Perpetua and Felicitas

900 words | 4 page(s)

One of the earliest Christian heroes of the faith was a young Roman noblewoman named Perpetua. She was martyred in the arena by the Roman government in Carthage in 203 C.E. for being a newly converted Christian. Her story is told in “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas”, which consists of the diary she kept in prison along with the story of her death as written by an anonymous author. The text details the imprisonment and deaths of not only Perpetua but also other new converts, including a pregnant slave named Felicitas. The personalized account of her trials and tribulations allows modern readers to get a realistic glimpse into the life of an early Christian woman. In this paper, I will discuss Perpetua’s personal history, her significance, and how she applies to my own life.

The History of Perpetua
During the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, there were sporadic persecutions of Christians and Jews throughout the empire, particularly against new converts as they posed a greater threat to shaking up the Roman status quo. Perpetua was a twenty-two year old married and educated woman from a noble Roman family in the province of Carthage. In her diary, Perpetua wrote a great deal about her family, including a new baby who she had to give up after her arrest. She also wrote about her Pagan father who pleaded with her to renounce her faith. Finally, Perpetua wrote about her deeply spiritual, prescient, and often violent visions in which she communicated with her dead brother and received divine predictions of her fate in the arena. When Perpetua was brought into the amphitheatre before wild animals, she proved “that even novice Christians can die an exemplary death”. In her newfound Christianity, Perpetua found the authority to demand better treatment from her persecutors. When the Romans attempted to dress her and her fellow prisoners in the robes of Pagan priests and priestesses, she used her authority to stop this from happening. She also managed to win over the crowd who eventually called for her merciful death. As a Roman centurion approached Perpetua to cut her throat, he was unable to do it. Perpetua guided his hand proving that even her enemies had no power over her.

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The Significance of Perpetua
The significance of Perpetua as a hero of the faith is reflected in her role as a model of Christian community support and religious authority in the face of persecution. For example, when Perpetua and her fellow converts were arrested, they faced many hardships in the “stifling, overcrowded, pitch-dark prison”. Perpetua and her cohorts supported one another through prayer and comfort. Even the outside Christian community offered their support by means of bribing the guards to get the prisoners better treatment. In this way, Perpetua’s story serves as a model for Christian community support.

Perpetua’s story is also significant because she represents a model of religious authority in the face of persecution. She could have easily denounced her Christianity, but instead she showed great resolve and courage in choosing to stay true to her faith, even if it meant being separated from her family and facing a horrific death. In a way, her Christian brothers and sisters became her new family. When her father begged her to recant, she told him, “It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.’ Perpetua is an early example of true Christian faith in the face of adversity.

Perpetua to Me
I was first introduced to the story of Perpetua from a former teacher and something about her story has stuck with me in my pursuit of a good Christian life. She serves as a reminder to have faith, even in the face of naysayers or nonbelievers. Also, the way in which Perpetua seeks out advice and mentorship from other Christians is a reminder to seek out my own mentors and teachers in my religious life. Finally, Perpetua’s bravery and resolve in the face of many horrors helps me realize my own anxieties can be assuaged through my faith. She had real things to be afraid of and her courage gives me courage.

Even though her time on earth was relatively short, Perpetua certainly made a lasting impression on the early Christian community in Carthage. Although she is not as well known today, she was popular enough during the early part of the 3rd century to have her diary edited and published by an unknown author who many scholars theorize was actually the early church father Tertullian. Perpetua’s journey has the ability to inspire faith, teach community support and mindfulness, and offers a glimpse into the heart and mind of one of Christianity’s earliest heroes.

  • Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity; Twentieth Anniversary Edition with a New Introduction (columbia Classics in Religion). 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
  • Ehrman, Bart D., ed. After the New Testament: a Reader in Early Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.
  • Frend, W. H. C. Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
  • “Medieval Sourcebook the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity 203: St.perpetua.” Fordham University. October 11, 2013. Accessed October 11, 2013.
  • Sara, Jarvis. “Perpetua.” The Expository Times 120, no. 8 (March 2009): 365-72.

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