A Noble Christian Wife, Mother, and Martyr for Jesus Christ
The following brief story of Perpetua, a noble 2nd century wife and mother from Carthage, is adapted from her own personal testimony, along with other early accounts of her martyrdom on 7 March 203. Perpetua and Saturus wrote personal accounts of their ordeal while in prison. They include the testimony of Felicity as well. An English translation of the account, called The Passions of the Holy Martyrs Pepetua and Felicitas. – ed.
Perpetua was a young lady who had it made. She was born into a noble Roman family in Carthage, a Roman city in North Africa in 181 AD. She was beautiful, well-educated, happily married around the age of twenty, and now the mother of an infant son. And then to the surprise of her family she decided to become a Christian. This appeared sheer nonsense to her father who saw it as breaking not only with Roman tradition but with family loyalty as well. Besides, what good had Christianity brought to Roman society? It seemed to mainly attract working class people and the slaves who had little or nothing to lose. Many emperors had tried to suppress it in the past, and the current emperor Septimus had decided to outlaw it once again, and threatened death to anyone who professed it.
The threat of death did not deter Perpetua from taking instructions in the Christian faith. She discovered that the Gospels were true and offered the way to eternal life and happiness. Jesus of Nazareth became a real living person to her, someone greater than the emperor, someone who was king of heaven and the whole earth as well. Despite the objections of her family, Perpetua pursued the Christian faith with great enthusiasm and conviction. Her brother Secundus soon followed in becoming a Christian as well.
Perpetua’s father had pleaded with tears to persuade her to give up her Christian faith. Her answer was simple and clear. Pointing to a water jug, she asked her father, “See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is?” “Of course not,” he answered. Perpetua responded,
“Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.”
Her father became so upset that he physically attacked her.
Sometime after the birth of her firstborn son, she was arrested, along with four other Christians who were new in the faith. Her brother Secundus had been arrested earlier and thrown into prison as well. Before being taken to prison she was baptized. The Holy Spirit gave her a prophetic gift and told her to pray for nothing but endurance in the face of her trials.
Perpetua was thrown into a crowded prison with no light anywhere. In her diary she described her ordeal:
“Such darkness I have never known! What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all, I was tormented with anxiety for my baby.”
Perpetua admitted she was afraid and was most at pain from being separated from her nursing infant. Another young woman in prison with her, who was a slave by the name of Felicity, was eight months pregnant.
Two deacons who visited the prisoners paid the jailers to move Perpetua and Felicity to a better prison cell where they could receive visits from family members and be better cared for. Perpetua’s mother brought Perpetua’s baby to her so she could nurse the child. When Perpetua received permission for the baby to stay with her, she said,
“suddenly my prison became a palace for me.”
Once again Perpetua’s father pleaded with kisses and tears for Perpetua to give up her faith. She told him,
“We rely not on our own power but on the power of God.”
When she was taken before the judge he also tried to persuade her to give up her faith. After she refused, the judge sentenced her, along with the other four new Christians and Saturus their Christian teacher, to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.
Two days before the execution, the slave Felicity gave birth to a healthy girl who was adopted and raised by one of the Christian women of Carthage.
While in prison Perpetua shared a vision she had received. She 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. Perpetua understood that she would have to fight Satan rather than just the beasts of the arena. The Lord assured her that she would not be defeated in overcoming Satan. This gave her great confidence and courage.
On the day of the games, the three men and two women were led into the amphitheatre. At the demand of the crowd they were first scourged. Then a boar, a bear, and a leopard, were set on the men, and a wild cow on the women. Wounded by the wild animals, they gave each other the kiss of peace and were then put to the sword.
Perpetua’s last words to her brother were:
“Stand fast in the faith and love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”
An early eyewitness account describes the death of Perpetua:
“But Perpetua, that she might experience pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman – one before whom the unclean spirit trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it.”
This account of Perpetua is adapted from early sources by Don Schwager.
From The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity 203 AD
Called and chosen for the glory of the Lord
The day of the martyrs’ victory dawned. They marched from their cells into the amphitheater, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks and graceful bearing. If they trembled it was for joy and not fear.
Perpetua was the first to be thrown down, and she fell prostrate. She got up and, seeing that Felicity was prostrate, went over and reached out her hand to her and lifted her up. Both stood together. The hostility of the crowd was appeased, and they were ordered to the gate called Sanavivaria.
There Perpetua was welcomed by a catechumen named Rusticus. Rousing herself as if from sleep (so deep had she been in spiritual ecstasy), she began to look around. To everyone’s amazement she said: “When are we going to be led to the beast?” When she heard that it had already happened she did not at first believe it until she saw the marks of violence on her body and her clothing.
Then she beckoned to her brother and the catechumen, and addressed them in these words: “Stand firm in faith, love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”
Saturus, too, in another gate, encouraged the soldier Pudens, saying: “Here I am, and just as I thought and foretold I have not yet felt any wild beast. Now believe with your whole heart: I will go there and be killed by the leopard in one bite.” And right at the end of the games, when he was thrown to the leopard he was in fact covered with so much blood from one bite that the people cried out to him: “Washed and saved, washed and saved!” And so, giving evidence of a second baptism, he was clearly saved who had been washed in this manner.
Then Saturus said to the soldier Pudens: “Farewell, and remember your faith as well as me; do not let these things frighten you; let them rather strengthen you.” At the same time he asked for the little ring from Pudens’ finger. After soaking it in his wound he returned it to Pudens as a keepsake, leaving him a pledge and a remembrance of his blood. Half dead, he was thrown along with the others into the usual place of slaughter.
The people, however, had demanded that the martyrs be led to the middle of the amphitheater. They wanted to see the sword thrust into the bodies of the victims, so that their eyes might share in the slaughter. Without being asked they went where the people wanted them to go; but first they kissed one another, to complete their witness with the customary kiss of peace.
The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to die; he was helping Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might experience the pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman –one before whom the unclean spirit trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it.
Bravest and happiest martyrs! You were called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[Historical note: This excerpt is from The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. It is based on the first-person accounts of Perpetua and Saturus, which took place under the persecution of Septimius Severus in 202-3 AD. See full account online. The popularity of the account spread rapidly in the third and fourth centuries. By the fourth century, a basilica at Carthage was dedicated to the memory of Perpetua.]
Top image source: Illustration of the martyrdom of St. Perpetua in Carthage May 7 303 AD, by an unknown artist. Fair use attribution.