2011 - Vol. 53
Victory Over Death
The heroic witness
of the early Christian martyrs
Perpetua was a young lady who had it made. She was born into a noble
Roman family in Carthage, a Roman city in North Africa in 181 AD. She was
beautiful, well-educated, happily married around the age of twenty, and
now the mother of an infant son. And then to the surprise of her family
she decided to become a Christian. This appeared sheer nonsense to her
father who saw it as breaking not only with Roman tradition but with family
loyalty as well. Besides, what good had Christianity brought to Roman society?
It seemed to mainly attract working class people and the slaves who had
little or nothing to lose. Many emperors had tried to suppress it in the
past, and the current emperor Septimus had decided to outlaw it once again,
and threatened death to anyone who professed it.
The threat of death did not deter Perpetua from taking instructions
in the Christian faith. She discovered that the Gospels were true and offered
the way to eternal life and happiness. Jesus of Nazareth became a real
living person to her, someone greater than the emperor, someone who was
king of heaven and the whole earth as well. Despite the objections of her
family, Perpetua pursued the Christian faith with great enthusiasm and
conviction. Her brother Secundus soon followed in becoming a Christian
Perpetua’s father had pleaded with tears to persuade her to give up
her Christian faith. Her answer was simple and clear. Pointing to a water
jug, she asked her father, "See that pot lying there? Can you call
it by any other name than what it is?"
“Of course not,” he answered. Perpetua responded, “Neither can I call
myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.” Her father became
so upset that he physically attacked her.
Sometime after the birth of her firstborn son, she was arrested, along
with four other Christians who were new in the faith. Her brother Secundus
had been arrested earlier and thrown into prison as well. Before being
taken to prison she was baptized. The Holy Spirit gave her a prophetic
gift and told her to pray for nothing but endurance in the face of her
Perpetua was thrown into a crowded prison with no light anywhere. In
her diary she described her ordeal:
Such darkness I have never known! What a day of horror! Terrible
heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all,
I was tormented with anxiety for my baby.
Perpetua admitted she was afraid and was most at pain from being separated
from her nursing infant. Another young woman in prison with her, who was
a slave by the name of Felicity, was eight months pregnant.
Two deacons who visited the prisoners paid the jailers to move Perpetua
and Felicity to a better prison cell where they could receive visits from
family members and be better cared for. Perpetua’s mother brought Perpetua’s
baby to her so she could nurse the child. When Perpetua received permission
for the baby to stay with her, she said “suddenly my prison became a palace
Once again Perpetua’s father pleaded with kisses and tears for Perpetua
to give up her faith. She told him, “We rely not on our own power but on
the power of God.” When she was taken before the judge he also tried to
persuade her to give up her faith. After she refused, the judge sentenced
her, along with the other four new Christians and Saturus their Christian
teacher, to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.
Two days before the execution, the slave Felicity gave birth to a healthy
girl who was adopted and raised by one of the Christian women of Carthage.
While in prison Perpetua shared a vision she had received. She saw a
ladder leading to heaven. At the bottom of the ladder was a serpent, attacking
the Christians trying to climb the ladder to heaven. Perpetua understood
that she would have to fight Satan rather than just the beasts of the arena.
The Lord assured her that she would not be defeated in overcoming Satan.
This gave her great confidence and courage.
On the day of the games, the three men and two women were led into the
amphitheatre. At the demand of the crowd they were first scourged. Then
a boar, a bear, and a leopard, were set on the men, and a wild cow on the
women. Wounded by the wild animals, they gave each other the kiss of peace
and were then put to the sword.
Perpetua's last words to her brother were: “Stand
fast in the faith and love one another and do not
be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”
An early eyewitness account describes the death of Perpetua:
“But Perpetua, that she might experience pain more deeply,
rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced
gladiator to her throat. Such a woman – one before whom the unclean spirit
trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed
Perpetua and Saturus wrote personal accounts of
their ordeal while in prison. They include the testimony of Felicity as
well. An English translation of the account, called The
Passions of the Holy Martyrs Pepetua and Felicitas, along with an eye
witness testimony of their martyrdom can be found online.
story of Perpetua is based on her personal testimony along with other early
eye witness accounts, adapted by Don Schwager.]