Perpetua was a young mother when she was arrested in 203 A.D. She had become involved with a group of Christians, and was walking with her fellow catechumens through the town of Thuburbo Minus when she was taken into custody. The crime of these early Christians was a refusal to sacrifice to the gods on behalf of the emperor. The Emperor in this case was Septimius Severus, who had risen to power in 193, a year that was so politically chaotic that it was know as the Year of the Five Emperors. Septimius Severus was the son of a freedman, which showed how quickly the Roman Empire was changing. It used to be that Emperors had to be born into the senatorial classes, but not any more. The Empire was so desperate for stability that the son of a former slave would do, as long as he could provide that stability. Septimius Severus managed to do just that. He waged successful wars in Africa and against the Parthians in the East, he built triumphal arches, and he put an end to the venal corruption that had been destroying Rome. And he had two sons, Caracalla and Geta, which meant that when he died he would have a natural successor and the Empire could avoid more civil war. Since the stability of the Empire depended on one man, it was natural for people to wake up every morning worrying about his health and to run to their temples to beg the gods that he might have long life and prosperity. But it wasn’t natural for Christians, and because of this they were persecuted.
Perpetua was imprisoned in Carthage. She spent her first days of incarceration without her baby. The baby was still nursing and she worried about its nourishment, and suffered pain in her breasts because she couldn’t relieve the pressure of the milk. Her father came to beg her to recant and make sacrifice to the Emperor. He would appear again and again during her time in prison. He wasn’t a Christian himself, and when Perpetua said that she was, “he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out.” When she next saw him, he was “worn with worry,” and instead of violence he tried persuasion, begging Perpetua to have pity on him in his old age. He kissed her and wept at her feet. But it was clear that his concern wasn’t only for her. “You will destroy us!” he said. “None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you!” Again Perpetua refused him. A few days later, she and her fellow Christians were dragged before the governor, Hilarianus, who passed judgement on them in the forum. Her father appeared, this time with her infant son in his arms, and shouted to where she stood in the prisoner’s dock – “Perform the sacrifice – have pity on your baby!” He made himself so obnoxious that the governor ordered soldiers to push him down and beat him with rods.
Up until this point, Perpetua’s baby was a bargaining chip between her and her father. After his first visit to her, her mother came and brought the baby with her. The warden allowed the infant to stay locked up with Perpetua so that it could nurse. This relieved her mind and seems to have changed the very nature of prison for her. “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.” In her recount of her martyrdom, she doesn’t mention how the baby came to be in her father’s arms there in the forum. But after Perpetua and her companions were sentenced to death, and her father, despairing, left the forum, he kept the baby with him. However, as Perpetua says, “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.”
What did she do while she was waiting for execution? Mostly, she and her companions had visions. These must have been odd, shining, God-struck days. Some of the places they were kept were very dark and horrible. But they prayed together ceaselessly, and when they slept, they were given intimations of their futures. Perpetua’s first vision occurred when she still had the baby with her. She saw a narrow bronze ladder reaching to the heavens, with sharp weapons attached to it that would cut a climber if she didn’t stick to the middle of the rungs. There was a dragon at the base of the ladder, but it was so cowed by Perpetua’s faith that it stuck out its head so that she could use it as her first step up the ladder. When she reached the top, she found a gray-haired man milking sheep, who was surrounded by thousands of witnesses in white garments. He welcomed her and gave her milk which she drank from cupped hands, a ritual action which ended in the crowd saying “Amen!”
After she had been sentenced and her father had made off with the baby, she had a vision of a younger brother who had died when he was seven years old. This boy, named Dinocrates, had cancer of the face, “and his death,” Perpetua writes, “was a source of loathing to everyone.” In her vision, she saw him in a kind of limbo, forever trying to drink from a pool of water that was just above his head and out of reach. The poor child had been ostracized in life because of his illness and was now sentenced to eternal misery. This tells us something about the dearth of compassion for sick people in the Roman Empire. But it also tells us something about the harshness of the Christian vision of the afterlife at the time, the apparent belief that unbelievers would be sentenced to eternities of sorrow. Perpetua resolved to try to save him from this misery by praying for him every day. And on the day when she and her companions were transferred to the military prison, from which they would go to their deaths, she had a vision of her brother in which he was clean and refreshed and had lost the cancerous sores on his face. The pool of water had been lowered and he could drink from it, and there were other children there for him to play with. After she had this vision, her father came to visit her one last time. He tore out his hair and rolled, sobbing, on the ground, and Perpetua felt pity for him. It’s hard not to sympathize with this father. From his perspective, his daughter was involved in a death cult. And his repeated entreaties and fervent appeals demonstrated how much he loved her.
Perpetua and her companions were to be killed by wild beasts in the arena, in celebration of the birthday of Septimius Severus’s second son, Geta. Death in the arena was a kind of highly ritualized state murder. On the day before their executions a public feast was held for them, called ‘the free banquet,’ because the crowds who would jeer at them the next day could eat with them at the expense of the state. There was, in the arena, a gate called the Porta Sanavivaria, ‘the Gate of Life,’ through which gladiators who had been victorious and people who had been spared by the crowds could leave. That ‘Gate of Life’ featured largely in Perpetua’s last, and strangest, vision. She saw one of the deacons who had been regularly visiting the prisoners come through the prison gates. He led her by her hand into the arena, where she found herself facing a huge Egyptian, whom she understood to be the devil himself. She was supposed to fight him in gladiatorial combat. And when her clothes were stripped off so that she could fight, she found that she had become a man. A giant came into the arena to judge the match. Perpetua defeated the devil, and walked in triumph to the Gates of Life, as the crowd sang psalms. What to make of this vision? Perhaps she became a man simply to ensure her modesty. Or maybe it was because gladiators were men, and if she was to be one in her vision, she had to be a man as well. But maybe her transformation had to do with her role in the community of catechumens. She was clearly one of the two leaders. Her own account of her imprisonment up until the day of her martyrdom is one of the earliest Christian works written by a woman. In her life and in her death she obviously assumed a role that was normally reserved for the opposite gender.
In one of her companion’s visions, the martyrs in heaven were greeted by God and given a preeminent position over the priests and the bishops. They professed to be surprised by this, but it’s obvious that in early Christianity the martyrs role was becoming all important. Much of this had to do with the peace and composure with which the martyrs went to meet their deaths. While in prison, their prayer and evident love for each other so impressed the warden that he became a Christian. When Perpetua and her companions were led out for the free banquet, they turned the meal into an agape feast. They preached to the mob that had gathered to watch them eat. The next day, when they were led out to die, they thought of it as “the day of their victory.” Their jailers tried to mock their faith by dressing them in the robes of the priests of Saturn and the priestesses of Ceres. But Perpetua stared them down and shamed them, and the military tribune ordered that they should be left alone. When they were led out onto the sands of the arena, the screaming crowd demanded that they be scourged, and they excepted this whipping gladly, since it allowed them to share in the scourging of Christ. Animals were used in horrifying ways into the arena. Some of the martyrs were tied to posts and mauled by enraged bears. Some were tied to the backs of wild boars, which dragged them through the arena, turning to gore them as they went. One of the martyrs endured this, and then had his throat ripped out by a leopard. Perpetua and her companion Felicitas, who had just given birth, were brought out naked in a net, so that they could be trampled by wild heifers. But the crowd rose to their defense, shocked to see new mothers with milk at their breasts treated in this way. So they were taken back in, dressed, and then given to the wild heifers. Perpetua was thrown up in the air, but not badly injured, and when she was led through the Gates of Life for a reprieve, she came out of a trance and asked when the executions were to begin. She had been praying so deeply that she hadn’t noticed what was happening to her. Goring and battering by animals rarely killed anyone outright, and so at the end of their ordeal the martyrs were led back into the arena to have their throats cut by the gladiators. The young gladiator who was assigned to Perpetua was trembling and he missed with his first stroke, so she steadied his hand and led the sword to her neck herself. Her last act was one of pity for her young executioner.
What can we make of this gruesome story? The faith of these martyrs was so deep, so profound, that they were willing to leave behind home and family, even infant children, in order to remain true to that faith. And those who witnessed it were awed by their fearlessness. In a world that was full of chaos and calamity, such calm perseverance must have seemed deeply hopeful. People died all the time, in civil wars and random street violence, from disease and hunger and childbirth. Yet almost everyone still feared death. They feared it so much that they subjected other people to torture, just so that they could taunt death and fool themselves into thinking that if it happened to the poor suckers in the arena it wouldn’t happen to them. But in the Christian martyrs they found people who didn’t fear death one bit. Death had truly lost its sting. And what was the source of that fearlessness? Curiosity sparked interest, and interest sparked conversion. The church grew because of the martyrs, and they were considered the great heroes of early Christianity.