Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Martyrdom of Perpetua

Stained-glass window of St Perpetua of Carthage (church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France, 19th century): martyrdom of St Perpetua and her fellows in the stadium of Carthage; Saint Felicity on her left. Taken from
The date is 202 and the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, has just enacted a law prohibiting the spread of Christianity and Judaism throughout the Roman empire.

Alarmed by the steady growth of Christianity (which may have been as much as 40% per decade throughout the second century), Emperor Septimius hopes his decree will contain the Christian threat and strengthen his kingdom.

While persecution was nothing new to Christians in the early third century, this was the first time there was a universal decree forbidding conversion. If someone was discovered to have become a Christian, the choice offered by the emperor was simple: either curse Jesus and make an offering to the Roman gods or be executed.

“Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before our eyes,” observed Clement of Alexandria, describing conditions during the “terrible reign” of Severus.

One particularly moving story from this period concerns the martyrdom of the young mother, Perpetua.

Perpetua was a noble woman, living in Carthage at the beginning of the 3rd century. Although it was unusual for women of that time to be educated, Perpetua was able to read and write. Indeed, the account she left us of the events leading up to her martyrdom is the earliest known document written by a Christian woman.

In 203, when Perpetua was around twenty-one years old, she was preparing for baptism along with four other catechumens from Carthage, including a young woman named Felicity, who was eight months pregnant.

When the Roman authorities in Carthage learned of the conversions, Perpetua and her companions were taken to a dwelling where they were put under house arrest.

Though under intense pressure from her pagan father to renounce the Christian faith, and still nursing her newborn son, Perpetua was determined to remain faithful to Christ.

When it became clear that the company were soon to be moved to jail, the local church authorities allowed them to be baptized ahead of their formal training. Receiving the sacrament of baptism and the Eucharist, the five converts prayed for strength to endure to the very end. One can only imagine Perpetua’s agony when the day finally arrived and she was sent to prison, while her baby, utterly dependent on his mother for sustenance, was taken from her.

A Roman prison was a foul place and this was no exception. The five converts were put in a windowless cellar, where there was no means of escape from the hot stifling air.

Upon entering the dark cell, Perpetua’s worst torment was the thought of her child left helpless without her. However, two church deacons bribed the jailer to move them to a better part of the prison. It was here that Perpetua received a visit from her Christian mother, who brought her son, now faint with hunger, to be suckled. For the remainder of her time in jail, Perpetua was allowed to keep the child with her. Because she was a woman of high birth, she was also allowed to keep a diary.

When the day of the trial finally arrived, the prisoners were brought before a tribunal, where Perpetua’s father was also waiting. Appealing to her love for him and her child, the elderly man tried in vain to make his daughter renounce her beliefs. Hilarian the procurator urged her similarly, saying, “Spare your father’s grey hairs. Spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.”

Perpetua answered simply, “I am a Christian.” This left Hilarian with no choice but to pass sentence. Perpetua, along with the others, was condemned to be killed in the stadium for the amusement of the crowds. However, even at this point it was not too late for them to go free if they would simply agree to renounce Christ.

Thus it was that on March 7, 203, Perpetua and the other converts were marched to the Carthaginian amphitheatre amid jeering crowds. Perpetua and Felicity were stripped naked and made to put on a net before entering the arena. A mad heifer had been prepared to kick, knock and trample the netted girls to death. However, when they were brought into the arena, even the calouse Romans shuddered to see the tender girls, milk still dripping from Perpetua’s breasts. Consequently, Perpetua and Felicity were recalled and given robes with which to clothe.

Even after being attacked by the cow, Perpetua did not die, but stood up. Though covered in blood, she helped Felicity to her feet. Then turning to her Christians friends in the audience, she encouraged them, urging them to stand firm in the faith and to love one another.

A swordsman was appointed with the task of completing what the cow had started. The man was a novice, so instead of piercing Perpetua right through, the blade accidently hit her collar bone. She shrieked but did not die. Unafraid of death, the bleeding Perpetua picked up the blade and set it upon her own neck, in order that the swordsman might finish the job.

Why were gentle Christians like Perpetua seen as such a hazard to Rome? Why did the emperor Severus believe that Christianity threatened the health of his empire? I have attempted to answer this question in an article I posted at the Alfred the Great Society website titled, "Contending for the Faith: The Witness of Perpetua and Irenaeus."

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