The Passion of St. Perpetua

From The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas

From St. Perpetua Parish

A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. Her mother and father were still alive and one of her two brothers was a catechumen like herself. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast. (Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own, according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down.)

While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’

‘Yes, I do’, said he.

And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’

And he said: ‘No.’

‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’…

For a few days afterwards I gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was comforted by his absence. During these few days I was baptized, and I was inspired by the Spirit not to ask for any other favour after the water but simply the perseverance of the flesh. A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.

Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else…

A few days later there was a rumour that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me.

‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on my grey head–have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favoured you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. 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! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.’

This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer.

I tried to comfort him saying: ‘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.’

And he left me in great sorrow.

One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighbourhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner’s dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: ‘Perform the sacrifice–have pity on your baby!’

Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’

‘I will not’, I retorted.

‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus.

And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’

When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten…

Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits. But my baby had got used to being nursed at the breast and to staying with me in prison. So I sent the deacon Pomponius straight away to my father to ask for the baby. But father refused to give him over. But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts….

Now the day of the contest was approaching, and my father came to see me overwhelmed with sorrow. He started tearing the hairs from his beard and threw them on the ground; he then threw himself on the ground and began to curse his old age and to say such words as would move all creation. I felt sorry for his unhappy old age…

The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze…

They were then led up to the gates and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.

‘We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.’

Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were…

But he who said, Ask and you shall receive, answered their prayer by giving each one the death he had asked for. For whenever they would discuss among themselves their desire for martyrdom, Saturninus indeed insisted that he wanted to be exposed to all the different beasts, that his crown might be all the more glorious. And so at the outset of the contest he and Revocatus were matched with a leopard, and then while in the stocks they were attacked by a bear. As for Saturus, he dreaded nothing more than a bear, and he counted on being killed by one bite of a leopard. Then he was matched with a wild boar; but the gladiator who had tied him to the animal was gored by the boar and died a few days after the contest, whereas Saturus was only dragged along. Then when he was bound in the stocks awaiting the bear, the animal refused to come out of the cages, so that Saturus was called back once more unhurt.

For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.

First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.

Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life.

At another gate Saturus was earnestly addressing the soldier Pudens. ‘It is exactly’, he said, ‘as I foretold and predicted. So far not one animal has touched me. So now you may believe me with all your heart: I am going in there and I shall be finished off with one bite of the leopard.’ And immediately as the contest was coming to a close a leopard was let loose, and after one bite Saturus was so drenched with blood that as he came away the mob roared in witness to his second baptism: ‘Well washed! Well washed!’ For well washed indeed was one who had been bathed in this manner.

Then he said to the soldier Pudens: ‘Good-bye. Remember me, and remember the faith. These things should not disturb you but rather strengthen you.’

And with this he asked Pudens for a ring from his finger, and dipping it into his wound he gave it back to him again as a pledge and as a record of his bloodshed.

Shortly after he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving, especially Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway was the first to die…

Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing…

From “Real Trials, Real Martyrs: Perpetua”

* * *

From Mr. Language Curmudgeon defines “martyr”

“Martyrdom involves a public sacrifice of one’s own life in favor of a higher or transcendental cause.  Acts of martyrs can change the world. The martyrdom of Vibia Perpetua in 203 can be seen as an act of Christian faith that overrode concerns for family, material security and individual survival.  Perpetua was put to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith and her diaries written in the days leading up to her execution are the oldest surviving texts by a Christian woman.

At the time of her martyrdom Perpetua was a twenty-two year old woman from a prosperous and respected Roman family.  She was fluent in Greek and Latin.  Contemporary accounts mention she was “reared in a liberal manner, wedded honourably…”.  She had living parents, two brothers, one of whom was a Christian, and a baby son. She had everything to live for, yet was shaped by the historical context in which she was born.

Perpetua’s story is best understood in the context of the impact early Christianity had on her society… Early Christianity appealed to people’s deeper instinct for meaning, and still does.  Justin Martyr, also known as Justin the Philosopher, came to Rome from Asia Minor in about 140 CE to study philosophy, seeking to identify fundamental spiritual truths among the competing philosophies of his time…  Justin met Christians and observed how their communities functioned.  He wrote of his admiration for how Christians embraced chastity, common ownership and how they rejected selfish materialism in favour of sharing with those in need…

In comparison, Roman society was highly stratified by social class and was oppressive and cruel… People enjoyed the pain rather than shared the joys of others and this formed the basis for coliseum “entertainment”… Justin rejected a society that allowed infants to be abandoned to die and children to be raised like herds of sheep or goats to be sold into slavery and prostitution.  He observed the bravery and discipline of Christian martyrs who were slaughtered in gladiatorial games.  He was struck by how Christians facing death seemed to draw on a new source of power…

Groups of people who cooperate with each other will typically win out over those who don’t.  Christians organized themselves into communities and these thrived because of their secular utility as well as their spiritual power – the two being interrelated.  Early Christian communities harnessed emotions that were good for the group such as belief in a higher power that lifted people above their individual limitations.

At a practical level, Christian groups looked after each other during times of poverty, disease and oppression while other groups did not.  As a result, Christian communities grew because more of their members survived difficult times and because their example attracted new recruits.  The Christian codification of social rules reduced the costs that would otherwise need to go into maintaining order in the community…

Septimus Severus (193-211) had prescribed severe penalties to discourage the conversion of Roman citizens to Christianity.  Perpetua and her companions were imprisoned because they refused to pay homage to the imperial Gods and they threatened a Roman society based on the conflation of political power and divine authority.

Among Perpetua’s last words was an invocation to fellow Christians to love one another.  Her sacrifice and those of other martyrs rejected the world they were in to favor a world unfolding in the future, a world wider than themselves that they had some influence over…

Modern behavior and civil society have evolutionary roots and also rest on memes, beliefs and rules for life we ourselves have created, including those based on how we see through the eyes of others, if only through imperfect representational models.  People favor empathetic behaviors in their marriage partners, they admire virtue, and they imitate memes that support living for others and for future generations as well as for oneself and one’s own.   People will increasingly transcend the limitations of selfish gene behavior and reject dogmatic religion and beliefs that involve double standards of morality between in and out groups because these conflict with the needs of modern and future life…

Over time people may become more and more empathetic to each other and to other species.  After all, we now understand that all life began only once from a single source, that all species have this shared origin and are closely related and that humans have a stewardship role in relation to nature.”

(From “Understanding Perpetua” by Peter Winsley)

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