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Perpetua |
Will it be loyalty to God or to her child? A young mother, Perpetua, had to decide

Perpetua is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 187, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Despite the pleas of her father and the judge who tried her, her answer provides an example that informs Christian history

Perpetua - Will it be loyalty to God or to her child? A young mother, Perpetua, had to decide

Perpetua - Will it be loyalty to God or to her child? A young mother, Perpetua, had to decide
The inexperienced gladiator’s first thrust struck Perpetua just below the collarbone, injuring but not killing her. She took his trembling hand and guided it to her own throat.

In the year 201, the emperor Septimius Severus published a decree forbidding Christians and Jews from seeking converts. It marked the start of a new campaign of persecution against the growing North African Christian community. Yet when a young Carthaginian mother, Vibia Perpetua, was arrested and charged, it was not for proselytizing, but simply for being a Christian. Because of this charge, she would not only suffer death, but she would also keep a detailed diary of her thoughts and dreams as she awaited it, conferring upon the Christians for centuries to come the moving account of a faith that persevered against the pleas of an aggrieved father and the needs of an infant child.

The diary tells little of Perpetua’s life before her arrest in the year 203. “She came of a good family; she was well brought up and a respectable married woman,” is the only background provided by its anonymous third-century editor. Because of her diary, however, we know a great deal more: we know that her immediate family included her parents and two living brothers (another brother had apparently died in childhood). We know that her father was a man of property with slaves and influence in high places. Perpetua’s use of language suggests that she was well-educated.

We also know that when she was arrested, she was nursing her firstborn son. Since we hear nothing of her husband (he is never referred to in the diary and makes no appearance at her trial), some have speculated that he deserted Perpetua when she became a Christian. She is generally thought to have been about twenty-two years old.

How would such a privileged young woman of Carthage have become a convert to Christianity? In her incisive and moving 1997 study Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman, author Joyce Salisbury estimates the number of Christians in Carthage at about two thousand. They met regularly in believers’ homes, and newcomers tended to be invited guests of family or friends. So it is likely that Perpetua first attended as the guest of someone she knew, perhaps Felicitas, her maidservant, one of four other Christians arrested with her.

Perpetua must have been intrigued by what she heard and saw. Christians cared for one another. (Tertullian, the renowned Christian apologist who would be profoundly influenced by her example, refers to the scope of Christian charity as cause for bewilderment in Carthage.) Christians taught about an afterlife, and they claimed to have the Divine Spirit in their midst. Perpetua soon became acquainted with the sacred texts in use in her congregation: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Epistles of Paul, the Pentateuch, the Book of Revelation, and certain apocryphal books then in wide circulation, like Enoch, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Shepherd of Hermas.

At some point, Perpetua must have moved beyond curiosity to affirmation, because she became a catechumen, as did one of her brothers. A catechumen participated in some aspects of Christian worship, but did not receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist until baptism, after a preparation period of up to three years. However, Perpetua, although only a catechumen, soon exerted a leadership role within the congregation, a role she carried on in prison, and eventually in the arena.

Why the authorities chose to arrest her and her companions is not known. The diary’s ancient editor says only: “A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus, Felicitas, Saturninus, and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua.” Sometimes congregations were betrayed by an informer. Sometimes family members who had “lost” a child to what they considered a dangerous cult demanded action from the authorities. Sometimes arrest and prosecution were random. At least one member of Perpetua’s congregation, Saturus, was not initially arrested with the others; he gave himself up voluntarily, joining the others in prison and resolved to share in their martyrdom. Certainly women were shown no preference; proportionate to their numbers, more women than men were then being martyred.

The prosecutor in Perpetua’s case was the acting procurator, Hilarianus. Tertullian reports that there had been much anti-Christian agitation at that time; perhaps Hilarianus was trying to appease the mob by making an example of Perpetua and her little band. At first, she was placed under house arrest only, but for Perpetua, this was particularly difficult, as the diary explains:

While we were still under arrest, 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 . . . ?”

“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.”

At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

Instead of renouncing her faith, Perpetua chose the first days of her house arrest to be baptized and received into full communion. At her baptism, she experienced a vision, foreseeing that her future would be short and end in martyrdom. Then she was taken away.

The prison was close to the governor’s residence, on the Byrsa hill in the center of Carthage. The dungeon where Perpetua and the others were held was underground, fetid, and crowded: “I was terrified,” she writes, “as I had never 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 it all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.”

Perpetua was nursing (“I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger”), and she continued to do so as long as that was possible, before giving the baby over to her own mother. Later during her imprisonment, she had a nervous breakdown, upon which her captors reunited her with her baby. “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.”

One morning, the five prisoners were led under guard from the jail to the forum. Perpetua noted that “a huge crowd” had gathered to witness the proceedings. When it came her turn to be questioned, her father appeared, carrying the baby. “Perform the sacrifice–have pity on your baby,” her father called out. Even Hilarianus was moved: “Have pity on your father’s old age; have pity on your infant son,” he urged. “Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.”

“I will not,” Perpetua replied. Hilarianus then asked the inescapable question: “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, I am a Christian,” Perpetua replied. Hilarianus quickly passed sentence. Perpetua writes: “We were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits.”

Now when she sought to get her baby back, her father refused. She had broken her ties to both family and country. Harrowing as that moment must have been, her faith found grace even then: “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.”

The bulk of Perpetua’s prison diary is devoted to her visions and dreams. To today’s mind, these may seem odd, even bizarre, but to a second-century Christian, steeped in the tradition of ecstatic prophecy, dreams were highly meaningful.4 One of her dreams involved ascending a ladder made of swords, spears, and spikes; at the top, she found a “tall gray-haired man sitting in shepherd’s garb . . . milking sheep,” who said to her, “I am glad you have come, my child.” In another dream, she was taken from prison to the arena, where she was stripped, rubbed with oil, and, discovering that she had become a man, was made to fight an Egyptian warrior, whose face she crushed in the dust. In yet another dream, she is joined by Saturus, the Christian who had volunteered to join the other martyrs. The two were transported by four angels to Heaven, where she heard the endless refrain, “Holy, holy, holy.” The martyrs kissed the face of their Lord, and Perpetua said: “Thanks be to God, for I am now even happier than I was in the flesh.”

Whatever their psychological significance, Perpetua’s dreams convinced her that what was happening to the Christians was God’s plan. By the time she was led from prison to the arena, singing and radiant, she was convinced that she was to become a bride of Christ’s, going not to a painful and squalid death, but to a wedding feast where she would see her beloved face-to-face, and dwell with him forever.

Perpetua’s diary ends with her prison dreams. As she put it: “So much for what I did up until the eve of the contest. About what happened at the contest itself, let him write of it who can.”

The anonymous diary editor adds one bittersweet prison story. Felicitas, the serving-girl who was arrested with Perpetua, was eight months pregnant. “She became greatly distressed that her martyrdom would be postponed because of her pregnancy, for it is against the law for women with child to be put to death.” So Perpetua and the others prayed with her, and God answered their prayers; two days before the execution date, Felicitas went into premature labor and was delivered of a baby girl, who was then turned over “to one of the sisters [who] brought her up as her own daughter.”

Any important Roman city had an amphitheater. Carthage’s amphitheater, located on the city’s northwest edge, was particularly impressive. Its arena measured roughly the size of an American football field, and the steeply raked stands encircling the arena accommodated thirty thousand spectators. Today visitors can still walk the subterranean tunnels through which wild beasts and martyrs were herded to their deaths.

On March 7 in the year 203, the birthday of the emperor’s youngest son, Geta Caesar, Perpetua was led through the dank underground tunnels, singing a psalm. Then she and Felicitas were stripped and propelled naked into the arena before a jeering crowd. Two of the Christian men had already faced a leopard and a wild boar and had been injured, although not mortally. But for the women the authorities had chosen a mad cow. This was meant to add insult, in that the women were to be humiliated by being killed by an animal of their own sex.

Suddenly there was silence. “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.”

The mad cow attacked, tossing Perpetua and knocking Felicitas to the ground. Perpetua went to Felicitas and helped her to her feet. But the cow seemed to lose interest in the proceedings, and with nothing much happening, the two women were led out of the arena, a temporary reprieve. This gave Perpetua an opportunity to tell the other Christians who were awaiting their fate: “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”

Then a platform was erected in the center of the arena, and all of the Christians were led in, in a group. When they had mounted the scaffold, a gladiator plunged his sword into the neck of each, one by one.

The last to die was Perpetua. She bared her throat willingly, but her gladiator was inexperienced; his first thrust of the sword tore into her flesh just below the collarbone, at which she shrieked in pain. Perpetua “then took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her own throat.”

Joyce Salisbury writes: “For centuries the faithful of Carthage remembered the martyrdom of Perpetua. The recollection was strengthened by the presence of her remains in the basilica. . . . Her deeds were annually recalled by the public reading of her diary, and constantly made relevant . . . by churchmen commenting on the text.”

The date of Perpetua’s canonization is unknown; like that of other very early martyrs, her sainthood was long recognized by the faithful before it was formally acknowledged. Perpetua and Felicitas appear as martyrs in both the Philocalian calendar of Rome and the Syriac calendar by the fourth century. They are mentioned in the first eucharistic prayer of the Roman rite. Perpetua’s feast day is March 7.

History would record one final irony. There is a column to Septimius Severus in Rome. There are churches dedicated to St. Perpetua all over the world.

This is the end of the Perpetua category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 187, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Perpetua from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at