Today, March 7, we celebrate the feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, two young women who were martyred for Christ in 203 A.D. Perpetua and Felicity were as different as could be, one a noble woman of wealth and privilege, the other a pregnant slave. But they were united in their courage and love of the Lord, and a faith which they would not renounce, even under torture and death. The martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity survives in writing, largely due to the personal diaries of Saint Perpetua. This account, The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, is one of the earliest writings of the Church, the earliest historical writing by a Christian woman, and a telling firsthand account of the suffering and torture endured by the martyrs during a time of great persecution.
Saint Perpetua was only 22 when she was martyred. The daughter of nobility, she was well-educated and by all accounts, high-spirited and firm in her opinions. She had given birth to a son, but subsequently had lost her husband. A widow and new mother, she lived with her father in Carthage. Perpetua converted to Christianity, much against her father’s will. He tried in vain to convince her otherwise, given justified concerns regarding the persecution of Christians at that time under the reign of Emperor Septimus.
“See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is?” Her father answered quickly, “of course not,” and she responded, “Neither can I call myself any other name than what I am- a Christian.” Along with two of her brothers, Perpetua converted and was baptized into the faith. Following their argument, her father beat her, but then left her company, as described in the passion. Her time without him, while a reprieve from his anger, led to her arrest and imprisonment: “Then my father angry with this word came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil. Then because I was without my father for a few days I gave thanks unto the Lord; and I was comforted because of his absence. In this same space of a few days we were baptized, and the Spirit declared to me, I must pray for nothing else after that water save only endurance of the flesh. After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was much afraid because I had never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the press, there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented there by care for the child.”
“I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were swords there, spears, hooks, and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there was right at the ladder's foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first (who afterwards had of his own free will given up himself for our -sakes, because it was he who had edified us; and when we were taken he had not been there). And he came to the ladder's head; and he turned and said: Perpetua, I await you; but see that serpent bite you not. And I said: it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ. And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd's clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: Welcome, child. And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, Amen. And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet.
And at once I told my brother, and we knew it should be a passion; and we began to have no hope any longer in this world.”
Throughout her lenghty imprisonment, Perpetua would receive further vision—visions that informed her of the state of her fellow prisoners, including her brother who had been separated from the group, and visions of the glory of the Lord. Each of these visions she recounted to the group, forming a particular bond of Christian love with the slave, Felicity, despite their economic and class differences. To these brave young women, the love of the Lord knew no prejudice! Her last vision, described in her last diary entry on the night before her martyrdom is one of hope and eternal life:
“The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come hither to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. And I went out to him and opened to him; he was clothed in a white robe ungirdled, having shoes curiously wrought. And he said to me: Perpetua, we await you; come. And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much breathing hard we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. And he said to me: Be not afraid; I am here with you and labor together with you. And he went away. And I saw much people watching closely. And because I knew that I was condemned to the beasts I marveled that beasts were not sent out against me. And there came out against me a certain ill-favored Egyptian with his helpers, to fight with me. Also there came to me comely young men, my helpers and aiders. And I was stripped naked, and I became a man. And my helpers began to rub me with oil as their custom is for a contest; and over against me saw that Egyptian wallowing in the dust. And there came forth a man of very great stature, so that he overpassed the very top of the amphitheatre, wearing a robe ungirdled, and beneath it between the two stripes over the breast a robe of purple; having also shoes curiously wrought in gold and silver; bearing a rod like a master of gladiators, and a green branch whereon were golden apples. And he besought silence and said: The Egyptian, if shall conquer this woman, shall slay her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch. And he went away. And we came nigh to each other, and began to buffet one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my helpers began to sing. And I went up to the master of gladiators and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: Daughter, peace be with you. And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life.
And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.
Thus far I have written this, till the day before the games; but the deed of the games themselves let him write who will.”
The martyrdom of these five, as recounted in the passion, is both greusome and glorifying to the Lord. The trial of the six soon-to-be martyrs took place before the Procurator Hilarianus. Upon questioning, each of them stood resolutely in the faith of Christ, confessing their faith to all who would listen. Perpetua’s father, carrying her infant boy from who she had been separated in prison, followed her, attempting to convince her to renounce God for her baby. The Procurator, taking pity upon her, encouraged her to do the same, but she was not to be swayed. Perpetua, with Felicity who had given birth only the day before, by her side, refused to make offerings to the pagan gods, and was therefore sentenced to death in the arena—deaths referred to as “games” by most of the spectators. During these events, Christians and common criminals were stripped naked and thrown into the arena filled with hungry and wild animals. Their deaths were often horrific, violent, and extremely painful.
Despite their sentencing, the six praised the Lord, giving thanks for His love and mercy.
“Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheatre as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism. And when they had been brought to the gate and were being compelled to put on, the men the dress of the priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres, the noble Perpetua remained of like firmness to the end, and would not. For she said: For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives, that we might do no such thing as this; this we agreed with you. Injustice acknowledged justice; the tribune suffered that they should be brought forth as they were, without more ado. Perpetua began to sing, as already treading on the Egyptian's head. Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus threatened the people as they gazed. Then when they came into Hilarian's sight, they began to say to Hilarian, stretching forth their hands and nodding their heads: You judge us, they said, and God you. At this the people being enraged besought that they should be vexed with scourges before the line of gladiators (those namely who fought with beasts). Then truly they gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord.”
Stand fast in the faith and love one another.”
While the crowd had called for the execution, and mocked and jeered the martyrs during their trials, many were moved by the bravery of the young women especially, and many converted that same day.
“Stand fast in the faith and love one another.”