From the Archives: The Martyrdom of Perpetua
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 towards 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 time. 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 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 . . . .
(Later, an observer picks up the story)
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 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 [a Christian slave-girl also facing the beasts] 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 with 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!
By Perpetua and others
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #17 in 1988]Perpetua, a Christian woman of noble birth, was arrested in Carthage. She was about 22 years old and was nursing an infant son. In what may be the earliest extant Christian document from a woman’s pen, she wrote her own story. The account of her death was, of course, added later.
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