Biography of Saint Perpetua, Christian Martyr and Autobiographer

Engraving of Perpetua and Felicitas in the Roman arena
Engraving of Perpetua and Felicitas's martyrdom (artist unknown)q.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Christian saint Perpetua (born circa 181, died circa 203) was a Roman noblewoman who was martyred as a Christian in third century Roman Carthage. Perpetua wrote her own account of her life and arrest, making her one of the earliest female Christian writers with surviving written work.

Fast Facts: Perpetua

  • Also Known As: Saint Perpetua of Carthage
  • Known For: 3rd-century Christian martyr and one of the earliest Christian writers
  • Born: ca. 181 in Carthage, Africa
  • Died: ca. 203 in Carthage, Africa
  • Feast Day: March 7 (Roman Catholic Church); February 1 (Eastern Orthodox Church)

Early Life and Roman Society

Little is known about Vivia (sometimes spelled Vibia) Perpetua’s early life. What is known is the details that became relevant to her martyrdom later on. She lived in Carthage in Africa, then under the dominion of Rome and its emperor, Severus. Her mother was Christian, but her father was a pagan who worshipped the Roman gods. By most assumptions, the family had three children: Perpetua, her brother, and a younger brother who died in childhood.

In this era, Christians were being persecuted in Roman Carthage and Africa. Sources vary as to whether or not Emperor Severus was the root of the persecutions. On the one hand, the Augustan History claims that he personally issued a decree forbidding conversions to Judaism or Christianity, but this history is notoriously unreliable. On the other hand, Tertullian, an early Christian author, claims that Severus employed Christians and intervened to save several prominent Christians from gruesome executions at the hands of angry mobs. Whatever Severus’ role was, the fact still remained that it was a dangerous time to be a Christian in Africa.

Perpetua was literate and well-educated, and she married as a young woman. By the time of her martyrdom at approximately age 22, she had an infant son, but her account makes no mention of her husband, so most historians assume she was already a young widow.

Converting to Christianity

In 203, Perpetua was moved (for reasons unknown) to begin the process of converting to Christianity, despite its risks. Her brother also joined her in studying the Christian faith, much to the horror of their father, who objected on both religious and practical grounds. Time and time again, he attempted to convince Perpetua to renounce her Christian belief, but Perpetua held fast, even when her father tried to attack her.

According to Perpetua’s own account, she was baptized into the faith before being arrested. She was taken to prison with a group of fellow catechumens: Saturninus and Secundulus, two slaves named Felicitas (sometimes spelled Felicity) and Revocatus, and their instructor, Saturus. Felicitas was about eight months pregnant at the time. The group was brought before the Roman governor of the region, Hilarianus, and confessed their faith.

Conditions in the prison were dark, crowded and hot, and the soldiers in charge often physically mistreated or neglected the prisoners. Perpetua was separated from her child upon her arrest and left the child to the care of her mother and her brother, who had so far escaped notice. After a pair of deacons bribed the prison guards, the Christians were moved to a better part of the prison and permitted visitors, including Perpetua’s family.

When it came time for the Christians to go before the judge, Perpetua’s father followed them, begging Perpetua to recant and begging the judge for mercy. Upon seeing this, the judge also tried to convince Perpetua to change her stance, but she refused and, like the others, was sentenced to death.

Receiver of Visions

Perpetua was known among her community for being especially attuned to divine messages, and because of this, her brother urged her to pray for visions from God. She did so, and she wrote out her own account of the visions. The first vision she described was of a ladder leading up to heaven, with a serpent at the bottom and weapons on both sides. In the vision, her teacher Saturus ascends first, then Perpetua. At the top of the ladder, she finds a beautiful garden and a shepherd who greets her. Perpetua interpreted this dream to mean that she and her fellow Christians would suffer greatly before their deaths.

She wrote about another vision as well: of her brother Dinocrates, who had died as a young child. In the vision, she saw him happy and healthy, with the scars from his fatal illness reduced to a single scar.

During their time in prison, Felicitas was heavily pregnant and concerned that she would be left behind when her friends were martyred, as pregnant women could not be executed. She did, however, give birth a few days prior to the scheduled executions, and her daughter was taken in and adopted by a Christian woman in Carthage.

Perpetua and her fellow Christians began to impress the guards at the prison. Although Saturus was the teacher, Perpetua was recognized as the spiritual and emotional leader of the group. Over time, the warden allowed them visitors, and he eventually became a Christian himself due to Perpetua's influence.

Martyrdom and Legacy

On the night before her execution, Perpetua saw one more vision: of herself battling an Egyptian, which she interpreted to mean that she would be facing the devil himself during her martyrdom. During the banquet held before the executions, the Romans were invited to mock the martyrs. The Christians, led by Perpetua, instead turned the joke back on the Romans and laughed in their faces.

On the day of the execution, Perpetua and the others were reportedly in good cheer and secure in their belief that they would soon receive a heavenly reward. Unlike their male companions, who were attacked in the arena by several wild animals, Perpetua and Felicitas were attacked by a female cow. Ultimately, all the martyrs died by the swords of gladiators, but the account purportedly written by an eyewitness claims that Perpetua’s executioner was clumsy, so she struck the final blow upon herself.

Perpetua’s story is unique in large part because the primary source of her story is a single autobiographical narrative that was reportedly written by Perpetua herself during her time in prison. It was edited (and the narrative of her death was written) by an unknown second person, but the vast majority of scholars do believe that the narrative, known as the Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and Their Companions, was mostly written by Perpetua. This makes the account remarkable for its time, as narratives of female martyrs were generally written by outside parties and recorded as a group narrative, as opposed to the personal narratives written about male martyrs. Additionally, Perpetua's writing would be one of the earliest Christian texts authored by a woman to survive; most others date to no earlier than the fourth century. Scholars have questioned, however, whether a male editor tweaked her autobiography to make it less radical. After all, a female martyr leading a group and receiving visions would have seriously challenged the patriarchal dynamics at play in the early Church.

Perpetua was canonized, along with Felicitas, and both their names appear among the ancient martyrs in the Canon of the Mass for Roman Catholics. The two women share a feast day (March 7) in the Roman Catholic Church and are commemorated on that day by Protestant denominations including Lutherans and Episcopalians. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, their feast day is February 1. 

Sources

  • Salisbury, Joyce. Perpetua's Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Shaw, Brent. “The Passion of Perpetua,” Past and Present 139, (May 1993).
  • “Sts. Perpetua and Felicity.” Catholic Online, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=48.