From the Archives: Perpetua & Polycarp: Two Heroic Martyrs
In A.D. 202, Emperor Septimius Severus disallowed conversions to Christianity. In the wake of that act, severe persecution broke out against Christians, particularly in North Africa. Living in Carthage at the time was Perpetua, a young noblewoman and new Christian who was preparing for baptism. Though Perpetua was only about 22 years old, and was still nursing her infant son, she (with four other catechumens) was arrested and thrown into prison.
While we were still under arrest, my father, out of love for me, was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. “Father,” I said, “do you see this vase here, for example, or water pot or whatever?”
“Yes, I do,” said he.
And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”
And he said: “No.”
“Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian. ”
At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved toward me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.
Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child into their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.
Then my brother said to me: “Dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or freed.”
Faithfully I promised that I would, for I knew that I could speak with the Lord, whose great blessings I had come to experience. . . . Then I made my request, and this was the vision I had.
I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up it at a fume. To the sides of the ladder were attached all sorts of metal weapons: there were swords, spears, hooks, daggers, and spikes; so that if anyone tried to climb up carelessly or without paying attention, he would be mangled, and his flesh would adhere to the weapons.
At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who tried to climb up and try to terrify them from doing so. And Saturus [Perpetua’s instructor in the Christian faith] was the first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own accord. He had been the builder of our strength, although he was not present when we were arrested. And he arrived at the top of the staircase, and he looked back and said to me: “Perpetua, I am waiting for you. But take care; do not let the dragon bite you.”
“He will not harm me,” I said, “in the name of Christ Jesus.”
Slowly, as though he were afraid of me, the dragon stuck his head out from underneath the ladder. Then, using it as my first step, I trod on his head and went up.
Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; he was tall, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: “I am glad you have come, my child.”
He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it in my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said, “Amen!” At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.
A few days later there was a rumor that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me.
“Daughter,” he said, “have pity on my grey head—have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favored you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers; think of your mother and your aunt; think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.”
This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. . . . I tried to comfort him, saying, “It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.”
And he left me in great sorrow.
One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing [before Hilarianus the governor]. . . . All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: “Perform the sacrifice—have pity on your baby!”
Hilarianus the governor . . . said to me, “Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.”
“I will not,” I retorted.
“Are you a Christian?” said Hilarianus.
And I said: “Yes, I am.”
When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for Father, just as if I myself had been beaten. Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: We were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits . . .
Into the amphitheater
[An observer picks up the story and describes the events of March 7, 203.]
The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully, as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. . . .
They were then led up to the gates, and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.
“We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.”
Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm; she was already treading on the head of the Egyptian [dragon?]. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the onlooking mob. Then, when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: “You have condemned us, but God will condemn you” was what they were saying.
At this time the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this, that they had obtained a share of the Lord’s sufferings. . . .
For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.
First the heifer tossed Perpetua, and she fell on her back. Then sitting up, she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair; for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be in mourning in her hour of triumph.
Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas [Perpetua’s Christian slave] had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life. . . .
Perpetua then called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”
. . . Immediately as the contest was coming to a close, a leopard was let loose, and [as Saturus predicted,] after one bite Saturus was . . . drenched in blood. . . . Shortly afterward, he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving, especially Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway was the first to die. For once again he was waiting for Perpetual.
Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.
Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly you are called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord!
[It is not known what happened to Perpetua’s husband and son.]
Polycarp was born about A.D. 70, and he knew eyewitnesses of Jesus, possibly including the apostle John. Before 110 Polycarp was named bishop of Smyrna, and throughout his life he stood for orthodoxy. At a pagan festival c. 156 (though possibly later), Polycarp was arrested at the demands of an angry mob. This account was written by Christians in Smyrna shortly there after and is the earliest extant account of a Christian martyr outside of the New Testament.
III. . . . All the crowd, astonished at the noble conduct of the God—beloved and God—fearing race of Christians, cried out, “Away with the atheists; let search be made for Polycarp.”
V. But the most admirable Polycarp, when first he heard of this, was not dismayed but wished to remain in the city. The majority, however, prevailed on him to withdraw. And he withdrew to a small estate not far from the city. There he passed the time with a few companions, wholly occupied night and day in prayer for all men and for the churches throughout the world; as, indeed, was his habit. And while at prayer he fell into a trance three days before his arrest and saw his pillow set on fire. And he turned and said to his companions, “I must needs be burned alive.”
[By torturing one of Polycarp’s servants, the authorities discover his whereabouts. ] VII. So, on the day of the preparation, mounted police . . . found him in a cottage, lying in an upper room. He could have gone away to another farm, but he would not, saying “The will of God be done.” So, hearing their arrival, he came down and talked with them, while all that were present marveled at his age and constancy, and that there was so much ado about the arrest of such an old man. Then he ordered that something should be served for them to eat and drink, at that late hour, as much as they wanted. And he besought them that they should grant him an hour that he might pray freely. They gave him leave, and he stood and prayed, being so filled with the grace of God that for two hours he could not hold his peace, while they that heard were amazed, and the men repented that they had come after so venerable an old man.
IX. Now, as he was entering the stadium, there came to Polycarp a voice from heaven, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” And no one saw the speaker, but the voice was heard by those of our people who were there. Thereupon he was led forth, and great was the uproar of them that heard that Polycarp had been seized. Accordingly, he was led before the proconsul, who asked him if he were the man himself. And when he confessed, the proconsul tried to persuade him, saying, “Have respect to shine age,” and so forth, according to their customary form: “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” “Repent,” “Say ‘Away with the atheists!’ ” Then Polycarp looked with a severe countenance on the mob of lawless heathen in the stadium, and he waved his hand at them, and looking up to heaven he groaned and said, “Away with the atheists.” But the proconsul urged him and said, “Swear, and I will release thee; curse the Christ.” And Polycarp said, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
XI. Then said the proconsul, “I have wild beasts; if thou repent not, I will throw thee to them.” But he said, “Send for them. For repentance from better to worse is not a change permitted to us; but to change from cruelty to righteousness is a noble thing.” Then said the proconsul again, “If thou cost despise the wild beasts, I will make thee to be consumed by fire, if thou repent not.” And Polycarp answered, “Thou threatenest the fire that burns for an hour and in a little while is quenched; for thou knowest not of the fire of the judgement to come, and the fire of the eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why delayest thou? Bring what thou wilt.”
XII. As he spake these words and many more, he was filled with courage and joy; and his countenance was full of grace, so that not only did it fall not in dismay at what was being said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astonished and sent his herald to proclaim thrice in the midst of the stadium, “Polycarp hath confessed himself to be a Christian.” When this was proclaimed by the herald the whole multitude of Gentiles and Jews who dwelt in Smyma cried out with ungovernable rage and in a loud voice, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, that teacheth many not to sacrifice nor worship.” They kept shouting this, asking Philip, the Asiarch, to loose a lion at Polycarp. But he said that it was not lawful for him, since he had finished the sports. Then they decided to shout with one accord that he should be burned alive. For the matter of his vision of the pillow must needs be fulfilled, when he saw it burning while he was at prayer, and turned and said prophetically to his companions, “I must needs be burned alive.”
XIII. And now things happened with such speed, in less time than it takes to tell; for the mob straightway brought together timber and faggots from the workshops and baths, the Jews giving themselves zealously to the work, as they were like to do. . . . They were about to nail him to the stake, when he said, “Let me be as I am. He that granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved, without being secured with nails.”
XVI. So at length the lawless ones, seeing that his body could not be consumed by the fire, bade an executioner approach him to drive in a dagger. And when he had done this there came out [a dove and] abundance of blood so that it quenched the fire, and all the multitude marveled at the great difference between the unbelievers and the elect.
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #27 in 1990]
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