It has been a while since my last post. Unfortunately, I got home from England to discover an e-mail informing me that my thesis is now due a lot earlier than I had originally been advised.
Long story short, I’ve been working my tail off over the last couple of months, and I’m pleased to say that the thesis is about 90% of the way there– all the substantive chapters are done and proofread, so now it’s time for the introduction and conclusion followed by a last round of editing. (Huzzah!) But this morning I felt the urge to post something to my blog, so here it is!
This is actually the script of a presentation I put together for my Classics postgraduate reading group on The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas– it’s all very informal. I’m going to be a good Classicist and open by declaring how unworthy I am to present on this topic. Also, this is an incredibly complex text, a bit of an anomaly really. I’ve read it a few times and I’m still not sure I’ve got my head around it… There’s a huge amount of secondary literature on Perpetua, of which I’ve barely scratched the surface. What you’re about to read is based on a combination of my thesis research, my general knowledge, and close reading. I haven’t had time to come up with my own translation, unfortunately, so all translations come from that of the late Rev. R. E. Wallis, in the Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 3. The full text of the public domain translation may be found here. http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-54.htm#P12104_3374882.
EDIT: I would like to direct readers’ attention to the very helpful comments below by Professor Thomas J. Heffernan of the University of Tennessee, writer of “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.” Oxford University Press, 2012. Prof. Heffernan is a far greater authority on the text than I am.
The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas narrates the martyrdom of a 22 year old Romano-African Christian, Vibia Perpetua, along with her companions. It’s a really interesting text for a few reasons. It provides a fascinating snapshot of ante-Nicene Christianity, the phenomenon of martyrdom, and in particular it sheds light upon the reasons for persecution of Christians in North Africa. But more than that, it contains (as far as I’m aware) the only ancient example of a woman’s diary. It gives us good insight into her response to patriarchy. It’s especially valuable for me, because it’s the only source on childrearing written from a female perspective.
The date of the action is a bit muddy. The games at which Perpetua and Felicitas met their demise were held in honour of Geta’s birthday. Ostensibly, this would seem to put the action of the narrative sometime in the years 209-211, between Geta’s assumption of the title ‘Augustus’ and his murder by Caracalla. The problem is that Tertullian mentions Perpetua’s martyrdom in his De Anima, and it looks suspiciously like he may have actually read the text. If we accept Timothy Barnes’ chronology of Tertullian’s work (and no-one’s come up with a convincing reason not to), De Anima was written sometime from 206-207, which situates the martyrdom sometime before Geta’s accession. I wonder if maybe Geta was being celebrated as the heir rather than as ruler—he is, after all, referred to as ‘Caesar’ rather than ‘Augustus.’
The names of the governors don’t really help us to provide a more precise date. The text mentions that the proconsul of Africa, Hilarianus, had recently taken over from the late Minucius Timinianus. This Timinianus is not attested in any other source, and Hilarianus is mentioned on inscriptions from 198-209. It’s possible that Timinianus’ name is actually a corruption of ‘Opimianus,’ the proconsul of Africa who served until 203, but your guess is as good as mine.
The martyrdom is often placed in the so-called Severan persecution of 202-203. However, the basis for this date is the SHA’s record of an imperial edict Severus apparently issued in the tenth year of his reign, which illegalised conversion to Christianity and Judaism. There’s been considerable debate over whether this edict or the resulting persecutions were genuine. The jury’s still out on whether it’s true. I’m personally not inclined to believe it. There is no contemporary evidence that similar persecutions occurred outside of Africa, at least not in any systematic way. What we have are isolated examples of mob violence against Christians, rather than a state-sponsored religious pogrom; there is no firm evidence that such occurrences were regular or particularly well-organised. In North Africa we have a real problem of sample bias, in that our only texts on the Severan persecution—Tertullian, the Passion of Perpetua, and the Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs—came from ecstatic, rather more severe sects. We can see this throughout the text, as it’s filled with apocalyptic visions under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the persecutors targeted only the most uncompromising and ecstatic branches of Christianity.
Latin and Greek versions of the work have survived, the earlier of which is undoubtedly the Latin. The text is divided into three sections. Chapters 1-2 consist of introductory remarks by the editor. Then the text launches into what purports to be Perpetua’s own first-person account of her suffering in prison, and the visions she experienced there. Then the text provides Saturus’ account of his visions. Finally, the text reverts to a third-person perspective, where the editor narrates their deaths in the arena.
Who is this editor? We don’t know. Once upon a time, around the turn of the century, it was often attributed to Tertullian, but there’s no real evidence to support the idea. The text gets bundled in with some of his works in several of the manuscripts, but I think we can all agree that’s pretty shaky evidence. If it was by Tertullian, he would certainly be stepping outside of his comfort zone; Tertullian wrote polemics, not martyrologies. Let’s go through the text.
Chapter One opens with a prologue, an exordium in which the editor tells us that he is publishing the Passion because he wants to inspire future generations in their faith by providing them examples to live up to, and so that non-Christian readers might be inspired to convert. And this will be a running theme throughout the text. Pagans are continuously amazed at the piety of Perpetua and her companions, and are moved to either convert or treat them with dignity. However, the editor also seeks to make a theological point, that the charismatic inspiration of the Holy Spirit was not confined solely to the earliest days of Christianity, but continued to his day. He argues that his intended Christian reader should thus embrace new prophecies, and not just ancient ones.
Chapter Two introduces our protagonists: the slaves Revocatus and Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and of course, Perpetua herself. All of these people were catechumens, that is to say, recent converts under instruction in preparation for baptism. They’ve just been apprehended. What they’re being charged with, we don’t actually know, at least at this stage. Perpetua, we are told, was:
‘…a woman well born, liberally educated, and honourably married, who had a father, mother, and two brothers, one of whom was also a catechumen. She had an infant son still at the breast, and was about twenty-two years of age.’
Straight off the bat, this tells us that upper-class Romano-African women could receive a good education, particularly in rhetoric, I think. Perpetua continually makes convincing arguments to her captors.
But there are a couple of issues, too. Throughout Perpetua’s narrative, her husband is conspicuous by his absence. It’s her father who attempts to convince her to renounce her Christianity; if she were in a manus marriage, then patria postestas would have normally passed onto her husband. As it is, he’s nowhere to be found. Maybe he was away on business, maybe he was dead, maybe he just wanted to wash his hands of the whole thing. Maybe she didn’t have a manus marriage, meaning her father was still her nominal paterfamilias. We just don’t know. I also think it’s worth asking about this Christian brother. Given how much grief her Christianity causes her dad, surely that of her brother would have come up somewhere. If her brother was, in fact, a Christian, it makes me wonder if Perpetua and company weren’t actually being charged with Christianity per se. I do wonder if maybe the editor got confused by the Christian habit of referring to each other as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Christ.
Chapter three launches into Perpetua’s narration. She starts the story in medias res, telling us how her father, because of his love for her, tried to convince her to give up her faith. She uses the rhetorical exemplum of an analogy to convince him to leave her alone.
‘Father,’ I said, ‘do you see this vase lying here, for example, this small water pitcher or whatever?’ ‘I see it,’ he said. And I said to him: ‘Can it be called by another name other than what it is?’ And he said: ‘No.’ ‘In the same way, I am unable to call myself other than what I am, a Christian.’
At this point, her father is so enraged that he attacks her, trying to gouge out her eyes. This leaves Perpetua understandably upset, but unswayed in her resolve. I think this is a good illustration of the relationship between the paterfamilias and his adult children. He obviously has a lot of affection for his kids, in fact, he even tells Perpetua later on that she’s his favourite. He feels responsible for her wellbeing. Despite this sentimental attachment, it’s also clear that their power relationship is unequal. When she steps out of line, he resorts to intimidation, manipulation and violence. It has quite an effect, too; Perpetua is unafraid of torture and getting ripped to shreds by wild beasts. Her father is the only thing which causes her distress. It’s clear that she too has a lot of love for her father, but when forced to choose between her God and her dad, she chooses God. I think this is a good illustration of why there was sometimes friction between Christians and Pagans; among zealots, faith could overturn the normal pecking order of the Roman family, and arguably of Roman society.
Perpetua is now baptised, and a few days later the groovy gang are moved into prison. She tells us that her number one concern is for her baby. The deacons Tertius and Pomponius slip a bribe to the soldiers guarding the prison, and they are released from the dungeon and sent to a nicer part of the jail. There, they are allowed visitors. This jail does seem to have a bit of an open door policy: people wander in and out throughout the story. Perpetua meets up with her mother and brother, who have been looking after the baby. The baby is by now weak from hunger. The child is clearly not neonatal—it has to be at least a few months old. A newborn would have died after days without milk of dehydration and starvation. It has to be at least old enough to take water. Perpetua takes the baby and feels a great deal of relief as she can now nurse it in prison. But here, we have a problem. If she has been breast-feeding, then surely a few days off from breastfeeding would have been enough for her milk to dry up. This does actually happen later on in the story. In the meantime, it seems that she got her milk supply back, before it mysteriously vanishes again; one possible explanation is that she was expressing by hand to keep the supply going.
In Chapter 4, Perpetua’s brother (whether it’s her biological brother or a brother in Christ) asks her for a vision, whether there will be any end to their suffering. Perpetua has a dream-vision where she and her teacher Saturus (who has apparently turned himself in) are ascending a ladder to heaven, (not a stairway!). There are bladed weapons of various sorts affixed to it,
‘…so that if anyone climbed up carelessly, or not looking upwards, he was torn to pieces and his flesh clung to the iron weapons. And there was a serpent of great size lying at the foot of the ladder, which would lie in wait for those who climbed and deterred them from climbing.’
Saturus goes up before her, and Perpetua interprets this as a sign that he’s going to die first. (As it turns out, she’s right). Perpetua crushes the serpent underfoot (I think the editor might have had a foot fetish, as feet seem to be something of a preoccupation for him). Perpetua reaches the next world: a bucolic garden. There she sees a kindly old shepherd, who offers her welcome and gives her a piece of cheese—actually some traditions have it as a small cake. Some have suggested that this may be an early representation of the Eucharist. Perpetua wakes up, and immediately she and Saturus conclude that they will soon be martyred.
Why exactly? For the answer, I think we need to go to Perpetua’s contemporary, and fellow North African, Tertullian. In his De Anima and De Resurrectione Mortuorum, Tertullian tells us that only martyrs have immediate access to heaven. All other souls descend to hell, there to await the resurrection of their flesh in the last days. Christian laypeople would only reach heaven upon Christ’s return. As proof, Tertullian points to the fact that Perpetua sees only fellow martyrs in her vision of heaven. I think this might give us a good clue as to why Perpetua and co. appear so eager for martyrdom. On the other hand, the incentive of heaven didn’t work on everyone—Tertullian didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to become a martyr himself, much to the ire of Gibbon.
In Chapter Five, word gets out that Perpetua and co. are going to get a public hearing before the proconsul. Her dad comes to her as a supplicant, and begs her again to change her mind.
‘My daughter, have pity on my gray hair, have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you, if with these hands I have raised you to this flower of youth, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not shame me among men. Think about your brothers, think about your mother and your mother’s sister, think about your son who will not be able to live without you. Give up your pride; do not destroy us all. For, if you are punished, none of us will be able to speak freely again.’
I think it’s interesting that he’s as much concerned for his own reputation and that of his family as he is for her life.
Next, the Carthage Five are whisked off for their trial, which her father attends, begging her to reconsider. Hilarianus, the proconsul, gives her the chance to offer sacrifice for the emperors, and she refuses, instead proudly confessing her faith. Hilarianus condemns them to die in the arena, and they cheerfully go back to prison. Perpetua’s dad weeps and begs her for the last time, and Perpetua is very upset as Hilarianus orders the lictors to beat him.
Here, I can really see why people might have seen Christian ecstatics as being politically subversive, and anti-social. Christianity was a closed society, which (as far as outsiders were concerned) refused to give due homage to the leader of the state. This might be construed as treason, but the implications are a lot deeper. The Emperor was the guarantor of the pax Romana. He provided the provinces security and stability, and ensured prosperity throughout the empire. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult would have seemed an open abrogation of all the benefits of civilisation. I also detect a note of hesitancy in the governor’s decision to execute the Christians; Perpetua and co. had numerous opportunities to get out of the death sentence, but their zeal for martyrdom prevented them. It takes a certain kind of crazy to march off to your execution with a big grin on your face.
A lot of commentators, starting with Augustine, seem to feel that Perpetua was somewhat callous in the fact that she was not moved by the needs of her infant. I think that is really rather unfair. At the end of the chapter, she asks Pomponius the deacon to bring the baby back to her, but her dad refuses. This was not a matter of her abandoning the baby; also, Perpetua tells us that by this point her milk supply had dried up, and the child had stopped suckling.
‘And as God willed, the baby no longer desired my breasts, nor did they ache and become inflamed, so that I might not be tormented by worry for my child or by the pain in my breasts.’
As my wife will tell you, it really does rather hurt to give up breastfeeding, as the breasts become engorged and swollen; I can imagine why Perpetua was relieved. What became of her child? We don’t know. Very frustratingly, we don’t know how old it was, since Perpetua uses the generic term infans, which is applicable right up to the teens. In rare cases, it can even be applied to mute adults, since it literally means ‘unspeaking.’ If the baby was old enough, it could have been put onto solid food. If it was too young for weaning, then Perpetua’s father ensured its death by keeping it away from her.
In chapters 7 and 8, Perpetua has a vision of her younger brother, who had died of natural causes some years previously. She sees that this entire time he has been suffering in hell. The next day, as she is put in the stocks, Perpetua prays for his soul, and experiences another vision, saying that his soul has been sent to heaven. I find it intriguing from a theological perspective that one could pray for the dead; there does seem to be a bit of a loophole in the idea that only martyrs saw heaven straight off.
In chapter 9, Perpetua tells us that Pudens, the military overseer of the prison, has by now come to admire the martyrs and treat them with respect, recognising that ‘there was some great power in us.’ He lets in many visitors for the prisoners. Included among them is Perpetua’s father, there to see her for the last time. She grieves for him even as he grieves for her. But by this point, it’s too late to change the outcome of the trial.
In chapter 10, Perpetua has her last recorded vision. In her vision, Pomponius leads her to the arena. Here, she has to fight an Egyptian, under the watchful eye of a giant gladiator trainer dressed in royal purple. The Egyptian grabs her by her feet and lifts her up into the air, but she manages to crush it like she did the serpent. The big gladiator trainer (God) congratulates her.
‘And he kissed me and he said to me: ‘Daughter, peace be with you.’ And I began to walk in triumph to the Gate of Life. And then I woke up. And I knew that I was going to fight with the devil and not with the beasts; but I knew that victory was to be mine.’
It’s not surprising that she interpreted the vision of the Egyptian as a matter of contending with the devil; Egypt is the Biblical pasture of demons and the possessed; it was the site of Israelite enslavement (at least in Exodus).
But I’m not entirely sure what to make of this part, where Perpetua tells us that before the match, she is stripped naked. This whole episode foreshadows her final end, where the editor tells us she and Felicitas are indeed stripped. This might simply be reportage—I don’t think it’s inconceivable that people were sent into the arena naked. But I can’t help think of the symbolism of nudity in Judeo-Christian literature. Depending on the context, the unclothed body is often constructed as an object of erotic desire, especially within marriage. To appear naked in public is often (not always) a source of shame. But nudity could also represent innocence, rebirth, and very importantly, baptism. The text twice describes martyrdom as a kind of second baptism—I don’t really have any conclusions to this thought, but it is interesting.
Here, we leave Perpetua’s perspective, and move to Saturus’ vision. He sees himself and Perpetua lifted toward heaven by the angels. In an idyllic garden, angels greet them enthusiastically and clad them in white robes. Then they meet God, a white-haired but youthful man, clad in long robes—Saturus makes sure to tell us that he couldn’t see His feet. The juxtaposition of youth and old age almost strikes me as Dionysiac. Saturus and Perpetua meet fellow martyrs, and also their local bishop Optatus and the priest Aspasius. Apparently these two had some sort of falling out, but prostrating themselves, they somewhat cryptically say, ‘Make peace between us, for you have gone away and left us in this state.’ Perpetua and Saturus embrace them, and gently rebuke them for arguing among themselves; an angel tells Perpetua and Saturus to leave them alone, and to resolve any quarrels between themselves. It doesn’t surprise me at all to find that there was some kind of local division among the Christian communities of Carthage at this time; there were numerous sects living in close proximity. And moreover, Tertullian seems to have made a career out of bashing every Christian under the sun.
Anyway, the text finally reverts to the third-person perspective of the editor in Chapter 14. He tells us that Secundulus apparently died in prison. In Chapter 15, we get our first real mention of Felicitas, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest. She gives birth in prison, and rejoices that she was able to bring her child forth in time for her to be martyred with her friends. Very weirdly, the text tells us that pregnant women were not allowed to be executed in the arena. This does seem to corroborate a law Ulpian mentions in the Digesta of Justinian (48.19.3, if you want to look it up), and it does help explain something Tertullian says in his letter to his wife, admonishing her that she couldn’t serve very effectively as a martyr if she had a child. Anyway, I can understand Felicitas’ feelings, as the alternative was to be executed with the next batch of criminals; better to die among friends, I guess.
Chapter 16 contains a couple of interesting tidbits—apparently in the lead-up to the games, the tribune mistreated them by denying them food, because he was under the impression that they might escape via sorcery. I tend to think the Romans’ association of Christianity with witchcraft might have been another reason for persecution in North Africa. (And this is hardly a new idea). Perpetua manages to convince him to give them proper food, so that they’re looking their best for Geta’s birthday. The tribune is properly ashamed of himself. Here, the theme of pagan conversion re-emerges. The text tells us that by this point Pudens has converted to Christianity. Very similarly, in the next chapter, Saturus manages to shame the jeering gawkers who come to mock the prisoners into converting.
Our heroes are led into the arena, heads held high and singing hymns. They are forced to put on costumes—the men are expected to dress as priests of Saturn, and the women like priestesses of Ceres. Perpetua ‘that noble-minded woman’ saves her friends from this indignity, invoking an agreement she had struck with the tribune whereby the martyrs would be permitted to wear their own clothes into the arena, so long as they came quietly.
The games begin in chapter 19, and they are quite visceral and bloody. Saturninus and Revocatus fight a leopard and a bear, while Saturus fights a wild boar, which promptly goes wild and kills the bestiarius tending it. Saturus is then tied down on a platform to be slaughtered by the bear, who, very awkwardly, refuses to leave its cage. One might almost think there’s someone looking out for him! Meanwhile, Perpetua’s vision comes true, as she and Felicitas are stripped—but the crowd is ashamed of itself at the sight of a young girl and a lactating mother. So they are recalled and dressed in simple robes and face their beast—a monstrous cow. The mad cow tosses Perpetua into the air, (rather like the Egyptian) and crushes Felicitas, but both survive. Perpetua has now entered a trance-like state, and is barely aware of her wounds. With one bite, the leopard finally finishes off Saturus, who in his last moments tells Pudens not to forget what they have died for.
‘”Farewell, remember the faith and me; and do not let these things trouble you but strengthen you.” At the same time he asked Pudens for the small ring from his finger, and dipping it into his wound, he returned it to him as a legacy, leaving it to him as a pledge and a memorial of his blood.’
As Perpetua predicted, he’s the first to snuff it. The survivors of the games move into the middle of the arena for execution. Saturninus and Revocatus must have lived through their fight with the leopard and the bear. The martyrs share the kiss of peace, and are finally stabbed. The gladiator who kills Perpetua is new to the job and a little unsteady of hand, so after checking her hair is straight, she guides the sword to her throat herself.
‘Perhaps such a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been killed unless she herself had willed it.’
The editor then finishes off with his rousing conclusion, where he reaffirms his point that the Holy Spirit continues to act through the Church.
‘Bravest and most blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ! Anyone who praises, honors, and adores his glory surely should read these deeds, which are no less worthy than the old ones for building up the church. For these new deeds of courage too may witness that one and the same Holy Spirit is always working among us even now, along with God, the Father almighty, and his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, to whom is glory and endless power forever and ever. Amen.’
Amen indeed. More posts soonish.