Perpetua and Felicity

By Dave Kopel

No saints were more uniformly honored in the early Christian era than Saints Perpetua and Felicity. The two women were arrested and imprisoned, along with three other Christians, in Carthage in 203 A.D. Perpetua was 22-year-old noblewoman with a son a few months old; Felicity a slave with a child not yet born. Their crime was defying Emperor Septimus Severus' prohibition of conversions to Christianity.

The account of their martyrdom and courage, The Suffering of Perpetua and Felicity, is one of the earliest historical accounts of Christianity, and one of the most feminist. Read in African churches for the next several centuries, it was treated as nearly equivalent to scripture. (A full English translation appears in Musurillo's The Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford, 1972]; Butler's unabridged Lives of the Saints contains lengthy excerpts.)

While the five (along with their instructor in faith) were being held awaiting execution, Perpetua's father urged his favorite child to save her life and life of her baby by renouncing her faith. "Father," she answered, "do you see this vessel--waterpot or whatever it may be?...Can it be called by any other name than what it is?"

"No," he replied.

"So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am--a Christian."

At a trial shortly thereafter, Perpetua refused to offer a sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors. When the court asked "Are you a Christian?" she answered, "Yes, I am," thereby condemning herself to death.

A few days before the festival games, at which the martyrs would face wild beasts in the coliseum, Perpetua had a dream in which she was transformed into a man, and engaged in unarmed combat with an Egyptian (signifying the devil). "I was lifted up into the air and began to strike him as one who no longer trod the earth...I caught hold of his head and he fell upon his face; and I trod on his head," she dreamt. The other captives also had visions which fortified their courage.

Felicity, meanwhile, had been afraid, that she would not suffer with the rest, because Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women. In answer to her prayers, her child was born while she was in prison, and was promptly adopted by a Christian couple.

Perpetua had managed to convert their jailer to Christianity, and so the captives were treated well in their final days.

The prisoners turned their last meal into an agape, a lovefeast, and spoke of the joy of their own sufferings--thereby astonishing most witnesses, and converting some.

When the day of the Games arrived, Perpetua and Felicity went to the amphitheater "joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven," as Perpetua sang a psalm of triumph. The guards attempted to force the captives to wear robes consecrated to Roman gods, but Perpetua resisted so fiercely that they were allowed to wear their own clothes. The three male martyrs threatened the crowd, including the procurator who had condemned them, with the judgment of God, thereby enraging the crowd.

One of the men, Saturnius, although prepared for martyrdom, was terrified of bears. Saturnius was first exposed to a wild boar, which turned upon its keeper, and promptly killed him. Saturnius was then tied up, and exposed to a bear, which refused to come out of its den. As Saturnius had hoped, he was quickly killed by a single bite from a leopard. As he died, he said to his newly-converted jailer, "Farewell: keep the faith and me in mind, and let these things not confound but confirm you."

A wild heifer was sent against the women. The heifer tossed Perpetua, who got up, straightened her hair, and helped Felicity regain her feet. Absorbed in ecstasy, Perpetua was unaware that she had been thrown, and did not believe it until Felicity showed her the marks on her body.

Having survived the animals, the women were to be executed. They exchanged a final kiss of peace. A nervous gladiator tried to kill Perpetua, but failed to finish the job until she guided the knife to her throat. "Perhaps so great a woman...could not else have been slain except she willed it," the Passion observes.

Although the execution in the Coliseum was intended as entertainment, and enjoyed as such by most of the jeering crowd, some of the spectators, inspired by the martyrs' fearlessness, became converts; nor were these spectators the last people who would be encouraged by Perpetua and Felicity, who, even at the cost of their lives, worshipped God and not the state. They are celebrated on March 7.

More by Kopel on Catholic Saints.

MaryLinks. Organized collection of links regarding the Virgin Mary, plus a daily calendar with links for Marian feasts, history, and essays.

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