On March 7, 203, Perpetua fought with the beasts in the arena of Carthage just weeks after her baptism as a Christian. She and her maid Felicity and four companions had been arrested and convicted on the charge of being Christians. Perpetua left behind a prison diary recording the events of her arrest, trial, imprisonment, and martyrdom.[i] This diary, unusual in giving a first-person account of martyrdom, is also notable as the earliest writing known to be written by a Christian woman. It provides glimpses into early Christianity in North Africa and the meaning of martyrdom in the early Christian church. The document, known as The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, has three parts: the prison diary by Perpetua, “written with her own hand and in her own words,” a prologue and epilogue written by an unknown hand (possibly Tertullian, her contemporary in Carthage), and an unknown eyewitness who writes of the martyrdom itself.
The prologue explains why this story is important and must be remembered. Since ancient stories of faith both testify to God’s grace and edify his followers, “should not new witnesses also be so set forth” for the same purpose? Martyrs witness to God’s grace with the authority of their lives, and their stories are written to edify and encourage all those who follow Christ. While Christians daily testify to their faith through small choices and expressions of love and faithfulness, the extreme witness of martyrdom dramatizes the clash of culture between the kingdom of Christ and earthly powers. Each story is specific to time and place, but the issue at stake is ultimately obedience to God or human authority.
Perpetua is a Roman noblewoman (aged 22), from a wealthy and influential family, married with a nursing infant. A group of five catechumens, believers preparing for baptism, is arrested, including Perpetua, her maid Felicity, and three men, Revocatus, Saturninus, and Secundulus. Later, Saturus, the leader of this baptismal class, voluntarily joins them. At a public trial in the Forum, they refuse to sacrifice to the gods and become a sacrifice themselves, sentenced to fight with the beasts in honor of the Emperor’s son’s birthday.
Perpetua’s most fundamental clash with culture begins not with Rome, but with her family, and centers on her father’s strivings “to hurt my faith because of his love.” In the Roman household, the father was an absolute authority. A child born in the house was placed at the father’s feet for acceptance or rejection, but in this authoritarian context, the father-daughter bond was often close and profound. The father would see to the daughter’s education and well-being in marriage; the daughter would tend to the father in his old age.[ii] Apparently Perpetua’s father has fulfilled his role well. His daughter is able to read, write, reason, and debate. When he seeks to call her back to her duties, she replies:
"Father, said I, Do you see (for examples) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be? And he said, I see it. And I said to him, Can it be called by any other name than that which it is? And he answered, No. So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian."
When Perpetua argues against her father, putting him through a Socratic dialogue and winning, she defies the social order of state and family. Her argument, which uses an everyday observation to demonstrate the nature of a higher reality, puts her in the role of a teacher and her father as a learner. Whether either of them recognized an allusion to Socrates, “the quintessential principled prisoner of conscience and a martyr to truth”[iii] is not indicated. The father responds with fury and tears. Four times he appears in the narrative, with words that “might move all creation” to persuade her, but she calls his words, “the arguments of the devil.” At her trial, father and governor join forces to plead for family and state: “Spare your father’s grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.” To follow Christ, she must abandon her loyalties to family, religion, and state—all the allegiances of a Roman woman’s life. As a Christian, she is the citizen of another kingdom, a member of another family. She sees her father’s love, and her sorrow is that “he would not rejoice at my passion.”
Rejoicing at her martyrdom is probably not something a pagan father could do. But she could. Not everyone is called to be a martyr. It seems sometimes to be a matter of chance. Perpetua’s brother, also a catechumen, and others in the Christian community, like “the blessed deacons,” attend to the needs of the prisoners, even at the arena, and are not arrested. Martyrdom was seen to be a specific calling. Christians were not to seek martyrdom, but if they were called to it by God, they were invited to the high honor of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, assured that Christ would be with them to give them strength.[iv] When Felicity, who is eight-months pregnant at the time of their arrest, is giving birth, she is taunted by the guard who asks, if you find that painful, “what wilt you do when you are thrown to the beasts?” She responds, “I myself now suffer that which I suffer, but there another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer for him.” She speaks to the faith of the martyrs that God will be with them, fighting for them and in them. Martyrdom was a fight against the devil. It was God’s fight.
The gift of the Holy Spirit was often seen as a part of the martyr’s experience to prepare them for their trials. Stephen, the prototype, saw the heavens open and a vision of Christ beside his Father unfold (Acts 7:56). Perpetua’s brother requests that she ask for a vision that would tell them if they are to look for a deliverance or a passion. Since she often “conversed with the Lord,” she is confident in promising that she would do so. In Perpetua’s visions, she sees the nature and the outcome of the fight she is called to fight. In the first, a bronze ladder appears, reaching up to the sky with iron weapons hanging on both sides. At the base is a serpent, an image of the devil, lying in wait to deter those who would go up. Saturus has already gone up and encourages Perpetua to make the climb and warns her against the bite of the serpent. She replies that in the name of Jesus Christ, it cannot hurt her. Indeed, the serpent acts as though it fears Perpetua as it tamely raises its head to the level of the first step. Recalling the promise of Genesis 3:15, she treads on the head of the serpent and ascends the ladder. At the top, she sees a white-headed man in shepherd’s clothing milking his sheep. He welcomes her with a morsel of cheese. She tells the dream to her brother, and “we knew that it should be a passion; and we began to have no hope any longer in this world.” In her last vision, the night before the games, she finds herself in the arena, stripped naked, fighting in the body of a man against an “ill-favored Egyptian.” The master of gladiators announces that if the Egyptian wins, he will kill her; if she wins, she will receive a green branch with golden apples. As they fight, “he tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth.” The battle continues until she “trod upon his head” and receives the branch of victory. When she awakes, she interprets the dream: “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.”[v]
These are her last words recorded in her diary. She is ready to enter the arena. Someone else must describe the events there. In handing over the pen, she says, “the deed of the games themselves let him write who will.”
A True Spouse of Christ and the Darling of God
“Now dawned the day of their victory,” the narrator says as he begins his account of their martyrdoms. They proceed from the prison to the amphitheater in a public procession, “cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear.” Perpetua is the last to follow in this procession, “glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes.” The woman who became a man in her vision is clearly a woman, but not with the downcast eyes expected of an earthly bride. She has a “piercing” gaze. Felicity, who has just given birth the day before comes rejoicing that the child is safely borne and that she might now “fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism.”
The first battle waged in the amphitheater is a verbal one, waged by Perpetua herself. As they enter the gates, they find they are to be costumed, the men as priests of Saturn and the women as priestesses of Ceres, possibly as part of the spectacle or as mockery of their Christian faith. It is Perpetua who speaks for them. The narrator says, “The noble Perpetua remained of like firmness to the end, and would not. For she said: For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives, that we might do no such thing as this; this we agreed with you.” Her argument here, as elsewhere, is logical and persuasive, and the narrator explains, “Injustice acknowledged justice; the tribune suffered that they should be brought forth as they were, without more ado.” And “Perpetua began to sing, as already treading on the Egyptian’s head.”
Treading on the Egyptian's Head
The first battle is won with words. Now they will win with the same joyful countenance they displayed in the processional. Rather than entering with the obsequious manner of criminals hoping for a last reprieve, they enter by their own choice, clothed in defiance as they face the governor Hilarian who condemned them. “You judge us, they said, and God you.” The crowd is enraged and urges them to be scourged. The Christians then “gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord.”
The account of the eyewitness provides a behind the scenes look at the arena. The prisoners, at least the men, had apparently been discussing what kind of beast they hoped to face, sort of a game of “What animal do you want to be killed by?” It seems that each got their wish. Saturninus hoped to be thrown to all the beasts, so he might wear the more glorious crown, and he and Revocatus “first had ado with a leopard and was afterwards torn by a bear on a raised bridge.” Saturus hated the thought of being mauled by a bear and hoped for the decisive “one bite of a leopard.” If he were hoping for a glorious battle, the beasts weren’t cooperating. He was first tied to a boar by a gladiator, but the boar attacked the gladiator instead, fatally wounding him. Next he was tied to a bridge to be mauled by a bear, but the bear would not come out of its cage. The narrator believes that the Lord who said, “Ask and you shall receive,” was answering their prayers. Apparently Saturus does too, for he tells Pudens, the soldier at the gate, “And now believe with all your heart. Behold, I go out thither and shall perish by one bite of the leopard. And immediately at the end of the spectacle, the leopard being released, with one bite of his he was covered with so much blood that the people (in witness to his second baptism) cried out to him returning: “Well washed, well washed.” The crowd may have been referring to the blood bath, but to the Christian witness it was a clear reference to martyrdom as a second baptism. “Truly,” he says, “it was well with him who had washed in this wise.”
Much consideration goes into the choice of a fitting beast for the women. The narrator says, “The devil had made ready a most savage cow, prepared for this purpose against all custom; for even in this beast he would mock their sex.” The reference to the devil is reminiscent of her dream when she realizes that she is battling not the beasts but the devil. Other references to the dream emerge, as the women are brought out into the arena naked, except for a net. The body displayed is not that of a man but of “a tender girl,” and Felicity is beside her, a nursing mother having given birth only a day earlier. The crowd “shuddered” at the sight of the women and sent them back to be clothed in loose robes.
Now that the sensibilities of the crowd are satisfied, the women are left to face the “savage cow.” The crowd is watching intently the behavior of Christians in the arena, and most especially this Christian noblewoman and her maid. The narrator describes and interprets what they saw. Perpetua is thrown first and “when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful rather of modesty than of pain. Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her disheveled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory.” That is the eyewitness speaking, describing her actions and reading her motives. He may not be far off. How does a Christian woman die? Not with rent robes and disheveled hair, as if she were in sorrow, but with hair pinned up and dressed for this moment of victory and glory. When she stands, she sees her maid, a slave woman, fallen, and “she went up and gave her hand and raised her up. And both of them stood together.” Once again, social order is reversed and the mistress raises up her slave as her sister in Christ and they stand side by side. In Christ there is no slave nor free. The watching crowd sees a diorama of a new world order.
Be Not Offended Because of Our Passion
Perpetua goes back to the Gate of Life for a reprieve. There some Christians wait for her and stand by her side. She seems to be “awakening from sleep,” possibly from shock, or as the narrator explains, “in the Spirit and in ecstasy,” not remembering anything that has happened. She asks when they are to be thrown to the beast and is convinced that this has already been done only when she sees “some marks of mauling on her body and on her dress.” She calls her brother and speaks three words of wisdom before she is taken to the platform to be killed by the sword. She says, “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion.” Christians were apparently invited to be there for a close up view of the suffering of the martyrs to dissuade them from the faith. “Be not offended because of our passion,” says Perpetua. The effect was far from what the Romans anticipated. Rather than frightening them away, the courage and peace of the martyrs confirmed them in the faith. The ones to change were often the pagan witnesses, soldiers and prison officials, who saw the example of the martyrs and were drawn to their faith.
The martyrs have one more chance to demonstrate the nature of their faith, as they go to the platform to receive the final stroke of the sword. With all the crowd as witnesses, they kiss each other, “that they might accomplish their martyrdom with the rites of peace.” Perpetua is executed by an inexperienced swordsman who hits her on the collarbone causing her to cry out and then place the sword in the proper place at her throat. The narrator says, “Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it.”
A strange victory it is to be victorious in death, but that is the way of this new kingdom. The devil is defeated. The power of the old order is doomed. The spectators saw the beginnings of something new, a kingdom signified by love, joy, courage, and the kiss of peace. They saw people who could not be intimidated or separated from the Lord they loved. No wonder Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” We must remember this story. It tells of God’s powerful acts in the early days of the Christian church. It tells of God’s victory through our sister Perpetua.
Beverly Beem is Professor of English at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.
[i] “The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity 203,” Medieval Source Book. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/perpetua.html . Searching the title should bring up several different translations.
[ii] Joyce E. Salisbury, Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman (New York: Routledge, 1997), 5-7.
[iii] Joseph J. Walsh, ed., What Would You Die For?: Perpetua’s Passion (Baltimore: Apprentice House, 2005), 65.
[iv] “Martyr, Martyrdom,” Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, edited by Everett Ferguson (New York: Garland, 1990).
[v] The dreams of Perpetua and Saturus are a rich subject of study in themselves, especially in their use of baptismal imagery in the depiction of martyrdom.