put what we have said to the proof of experience in another way. In the very presence of the fraud of demons and the imposture of the oracles and the wonders of magic, let him use the sign of the Cross which they all mock at, and but speak the Name of Christ, and he shall see how through Him demons are routed, oracles cease, and all magic and witchcraft is confounded.”

  11. Andrew Eastbourne has said he will translate the Latin for us 🙂

    I do that with Google translate a lot. For French it’s quite good. Not bad for Arabic, I found today.

    Thank you for the Augustine … will look.

  12. Hi Roger ~ I found Andrew Eastbourne’s translation of the Acts of Saturninus on and would like to reproduce it — and the nice intro you provided — in a book that we will be publishing, tentatively entitled: “I am Christian!” Authentic Accounts of Early Christian Persecution and Martyrdom. This will not be a scholarly book, per se, but will be sold primarily to our audience of informed general readers with an interest in the early Church and Roman history.

    These items both contain your usual advice to freely copy and distribute, but I wanted to let you know anyway, as I intend to credit Andrew and you in the text (and plug if that’s ok. If you have any concerns, please contact me and I will refrain.

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