By tradition, Lawrence was sentenced at San Lorenzo in Miranda, imprisoned in San Lorenzo in Fonte, and martyred at San Lorenzo in Panisperna. The Almanac of Philocalus for the year 354 mentions that he was buried in the Via Tiburtina in the Catacomb of Cyriaca by Hippolytus and Justin the Confessor, a presbyter. One of the early sources for the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence was the description by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens in his Peristephanon, Hymn II.
A well-known legend has persisted from earliest times. As deacon in Rome, Lawrence was charged with the responsibility for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. St. Ambrose of Milan relates that when St. Lawrence was asked for the treasures of the Church he brought forward the poor, among whom he had divided the treasure as alms. “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown.” The prefect was so angry that he had a great gridiron prepared, with coals beneath it, and had Lawrence’s body placed on it (hence St. Lawrence’s association with the gridiron). After the martyr had suffered the pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he made his famous cheerful remark, “I’m well done. Turn me over!” From this derives his patronage of cooks and chefs.
Some historians, such as Rev. Patrick Healy, view the traditions of how Lawrence was martyred as “not worthy of credence”, as the slow lingering death cannot be reconciled “with the express command contained in the edict regarding bishops, priests, and deacons (animadvertantur) which ordinarily meant decapitation.” A theory of how the tradition arose is put forward by Pio Franchi de’ Cavalieri. He postulates that it was the result of a mistaken transcription, the accidental omission of the letter “p” – “by which the customary and solemn formula for announcing the death of a martyr – passus est [“he suffered,” that is, was martyred] – was made to read assus est [he was roasted].” The Liber Pontificalis, which is held to draw from sources independent of the existing traditions and Acta regarding Lawrence, uses passus est concerning him, the same term it uses for Pope Sixtus II (martyred by beheading during the same persecution).
Constantine I is said to have built a small oratory in honour of the martyr, which was a station on the itineraries of the graves of the Roman martyrs by the seventh century. Pope Damasus I rebuilt or repaired the church, now known as San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, while the minor basilica of San Lorenzo in Panisperna was built over the place of his martyrdom. The gridiron of the martyrdom was placed by Pope Paschal II in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.