I recently received a letter from a lady who had read Traveling Companions and enjoyed it but was somewhat disappointed that her own baptismal name had not been included. It had, of course, been impossible to include all the Orthodox saints in my book but, prompted by the letter, I had a look at Perpetua's story. I quickly realized that this was something special and regretted that I had left her out. So, here is a brief “supplement” to Traveling Companions. Who knows, this may be a preview of Volume 2!
Perpetua, Felicity and their Companions, Holy Martyrs (1 February)
One of the problems associated with researching the lives of the early martyrs is the lack of historical documentation. With few exceptions, the stories were passed down by oral tradition and not written down until many years later, often with considerable embellishment. Indeed, some of the tales of the martyrs may well have been fictional, pious fables based only on a name remembered in memorials.
The story of Perpetua, Felicity and their four companions is therefore exceptional and possibly unique in that it is based on a contemporary Latin document, much of it almost certainly written by Perpetua herself and generally considered by scholars to be genuine. An introduction written by the editor is followed by Perpetua's own testimony, the testimony of her brother Saturus, and a final description of their deaths by the editor. Interestingly, it is generally believed that the editor was Tertullian, the eminent third century Christian theologian from Carthage.
Vivia Perpetua was a married noblewoman of 22 and a catachumen in the Christian Church in Carthage, modern Tunis. Around AD 203* during the rule of Septimus Severus, she was arrested as a Christian , together with Saturus, two slaves, Felicitas (Felicity) and Revocatus, and two freemen, Saturninus and Secundulus. She was still nursing her baby son, while Felicitas was heavily pregnant.
Perpetua's testimony has an emotional impact far greater than the usual stories because of its personal viewpoint and its insight into the psychology of the early martyrs. Three times, her father visits her in prison, begging her to recant and save her life, both for his sake and that of her son: “Have pity my daughter, on my grey hairs. Have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called a father by you. If with these hands I have brought you up to this flower of your age, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not deliver me up to the scorn of men. Have regard to your brothers, have regard to your mother and your aunt, have regard to your son, who will not be able to live after you.” However, not only does she refuse to give way and make a sacrifice to the emperor, but she is baptized in prison.
During her imprisonment, Perpetua had three visions which were full of symbolism and also add to the impact of the story. The first involves her climbing a dangerous ladder covered in sharp weapons and guarded by a fierce dragon. She is helped by her brother Saturus who goes up in front. When they reach the top they find themselves in a beautiful garden. Through this vision, they understand that they will not escape but die as martyrs and that Saturus will be killed first.
The second vision has intriguing theological implications. Perpetua sees her young brother Dinocrates who died unbaptized at the age of seven from cancer. He is severely disfigured from the cancer and seems to be in a place of torment. Over the next few days she prays for him but continues to get the same vision until eventually she has a final vision of him happy and healthy with the torment ended: “Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.” There has been much discussion of this over the years relating to the debate on whether unbaptized infants go to Heaven and the efficacy of prayers for the dead, both of which topics are way outside the scope of my knowledge.
In her third vision, Perpetua finds herself fighting and defeating a savage Egyptian which seems to symbolize her battle not only against the wild beasts in the arena but against the devil himself. Shortly after this, Saturus also has a vision of a beautiful garden to which he and Perpetua are transported by four angels. Here they are met by four Christian friends who have been burned alive earlier.
Meanwhile, the prisoners languished in their cells, awaiting their fate. Two deacons from the local Christian community bribed the guards and Perpetua was moved to a better cell where she was more able to look after her son but eventually she was forced to give the baby into the care of her mother and brother. There seems to have been a willingness, perhaps even a desire, among the early Christians to suffer martyrdom for the sake of their faith. Felicitas seems to have been genuinely worried that she would not suffer for her Lord because Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women. To her great joy, a daughter was born prematurely at eight months so that she was able to join her friends in the arena, giving up her baby to her sister. While giving birth some of prison servants laughed at her labour pains: “You who are in such suffering now, what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you despised when you refused to sacrifice?” She replied, “Now it is I that suffer what I suffer; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him.”
All were tried before the procurator Hilarianus who himself begged Perpetua to recant: “Spare the grey hairs of your father, spare the infancy of your boy, offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.” Perpetua again refused and when Hilarianus asked her if she was a Christian, she replied with simple dignity, “I am a Christian.” The courage and dignity of the prisoners even moved one of the soldiers, Pudens, who “began to regard us in great esteem, perceiving that the great power of God was in us, admitted many brethren to see us, that both we and they might be mutually refreshed.” All six were condemned to death in the arena, although Secundulus died in prison before sentence could be carried out.
On the day of execution, the remaining five martyrs were led into the amphitheatre where they were flogged by the gladiators. Then a wild boar, a bear and a leopard were released on the three men who were quickly killed. Perpetua and Felicitas, however, were attacked by a wild cow, perhaps to prolong the spectacle for the audience. They were badly wounded and their clothes ripped to shreds but were still alive. When the audience called for them again, Perpetua “bound up her dishevelled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.” The two women exchanged a kiss of peace and were beheaded with swords. Perpetua's executioner was, in fact, a novice and botched the job, whereupon she guided his sword to the correct spot on her neck and he finally sent her to join the other martyrs.
After the legalization of Christianity, a basilica was erected over the tomb of the martyrs where an inscription bearing the names of Perpetua and Felicitas has been found. The arena where they met their deaths still exists a few miles from Tunis and, in 1881, a small room was discovered opposite the entrance which is believed to have been the cell where the martyrs awaited execution. The story of Perpetua has caught people's imagination from the time of her death right up to the present day and, in fact, two more novels based on her life have recently been published: Perpetua: a Bride, a Martyr, a Passion by Amy Peterson and The Bronze Ladded by Malcolm Lyon.
This doesn't really do justice to Perpetua's story. For the full text of Perpetua's Passion in English, see http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian24.html
* There is some dispute among scholars about the date of the martyrdom, ranging from 203 to 209 or even 256 but the earlier date is the one accepted by the Orthodox Church.
© Chris Moorey 2013