Martyred with her seven sons at Tibur (Tivoli) towards the end of the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138). The story of their martyrdom is told in an old Passio, the reliability of which is seriously questioned by many modern hagiologists. According to this Passio, Symphorosa was a lady living at Tibur, the widow of the tribune, Getulius, who had previously been martyred by Emperor Hadrian at Gabii, now Torri, a town of the Sabines. When Hadrian had completed his costly palace at Tibur and began its dedication by offering sacrifices, he received the following response from the gods: "The widow Symphorosa and her sons torment us daily by invoking their God. If she and her sons offer sacrifice, we promise to give you all that you ask for." When all the emperor's attempts to induce Symphorosa and her sons to sacrifice to the gods were unsuccessful, he ordered her to be brought to the Temple of Hercules, where, after various tortures, she was thrown into the river (Anio), with a heavy rock fastened to her neck. Her brother Eugenius, who was a member of the council of Tibur, buried her in the outskirts of the city. The next day the emperor summoned her seven sons, and being equally unsuccessful in his attempts to make them sacrifice to the gods, he ordered them to be tied to seven stakes which had been erected for the purpose round the Temple of Hercules. Each of them suffered a different kind of martyrdom. Crescens was pierced through the throat, Julian through the breast, Nemesius through the heart, Primitivus was wounded at the navel, Justinus was pierced through the back, Stracteus (Stacteus, Estacteus) was wounded at the side, and Eugenius was cleft in two parts from top to bottom. Their bodies were thrown into a deep ditch at a place which the pagan priests afterwards called "Ad septem Biothanatos." (The Greek word biodanatos, or rather biaiodanatos, was employed for self-murderers and, by the pagans, applied to Christians who suffered martyrdom). Hereupon the persecution ceased for one year and six months, (during which period the bodies of the martyrs were buried on the Via Tiburtina, eight or nine miles from Rome.
It is difficult to ascertain how much reliability these Acts possess. The opinion that they were written by Julius Africanus (third century) has been almost universally rejected, since neither Eusebius nor any other historian of that period makes the least allusion to any Acts of Roman or Italian martyrs composed by this African writer. The "Hieronymian Martyrology," which was compiled by an unknown author in the second half of the fifth century, commemorates St. Symphorosa and her sons on 18 July, but here the names of her sons are entirely different from those given in the Acts. One of the manuscripts (codex Bernensis) of this martyrology states that the Acts of these martyrs are extant: "quorum gesta habentur" ("Martyrologium Hieronymianum," edited by De Rossi and Duchesne in Acta SS. Novembris II, I, 93). Since here the names of Symphorosa's sons are different from those of the Acts which we possess, there must have existed some other "Gesta" to which the author of the martyrology refers. In the same martyrology, on 27 June, are commemorated seven brother- martyrs, whose names are identical with those which our Acts assign to the sons of Symphorosa. It is probable that the author of the Acts, guided by the tradition that Symphorosa had seven sons who were martyred, made her the mother of the seven martyrs, whom he found mentioned in the martyrology on 27 June. If this is the case, we may infer, provided Symphorosa had seven sons at all, that their names were not those mentioned in the Acts. Whether they were those assigned to them in the "Hieronymian Martyrology" will also remain doubtful as long as we have no certainty that the "Gesta" to which the author refers are authentic. Some hagiologists consider the seven sons of Symphorosa, like those of Felicitas, a mere adaptation of the seven sons of the Maccabean Mother. In the seventeenth century, Bosio discovered the ruins of a basilica at the place popularly called "le sette fratte" (the seven brothers), on the Via Tiburtina, nine miles from Rome. (Bosio, "Roma Sotteranea," 105-9). The Acts and the "Hieronymian Martyrology" agree in designating this spot as the tomb of Symphorosa and her sons. Further discoveries, that leave no room for doubt that the basilica was built over their tomb, were made by Stevenson. The remains were transferred to the Church of S. Angelo is Pescaria at Rome by Stephen (II) III in 752. A sarcophagus was found here in 1610, bearing the inscription: "Hic requiescunt corpora SS. Martyrum Simforosae, viri sui Zotici (Getulii) et Filiorum ejus a Stephano Papa translata." The Diocese of Tivoli honours them as patrons and the whole Church celebrates their feast 18 July.
ALLARD, Hist. des Persecutions pendant les deux premiers siecles (Paris, 1903), 276-92; ACHELIS, Die Martyrologien, ihre Geschichte u. ihr Wert (Berlin, 1900), 159-62; STEVENSON, Scoperta delta basilica di santa Sinforosa e dei suoi sette figli al nono miglio della via Tiburtina, I (Rome, 1878), 502-5; BUTLER, Lives of the Saints, 18 July; Acta SS. Julii IV, 350-9.
APA citation. (1912). St. Symphorosa. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14379a.htm
MLA citation. "St. Symphorosa." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14379a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Fobian. In memory of John Henry Johnson.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.