Passion of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, 203. excerpts
The full text is available
Vibia Perpetua was martyred in March of 203. She wrote a significant account of her
last days before she was executed, and it includes several visions, along with the
accounts of other witnesses.
1. What is Perpetua's attitude toward her religion? Her family?
2. From Perpetua's account, why is Christianity threatening to the Roman government?
2. There were apprehended the young catechumens, Revocatus and Felicity his fellow
servant, Saturninus and Secundulus. With them also was Vibia Perpetua, nobly born, reared
in a liberal manner, wedded honorably; having a father and mother and two brothers, one of
them a catechumen likewise, and a son, a child at the breast; and she herself was about
twenty-two years of age. What follows here shall she tell herself; the whole order of her
martyrdom as she left it written with her own hand and in her own words.
3. When, she said, we were still under legal surveillance and my father was liked to
vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love: Father,
said I, Do you see (for examples) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?
And he said, I see it. And I said to him, Can it be called by any other name than that
which it is? And he answered, No. So can I call myself nought other than that which I am,
a Christian. Then my father angry with this word came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he
only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil. Then because
I was without my father for a few days I gave thanks unto the Lord; and I was comforted
because of his absence. In this same space of a few days we were baptised, and the Spirit
declared to me, I must pray for nothing else after that water save only endurance of the
flesh. After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was much afraid because I had
never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the press,
there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented there by care for the
child. Then Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, obtained with
money that for a few hours we should be taken forth to a better part of the prison and be
refreshed. Then all of them going out from the dungeon took their pleasure; I suckled my
child that was now faint with hunger. And being careful for him, I spoke to my mother and
strengthened my brother and commended my son unto them. I pined because I saw they pined
for my sake. Such cares I suffered for many days; and I obtained that the child should
abide with me in prison; and straightway I became well and was lightened of my labour and
care for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me, so that I would
sooner be there than anywhere else.
4. Then said my brother to me: Lady my sister, you are now in high honor, even such
that you might ask for a vision; and it should be shown you whether this be a passion or
else a deliverance. And I, as knowing that I conversed with the Lord, for Whose sake I had
suffered such things, did promise him nothing doubting; and I said: Tomorrow I will tell
you. And I asked, and this was shown me. I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great,
reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one
time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were
swords there, spears, hooks, and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or
looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there was right
at the ladder's foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that
would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first (who
afterwards had of his own free will given up himself for our -sakes, because it was he who
had edified us; and when we were taken he had not been there). And he came to the ladder's
head; and he turned and said: Perpetua, I await you; but see that serpent bite you not.
And I said: it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ. And from beneath the
ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the
first step I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and
in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd's clothing, tall milking his sheep;
and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and
said to me: Welcome, child. And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he
gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that
stood around said, Amen. And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what
of sweet. And at once I told my brother, and we knew it should be a passion; and we began
to have no hope any longer in this world.
5. A few days after, the report went abroad that we were to be tried. Also my father
returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith
saying: Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to
be, called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of
youth- and I-have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach
of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother's sister; look upon your
son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all
together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught. This he
said fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears he
named me, not daughter, but lady. And I was grieved for my father's case because he would
not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: That shall be
done at this tribunal, whatsoever God shall please; for know that we are not established
in our own power, but in God's. And he went from me very sorrowful.
6. Another day as we were at meal we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we
came to the forum. Therewith a report spread abroad through the parts near to the forum,
and a very great multitude gathered together. We went up to the tribunal. The others being
asked, confessed. So they came to me. And my father appeared there also, with my son, and
would draw me from the step, saying: Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child. And
Hilarian the procurator - he that after the death of Minucius Timinian the proconsul had
received in his room the right and power of the sword - said: Spare your father's grey
hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors' prosperity. And I
answered: I am a Christian. And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he
was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my
father's harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age.
Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully
we went down to the dungeon. Then because my child had been used to being breastfed and to
staying with me in the prison, straightway I sent Pomponius the deacon to my father,
asking for the child. But my father would not give him. And as God willed, no longer did
he need to be suckled, nor did I take fever; that I might not be tormented by care for the
child and by the pain of my breasts...
10. The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come
hither to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. And I went out to him and
opened to him; he was clothed in a white robe ungirdled, having shoes curiously wrought.
And he said to me: Perpetua, we await you; come. And he took my hand, and we began to go
through rugged and winding places. At last with much breathing hard we came to the
amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. And he said to me: Be not afraid;
I am here with you and labour together with you. And he went away. And I saw much people
watching closely. And because I knew that I was condemned to the beasts I marvelled that
beasts were not sent out against me. And there came out against me a certain ill-favored
Egyptian with his helpers, to fight with me. Also there came to me comely young men, my
helpers and aiders. And I was stripped naked, and I became a man. And my helpers began to
rub me with oil as their custom is for a contest; and over against me saw that Egyptian
wallowing in the dust. And there came forth a man of very great stature, so that he
overpassed the very top of the amphitheatre, wearing a robe ungirdled, and beneath it
between the two stripes over the breast a robe of purple; having also shoes curiously
wrought in gold and silver; bearing a rod like a master of gladiators, and a green branch
whereon were golden apples. And he besought silence and said: The Egyptian, if shall
conquer this woman, shall slay her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall
receive this branch. And he went away. And we came nigh to each other, and began to buffet
one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I
rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I
saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them.
And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head. And the people
began to shout, and my helpers began to sing. And I went up to the master of gladiators
and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: Daughter, peace be with you. And
I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life. And I awoke; and I
understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that
mine was the victory. Thus far I have written this, till the day before the games; but the
deed of the games tehmsleves let him write who will...
NARRATIVE OF MARTYRDOM
14. These were the glorious visions of those martyrs themselves, the most blessed
Saturus and Perpetua, which they themselves wrote down. But Secundulus by an earlier end
God called from this world while he was yet in prison; not without grace, that he should
escape the beasts. Yet if not his soul, his flesh at least knew the sword. 15. As for
Felicity, she too received this grace of the Lord. For because she was now gone eight
months (being indeed with child when she was taken) she was very sorrowful as the day of
the games drew near, fearing lest for this cause she should be kept back (for it is not
lawful for women that are with child to be brought forth for torment) and lest she should
shed her holy and innocent blood after the rest, among strangers and malefactors. Also her
fellow martyrs were much afflicted lest they should leave behind them so good a friend and
as it were their fellow-traveller on the road of the same hope. Wherefore with joint and
united groaning they poured out their prayer to the Lord, three days before the games.
Incontinently after their prayer her pains came upon her. And when by reason of the
natural difficulty of the eighth month she was oppressed with her travail and made
complaint, there said to her one of the servants of the keepers of the door: You that thus
make complaint now, what wilt you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you didst
contemn when you would not sacrifice? And she answered, I myself now suffer that which I
suffer, but there another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer
for him. So she was delivered of a daughter, whom a sister reared up to be her own
daughter. 16. Since therefore the Holy Spirit has suffered, and suffering has willed, that
the order of the games also should be written; though we are unworthy to finish the
recounting of so great glory, yet we accomplish the will of the most holy Perpetua, nay
rather her sacred trust, adding one testimony more of her own steadfastness and height of
spirit. When they were being more cruelly handled by the tribune. because through advice
of certain most despicable men he feared lest by magic charms they might be withdrawn
secretly from the prison house, Perpetua answered him to his face: Why do you not allow us
to take some comfort, seeing we are victims most noble, namely Caesar's, and on his feast
day we are to fight? Or is it not your glory that we should be taken out thither fatter of
flesh? The tribune trembled and blushed, and gave order that they should be more gently
handled, granting that her brothers and the rest should come in and rest with them. Also
the adjutant of the prison now believed.
... And when the people besought that they should be brought forward, that when the
sword pierced through their bodies their eyes might be joined thereto as witnesses to the
slaughter, they rose of themselves and moved, whither the people willed them, first
kissing one another, that they might accomplish their martyrdom with the rites of peace.
The rest not moving and in silence received the sword; Saturus much earlier gave up the
ghost; for he had gone up earlier also, and now he waited for Perpetua likewise. But
Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and
shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself
set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being
feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it. O most valiant and blessed
martyrs! O truly called and elected unto the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ! Which glory
he that magnifies, honors and adores, ought to read these witnesses likewise, as being no
less than the old, unto the Church's edification; that these new wonders also may testify
that one and the same Holy Spirit works ever until now, and with Him God the Father
Almighty, and His Son Jesus Christ Our Lord, to Whom is glory and power unending for ever
and ever. Amen.
Excerpted from W.H. Shewring, trans. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.
The translation has been modernized [not re-translated] for this etext version in the
following ways: Archaic tenses and forms have been altered. Paragraphs have been
introduced within sections to clarify meaning. Some phrasing has been altered Much of this
was done with reference to Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998