Perpetua and Felicitas

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Perpetua and Felicitas

Saints and Christian martyrs.

Perpetua (181–203). Name variations: Vibia Perpetua. Born in Thuburbo, a small town in northern Africa, in 181; executed on March 7, 203, in the amphitheater at Carthage, an ancient city-state on the northern coast of Africa; probably married; children: at least one.

Felicitas (d. 203). Name variations: Felicita; Felicitas of Carthage. Executed on March 7, 203, in the amphitheater at Carthage; children: at least one.

Perpetua was born in Thuburbo, a small town in northern Africa, to a respectable, if not lofty, family. She was probably married, but perhaps not, for no husband is mentioned in the detailed account of the days leading up to her martyrdom. Regardless, she had an infant child when she was executed on March 7, 203, in the arena at Carthage, having several times publicly professed her Christianity. During Perpetua's lifetime, Christianity was technically illegal throughout the Roman Empire (although few then actually bothered to enforce the law) since it refused to acknowledge the official gods of the state whose worship was regarded as a demonstration of political loyalty. Thus, Perpetua's crime was a political one—she was guilty of treason. Unfortunately for Perpetua, Hilarianus (then governor of Africa) was not as tolerant as most of Christianity. Thus when it came to his attention that a group of Christian novitiates (of which Perpetua was one) had been unearthed, he saw to their arrest on capital charges. He gave those arrested several chances to prove their loyalty to the state by sacrificing to the traditional gods, but they did not do so. He therefore arranged to have them put to death during the games which he held to honor the birthday of the ruling emperor's (Septimius Severus) younger son, Geta. Probably, he meant thereby to attract the attention of the emperor. Septimius, however, was not known to be especially virulent in his treatment of Christians, and there is no evidence that Perpetua's death ever attracted his attention.

What has made the death of Perpetua so important over the ages is that she wrote a diary of her last days, now known as "The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas," which has come down to us (apparently) little altered by subsequent Christian editors. Thus, her account remains a vivid recollection of a tragic encounter between two very different religious perspectives. By her own account, Perpetua was arrested along with four others: Saturninus, Secundulus, Revocatus, and Felicitas. Saturninus and Secundulus were free males, while (the male) Revocatus and (the female) Felicitas were slaves whose masters are unknown. The mere fact that the free and the enslaved found some equality at the time within a Christian context is of some note, although Christianity was not the only salvation cult to disregard legal status when it came to religiosity. Perpetua and her friends had been religiously converted by one Saturus, who, although he was not with his recruits at the time of their arrest, freely gave himself up to the authorities when his disciples' incarceration became known.

Most of what follows is known from Perpetua's own hand. After she was arrested, her father tried to convince her before authorities to denounce her new faith. Far from being a callous pagan, her father felt genuine concern for her, although he clearly did not sympathize with her Christian inclinations as much as did her mother and one of her brothers. Perpetua's father made manifest his feelings for Perpetua in several visits before her execution, and he even made it known to her that she was his favorite child. What clearly emerges from Perpetua's account is that her father loved her, but that he was angered by what he thought was the brainwashing she had received from a dangerous and radical religious cult. (He even was subjected to physical abuse on her account when his advocacy on her behalf became too strident.) Perpetua's mother and a brother visited her regularly in jail; her father did less so, always in an attempt to get her to change her mind. Perpetua attributed these latter visits, however, to the work of the devil, and she never wavered in her devotion to Christianity, even when, on the day of her death, her father held up her baby to her gaze.

In prison, Perpetua was initially distraught by the separation from her baby, but eventually the two were reunited after some free Christian friends bribed her guards both to provide better accommodations for the incarcerated Christians and to allow Perpetua to see her infant regularly. (Why these friends were not also in jail on religious charges is unknown.) Perpetua was not the only mother in the group to face death, for Felicitas gave birth while in prison.

Perpetua recorded four dreams fraught with religious meaning while she was in prison. The first of these produced a vision of a narrow ladder which was fashioned out of bronze and studded with various impediments to upward progress. At the foot of this ladder lay a dragon. With Saturus leading the way, however, and in the name of Jesus Christ, Perpetua made her upward progress, finally to reach a garden occupied by thousands dressed in white to welcome her. Her second dream recalled a long-dead brother, whose current suffering (he not having embraced Christ) was made manifest to her. Her third vision recounted the same brother's cleansing and healing, both effected through her prayers. Finally, Perpetua anticipated her ordeal in the arena: after having been led into the coliseum by a deacon and before a huge crowd, Perpetua was transformed into a man and, with a Christ-like trainer at her side, proceeded to wrestle with an "Egyptian" over whom she was victorious.

Victorious she might have been in her dreams and/or in the next world, but Perpetua, along with Felicitas and their friends, died in the arena. A report of Perpetua's death had her first mauled by a cow (chosen especially because of its gender), although we are not told what was done to the animal to cause it to savage Perpetua. Death itself, apparently yearned for, was finally dealt by an armed gladiator.

suggested reading:

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

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California