The Martyrdom of Perpetua

November 22 is the anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy (and C.S. Lewis). But it is neither of these whose death I wish to remember today. Rather it is that of an early Christian martyr. One of the most amazing documents historians of early Christianity are privileged to have is the prison diary of a young woman who was martyred in the year 202 in Carthage as part of a civic celebration. Her name is Vibia Perpetua. It's an amazing, complicated story. The diary is in kind of a sandwich. The editor introduces the story (Pass. Perp. 1-2). Then there's the authentic diary of Perpetua (Pass. Perp. 3-10). Then there is a diary from the hand of another of the martyrs, Saturus (Pass. Perp. 11-13). Editorial conclusions follow which conclude the account (Pass. Perp. 14-21).

The Christian community in Carthage was probably at this time around 2,000 in a city of up to half a million. Perpetua had been arrested, along with the slaves Felicitas and Revocatus, and two other Christians Saturninus and Secundulus. Soon one Saturus, who deliberately declared himself a Christian before the judge, was also incarcerated.  This took place during the reign of Lucius Septimius Severus (r.193-211), who was devoted to the Egyptian god Serapis. He issued an edit in 202/203 that forbade conversion to either Judaism or Christianity upon pain of death.

Perpetua was a member of the urban upper middle classes, whose family may have held an estate near Carthage. She can speak Greek (Pass. Perp. 13) which indicates a fair degree of education for she was living in Latin-speaking Africa. At one point in her diary, she says this (Pass. Perp. 3):

"A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there."

"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 in 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."

Below is a picture taken by an acquaintance on a recent trip to the ruins of Carthage. It is said to be Perpetua's prison cell. It is very sobering to view this picture and think of our elder sister Perpetua and our other brothers and sister Felicitas waiting in this very place for death--and glory!

(Click image to enlarge)