Died AD 203, in Carthage (modern Tunisia)
Perpetua, a young Christian in the African city of Carthage, was nearing the end of the time of training that every new believer received. She and several other new believers – Saturninus, Secundulus, Revocatus, and Felicitas – were preparing for baptism. Their little group of disciples typified the diversity found within the growing body of Christ. Perpetua was twenty-two, born to a wealthy family, and the mother of an infant son. Revocatus and Felicitas, who was pregnant, were both slaves.
But the group’s Christian training was cut short when the Roman authorities of the province arrested them for refusing to worship the empire’s deities. Though the current emperor was more tolerant of Christians than many of his predecessors, there was still widespread local persecution. Perpetua and her new friends were imprisoned to await trial. She kept her baby with her. In solidarity, Saturus, another member of the group who had not been arrested with the others, turned himself in.
“Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am – a Christian.”
Soon after their arrest, Perpetua’s father visited her. Knowing the danger to his daughter, he tried to convince her to turn away from her faith. She responded by pointing to some pottery in her cell. “Father, do you see this container lying here? Is it a little pitcher, or is it something else?”
“It’s a pitcher,” he replied.
Perpetua continued, “Can it be called by any name other than what it is?”
“No,” he said.
Perpetua replied, “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am – a Christian.” Her father flew into a rage and attacked her physically. When he finally left, Perpetua gave thanks to God.
At this time, the prisoners were baptized in the prison and welcomed into the full community of the Christians. Perpetua’s baptism was a deep source of encouragement for her.
Soon after, however, prison officials transferred the group to a worse section of the dungeon. Fearing for her baby in the dark, unhealthy environment, Perpetua asked her mother and brother to take him. Fortunately, it was soon arranged for the prisoners to be moved to a better part of the prison, where Perpetua could once again nurse and care for her child.
Perpetua’s brother suggested that she ask God for a vision to discover the divine purpose of her captivity. Confident that she would receive one, she told him, “Tomorrow I will tell you.” That night Perpetua saw an incredibly tall, narrow ladder made of gold and stretching to heaven. The ladder was beautiful except for one thing: all sorts of cruel weapons – swords, lances, hooks, and daggers – were attached to the sides of it, endangering reckless climbers. The weapons weren’t the only danger; below the ladder she saw a huge, crouching dragon waiting to consume those who would not make the climb.
In the vision, Saturus made the climb first. Reaching the top, he encouraged Perpetua to join him. The dragon lifted its head as she approached, but undeterred, she stepped on its head as the first stride upward. She climbed the ladder and came to the top, where she found herself in an immense garden. A white-haired shepherd sat in the middle, milking his sheep. Around him were gathered thousands of people in white robes. The shepherd looked at Perpetua and said, “You are welcome, daughter.” He offered her some cheese that he had made. She ate it, and the people looking on said, “Amen.”
When Perpetua woke, she still tasted the indescribable flavor of the food she had eaten. After sharing the vision with her brother, they agreed that it meant she would end her time of imprisonment as a martyr.
Nearly worn out with anxiety, but having regained some measure of composure, Perpetua’s father came again to visit her. “Have pity on your father,” he said, “if I am worthy for you to call me father. Don’t make me a subject of scorn. Think about your son too. He can’t live without you.” He kissed her hand, fell to the ground, and wept. Perpetua grieved too, but for a different reason. Out of her whole family, only he could not rejoice over her commitment to Christ. She was resolute. Again he left, taking her son with him.
The captives were brought to the town hall for public interrogation, and a crowd soon gathered. They were questioned one by one. When Perpetua’s turn came, her father stepped to the front of the crowd, holding her infant son. “Have pity on your baby!” he cried.
The procurator in charge commanded Perpetua to “offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.”
“I will not,” Perpetua answered.
“Are you a Christian?” he asked.
“I am,” she replied.
“I suffer what I’m suffering now, but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I am about to suffer for Him.”
The procurator ordered Perpetua’s father to be beaten with rods, even though the elderly man had come to convince her to abandon Christianity. Perpetua watched, horrified, as the brutal command was carried out. Finally, the procurator condemned the prisoners to be thrown into an arena with wild beasts at the upcoming birthday celebration of the emperor’s son.
After they were taken back to the dungeon, Perpetua asked for her child to remain with her in prison, but her father would not allow it. Perpetua noted that the child was weaned exceptionally quickly, easing her worry about leaving him behind. All too soon, the condemned Christians were transferred to a camp to await execution.
In the camp prison, the Christians found various ways to pass their final days. Perpetua chronicled their captivity in a diary, an account which would eventually be used to encourage others.
Pudens, one of the wardens overseeing the prisoners, grew fond of them, impressed by their courage in the face of torture and death. He allowed fellow Christians to visit them. These meetings refreshed and encouraged the prisoners. Not all of the visits were uplifting, though. Perpetua’s father came again. He tore out chunks of his beard and threw himself on the ground in his grief for his daughter. To his surprise, she was not moved to save herself. Instead, she grieved for him.
In the days leading up to their execution, Secundulus died in prison. The others thanked God that he was spared a violent death. Felicitas was also expected to avoid the ordeal with the wild beasts, for she was now eight months pregnant and it was illegal to execute a pregnant woman. Yet far from being relieved, she was grieved that her pregnancy might prevent her from joining her companions in martyrdom.
Three days before the date of execution, Felicitas and the other prisoners joined in prayer. They begged God to grant her the privilege of facing the beasts with her fellow Christians, so that she would not have to face this trial alone later. She went into labor immediately. The early delivery was extremely painful. One of the servants attending the birth said, “You’re suffering now – and what will you do when you’re thrown to the beasts?”
Felicitas answered, “I suffer what I’m suffering now, but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I am about to suffer for Him.” She gave birth to a girl. The baby was given to a Christian woman to be raised.
The day before their execution, Perpetua had a final vision. She saw Pomponius, a deacon who had visited her earlier, knocking at the gate of the prison. Perpetua went out and opened the gate for him, and saw that he wore a white robe. He said, “Perpetua, we are waiting for you; come!” He took her hand and led her through twisting tunnels and passageways until they came to the arena. They went out to the center. “Do not fear,” he said, “I am here with you, laboring with you.” Then he left.
The vision continued. Perpetua looked around at the great crowd in astonishment. The deadly animals were nowhere to be found. Instead, an Egyptian gladiator was to be her opponent. Then a giant man appeared, taller than the amphitheater. He called for silence and announced: “If this Egyptian should overcome this woman, he shall kill her with his sword; but if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch.”
Perpetua and the Egyptian began striking one another. He grabbed her by the feet; she kicked him in the face. He lifted her in the air; she struck down toward him with her fists. Then she interlocked her fingers and brought down both her fists on him in one final blow. He crumpled. Perpetua stomped on his head. As the crowd cheered, she received the branch declaring her victory. When Perpetua awoke, she realized the meaning of the dream: her true battle would not be with the wild beasts, but with the devil. Though she might lose her life to the animals, she would triumph in the battle that mattered.
“Farewell, and be mindful of my faith. Don’t let these things disturb you, but confirm you.”
Finally, the day of the grim birthday celebration arrived. The Christians were led from the prison to the amphitheater, walking with joy in their hearts and on their faces. When instructed to put on the clothing worn by priests of the Roman deities Saturn and Ceres as part of the party’s sick pageantry, they refused. The tribune overseeing the proceedings agreed that they could wear their own clothing. As they were led past the procurator who had condemned them, the Christians called out, “You have judged us, but God will judge you!” Because of this impertinence, the crowd demanded the Christians be scourged before the wild animals were released.
A bear, a leopard, and a wild boar were selected to face the men. When the boar was released, rather than attacking the captives, it turned and gored the huntsman who had brought it. The bear and the leopard attacked Saturninus and Revocatus. Saturus was taken out alone and tied to the ground near the bear, but the bear would not emerge from its den. Instead, the leopard (the animal Saturus had predicted would kill him) inflicted the fatal wound with a single bite. Calling to Pudens, the warden who was fond of the prisoners, the dying man said, “Farewell, and be mindful of my faith. Don’t let these things disturb you, but confirm you.” He asked that his ring be given to Pudens as a reminder of his death, and then he died.
The two young mothers were stripped naked and given nets to wear. Then they were thrown into the arena with a wild bull. Yet while the animal trampled and kicked at them, Perpetua seemed unconcerned with the brutal animal, carefully binding up her disheveled hair in order to meet death with as much dignity as possible.
After they had been brutalized by the animals, the surviving Christians were gathered together. They gave each other the kiss of peace one last time. Then each of them was stabbed with a sword. But Perpetua, stabbed between the ribs by a novice gladiator whose hand was shaking, did not die. She cried out loudly, grabbed the gladiator’s sword hand, and brought the blade to her own throat. In this way she embraced her death.
Based entirely on “Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, et al., translated by Marcus Dods (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996). Most scholars agree that Tertullian authored the work, using the prison diaries and letters of Perpetua and Sarturus as resources, around AD 230.