Saint Prisca was a Roman girl whose parents were Christians of a noble family. Her parents had managed to keep their secret, and were not suspected of being Christians. But Prisca scorned to use any precaution. She did not fear to tell every one what she believed and Whose Cross she followed. So she soon became known as a firm little Christian maiden. And there were people in the city cruel enough and wicked enough to hate even a child-Christian and to wish her evil. Very soon Prisca was seized by the guards and brought before the Emperor.
Claudius the Emperor, looked at the little maid in surprise to find her so young. And he thought: “Ho! I shall easily make this small Christian change her mind and obey me.” And he bade his men take her to the temple of Apollo and make her offer incense to the beautiful god of the silver bow. So they carried her to the top of the Palatine, one of the seven hills on which Rome was built.
They thrust incense into Prisca’s hand and bade her throw a few grains into the fire in honor of the beautiful god of the sun. It seemed a very simple thing to do, to save her life,—just to scatter a handful of dark powder on the flames. Prisca loved the dear sun as well as any one, but she knew it was foolish to believe that he was a god, and wicked to worship his statue in place of the great God who made the sun and everything else. So Prisca refused to burn the incense.
Then the Emperor was very angry, and bade the soldiers whip her until she obeyed his command. But they could not make her yield by cruelty. Even the hard-hearted Romans who had come to look on admired her bravery and pitied her suffering. The women wept to see her so cruelly treated, and the men cried, “Shame! shame! to torture a little child.” And then a beautiful thing happened; Suddenly, a bright, yellow light shone about her, and she appeared to be a little star.
The Emperor then ordered them to drag Prisca away to prison and to keep her there for many days. Here she was most unhappy,—lonely and cold and hungry often, wondering what dreadful thing was to happen next. But her heart was always brave, and she was not afraid.
After a long time, one morning the guard came for little Prisca. They dragged and tied her into the arena to be torn in pieces by wild beasts. And kneeling down on the sand she made a little prayer, not that she might be saved from the fierce beasts, but that she might have courage to show her Christian bravery and teach a lesson to these fiercer men and women who were looking on.
Then the keeper opened the grated door of a den at the end of the arena, and out stalked a great yellow lion. With a dreadful roar he rushed into the centre of the circle, and stood there lashing his tail and flashing his big yellow eyes all about the place. Then suddenly he spied the little girl standing quietly at one side with her hands clasped in front of her, looking at him without fear. And the great beast bent his head and licked her bare feet, and then he crouched down by her side. And this is why the old pictures of Saint Prisca represent her with a lion by her side. She bent her head and no one heard her whisper into his ear:—
“My good friend! you will not hurt me, I know, for the Lord has closed your mouth, just as he did the mouths of the lions into whose den Daniel was thrown by wicked men. These cruel men will put me to death, but you are kinder than they.”
And the lion looked up in her face as though he understood, and growled softly. He was quite gentle with her, but when the keeper came towards them he roared and bristled and showed his great teeth, so that for a long time no one dared to come near.
But even the lion could not save her from the death which she had no wish to shun. At last they captured him and took him away. Disgusted by his thwarted efforts to dissuade Prisca, the Emperor’s then ordered the guards to led her away down the road which leads south from the Palatine hill, to the place of execution. This was just outside the Ostian gate, an archway in the great wall which surrounded Rome, through which the road led to the town of Ostium and to the sea. Just outside this gate, to show that they were no longer worthy of being Romans and living within its walls, criminals were executed. And here many Christian martyrs lost their lives. Prisca was one of these, for here she was beheaded. And till the very end she neither cried nor screamed nor was in any way afraid. And so she became Saint Prisca, a little martyr at the age of thirteen.
Then another strange thing befell. When she died a great eagle appeared in the sky, hovering over Saint Prisca’s body far up in the air. And when any of the Romans ventured near her the eagle swooped down upon them with dreadful cries and flapping of his wings. And his round gray eyes looked so fierce and his claws so long and sharp, that no one dared to touch her for fear of the bird. Saint Prisca had found another protector in cruel Rome. And this is why many of the old pictures of Saint Prisca’s martyrdom show a great eagle hovering over her.
The creature guarded her body night and day, driving every one away, until the Christians, who had been waiting for the chance to venture out, came secretly one night and carried her away. They buried her where the Romans could not find her, in their little secret cemetery in the Saint Priscilla’s catacombs.