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Perpetua: One of Church History's Greatest Female Martyrs

Updated on May 10, 2019
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I remember hearing when I was very young that not long after the invention of the printing press, most Christians owned three books: The Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Over time, we have lost a sense of urgency in our Christian faith and ceased telling the stories of the martyrs. The voices of our comforts and luxuries seem to have drowned out the past. We Christians, as a whole, have forgotten those who went before us, suffering and dying for the same faith we often practice only on Sunday mornings. For early believers, faith was not something confined to a church building or a solitary day of the week; faith was something which defined their lives and even their deaths. Christians must remember and regain the dedication these martyrs possessed by rehearsing their stories until we know them by heart.


Of all the martyrs in Christian history, Perpetua of Carthage stands out as an inspiration that reaches across centuries to touch our own hearts and lives. Her story plays remarkably well into her own era touching on themes of the day, and yet we find her death to be no less phenomenal today. Unfortunately for the 21st century American church, Perpetua’s story has not been told with the same repetition as Polycarp’s or Peter’s. However, if we dust off the history books and allow ourselves to rediscover the story of this remarkable woman, we will find ourselves as inspired by her as her contemporaries were.


Also, the story of Perpetua ought to have a special place in a woman’s heart. Some have held her up as a prime example of early feminism; however, this is not the legacy I believe Perpetua meant to leave us. Perpetua’s legacy, as it relates to women, should be considered one of daring faith and a tenacity to cling only to Christ as her sole hope. Women tend to have a horizontal view of life. We can get lost in the practicality of day-to-day living and sometimes forget to look up. Perpetua’s life and death should be a reminder to women that we, too, must look up to Christ, the hope of our salvation.

Perpetua’s own Passion Narrative gives us a small window into the life of early Christians, specifically in North Africa. Through her diary, we can see the flow of her thoughts, the record of the dreams she had and, eventually, the account of her death that was added later on. Her story has been deemed accurate, even by most liberal scholar; however, the internet is jammed full of varying accounts, misquotations and absurd claims. Very little scholarly work has been written about this woman.


Brian Litfin, in chapter five of Getting to Know the Church Father’s: An Evangelical Introduction, provides an accurate overview of Perpetua’s life and even an excerpt of her diary. He covers most of the important points, but his work is more of a sampler than anything else. He takes the story from a Christian perspective and is thus able to tie Perpetua’s life to our own. He also places her squarely in the center of a volume about the Fathers of Christendom, tying her contribution to theirs as well

Joyce Salisbury, in her work Perpetua’s Passion, the Life and Death of a Young Roman Woman, gives a more secular perspective on Perpetua’s story. Her work is extremely well researched, and her citations are extensive and well-documented. She provides much of the background information used in this paper. However, since Salisbury’s work is primarily historical/unspiritual, it looks at the story through the dimmed glasses of secularism. Her worldview is clearly unbiblical, and she demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Word of God, yet she does a masterful job of presenting Perpetua’s significance to different people of different centuries. Rather than ending the story at Perpetua’s death, Salisbury continues with another chapter discussing the implications and results of Perpetua’s death.

In What Would You Die For? Perpetua’s Passion by Joseph J. Walsh, there is a much simpler account of the life of this great lady. Walsh chooses to keep things plain to merely introduce the heroine and then let her speak in her own words. With half introduction and half foot-noted diary by Perpetua herself, Walsh’s work is a masterful biography which uniquely allows the main character to tell her own story. Taken together, Walsh’s simple commentary and Salisbury’s intricate historical biography temper each other, giving us an insightful picture of the life of Perpetua. This sums up the significant, intellectual non-fiction that has been written about Perpetua.


One reason I believe there is little written about Perpetua (and much of what is available is fictitious) is that in the day it was written, exaggeration was considered a normal quality even in “historical” literature. “The Passion of Perpetua, despite its dream visions and considerable drama, is almost universally considered to be authentic.”[1] And this is where we must begin- with authenticity, for a biographical piece based on inauthentic material is all but irrelevant and on par with children’s tales. However, if it is authentic, then the impact of the story is immeasurable. And that is how we will approach Perpetua’s recorded story. Is it flawlessly accurate? Unlikely. Authentic? Yes.


Perpetua’s own words are contained in her diary. Originally written in Latin, Walsh adds both the Latin and the English translations to his biography. Obviously, Perpetua did not write the account of her own death, and the author who completed and compiled the work remains unknown. Suggestions for authorship have been one of Perpetua’s brothers or even Tertullian, the church, father himself.


One reason Tertullian makes a good candidate for authorship is that he corresponded with Perpetua and her companions while they were in prison, encouraging them to keep the faith and not waver in the face of fear and temptation. Walsh chooses to assume Tertullian authorship whereas Salisbury merely suggests it. Whatever the case, the diary is a masterpiece of early Christian literature.


Also, the fact that Perpetua herself is the author of her own story must not be underestimated. Yes, at this time in history, particularly in the Roman Empire, women were being educated. However, the perseveration of the work for future generations is noteworthy. Few martyrs (male or female) left us their own stories in their own words. Perpetua writes with a special grace and elegance as she describes what was going on. Emotion, though having its place in her writing, does not override the entire piece. She is temperate, controlled and deliberate even in her descriptions of her father’s dramatic and emotionally wrought visits. Her attention to detail and beauty is especially present in the record of her three visions.


Biographically, almost nothing is known about Perpetua’s early life. We do know she came from a somewhat wealthy noble family. She had a brother who died at a young age from cancer (he is mentioned in one of her prison dreams), and her father, mother and two remaining brothers were all alive at the time of her trial and execution. She lived in Carthage, North Africa, in the late second century. At this point, the Roman Empire was far-reaching and enormously powerful. The emperor of the day was the wicked Septimus Severus who provides a fitting antagonist for the story. Her people, the Carthaginians were well educated and conformed to the Roman way of life, though they retained their own national identity.


Culturally, in the 200’s A.D., the Imperial Cult was flourishing; this was likely part of the reason for her arrest and the arrest of her companions Revocatus, Felicity, Saturninus and Secundulus. According to her diary, she was born to a “highly respectable family…also liberally educated and properly married.”[2] This means that Perpetua’s family would have practiced the sacrifice to the emperor’s “genius” on a yearly basis. No doubt, before her conversion she, too, had practiced it as was expected of all Roman citizens.


Another important piece of background is that in that day women were treated with the respect due them. Several parts of Perpetua’s account point to this. Motherhood was highly revered in the Roman Empire, and both Felicity and Perpetua were mothers. Felicity, when arrested was still pregnant, and Perpetua was recently relieved of her child. Eventually, both children were given into the care of their families while the women were in prison. Also, when taken into the amphitheater, the onlookers were offended at the sight of the indecently clothed women and required that they be redressed before being returned to face their deaths.


Perpetua’s diary picks up near the time of her arrest, and so, because that is where the historically reliable information begins, that is where I too will begin. The names of her fellow prisoners are noted, as well as the fact that her family was alive at the time. Interestingly enough, one of her brothers was a catechumen himself,[3] and he was not arrested with the others. After a brief prologue by the unknown author, Perpetua tells us her story.


She begins with the account of one of her father’s prison visits. In trying to dissuade her from holding fast to her new faith, her father leaves the bounds of propriety and vigorously begs her to recant. In the culture of the day, her father’s behavior stands out as particularly unusual. However, his arguments fall on deaf ears. In a famously known dialogue, Perpetua points to a water pitcher and says, “Can you call it anything other than what it is?” “No,” replies her father. “Well, I cannot call myself anything but what I am, a Christian.”[4]


As a young Roman girl, Perpetua would have been placed at her father’s feet shortly after her birth. If he consented, she would live. If he refused her, she would be left outside to die. Thus would begin the cherished familial tie of a father and the daughter he allowed to live. She bore his family name of “Vibii” and was educated because of his resources. Her refusal to recant would have shaken him to the core, for in bearing the name of “Christian” she was turning away the name of “Vibii.” She chose to identify herself with her new Christian family instead of her earthly family.


Perpetua’s renouncing of the role of mother is also significant. When her father begged that she renounce her faith for the sake of her son, she refused. The intimate love of a mother for her child is one of the strongest bonds in all of humanity. The fact that Perpetua was willing to cut even that tie shows that her faith in Christ was stronger still than even the strongest human connection. Perpetua’s courage extended beyond the walls of the amphitheater even to the point of cutting her ties to of her family.


Some have pointed to these two severed relationships as evidence that Perpetua’s Passion is meant to be taken as an apology for feminism; however, this is absurd. Augustine, in an attempt to combat this potential mistake, presents the story in the context of femininity.[5] Alas, rather than abiding by the strict account presented in the diary, Salisbury feels that Augustine had to add to the text to make his argument.[6] Whatever the case, it does not seem that Perpetua viewed victory as a martyr as a win for women everywhere. Instead, she seems to remain indifferent to the effect of her gender upon her story and simply tells us her account. She does not boast in her severed family ties nor in any way attempt to write an apologetic for women leaving their families in favor of their faith. I choose to let Perpetua speak for herself under the assumption that if that was what she meant to say, that is what she would have said.


Next, Perpetua describes her visions. Her first vision seems to be the direct result of a prayer offered to God and requested by her brother, the catechumen. Again, Perpetua’s legacy has been somewhat stretched in this area in order to promote Montanism. This idea is nearly as absurd as the feminist one. Though the Montanists of the period saw dreams and vision as an integral part of their teachings on ecstatic utterances and prophecies, Perpetua speaks no words that would either confirm nor deny this belief system. She merely tells us the dreams that she believes were from God.


Interestingly, Salisbury notes that people of the third century “believed the spirit wandered free during sleep.”[7] Whether her dream was merely her subconscious wandering along a path of memories and thoughts of the future or a direct revelation sent from God to encourage her, we’ll never know. Salisbury asserts that her dreams may well have been influenced by the knowledge she already had of the Roman system of execution.[8] Living in Carthage, no doubt she had a working knowledge of what went on in the arena, if not an eyewitness understanding.


Her first dream is one of her assent into heaven. In it, she sees a narrow ladder with sharp and frightening weapons on both sides.[9] Climbing up the ladder to heaven, she steps directly upon a serpent’s head, which to her symbolized Satan. Once she reached heaven, she was given milk from a sheep and noticed thousands of people who had gone before her. At the sound of the throng saying, “Amen,” she awoke to find a sweet taste still in her mouth.[10] She found this dream to be very encouraging and, apparently, she took it signify that she would die in the arena.


After another visit by her anguished father, Perpetua and her companions stood trial before Hilinarianus. Even when urged to perform the imperial sacrifice for the sake of her baby, she refused and was condemned along with her companions. Once again in prison, Perpetua had another vision, this time of her younger brother Dinocrates who had died years previously. She seems to believe that he was in purgatory, suffering of thirst.[11] Upon waking, she continued in prayer for the deceased Dinocrates and then had another vision in which she found him to be much more comfortable. Is this a demonstration of an early Christian understanding of purgatory, or was it the maternal instincts of a young woman recently deprived of her own child manifesting themselves? Again, we’ll never know for certain.


A few days later, on the eve of her execution, Perpetua had yet another vision. In this vision, she found herself already in the arena. However, she was miraculously transformed into a male for the event. (Another point upon which the feminists have a heyday.) After fighting with a gigantic Egyptian who, to Perpetua, represents Satan himself, she finds herself victorious and is taken back through the Gate of Life. Of her dream, she says: “I understood, then, that I was not going to fight against beasts, but against the devil. And I knew that I would defeat him.”[12]

Here, we see Perpetua setting her face towards her upcoming execution and not wavering when she could easily have recanted. Rather, she chose to face the beasts knowing that the result of her death would be everlasting life with her Savior. She joins the ranks of Christian martyrs everywhere who chose to face unimaginable deaths for the sake of their faith. Little could Perpetua have known that so many thousands would come after her.


After the record of her own visions, she apparently allowed her fellow prisoner Saturus to include a record of his own vision. His vision was much along the same vein as Perpetua’s. In it, he saw the glories of heaven as he and Perpetua entered it. No doubt, this must have comforted him as well because he must certainly have been dealing with his own fears. This is the final vision recorded in Perpetua’s diary.

Around this time, Felicity had been praying that she would give birth. Interestingly enough, Felicity was very concerned in being able to be executed with her friends rather than left to die alone. Because of Rome’s respect for the position of motherhood, women who were pregnant were never executed until after they had given birth. Felicity was only in her eight month, and she knew that the execution of her fellow prisoners was to take place much before she was due to give birth.


Together, the friends prayed that Felicity would give birth so that they would not have to “leave behind so outstanding a companion to travel alone the path of a shared hope.”[13] This is only one example of the fellowship the martyrs shared. Social status did not matter to them, only their brotherhood in Christ. Though Felicity was a mere servant, and a woman at that, her companions viewed her as having equal status in the Lord. Just as Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (ESV)


Immediately after their prayer, Felicity gave birth to her child, one month prematurely. It is obvious that this was an act of God caring for one of His children. The baby girl was given into the care of Felicity’s sister who “raised her as her own daughter.”[14] When mocked by one of the soldiers for experiencing such pain in childbirth and thus not being able to suffer with dignity in the arena, Felicity responded, “What I suffer now, I suffer alone. But in the arena another will be in me, and that one will suffer on my behalf, since I am going to suffer on his.”[15]


On the day that they were to be executed, the martyrs walked together to the amphitheater. According to the narrator of her diary, Perpetua and her companions “with their usual steadfastness…hurled words at the crowd, threatening them with God’s judgment, presenting as proof their joy at their own suffering…”[16] Arriving at the arena they were forced to wear costumes. This was the usual custom for execution. Salisbury points out that often, rather than simply performing gladiatorial contests, the arena was used for theatrical performances involving the execution of criminals.[17] Often, these took place on the birthdays of rulers and often reenacted the stories of famous mythological characters. [18]


Perpetua’s execution was on the occasion of Septimus Severus’ birthday celebration. This would, perhaps, explain the garb that Perpetua and her companions were required to wear. However, they resisted saying, “We have come here of our own will precisely so as not to have our freedom crushed; we resigned our lives precisely so as not to have to do something like this.”[21] At this, they were permitted to enter the arena in their original clothing. After they had been beaten by the animal fighters, they rejoiced because they were allowed to suffer on the Lord’s behalf. It is mentioned in the account that Saturnus was very much afraid of being eaten by the beasts and so that is exactly what he desired so that he could “wear an even more glorious crown.” His wish was granted, and Saturnus and Revocatus faced both a leopard and a bear. Revocatus met his death in this manner, but neither one injured Saturnus to the point of death. Instead, he was tied to a wild boar which gored its trainer who died a few days later. Saturnus, yet unharmed by the boar, the leopard or the bear (which simply refused to leave its cage) was returned through the Lifegate to await execution.


Perpetua and Felicity were brought out to meet their fate at the mercy of an angry heifer. In a particularly interesting and well-known account of the story, Perpetua was tossed up into the air by the heifer. When she landed, her robe was torn indecently, and her hair became disheveled. In an act that surprises modern readers nearly as much as it must have surprised the onlookers, instead of reacting in fear, Perpetua sat up and straightened her robe “more mindful of her modesty than of her pain,”[22] and she asked for a pin to tie up her hair.


Still alive, both women were also called back through the Lifegate. According to the account, Perpetua at this point, awoke from a kind of trance. Litfin refers to it as a “heightened state of spiritual communion.”[23] Even from her secular view, Salisbury notes, “Whatever the physiological explanation there might be to account for the martyrs’ state, within the context of late Roman culture, the state of ecstasy indicated the presence of the Holy Spirit.”[24] She also compares it to that of Blandina, another female martyr who died a similar death.[25]


Their ordeal nearing the end, the martyrs were brought out to a platform to be finished off in public, an unusual act for the context of the day. Saturnus, who had lost so much blood, was no longer conscious and had been placed with the rest of those near death to have his throat cut. However, the young man who was to execute Perpetua missed when he swung at her head and instead severely pierced her near the collar bone. Perpetua cried out in pain. Yet, in an extreme act of poise and grace, Perpetua guided his blade to her throat and the shaking young man successfully finished his work.


It is noted that Perpetua died in much the same spirit as Dido, queen of Carthage who, according to mythology killed herself.[26] The moral of Dido’s story is that the woman was not able to die until she herself willed it. This was part of the oral tradition of the day, and a death met bravely was a sign of extreme honor. No doubt, the onlookers must have remembered their own traditions as they saw Perpetua die with such dignity.


So what is the historical impact of Perpetua’s life? Honestly, it is fairly limited. This is unfortunate, for as our culture has lost its Christian heritage, it has lost the stories of the martyrs who lived and died to create that heritage. When did parents stop telling their children about these remarkable individuals? Also, Perpetua’s story has been drowned out to some extent by the numerous other martyrologies.


As is the case with many saints, Perpetua has been given a feast day. She shares it with Felicity, her companion on July 10. According to the Catholic tradition, Perpetua and Felicity “watch over all mothers and children who are separated by war or persecution.”[27] Catholics pray to them, requesting that all women who are imprisoned will have the courage to follow their examples and keep the faith,, regardless of temptation.


The cult of the saints, offers us an excellent example of the meaning that Perpetua bears for women, specifically. With so many things to occupy our minds and our hands during the day, and numerous distractions all waging war for attention inside our heads, Perpetua provides a shining example of a life lived with an upward focus. Even when we are rushing through our day to accomplish everything that must be done, we need to remember that only when we look upward into the eyes of our Savior will our accomplishments have any meaning.


Like many of the martyrs who went before and came after her, Perpetua died with a grace and dignity with which many of us cannot even live, let alone die. Dying in the arena, her death must have been a stark contrast to the criminals who died with fear. Also, her death demonstrated far more bravery than the cowards who sat in the seats cheering for it. Her self-control in presenting herself to the sword displayed the same courage as even the most well-trained gladiator, condemned to die. She set an example that we should all imitate.


Litfin cites Tertullian in his summary as saying, “The more we are mown down by you [pagans], the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed… Christians are teachers not just by their words, but by their deeds.”[28] And so, what lessons can we as 21st Century Americans learn from Perpetua’s life and death? We must be grateful and remember those whose deaths sowed the seeds of our faith. And we must learn their stories and live our lives with the same courage with which our spiritual ancestors died.


Bibliography:

Joseph J. Walsh. What Would You Die For?: Perpetua's Passion. Baltimore: Apprentice House, 2005. Print.

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007. Print.

Salisbury, Joyce E. Perpetua's Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Works Cited:

ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Print

Joseph J. Walsh. What Would You Die For?: Perpetua's Passion. Baltimore: Apprentice House, 2005. Print.

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007. Print.

Salisbury, Joyce E. Perpetua's Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

"Saw 3D: The Final Chapter." IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 03 May 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1477076/>.

"Sts. Perpetua and Felicity." - Saints & Angels. Web. 04 May 2012. <http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=48>.



[1] Joseph J. Walsh. What Would You Die For?: Perpetua's Passion. Baltimore: Apprentice House, 2005. Print., page 7

[2] Joseph J. Walsh and Allender, Caitlin A., "The Translation (English)." What Would You Die For?: Perpetua's Passion. Baltimore: Apprentice House, 2005. Print., page 63

[3] Walsh, 63

[4] Walsh, 65

[5] Salisbury, Joyce E. Perpetua's Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print., Page 175

[6] Salisbury, 174

[7] Salisbury, 99

[8] Salisbury, 100

[9] Walsh, 68

[10] Walsh, 71

[11] Walsh, 75

[12] Walsh, 82

[13] Walsh, 87

[14] Walsh, 87

[15] Walsh, 87

[16] Walsh, 88

[17] Salisbury, 132

[18] Salisbury, 132

[19] Salisbury, 132

[20] "Saw 3D: The Final Chapter." IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 03 May 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1477076/>.

[21] Walsh, 90

[22] Walsh, 92

[23] Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007. Print., 134

[24] Salisbury, 144

[25] Salisbury, 144

[26] Salisbury, 147

[27] "Sts. Perpetua and Felicity." - Saints & Angels. Web. 04 May 2012. <http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=48>.

[28] Litfin, 135


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