"It will all happen in the prisoner's dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power."
The date is AAD 202 and the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, has just enacted a law prohibiting the spread of Christianity and Judaism throughout the Roman empire.
Alarmed by the steady growth of Christianity (which may have been as much as 40% per decade throughout the second century), Emperor Septimius hopes his decree will contain the Christian threat and strengthen his kingdom.
While persecution was nothing new to Christians in the early third century, this was the first time there was a universal decree forbidding conversion. If someone was discovered to have become a Christian, the choice offered by the emperor was simple: either curse Jesus and make an offering to the Roman gods or be executed.
“Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before our eyes,” observed Clement of Alexandria, describing conditions during the “terrible reign” of Severus.
Perpetua and Felicity (died 7 March 203) are Christian martyrs of the 3rd century. Perpetua (born in 181) was a 22-year old married noble, and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, an expectant mother, was her bond-servant. They suffered together at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.
The Passion of Perpetua, Felicitas, and their Companions is said to preserve the actual words of the martyrs and their friends. According to this Passion, in the year 203, during the persecutions of the emperor Septimius Severus, five catechumens, Perpetua and Felicity among them, were arrested for their faith and executed.
The text as recorded in the Passio SS Perpetuae et Felicitatis claims to contain the autobiographical account of Perpetua, edited and/or commented on by Tertullian.
The group consisted of a slave named Revocatus, his fellow slave Felicitas, two free men (Saturninus and Secundulus), and Perpetua. Perpetua's father was a pagan, her mother and two brothers Christians, one of the brothers being a catechumen.
These five prisoners were soon joined by Saturus, who seems to have been their catechist and who now chose to share their punishment. Initially, they were all kept under strict guard in a private house.
Perpetua wrote a vivid account of what happened. Their sufferings while in prison, the angry and increasingly desperate attempts of Perpetua's father to induce her to renounce Christianity, the vicissitudes of the martyrs before their execution, the visions of Saturus and Perpetua in their dungeons, were all committed to writing by the last two, in a genre of text called a "Passion".
Their date of their martyrdom is traditionally given as 203. The association of the martyrdom with a birthday festival of the Emperor Geta, however, might seem to place it after 209, when Geta was made "Augustus" (having held the junior title Caesar since 198 when his elder brother had been made "Augustus"),
though before 211, when he was assassinated.
The Acta notes that the martyrdom occurred in the year when Minucius Timinianus was proconsul in the Roman province of Africa, but as Timinianus is not otherwise attested in history, this information does not clarify the date.
The Golden Legend, however, places the martyrdom in 256, under the emperors Valerian and Gallienus.
The details of the martyrdoms survive in both Latin and Greek texts (see below). Perpetua's account of events leading to their death, apparently historical, is written in the first person, the grounds for considering it the earliest surviving text written by a Christian woman.
After a brief introduction (chapters i–ii), the narrative and visions of Perpetua (iii–1x) are followed by the vision of Saturus (xi–xiii); the account of their deaths, written by an eyewitness, are appended (xiv–xxi).
By order of Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211), all imperial subjects were forbidden under severe penalties to become Christians or Jews. Only recent converts were affected.
As a result, all five were seized and cast into prison, but before being led away, they were baptized.
According to her "Acta", the terrors of imprisonment were increased for Perpetua by anxiety for her unweaned child.
Two deacons succeeded in gaining admittance by bribing the jailer, and Perpetua's mother brought Perpetua's son in her arms, whom she was permitted to nurse and keep with her, "and straightway I became well and was lightened of my labour and care for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me."
A vision assured her of her approaching martyrdom: Perpetua saw herself treading on a dragon's head and ascending a perilous bronze ladder leading to green meadows, where a flock of sheep was grazing.
According to the "Acta", a few days later Perpetua's father, hearing that the trial of the imprisoned Christians would soon take place, again visited their dungeon and besought her not to bring this disgrace on their name; but Perpetua remained steadfast.
The next day the trial of the six took place, before the Procurator Hilarianus.
All six resolutely confessed their Christian faith. Perpetua's father, carrying her child in his arms, approached her again and attempted, for the last time, to induce her to apostatize; the procurator also remonstrated with her, but in vain.
She refused to sacrifice to the gods.
The procurator thereupon had the father removed by force; in the process he was beat with a whip.
The Christians were then condemned to be torn to pieces by wild beasts, for which they gave thanks to God.
In a vision Perpetua saw her brother Dinocrates, who had died from a disfiguring disease and unbaptized at the early age of seven, in a place of darkness and distress. She prayed for him and later had a vision of him happy and healthy, his disfigurement only a scar.
In another apparition, she apparently saw herself defeating a savage Egyptian, and her interpretation of this was that she would have to do battle not merely with wild beasts but with the Devil himself.
Saturus, who also recorded his visions, saw himself and Perpetua transported eastward by four angels to a beautiful garden, where they met with four other North African Christians who had suffered martyrdom during the same persecution, viz. Jocundus, Saturninus, Artaius, and Quintus.
He also saw in this vision Bishop Optatus of Carthage and the priest Aspasius, who besought the martyrs to arrange a reconciliation between them.
Meanwhile, the birthday of Emperor Geta approached, on which occasion the condemned Christians were to fight with wild beasts in the military games; they were therefore transferred to the prison in the camp.
Perpetua had another significant vision as well, which repeated the first. In this vision, Perpetua saw a ladder leading to heaven. At the bottom of the ladder was a serpent, attacking the Christians trying to climb the ladder to heaven. From this vision Perpetua claimed that she would have to fight Satan rather than just the beast of the arena.
Furthermore, she learned that she would not be defeated in her quest and was defiantly confident.
Pudens, their gaoler, had come to respect his charges, and he permitted other Christians to visit them. Perpetua's father was also admitted and made another fruitless attempt to dissuade her from her impending matyrdom.
Secundulus died in prison. Felicitas, who was eight months pregnant, was apprehensive that she would not be permitted to suffer martyrdom with the others, since the law forbade the execution of pregnant women, but two days before the games she gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted by a Christian woman.
On the day of the games, the five were led into the amphitheatre.
At the demand of the crowd they were first scourged;
Then a wild boar, a bear, and a leopard, were set on the men, and a wild cow on the women.
Wounded by the wild animals - but not to death. They gave each other the kiss of peace and were then put to the sword.
"But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain had she not herself so willed it." So end the Acta.
Their bodies were interred at Carthage.
Mosaic of Saint Perpetua, Croatia.
In Carthage a magnificent basilica was afterwards erected over the tomb of the martyrs, the Basilica Maiorum, where an ancient inscription bearing the names of Perpetua and Felicitas has been found.
Saints Felicitas and Perpetua (mentioned in that order) are two of seven women commemorated by name in the second part of the Canon of the Mass. The Blessed Virgin Mary is commemorated in the first part.
The feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 7 March, was celebrated even outside Africa, and is entered in the Philocalian Calendar, the 4th-century calendar of martyrs venerated publicly at Rome. When Saint Thomas Aquinas's feast was inserted into the Roman calendar, for celebration on the same day, the two African saints were thenceforth only commemorated.
This was the situation in the Tridentine Calendar established by Pope Pius V, and remained so until the year 1908, when Pope Pius X brought the date for celebrating them forward to 6 March.
In the 1969 reform of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas was moved, and that of Saint Perpetua and Felicity was restored to their traditional 7 March date, but traditionalist Catholics continue to follow the 1908-1969 General Roman Calendar.
Other Churches, including the Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church, commemorate these two martyrs on 7 March, never having altered the date to 6 March.
The Anglican Church of Canada, however, commemorates them on 6 March (The Book of Common Prayer, 1962).
In the Eastern Orthodox Church the feast day of Saints Perpetua of Carthage and the catechumens Saturus, Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus, and Felicitas is February 1.
Controversy over Dinocrates
The account of St Perpetua comforting her dead brother has been a point of controversy. The text specifically says that the child had not been baptized. Renatus used this account to bolster his claim that unbaptized infants could attain paradise, if not the kingdom of heaven.
Augustine in turn proposed an explanation for how Dinocrates could have been baptized but later estranged from Christ by his pagan father.
In popular culture
The once-flowering rambling rose "Félicité et Perpétue" (R. sempervirens x 'Old Blush') with palest pinks buds opening nearly white, was introduced by Robert Jacques in 1828.
Two historical fiction novels have been written from the point of view of Perpetua. Amy Peterson's Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, A Passion (ISBN 978-0972927642) was published in 2004, and Malcolm Lyon's The Bronze Ladder (ISBN 978-1905237517) in 2006.
Bibliography - Books and articles
Butler, Rex: The New Prophecy and "New Visions": Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas: Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press: 2006: ISBN 0-8132-1455-6
Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages. Cambridge, 1984.
Maitland, Sara (introduction): The Martyrdom of Perpetua: Evesham: Arthur James: 1996: ISBN 0-85305-352-9
Nolan, Edward: Cry Out and Write: A Feminine Poetics of Revelation: New York: Continuum: 1994: ISBN 0-8264-0684-X
Robeck, Cecil: Prophecy in Carthage: Perpetua, Tertullian and Cyprian: Cleveland: Pilgrim Press: 1992: ISBN 0-8298-0924-4
Ronsse, Erin Ann: Rhetoric of martyrs: Transmission and reception history of the "Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas". Ph.D. diss., University of Victoria (Canada), 2008, 438 pages; AAT NR40485
Salisbury, Joyce: Perpetua's Passion: New York: Routledge: 1997:ISBN 0-415-91837-5
von Franz, Marie-Louise: The Passion of Perpetua: A Psychological Interpretation of Her Visions: Toronto: Inner City Books: 2004: ISBN 1-894574-11-7
Perpetua: Early Church Martyr (2009) - documentary.
Torchlighters: The Perpetua Story (2009) - animated DVD for children ages 8–12.
1.^ a b Great Synaxaristes: (Greek) Ἡ Ἁγία Περπέτουα ἡ Μάρτυς καὶ οἱ σὺν αὐτῇ. 1 Φεβρουαρίου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
2.^ a b Martyr Perpetua, a woman of Carthage. OCA - Feasts and Saints.
3.^ Hayman, Henry (November 1892). "Some Notes on 'The Passion of St. Perpetua' etc.". The Classical Review 6 (9): 386–7.
4.^ de Voragine, Jacobus (1995). William Granger Ryan. ed. The golden legend: readings on the saints. Volume II. Princeton UP. pp. 342–43. ISBN 9780691001548. Retrieved 23 October 2010.
5.^ Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist, History of World Christian Movement (Orbis Books. Maryknoll, NY, 2001), 82-83
6.^ "Calendarium Romanum" (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 89
7.^ "Calendarium Romanum" (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 119
8.^ Church Fathers Volume 14 Augustin
9.^ Its French equivalent name is R. 'Noisette'.
10.^ Robert Jacques was director of horticulture for King Louis-Philippe.
11.^ Marie-Thérèse Haudebourg, Roses et jardins Hachette, ISBN 2-01-236947-2, p.177
The Passion of St. Perpetua in the original Latin and Greek text (with dictionary lookup links). The complete text at www.earlychurchtexts.com.
"Sts. Felicitas and Perpetua". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
Early Christian Writings: Acts of Perpetua
Medieval Sourcebook: The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. From W.H. Shewring, trans. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, (London: 1931), modernized.
Henry Wace, A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D. 1911
Patron Saints Index: St. Felicity
Episcopal Church Lectionary: Lessons for the Feast of Perpetua and Felicity page 223 of saint perpetua
We have little idea what brought Perpetua to faith in Christ, or how long she had been a Christian, or how she lived her Christian life. Thanks to her diary, and that of another prisoner, we have some idea of her last days — an ordeal that so impressed the famous Augustine that he preached four sermons about her death.
Perpetua was a young Christian woman - of noble birth and quite well to do, who live at the turn of the century from the 100'as to AD-200.
Perpetua lived with her husband and her son in Carthage Northern Africa, which is modern Tunis (they just overthrew their dictator in "Arab Spring" in AD-2011)
In the Days of Perpetua, North Africa was the center of a vibrant Christian community. It is no surprise, then, that when Emperor Septimius Severus determined to cripple Christianity (he believed it undermined Roman patriotism), he focused his attention on North Africa.
Among the first to be arrested were five new Christians taking classes to prepare for baptism, one of whom was Perpetua.
Her father immediately came to her in prison.
He was not a Christian and he saw an easy way for Perpetua to save herself: just deny she was a Christian. He entreated her earnestly to do this and live and love her husband and raise her son.
"Father do you see this vase here?" she replied. "Could it be called by any other name than what it is?"
"No," he replied.
"Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian."Timeline
Martyrdom of Justin Martyr
Montanist movement begins
Bishop Hippolytus of Rome is martyred
In the next days, Perpetua was moved to a better part of the prison and allowed to breast-feed her child. With her hearing approaching, her father visited again, this time, pleading more passionately: "Have pity on my gray head. Have pity on me, your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favored you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life."
He threw himself down before her and kissed her hands. "Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers; think of your mother and your aunt; think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride!"
Perpetua was touched but remained unshaken. She tried to comfort her father—"It will all happen in the prisoner's dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power"—but he walked out of the prison dejected.
The day of the hearing arrived, Perpetua and her friends were marched before the governor, Hilarianus. Perpetua's friends were questioned first, and each in turn admitted to being a Christian, and each in turn refused to make a sacrifice (an act of emperor worship).
Then the governor turned to question Perpetua.
At that moment, her father, carrying Perpetua's son in his arms, burst into the room. He grabbed Perpetua and pleaded, "Perform the sacrifice. Have pity on your baby!"
Hilarianus, probably wishing to avoid the unpleasantness of executing a mother who still suckled a child, added,
"Have pity on your father's gray head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperor."
Perpetua replied simply: "I will not."
"Are you a Christian then?" asked the governor.
"Yes I am," Perpetua replied.
Her father interrupted again, begging her to sacrifice, but Hilarianus had heard enough: he ordered soldiers to beat him into silence. He then condemned Perpetua and her friends to die in the arena.
Perpetua, her friends, and her slave, Felicitas (who had subsequently been arrested), were dressed in belted tunics. When they entered the stadium, wild beasts and gladiators roamed the arena floor, and in the stands, crowds roared to see blood. They didn't have to wait long.
Immediately a wild heifer charged the group. Perpetua was tossed into the air and onto her back. She sat up, adjusted her ripped tunic to cover her nakedness, and walked over to help Felicitas.
Then a leopard was let loose, and it wasn't long before the tunics of the Christians were stained with blood.
This was too deliberate for the impatient crowd, which began calling for death for the Christians. So Perpetua, Felicitas, and friends were lined up, and one by one, were slain by the sword.
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