The record of the passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicity and their companions is one of the greatest hagiological treasures that have come down to us. In the fourth century these acts were publicly read in the churches of Africa, and were in fact so highly esteemed that St. Augustine found it necessary to issue a protest again their being placed on a level with the Holy Scriptures. In them we have a human document of singularly vivid interest preserved for us in the actual words of two of the martyrs themselves.
It was in Carthage in the year 203 that, during the persecution initiated by the Emperor Severus, five catechumens were arrested. They were Revocatus, his fellow-slave Felicity (who was shortly expecting her confinement), Saturninus, Secundulus and Vivia Perpetua, at that time twenty-two years of age, the wife of a man of good position, and the mother of a young child. She had parents and two brothers living - a third, named Dinocrates, having died at the age of seven. These five prisoners were joined by Saturus, who seems to have been their instructor in the faith and who underwent a voluntary imprisonment with them because he would not leave them. Perpetua's father, of whom she was the favorite child, was an old man and a pagan, whereas her mother was probably a Christian-as was also one of her brothers, the other being a catechumen. The martyrs, after their apprehension, were kept under guard in a private house, and Perpetua's account of their sufferings is as follows: "When I was still with my companions, and my father, in his affection for me, was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and thus weaken my faith, 'Father,' said I, 'do you see this vessel-water pot or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is?' 'No,' he replied. 'So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am-a Christian.' Then my father provoked at the word 'Christian' threw himself upon me as if he would pluck out my eyes, but he only shook me and in fact he was vanquished. Then I thanked God for the relief of being, for a few days, parted from my fathers...and during those few days we were baptized, the Spirit bidding me make no other petition after the rite than for bodily endurance. A few days later were lodged in prison, and I was greatly frightened because I had never known such darkness. What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown it all I was tormented with anxiety for my baby. Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who ministered to us, paid for us to be removed for a few hours to a better part of the prison and obtain some relief. Then all of them went out of the prison, and I suckled my baby, who was faint for want of food. I spoke anxiously to my mother on his behalf and encouraged my brother and commended my son to their care. I was concerned because I saw their concern for me. Such anxieties I suffered for many days, but I obtained leave for my baby to remain in the prison with me, and, being relieved of my trouble and anxiety for him, I at once recovered my health, and my prison suddenly became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.
"Then my brother said to me: 'Lady sister, you are now in great honor-so great that you may well pray for a vision in which you may be shown whether suffering or release be in store for you.' And I, knowing myself to have speech of the Lord for whose sake I was suffering, confidently promised, 'Tomorrow I will brig you word.' And I made petition and this was shown me. I saw a golden ladder of wonderful length reaching up to heaven, but so narrow that only one at a a time could go up; and on the sides of the ladder were fastened all kinds or iron weapons. And at the foot of the ladder was a huge dragon or 'serpent' which lay in wait for those going up and sought to frighten them from making the ascent. Now the first to go up was Saturus, who had given himself up of his own accord for our sakes, because our faith was of his own building and he had not been present when we were arrested. He reached the top of the ladder, and turning, said to me, 'Perpetua, I wait for you, but take care lest the dragon bite you,' and I said, 'In the name of Jesus Christ, he will not hurt me.' And the dragon put out his head gently, as if afraid of me, just at the foot of the ladder; and as though I were treading on the first step, I trod on his head. And I went up and saw a large garden, and sitting in the midst a tall man with white hair in the dress of a shepherd, milking sheep; and round about were many thousands clad in white. And he raised his head and looked upon me and said, 'Welcome, child.' And he called me and gave me some curds of the milk he was milking, and I received it in my joined hands and ate; and all that were round about said Amen. At the sound of the word I awoke, still eating something sweet. And at once I told my brother, and we understood that we must suffer and henceforth began to have no hope in this world.
"After a few days there was a report that we were to be examined. Moreover, my father arrived from the city, worn with anxiety, and he came up that he might overthrow my resolution, saying, 'Daughter, pity my white hairs! Pity your father if I am worthy to be called father by you, if I have brought you up to this your prime of life, if I have preferred you to your brothers. make me not a reproach to men! Look on your mother and your mother's sister, look upon your son who cannot live after you are gone. Lay aside your pride, do not ruin us all, for none of us will ever speak freely again if anything happens to you.' So spoke my father in his love for me, kissing my hands and casting himself at my feet; and with tears in his love for me, kissing my hands and casting himself at my feet; and with tears called me by the name, not of 'daughter,' but of 'lady.' And I grieved for my father's sake, because he alone of all my kindred would not have joy at my martyrdom. I comforted him, saying, 'It shall happen as God shall choose, for assuredly we lie not in our own power but in the power of God.' And he departed full of grief. Another day, whilst we were taking our meal, we were suddenly summoned to be examined and we arrived at the marketplace. The news of this soon spread and brought a vast crowd together. We were placed on a platform before the judge, who was Hilarian, procurator of the province, the proconsul being lately dead. The rest, who were questioned before me, confessed their faith. When it came to my turn, my father appeared with my baby, and drawing me down from the step besought me, 'Have pity on your child.' The president Hilarian joined with my father and said, 'Spare your father's white hairs: spare the tender years of your child. Offer a sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors.' I replied, 'No.' 'Are you a Christian?' asked Hilarian. And I answered, 'Yes, I am.' As my father attempted to draw me from my resolution, Hilarian commanded that he should be beaten off and he was struck with a rod. This I felt as much as if I myself had been struck, so greatly did I grieve to see my father thus treated in his old age. Then the judge passed sentence on us all and condemned us to the wild beasts; and joyfully we returned to our prison. Then, as my baby was accustomed to the breast, I sent Pomponius the deacon to ask him of my father, who, however, refused to send him. And God so ordered it that the child no longer required to suckle, nor did the mikl in my breasts distress me." Secundulus seems to have died in prison before his examination. Before Hilarian pronounced sentence, he had Felicity to be hit on the face. They were reserved for the shows which were to be exhibited for the soldiers in the camp on the festival of Geta, whom his father Severus had made casesar when his brother Caracalla was created augustus four years previously.
St. Perpetua relates another of her visions in the following words: "A few days later, while we were all praying, I happened to name Dinocrates - at which I was astonished, because I had not had him in my thoughts. And I knew that same moment that I ought to pray for him, and this I began to do with much fervor and lamentation before God. The same night this was shown me. I saw Dinocrates coming out of a dark place where there were many others, hot and thirsty; his face was pale with the wound which he had on it when he died. Dinocrates had been my brother according to the flesh, and had died pitiably at the age of seven years of a horrible gangrene in the face. It was for him that I had prayed and there was a great gulf between us, so that neither of us could approach the other. Near him stood a font full of water, the rim of which was above the head of the child, and Dinocrates stood on tiptoe to drink. I was grieved that though the font had water he could not drink because of the height of the rim, and I awoke realizing that my brother was in travail. But I trusted that I could relieve his trouble and I prayed for him every day until we were removed to the garrison prison - for we were to fight with the wild beasts at the garrison games on Geta Caesar's festival. And I prayed for him night and day with lamentation and tears that he might be given me. The day we were in the stocks, this was shown me. I saw the place I had seen before, but now luminous, and Dinocrates clean, well-clad and refreshed; and where there had been a wound, there was now only a scar; and the font I have perceived before had its rim lowered to the child's waist; and there poured water from it constantly and on the rim was a golden bowl full of water. And Dinocrates came forward and began to drink from it, and the bowl failed not. And when he had drunk enough he came away - pleased to play, as children will. And so I awoke and I knew he suffered no longer.
"Some days later, Pudens, the officer who had charge of the prison, began to show us consideration, perceiving that there was some great power within us, and he began to admit many to see us for our mutual refreshment. When the day of the games drew near, my father came, overwhelmed with grief, and he began to pluck out his beard and throw himself upon the ground and to curse his years and to say such words as none could listen to unmoved. I sorrowed for the unhappiness of his old age.
"On the eve of the day we were to suffer I saw in a vision Pomponius the deacon come hither and knock loudly at the prison door, which I opened to him. He was dressed in a white robe without a girdle, wearing shoes curiously wrought, and he said to me, 'Perpetua, we are waiting for you: come.' And he took me by the hand and we began painfully and panting to pass through the rough and broken country till we reached an amphitheatre, and he led me into the middle, saying, 'Fear not; I am here with you and I labor with you.' Then he departed. And I saw a huge crowd watching, and because I knew that I was condemned to the beasts, I wondered that there were none let loose on me. Then there came out an ill-favored Egyptian with his attendants to fight against me. And another troop of goodly young men came to be my supporters. And I was stripped and changed into a man and my attendants rubbed me down with oil for the combat; and I saw the Egyptian, opposite, rolling in the dust. And there came forward a man so wonderfully tall that he rose above the top of the amphitheatre, clad in a purple robe without a girdle, with two stripes, one on each side, running down the middle of the breast, like a trainer, and a green bough on which were golden apples. Having called for silence, he said, 'This Egyptian, if he overcomes her, shall kill her with a sword, and if she overcomes him, she shall receive this bough.' And he withdrew. And we approached each other and began to use our fists. My opponent tried to catch hold of my feet, but I kept on striking his face with my heels; and I was lifted up in the air and began to strike him as would one who no longer trod the earth. But when I saw that the fight lagged, I joined my hands, linking my fingers. And I caught hold of his head and he fell on his face; and I trod on his head. And the people shouted, and my supporters sang psalms. And I came forward to the trainer and received the bough; and kissing me, he said, 'Peace be with thee, daughter.' And I began in triumph to go towards the Gate of Life; and so I knew the victory to be mine. I have written this up to the day before the games. Of what was done in the games themselves, let him write who will.'
St. Saturus also had a vision which he described in writing. He and his companions were conducted by angels into a beautiful garden, where they met martyrs named Jocundus, Saturninus and Artaxius, who had lately been burnt alive, and Quintus, who had died in prison. Then they were led to a place which seemed as though it were built of light, and sitting in it was One white-haired with the face of a youth - 'whose feet we saw not" - and on His right and on His left and behind Him were many elders, and all sang with one voice, "Holy, holy, holy." They stood before the throne, and 'we kissed Him, and He passed His hand over our faces. And the other elders said to us, 'Stand up.' And we stood up and gave the kiss of peace. And the elders said to us, 'Go and play.'" Then Saturus said to Perpetua, "You have all you desired," and she replied, "Thanks be to God that as I was merry in the flesh, so am I still merrier here." He adds that as they went out they found before the gate their bishop Optatus, and Aspasius, a priest, alone and sorrowful. They fell at the martyrs' feet and begged them to reconcile them, for they had quarreled. As Perpetua was talking to them in Greek, "beneath a rose tree," the angels told the two clerics to compose their differences, and charged Optatus to heal the factions in his church. Saturus adds: "We began to recognize many brethren and martyrs there, and we all drew strength from an inexpressible fragrance which delighted us; and in joy I awoke."
The rest of the acts were added by another hand - apparently that of an eyewitness. Felicity feared that she might not suffer with them, because women with child were not allowed to be exposed for punishment. All joined in prayer on her behalf, and she was delivered in the prison, giving birth to a daughter, whom one of their fellow-Christians adopted. The apprehension that the captives might use magic to obtain their deliverance caused the tribune who had charge of the martyrs to treat them harshly and to refuse to allow them to see visitors; but Perpetua remonstrated with him and he relented somewhat, and admitted certain of their friends, whilst Pudens their gaoler, "who now believed," and did all he could for them. The day before the games, the were given the usual last meal, which was eaten in public, and was called "the free feats," but the martyrs strove to make of it an agape, a love-feast, and to those who crowded round them they spoke of the judgments of God and of the joy of their own sufferings. Their courage astonished the pagans and caused the conversion of many.
The day of their triumph having arrived, the martyrs set forth from the prison as though they were on their way to Heaven. After the men walked Perpetua, "abashing with the high spirit in her eyes that gaze of all," and Felicity beside her "rejoicing to come from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism." At the gates of the amphitheatre the guards wished to force the men to wear the robes of the priests of Saturn and women the dress consecrated to Ceres, but Perpetua resisted so strenuously that the officer allowed them to enter the arena clad as they were. Perpetua was singing a psalm of triumph, whilst Revocatus, Saturninus and Saturus threatened the bystanders and even Hilarian, as they passed his balcony, with the judgment of God. The crowd enraged at their boldness, yelled that they should be scourged, and accordingly, as they passed in front of the gladiators, each received a lash. Saturninus had expressed a hope that he might be exposed to various sorts of beasts to gain a more glorious crown, and he and Revocatus, after being attacked by a leopard, were also set upon by a bear. Saturus, on the other hand, had a great horror of bears and hoped that a leopard would dispatch him at once. He was exposed to a wild boar which turned upon its keeper, who received such wounds that he died soon afterwards, whereas Saturus was only dragged along the by the beast. Then the martyr was tied up before the bear, but the bear refused to come out of his den, and Saturus was reserved for a second encounter. This game him a opportunity of speaking to the gaoler Pudens, who had been converted. He encouraged him, saying, "You see that what I desired and foretold has come to pass: not a beast has touched me. Believe steadfastly. See, I go forth yonder, and with one bite from the leopard, all will be over." It happened as he had foretold; a leopard sprang upon him and in a moment he was covered with blood. The mob jeered and cried out, "He is well washed (baptized)!" whilst the martyr said to Pudens, "Farwell: keep the faith and me in mind, and let these things not confound but confirm you." Then he took a ring from the gaoler's finger, and having dipped it in his blood, he returned it to Pudens as a keepsake, and so died, going to await Perpetua, according to her vision.
In the meantime Perpetua and Felicity were exposed to a savage cow. Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back, but sat up and gathered her torn tunic around her, pinning up her disheveled hair lest she should seem to be mourning. Then she went to the help of Felicity, who had also been tossed, and side by side they stood expecting another attack; but as the mob cried out that is was enough, they were led to the gate Sanavivaria, through which victorious gladiators left the arena. Here Perpetua seemed to return as from an ecstasy and asked when she was to fight the cow. Upon being told what had happened, she could not believe it until she saw on herself and on her clothing the marks of what she had suffered. Then, calling her brother she said to him and to the catechumen Rusticus, "Stand fast in the faith and love one another; and do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you." by this time the fickle people were clamoring for them to come out into the open, which they did willingly, and after giving each other the kiss of peace, they were killed by the gladiators, Perpetua guiding to her own throat the sword of her nervous executioner, who had failed to kill her at the first stroke, so that she shrieked out with pain. "Perhaps so great a woman...could not else have been slain except she willed it."
Text derived from Butler's Lives of the Saints, volume 1, Christian Classics, 1988
Images used by permission. Property of John Nava and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. All rights reserved. www.olacathedral.org
The Passion of St. Perpetua
martyred: March 7, 203 A.D.
Saint Perpetua Parish
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