Who was Perpetua?
Saints Perpetua (181 - 203 A.D.) was a Christian martyr. Perpetua was a 22-year old married noble and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, an expectant mother, was her slave. They suffered together at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.
The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions is said to preserve the actual account of her arrest and imprisonment and her fellow martyr Saturus’ own account of his dreams.
According to the Passion, a number of catechumens were arrested for their faith and executed at the military games in celebration of the Emperor Geta's birthday. The group consisted of a slave named Revocatus, his fellow slave Felicitas, the two free men Saturninus and Seculdulus, and Perpetua.
Summary of the Passio Text of Perpetua
The details of the martyrdoms survive in both Latin and Greek texts (see below). Perpetua's account of events leading to their deaths, apparently historical, is written in the first person. A brief introduction by the editor (chapters i–ii) is followed by the narrative and visions of Perpetua (iii–ix), and the vision of Saturus (xi–xiii). The account of their deaths, written by the editor who claims to be an eyewitness, is included at the end (xiv–xxi).
Perpetua’s account opens with conflict between her and her father, who wishes for her to recant her belief (iii). Perpetua refuses, and is soon baptized before being moved to prison (iii). After the guards are bribed, she is allowed to move to a better portion of the prison, where she nurses her child and gives its charge to her mother and brother (iii), and the child is able to stay in prison with her for the time being (iii).
At the encouragement of her brother, Perpetua asks for and receives a vision, in which she climbs a dangerous ladder to which various weapons are attached (iv). At the foot of a ladder is a dragon, which is faced first by Saturus and later by Perpetua (iv). The dragon does not harm her, and she ascends to a garden (iv). At the conclusion of her dream, Perpetua realizes that the martyrs will suffer (iv).
Pepetua’s father visits her in prison and pleads with her, but Perpetua remains steadfast in her faith (v). She is brought to a hearing before the governor Hilarianus and the martyrs confess their Christian faith (vi). In a second vision, Perpetua sees her brother Dinocrates, who had died unbaptized from cancer at the early age of seven (vii). She prayed for him and later had a vision of him happy and healthy, his facial disfigurement reduced to a scar (viii). Perpetua’s father again visits the prison, and Pudens (the warden) shows the martyrs honor (ix).
The day before her martyrdom, Perpetua envisions herself defeating a savage Egyptian and interprets this to mean that she would have to do battle not merely with wild beasts but with the Devil himself (x).
Saturus, who is also said to have recorded his own vision, sees himself and Perpetua transported eastward by four angels to a beautiful garden, where they meet Jocundus, Saturninus, Hinda, Artaius, and Dennis Quinntus, four other Christians who are burnt alive during the same persecution (xi-xii). He also sees Bishop Optatus of Carthage and the priest Aspasius, who beseech the martyrs to reconcile the conflicts between them (xiii).
As the editor resumes the story, Secundulus is said to have died in prison (xiv). The slave Felicitas gives birth to a daughter despite her initial concern that she would not be permitted to suffer martyrdom with the others, since the law forbade the execution of pregnant women (xv). On the day of the games, the martyrs are led into the amphitheatre (xviii). At the demand of the crowd they were first scourged before a line of gladiators; then a boar, a bear, and a leopard were set on the men, and a wild cow on the women (xix).
Wounded by the wild animals, they gave each other the kiss of peace and were then put to the sword (xix). The text describes Perpetua’s death as follows; "But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it" (xix). The text ends as the editor extols the acts of the martyrs.
Debate Over Authorship
The text Passio SS Perpetuae et Felicitatis claims to contain the personal account of Perpetua, and of Saturus’ vision written in his own hand (ii and xi). An editor has included an introduction and conclusion to the text (ii and xi). Scholars generally believe that the narrative was in fact, written by Perpetua. If this is true, the text is important because Perpetua is one of the first Christian female writers before the fourth century whose works have survived.
The personal account of a female martyr is also rare, as the stories of other female martyrs were recorded collectively. Perpetua’s style is described as “emotional”, “personal”, “fragmented” and “colloquial”, which is fitting with the circumstances under which she would have been writing. It should still be acknowledged that the style could have been crafted to give the impression of a female martyr’s diary.
Although some have suggested that the editor of the text is Tertullian, the editor’s identity remains uncertain. The writing style and content of the edited material do seem to suggest that the editor is male.
Many scholars have examined the male modification and transmission of a female martyrdom story that challenged power dynamics and gender hierarchies within the organized church. This issue of gender may have influenced the redaction tendencies of the editor. Brent Shaw argues that the editor of the story rewrites Perpetua’s experience in such a way that affirms the technical value of her martyrdom while simultaneously presenting her actions as unnatural.
Furthermore, the dream vision of Saturus is considered to be the result of editorial activity, unlikely to have been written by Saturus himself because of its distinctive construction and impersonal bent. If the editor is male, he may have been seeking to show that men and women, rather than women alone, are responsible for the dreams and visions received in the narrative.
Others argue that Felicity may have been the initial source for the dream, an attribution changed by the editor in order to circumvent the problematic implications of a female slave who can receive visions.
The date of their martyrdom is traditionally given as 203 CE. The Severan Persecution of 202-203, was the first calculated attempt through edict to suppress Christianity across the empire. Thus, the martyrdom may have occurred in the aftermath of Septimus Severus’s decrees of 202 that forbade conversion to Judaism and Christianity.
The association of the martyrdom with a birthday festival of the Emperor Geta, however, might seem to place it after 209, when Geta was made "Augustus" (having held the junior title Caesar since 198 when his elder brother had been made "Augustus"), though before 211, when he was assassinated. The Acta notes that the martyrdom occurred in the year when Minucius Timinianus was proconsul in the Roman province of Africa, but as Timinianus is not otherwise attested in history, this information does not clarify the date. The Golden Legend, however, places the martyrdom in 256, under the emperors Valerian and Gallienus.
Martyrdom was intended to combine physical punishment with public humiliation and degradation, and understood in context, the resultant cruelty and celebration of imperial power were neither unusual nor extraordinary. Ultimately, martyrdom symbolized obedience to the values represented by the church and reflected the belief that the church can fulfill and commend itself by self-sacrifice and death.
As seen in the story of Perpetua and other North African females, martyrdom became a means of self-empowerment for women in Christian circles.
Christians Challenging the Traditions of the Family within the Text
In the Passio, Christian faith motivates the martyrs to reject family loyalties and acknowledge a higher authority. In the text, Perpetua’s relationship with her father is the most prominently featured of all her familial ties, and she directly interacts with him four times (iii, v, vi, and ix).
Perpetua herself may have deemed this relationship to be her most important, given what is known about its importance within Roman society. Fathers expected that their daughters would care for them, honor them, and enhance their family reputation through marriage. In becoming a martyr, Perpetua failed to conform to society’s expectations.
Perpetua and Felicity also defer their roles as mothers to remain loyal to Christ, leaving behind young children at the time of their death.
Although the narrator does describe Perpetua as “honorably married”, no husband appears in the text. Possible explanations include that her husband was attempting to distance himself from the proceedings as a non-Christian, that he was away on business, or that her mention of him was edited out. Because Perpetua was called the bride of Christ, omission of her husband may have been intended to reduce any sexual implications (xviii). Regardless, the absence of a husband in the text leads Perpetua to assume new family loyalties and a new identify in relation to Christ.
Perpetua belonged to an aristocratic family with Roman citizenship, as indicated by her name Vibius Perpetua. Perpetua’s execution alongside slaves demonstrated Christianity’s ability to transcend social distinctions, in contrast to the inequality that pervaded Roman religion and society. As Perpetua and Felicity were equal in martyrdom despite differences in class, they made the dramatic statement that Christianity transcended social structure.
Evidence for Montanism in the Text
Most scholars believe that The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity present a Montanist theology. Montanism was a New Prophecy movement that arose in Phrygia, modern Turkey. The movement was founded by Montanus; a recent convert to Christianity who had shared new prophecies with followers. The New Prophecy movement emphasized a belief in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit visible in the prophetic words of Christians.
Perpetua and Saturus had received new dreams and prophesies within the text in accordance with the beliefs and tenets of Montanism. Further evidence for Montanism is that Perpetua and Felicity may have separated themselves from their partners in accordance with Montanist teachings, which allowed and sometimes even encouraged women to leave non-Christian husbands in favor of celibate lives devoted to preaching the Gospel.
However, nothing in the text is explicitly Montanist. Opponents of the new prophecy accused its members of having avoided martyrdom, which makes the identification of the Passio text as Montanist less likely.
The editor’s additions may be an attempt to validate Montanist beliefs, praising prophecy and visionary gifts from the spirit. In the introduction for example, the editor includes a biblical reference to the sons and daughters who shall prophesy in the last days (i). The editor also asserts the importance of acknowledging and honoring both “new prophecies” and “new visions” (i).
In Carthage a magnificent basilica was afterwards erected over the tomb of the martyrs, the Basilica Maiorum, where an ancient inscription bearing the names of Perpetua and Felicitas has been found.
Saints Felicitas and Perpetua (mentioned in that order) are two of seven women commemorated by name in the second part of the Canon of the Mass. The Blessed Virgin Mary is commemorated in the first part.
The feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 7 March, was celebrated even outside Africa, and is entered in the Philocalian Calendar, the 4th-century calendar of martyrs venerated publicly at Rome. When Saint Thomas Aquinas's feast was inserted into the Roman calendar, for celebration on the same day, the two African saints were thenceforth only commemorated.
This was the situation in the Tridentine Calendar established by Pope Pius V, and remained so until the year 1908, when Pope Pius X brought the date for celebrating them forward to 6 March. In the 1969 reform of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas was moved, and that of Saint Perpetua and Felicity was restored to their traditional 7 March date, but traditionalist Catholics continue to follow the 1908-1969 General Roman Calendar.
Other Churches, including the Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church, commemorate these two martyrs on 7 March, never having altered the date to 6 March. The Anglican Church of Canada, however, commemorates them on 6 March (The Book of Common Prayer, 1962).
In the Eastern Orthodox Church the feast day of Saints Perpetua of Carthage and the catechumens Saturus, Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus, and Felicitas is February 1.
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