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Perpetua

  1. Mary R. Lefkowitz

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah05143

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Lefkowitz, M. R. 2012. Perpetua. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

Born around 183 ce, Vibia Perpetua was martyred along with her slave Felicitas and other Christians in the amphitheater at Carthage on March 7, 203, during games celebrating the birthday of Geta, son of the emperor Septimius Severus (see Septimius Severus Pertinax Augustus, Lucius), who had banned conversion to either Judaism or Christianity during the previous year (Scriptores Historiae Augustae Sev. 17.1). The Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis is preserved in both Greek and Latin versions, of which the Latin is probably earlier (Musurillo 1972: xxvii). The detailed and moving account of the death and imprisonment of Perpetua and Felicitas contains a narrative by Perpetua herself, which is one of the longest surviving prose narratives attributed to a woman (on its authenticity, see Dodds 1965: 47–52; for other prose writing by women, see Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi; Egeria).

The compiler of Perpetua's Passio recounts that she was well-born and educated (fluent in Greek, 13.5, but able to speak authoritatively in Latin) presumably from a wealthy family of Roman citizens, as the name Vibius suggests (Shaw 1993: 11). she was arrested along with other catechumens, or Christians receiving instruction prior to baptism (2.1–2; see Catechesis, Catechumenate, early church), including her brother (whose name is never given) and her personal slave Felicitas, who was pregnant when arrested and gave birth while in prison. Perpetua had recently been married and was nursing a baby son. But in the narrative it is not her husband, but her father who attempts to rescue her, most probably because as a member of a prominent family she remained under her father's patria potestas (Salisbury 1997: 8).

The narrator presents Perpetua's own testimony “as she told the story and left it written in her own hand and with her own feelings” (2.3). Her narrative shows how, like other martyrs, she remained resolute in the face of temptation, faced death with extraordinary courage, and was willing to cut herself off from her family on behalf of her religious beliefs (cf. Jesus' rejection of his family, Matt 12:48; Jerome's advice to trample on one's father, Ep. 14.2). But in other respects her story is unique, with detailed accounts of her dreams and the conditions of her imprisonment, along with her descriptions of her concern for her baby, and of her conversations with her anguished father, who did everything he could to persuade her to give up her faith and perform the sacrifice to the emperor that would save her life (3.3, 5.2–5, 6.2).

Perpetua refused to listen to her father and was condemned to be thrown to the beasts (6.6). Her commitment to Christianity was strengthened both by her fellow Christians (she was baptized in prison) and by a series of visions. she was able to comfort her brother by telling him about a dream that revealed that they would ascend and be welcomed in heaven. After she saw in a dream her young brother Dinocrates, who had died of cancer, she prayed for him and believed that she was able to relieve his suffering. On the day before her death she dreamt that she became a man in order to defeat an Egyptian man in the pankration and won a green branch with golden apples, as in the pagan myth of Herakles, which in her dream she substitutes for the traditional victor's palm (10.6–9; Dodds 1965: 52). When in the dream she left the arena through the Gate of Life (Porta Sanavivaria), like a victorious gladiator, she realized “that i was about to fight not with the beasts, but with the devil, and I knew that I would be victorious” (10.14).

The narrator's account of her death records how she confronted the military tribune, and encouraged the other prisoners, persuading them to hold a love feast just before they were about to be executed. she and the slave Felicitas were stripped of their clothing, enmeshed in nets, and matched in the arena with a mad heifer, which threw both women to the ground (see Arena; Gladiators). Perpetua, although careful to preserve her own modesty, was able to raise Felicity from the ground. Both were released through the Gate of Life, only to be returned to the arena and put to the sword. When the first thrust failed to kill her, Perpetua had the courage to guide the inexperienced gladiator's hand to her throat (21.9; cf. Euripides' account of the death of the Trojan princess Polyxena, Hec.559–65).

Although the compiler of the Passio states that Perpetua was motivated by her devotion to the church, it is also possible that she may have seen in Christianity a means of escaping from the ordinary restrictions of women's lives under Roman paganism, including the obligation to obey her father and devote her life to the bearing and raising of children. Her faith enabled her to belong to a more egalitarian community – without the gender or class structure imposed by Roman society –where slave and free had equal rights and men and women regarded each other as brothers and sisters. In this new environment she could use her education to help others and to act as mentor and leader (Lefkowitz 2007: 160–2; see Women, Roman).

On the anniversary of her death Perpetua's words were read out loud in churches in Northern Africa; they had so much authority that Augustine of Hippo had to warn parishioners that they were not canonical scripture (Shaw 1993: 37). In the fourth century Augustine and bishop Quodvultdeus of Carthage praised Perpetua not for her independence of mind, but for putting aside women's weakness and inherent sinfulness, as well as for the “manly” behavior she and Felicitas displayed when confronted with death (Serm. 181.1, 280.1, 282.3; with 282 auct. 3–5 in Schiller et al. 2008: 259–64; Shaw 1993: 38–45). Perpetua's remains were interred in the Basilica at Carthage. Her memory was also preserved in the mosaic representations that still survive in the fifth-century basilica at Ravenna in Italy and in the sixth-century basilica at Parentium in the Roman province of Istria (now Poreč in Croatia).

References and Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Dodds, E. R. (1965) Pagan and Christian in an age of anxiety. Cambridge.
  • Formisano, M., ed. (2008) La passione di Perpetuae Felicita. Milan.
  • Lefkowitz, M. R. (2007) Women in Greek myth, 2nd ed. Baltimore.
  • Musurillo, H. (1972) The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Oxford.
  • Salisbury, J. (1997) Perpetua's Passion: the death and memory of a young Roman woman. London.
  • Schiller, I., Weber, D., and Weidmann, C. (2008) “Sechs neue Augustinus Predigten, Teil 1 mit Edition dreier Sermones.” Wiener Studien 121: 22784.
  • Shaw, B. D. (1993) “The Passion of Perpetua.” Past and Present 139: 345.