Perpetua: Read and be glad you live when you do
Of all the Christian martyrs in the 300 years after Jesus, Perpetua is one of the better known in the early church period. She died on Mar 7, 203 in the persecution of the Roman emperor Septimius Serverus. Her story is told in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. The word “passion” is used here as a heightened awareness of God, often before a martyr’s death. The story is divided into two parts: the first part was written by Perpetua herself, the second part (including her death) was written by a Christian onlooker. During Perpetua’s time, everyone was supposed to sacrifice an animal to the emperor as a sign of loyalty. Perpetua, Felicity, and others in the story refused and so were condemned to death.
From Perpetua herself:
- A few days after [we had been taken to prison], the report went abroad that we were to be tried. My father returned from the city spent with weariness, and he came up to me to deny my faith saying, “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father . . . if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of youth, and I have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your faith; do not destroy us all together. . . .”
- Another day we were at meal when we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we came to the forum. Soon a report spread abroad through the parts near to the forum, and a very great multitude gathered together. We went up to the tribunal. . . . And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” And Hilarian the procurator . . . said: “Spare your father’s grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.” And I answered: “I am a Christian.” . . . Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon.
From an anonymous Christian:
- 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. . . . For the women the devil had made ready a most savage cow, prepared for this purpose. . . Perpetua was thrown in first [and mauled but did not die. Then she] awakening from sleep (so much was she in the Spirit and in ecstasy) began first to look about her; and then (which amazed all there), “When,” she asked, “are we to be thrown to the cow?” And when she heard that this had been done already, she would not believe till she perceived some marks of mauling on her body and on her dress. Thereupon she called her brother to her, and another Christian, and spoke to them saying: “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not afraid because of our death.” . . .
- [Perpetua still being alive], 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 had she not herself so willed it.
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