Perpetua: A Compelling Story for Devotions, History, or Literature Class

by Lucinda J Kinsinger



With this post, Lucinda begins a series of stories of Christian martyrs and heroes from the past. We hope you will be inspired by these histories and perhaps find them helpful in preparing for school devotions.

Year: 203 AD

Place: Carthage, North Africa

Person: Perpetua, a twenty-two-year-old mother and recent catechumen (Christian convert going through a period of instruction before baptism)

Event: Conversion, imprisonment, and death

Perpetua, a Roman noblewoman and mother of a small baby, came to faith in Christ during a time when it was illegal to convert to Christianity. She was arrested, along with four other catechumens. Two were slaves: one of the slaves was a pregnant woman named Felicitas. Later, their mentor Saturus voluntarily joined the group to give his life along with theirs.

Perpetua came from a wealthy family and had received many privileges growing up, including an education that taught her to read and write. In prison, she wrote down her experiences and several visions that God gave her. Just before her death, she gave the journal to a fellow Christion. Her story was edited by Tertullian of Carthage, who added a preface and an account of her martyrdom, and the work was preserved for posterity. It has convicted and inspired many thousands of Christians since. Perpetua is notable both as an early Christian writer and one of the earliest who was a woman.

I Am a Christian

Soon after her arrest, Perpetua’s father tried to persuade her to give up her faith. “Father,” she said to him, “do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?”

“I see it to be so [a pitcher],” he said.

“Can it be called by any other name than what it is?” she asked.

“No.”

“Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am: a Christian.”[1]

Two Mothers and their Faith

Perpetua was separated from her baby boy when she went to jail, and as any mother would, suffered great anxiety. During a visit with her family, she tells of nursing the baby, who was faint from hunger. Eventually, she was allowed to keep the baby with her in prison and then, she says, her health returned and the dungeon became a palace.

One day, while the prisoners were eating breakfast, they were unexpectedly hurried away to the forum, where court trials were held. A crowd gathered to watch as each prisoner in turn admitted their guilt of having converted to Christianity. Just before Perpetua’s turn, her father came to her, holding her baby. “Have pity on your baby,” he pleaded with her.

Hilarianus the governor took up the father’s plea. “Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors,” he commanded.

“I will not.”

“Are you a Christian?” asked Hilarianus.

“Yes, I am.”[2]

When Perpetua’s father continued to plead with her, Hilarianus commanded him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod: a pity-inducing specimen of age and grief. Hilarianus then sentenced the imprisoned Christians to death by wild beasts in the arena, and they returned, joyful, to their dungeon. Perpetua sent for her baby, but her father refused to give him back. However, Perpetua tells us, God willed that the child no longer needed to be nursed and that her breasts did not suffer any inflammation. Thus, she was spared both worry for her baby and pain in her breasts.

As the day of their sentence grew nearer, the slave Felicitas, eight months pregnant, grew more and more distressed. Since it was illegal for a woman with child to be executed, she feared that her martyrdom would be postponed and—rather than facing death with her fellow Christians—she would have to face it later with strangers and criminals. Two days before their sentence, the imprisoned Christians as a body cried out to the Lord in “one torrent of common grief.” Soon afterward, Felicitas went into labor.

Because of her early delivery, the labor proved to be difficult. “You suffer so much now,” one of the prison guards said to her. “What will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice!”

“What I am suffering now,” Felicitas replied, “I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.”[3]

She gave birth to a girl who was raised by a fellow Christian woman as her own daughter.

A Courageous Death

On the “day of their victory,” the prisoners were marched to the amphitheater “joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear.”[4] When they were to be forced to wear robes honoring the Roman gods Saturn and Ceres, Perpetua bravely spoke out. “We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated,” she said. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.”[5] Even the military tribune recognized the justice of this, and soldiers marched them to the arena as they were.

Perpetua and Felicitas were sent out together to be mauled by a savage heifer: an animal deliberately chosen to match their gender. The heifer tossed Perpetua, throwing her to her back and ripping her tunic. She sat up, hastily pulling the torn tunic around herself—more concerned for her modesty than her pain—and asked for a pin to fasten her dishevelled hair. It would not do to go to her death with untidy hair, as though she were mourning instead of triumphant. Perpetua then stood and, seeing Felicitas crushed on the ground, went over to her and helped her up. Together they stood.

The mob’s thirst for violence now satisfied, they were called back through the “Gate of Life” to safety. The mob then demanded to see the final death of the martyrs—all of them having been maimed but not killed by the wild beasts. Perpetua, Felicitas, and their companions took themselves of their own accord to the place the mob desired, where “they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace.”[6] One by one, soldiers ended their lives with a sword. When Perpetua’s turn came, the nervous young soldier struck wrong, causing her to scream as the sword struck bone. While his hand still trembled, she took it in hers and guided it to her own throat. Thus, she died.

Further Resources

I have included only some of Perpetua’s story in this retelling. The story as she and her editor wrote it is not lengthy but includes more details, including the visions that she and another prisoner were given and a description of her fellow martyrs’ deaths. While the story is available in several English translations easily found through an online search, my favorite is an updated, easy-to-read translation published by Paul Pavao (originally translated by Dr. Peter Holmes in 1868). Pavao’s side notes and pictures add background and aid in understanding:

In addition, you can find an abridged and easy-to-follow translation done by Herbert Musurillo, published in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs and online. This one that could work well for reading aloud.

Voice of the Martyrs tells Perpetua’s story in Torchlighters, a video series for children highlighting heroes of the faith. You can stream the thirty-minute drama for a small fee, or buy the DVD. It includes not only Perpetua’s story, but a leader’s guide and student handouts and a 61- minute documentary with early church experts, filmed in Tunisia where her story took place.

Why It Matters to a Teacher

Perpetua’s compelling story could be used in the classroom in multiple ways. Here are a few suggestions:

In a devotional: The story of her conversation with her dad (told under the heading “I Am a Christian”) could work well as an object lesson using a vase or pitcher. Her simple, profound statement of faith is appropriate for a young person of any age. Her complete story could be told to young children, or read to older ones, as an example to inspire their own devotion.

In history class: A study of Perpetua would complement a study of Roman history or of the early Christian church. For older students who are learning about primary and secondary sources, her story would be an excellent choice as a short but complete primary source.

In literature class: Persecuted Christians inspire our Christian faith, but we seldom delve deep enough to discuss the motivations and thought patterns of the persecutors. Literature class would be a good time to do so. We might wonder:

  • How could one person so dehumanize another as to make a game out of their death?
  • Have similar things happened at any other times in history and to any people groups other than Christians?
  • What prejudices, preconceptions, and learned patterns of thinking might influence this way of acting?
  • Are people who persecute completely evil, or only misinformed?
  • Do we detect any persecuting tendencies in our own selves or cultures?

A great story to complement this discussion is “Marriage Is a Private Affair” by Chinua Achebe.

[1] Perpetua. The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. Edited by Tertullian. The Robert-Donaldson translation. Early Christian Writings. https://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian24.html Accessed 2/28/2020

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5]  ibid

[6]  ibid

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