The Martyrdom of Ss Perpetua and Felicity

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 203 AD, two young women named Perpetua and Felicity were martyred in the arena at Carthage. Their feast is one of the earliest and most widespread celebrations of Christian Saints, attested at Rome by the mid-4th century, and at Antioch no more than 50 years later. St Thomas Aquinas died on the same day in 1274, and for a long time, his feast displaced theirs in the Roman Rite, but in the post-Conciliar calendar reform, he was moved to January 28th, and the martyrs restored to their traditional day.

Perpetua and Felicity were arrested and imprisoned along with three other catechumens during the persecution begun by Septimius Severus; they were soon joined by Saturus, their catechist, who surrendered himself voluntarily in order to remain with them, and then baptized. During their imprisonment, Perpetua kept a diary, in which she describes visions beheld by herself and Saturus, as well as the visits of her father, who tried to persuade her to abandon Christianity and save herself, but to no avail. This diary was incorporated into the written account of their acts, one of the most precious surviving testimonies to the experiences of the early martyrs, and their extraordinary courage.

Felicity was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and feared that she would be unable to die for the Faith with the others, since Roman law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman. But her prayers and those of the group were answered, and the child was safely delivered a month early. During her labor, a guard asked her how she thought she could bear the attacks of the wild beasts, since she was suffering so much from the natural pains of childbirth. To this she replied, “there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him.” And likewise, Perpetua had a vision of herself in which she became a gladiator and fought victoriously against another, “horrible in appearance”, i.e. the devil.

The truth of these visions was realized in their execution. They were exposed to the wild beasts in the amphitheater, attacked and tossed on the horns of a wild cow, but after they had both been injured, Perpetua seemed to come out of an ecstasy, not noticing her condition, and saying, “I don’t know when we will be brought out to that cow.” They were then supposed to be dispatched by gladiators, but the young man tasked with killing Perpetua was unable to steady his hand for the blow; she therefore guided him to it. The editor of their Acts, (believed by many scholars to be the first Latin-speaking Church Father, Tertullian), comments, “Fortasse tanta femina aliter non potuisset occidi, quia ab immundo spiritu timebatur, nisi ipsa voluisset. – Perhaps so great a woman could not have been slain unless she herself willed it, since she was feared by the impure spirit.”

Here is one of the most beautiful passages from St Perpetua’s diary, her account of her first vision, by which she came to know that she would die as a martyr.

(The Virgin and Child with Ss Perpetua and Felicity, by an anonymous Polish painter, ca. 1520; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

“Video scalam auream mirae magnitudinis pertingentem usque ad caelum et angustam, per quam non nisi singuli ascendere possent: et in lateribus scalae omne genus ferramentorum infixum. Erant ibi gladii, lanceae, hami, machaerae; ut si quis negligenter, aut non sursum adtendens ascenderet, laniaretur et carnes ejus inhaererent ferramentis. Et erat sub ipsa scala draco cubans mirae magnitudinis, qui ascendentibus insidias parabat, et exterrebat ne ascenderent. Ascendit autem Saturus prior, qui postea se propter nos ultro tradiderat, et tunc cum adducti sumus, praesens non fuerat: et pervenit in caput scalae, et convertit se ad me, et dixit mihi, ‘Perpetua, sustineo te. Sed vide ne te mordeat draco ille.’ Et dixi ego, ‘Non me nocebit in nomine Domini Jesu Christi.’ Et de sub ipsa scala quasi timens me, lente elevavit caput: et cum primum gradum calcassem, calcavi illius caput.

Et ascendi et vidi spatium horti immensum, et in medio horti sedentem hominem canum, in habitu pastoris, grandem, oves mulgentem; et circumstantes candidati millia multa. Et levavit caput et adspexit me, et dixit mihi, ‘Bene venisti, tecnon.’ Et clamavit me, et de caseo quod mulgebat dedit mihi quasi buccellam, et ego accepi junctis manibus, et manducavi: et universi circumstantes dixerunt, Amen. Et ad sonum vocis experrecta sum, commanducans adhuc dulcis nescio quid. Et retuli statim fratri meo, et intelleximus passionem esse futuram: et coepimus nullam jam spem in saeculo habere.

I saw a golden ladder of marvelous height, reaching up even to heaven, and narrow, so that people could only ascend it one by one; and on the sides of the ladder was fixed every kind of iron weapon. There were swords there, lances, hooks, daggers, so that if any one went up carelessly, or not looking upwards, he would be torn to pieces and his flesh would cleave to the iron weapons. And under the ladder was lying a dragon of wonderful size, who lay in wait for those who ascended, and tried frightened them from climbing. And Saturus went up first, who had subsequently delivered himself up freely on our account, not having been present at the time that we were taken prisoners. And he reached the top of the ladder, and turned towards me, and said, ‘Perpetua, I am waiting for you; but be careful that the dragon do not bite you.’ And I said, ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.’ And from under the ladder itself, as if in fear of me, it slowly lifted up its head; and as I trod upon the first step, I trod upon his head.

And I went up, and I saw an immense extent of garden, and in the midst of the garden a white-haired man sitting in the dress of a shepherd, of a large stature, milking sheep; and standing around were many thousand white-robed ones. And he raised his head, and looked upon me, and said to me, ‘Thou art welcome, child.’ And he called me, and from the cheese as he was milking he gave me as it were a little cake, and I received it with folded hands; and I ate it, and all who stood around said Amen. And at the sound of their voice I was awakened, still tasting a sweetness which I cannot describe. And I immediately related this to my brother, and we understood that it was to be a passion, and  ceased thenceforth to have any hope in this world.”

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