The first major persecution of Christians conducted by Rome took place under the emperor Nero in 64 CE after the Great Fire of Rome.
“A generation after the death of Christ, Christianity had reached Rome in the form of an obscure offshoot of Judaism popular among the city’s poor and destitute. Members of this religious sect spoke of the coming of a new kingdom and a new king. These views provoked suspicion among the Jewish authorities who rejected the group and fear among the Roman authorities who perceived these sentiments as a threat to the Empire.
In the summer of 64, Rome suffered a terrible fire that burned for six days and seven nights consuming almost three quarters of the city. The people accused the Emperor Nero for the devastation claiming he set the fire for his own amusement. In order to deflect these accusations and placate the people, Nero laid blame for the fire on the Christians. The emperor ordered the arrest of a few members of the sect who, under torture, accused others until the entire Christian populace was implicated and became fair game for retribution. As many of the religious sect that could be found were rounded up and put to death in the most horrific manner for the amusement of the citizens of Rome. The ghastly way in which the victims were put to death aroused sympathy among many Romans, although most felt their execution justified.”
Nero’s persecution was horrid but generally was limited to Rome and not to the Empire as a whole. Christian persecution in the first few centuries was, like in Nero’s Rome, generally a local affair. The Roman persecutions were sporadic, localized, and dependent on the political climate and disposition of each emperor or the local governor. Throughout the second century, and well into the third, there was no systematic persecution of Christians. It was illegal to be a Christian, but those who followed the new faith were not sought out by the authorities.
The Roman Empire was quite tolerant in its treatment of other religions and felt that religion could be used to bind the Empire together. Rome would incorporate local gods and goddesses into their Roman pantheon of gods, and as such they were tolerant of the practices of local religions and local gods. The local gods of a newly conquered area were simply added to the Roman pantheon and often given Roman names.
In order to understand the Roman distrust of Judaism and Christianity, one must understand the Roman view of religion. For the Romans, religion was first and foremost a means to bind the state together. The tolerance of permitting the worship of many gods, however, did not extend to those that would not bow down to the supreme god of the pantheon – the Roman Emperor. This is where the monotheistic faiths of Jews and Christians were brought into conflict with Rome.
Both Jews and Christians were by the tenets of their faith unable to acknowledge the Emperor as a god. They were unwilling to sign loyalty oaths that acknowledge his deity. Jews, after some initial persecution, got exemption from Emperor Claudius. Christianity, however, was expanding rapidly within the empire and Christians were increasingly viewed as disloyal or hostile to the state because of their refusal to bow before the emperor and sign loyalty oaths.
This is where we pick up in recounting the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas along with their companions Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus. During the early years of the reign of Septimius Severus (Roman emperor from 193 to 211) Christians enjoyed comparative peace, and Severus himself showed them considerable favor. Early in the third century a change set in, and in 202 the emperor issued an edict forbidding conversions to Christianity and to Judaism. The rapidity with which Christianity was spreading caused him to fear the spread of those that refused to acknowledge his deity. Christians were disloyal and therefore a threat to the empire. Severus’ edict was aimed, not against those already Christians, but only against new converts, the idea being to prevent the further spread of Christianity. The edict only provoked and intensified the already prevalent anti-Christian feelings of many Roman citizens. The end result was that severe persecutions broke out, which were confined, however, almost wholly to Egypt and North Africa. These persecutions are covered historically in Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica, and a number of Tertullian’s works.
All over the Roman Empire, Severus’ edict was stirring up chaos against the Church. Christians were being martyred throughout the empire, but with greater frequency in Northern Africa. Perpetua was a young Christian in the African city of Carthage. She and several other new believers – Saturninus, Secundulus, Revocatus, and Felicitas were nearing the end their time of being catechized into the faith that every new believer received before being baptized. This little group of disciples typified the diversity found within the growing body of Christ. Perpetua was twenty-two, born to a wealthy family, and the mother of an infant son. Revocatus and Felicitas, who was pregnant, were both slaves.
The group’s catechism into the Christian faith was cut short when the Roman authorities of the province arrested them for refusing to worship the empire’s deities. The new converts to Christianity were obvious targets of Severus’ ban on those new to the faith. Vibia Perpetua and her new friends were imprisoned to await trial. She kept her baby with her. In solidarity, Saturus, Perpetua’s brother, who had not been arrested with the others, turned himself in.
Despite the exhortations of her father, who persistently appealed to her maternal feelings, Perpetua refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. In her diary she recounts that as she professed her allegiance to Christ: “my father was so angered by the word ‘Christian’ that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.”
Before their execution she writes that she and Saturus had visions from God, which strengthened their souls. In the days leading up to their execution, Secundulus died in prison. The others thanked God that he was spared a violent death. Felicitas was also expected to avoid the ordeal with the wild beasts, for she was now eight months pregnant and it was illegal to execute a pregnant woman. Yet far from being relieved, she was grieved that her pregnancy might prevent her from joining her companions in martyrdom.
Three days before the date of execution, Felicitas and the other prisoners joined in prayer. They begged God to grant her the privilege of facing the beasts with her fellow Christians, so that she would not have to face this trial alone later. She went into labor immediately. The early delivery was extremely painful. One of the servants attending the birth said, “You’re suffering now – and what will you do when you’re thrown to the beasts?”
Felicitas answered, “I suffer what I’m suffering now, but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I am about to suffer for Him.” She gave birth to a girl. The baby was given to a Christian woman to be raised.
On the day of their executions the martyrs were led from the prison into the amphitheater. A bear, a leopard, and a wild boar were selected to face the men. Saturninus and Revocatus had to face a leopard and a bear. Saturus was taken out alone and tied to the ground near the bear, but the bear would not emerge from its den, instead, the leopard inflicted the fatal wound to him with a single bite. The two young mothers were stripped naked and given nets to wear. Then they were thrown into the arena with a wild bull. After being tossed to the ground by the bull, the two women were led out of the arena. After they had been brutalized by the animals, the survivors were gathered together. They gave each other the kiss of peace one last time. Then each of them was stabbed with a sword. Perpetua, however, was stabbed between the ribs by a novice gladiator whose hand was shaking, and she did not die. She cried out loudly, grabbed the gladiator’s sword hand, and brought the blade to her own throat. In this way she embraced her death.
Each, in their own way, stayed faithful to their Lord to death. Each received the Promised Crown of Life. The Promised Crown of Life – (Revelation 2:10) “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This crown is for all believers, but is especially dear to those who endure sufferings, who bravely confront persecution for Jesus, even to the point of death.
The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas – Their Prison Diary
This is the prison diary of a young woman martyered in Carthage in 202 or 203 CE. The beginning and ending are related by an editor/narrator; the central text contains the words of Perpetua herself.
A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. Her mother and father were still alive and one of her two brothers was a catechumen like herself. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast. (Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own, according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down.)
While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’
‘Yes, I do’, said he.
And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’
And he said: ‘No.’
‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’
At this my father was so angered by the word ‘Christian’ that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.
For a few days afterwards I gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was comforted by his absence. During these few days I was baptized, and I was inspired by the Spirit not to ask for any other favour after the water but simply the perseverance of the flesh. A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.
Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.
Then my brother said to me: ‘Dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or freed.’
Faithfully I promised that I would, for I knew that I could speak with the Lord, whose great blessings I had come to experience. And so I said: ‘I shall tell you tomorrow.’ Then I made my request and this was the vision I had.
I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up at a time. To the sides of the ladder were attached all sorts of metal weapons: there were swords, spears, hooks, daggers, and spikes; so that if anyone tried to climb up carelessly or without paying attention, he would be mangled and his flesh would adhere to the weapons.
At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who tried to climb up and try to terrify them from doing so. And Saturus was the first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own accord. He had been the builder of our strength, although he was not present when we were arrested. And he arrived at the top of the staircase and he looked back and said to me: ‘Perpetua, I am waiting for you. But take care; do not let the dragon bite you.’
‘He will not harm me,’ I said, ‘in the name of Christ Jesus.’
Slowly, as though he were afraid of me, the dragon stuck his head out from underneath the ladder. Then, using it as my first step, I trod on his head and went up.
Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child.’
He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful Of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’ At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.
A few days later there was a rumour that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me.
‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on my grey head–have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favoured you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.’
This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer.
I tried to comfort him saying: ‘It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.’
And he left me in great sorrow.
One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighbourhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner’s dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: ‘Perform the sacrifice–have pity on your baby!’
Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’
‘I will not’, I retorted.
‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus.
And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’
When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. I felt sorry for his pathetic old age.
Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits. But my baby had got used to being nursed at the breast and to staying with me in prison. So I sent the deacon Pomponius straight away to my father to ask for the baby. But father refused to give him over. But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts….
Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honour, realizing that we possessed some great power within us. And he began to allow many visitors to see us for our mutual comfort.
Now the day of the contest was approaching, and my father came to see me overwhelmed with sorrow. He started tearing the hairs from his beard and threw them on the ground; he then threw himself on the ground and began to curse his old age and to say such words as would move all creation. I felt sorry for his unhappy old age.
The day before we were to fight with the beasts I saw the following vision. Pomponius the deacon came to the prison gates and began to knock violently. I went out and opened the gate for him. He was dressed in an unbelted white tunic, wearing elaborate sandals. And he said to me: ‘Perpetua, come; we are waiting for you.’
Then he took my hand and we began to walk through rough and broken country. At last we came to the amphitheatre out of breath, and he led me into the centre of the arena.
Then he told me: ‘Do not be afraid. I am here, struggling with you.’ Then he left.
I looked at the enormous crowd who watched in astonishment. I was surprised that no beasts were let loose on me; for I knew that I was condemned to die by the beasts. Then out came an Egyptian against me, of vicious appearance, together with his seconds, to fight with me. There also came up to me some handsome young men to be my seconds and assistants.
My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man. My seconds began to rub me down with oil (as they are wont to do before a contest). Then I saw the Egyptian on the other side rolling in the dust. Next there came forth a man of marvelous stature, such that he rose above the top of the amphitheatre. He was clad in a beltless purple tunic with two stripes (one on either side) running down the middle of his chest. He wore sandals that were wondrously made of gold and silver, and he carried a wand like an athletic trainer and a green branch on which there were golden apples.
And he asked for silence and said: ‘If this Egyptian defeats her he will slay her with the sword. But if she defeats him, she will receive this branch.’ Then he withdrew.
We drew close to one another and began to let our fists fly. My opponent tried to get hold of my feet, but I kept striking him in the face with the heels of my feet. Then I was raised up into the air and I began to pummel him without as it were touching the ground. Then when I noticed there was a lull, I put my two hands together linking the fingers of one hand with those of the other and thus I got hold of his head. He fell flat on his face and I stepped on his head.
The crowd began to shout and my assistants started to sing psalms. Then I walked up to the trainer and took the branch. He kissed me and said to me: ‘Peace be with you, my daughter!’ I began to walk in triumph towards the Gate of Life. Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory. So much for what I did up until the eve of the contest. About what happened at the contest itself, let him write of it who will.
[Here Saturus tells the story of a vision he had of Perpetua and himself, after they were killed, being carried by four angels into heaven where they were reunited with other martyrs killed in the same persecution.]
[Here the editor/narrator begins to relate the story]:
Such were the remarkable visions of these martyrs, Saturus and Perpetua, written by themselves. As for Secundulus, God called him from this world earlier than the others while he was still in prison, by a special grace that he might not have to face the animals. Yet his flesh, if not his spirit, knew the sword.
As for Felicitas, she too enjoyed the Lord’s favour in this wise. She had been pregnant when she was arrested, and was now in her eighth month. As the day of the spectacle drew near she was very distressed that her martyrdom would be postponed because of her pregnancy; for it is against the law for women with child to be executed. Thus she might have to shed her holy, innocent blood afterwards along with others who were common criminals. Her comrades in martyrdom were also saddened; for they were afraid that they would have to leave behind so fine a companion to travel alone on the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, they poured forth a prayer to the Lord in one torrent of common grief. And immediately after their prayer the birth pains came upon her. She suffered a good deal in her labour because of the natural difficulty of an eight months’ delivery.
Hence one of the assistants of the prison guards said to her: ‘You suffer so much now–what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice.’
‘What I am suffering now’, she replied, ‘I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.’
And she gave birth to a girl; and one of the sisters brought her up as her own daughter.
Therefore, since the Holy Spirit has permitted the story of this contest to be written down and by so permitting has willed it, we shall carry out the command or, indeed, the commission of the most saintly Perpetua, however unworthy I might be to add anything to this glorious story. At the same time I shall add one example of her perseverance and nobility of soul.
The military tribune had treated them with extraordinary severity because on the information of certain very foolish people he became afraid that they would be spirited out of the prison by magical spells.
Perpetua spoke to him directly. ‘Why can you not even allow us to refresh ourselves properly? For we are the most distinguished of the condemned prisoners, seeing that we belong to the emperor; we are to fight on his very birthday. Would it not be to your credit if we were brought forth on the day in a healthier condition?’
The officer became disturbed and grew red. So it was that he gave the order that they were to be more humanely treated; and he allowed her brothers and other persons to visit, so that the prisoners could dine in their company. By this time the adjutant who was head of the gaol was himself a Christian.
On the day before, when they had their last meal, which is called the free banquet, they celebrated not a banquet but rather a love feast. They spoke to the mob with the same steadfastness, warned them of God’s judgment, stressing the joy they would have in their suffering, and ridiculing the curiosity of those that came to see them. Saturus said: ‘Will not tomorrow be enough for you? Why are you so eager to see something that you dislike? Our friends today will be our enemies on the morrow. But take careful note of what we look like so that you will recognize us on the day.’ Thus everyone would depart from the prison in amazement, and many of them began to believe.
The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism.
They were then led up to the gates and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.
‘We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.’
Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm: she was already treading on the head of the Egyptian. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the on looking mob. Then when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: ‘You have condemned us, but God will condemn you’ was what they were saying.
At this the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord’s sufferings.
But he who said, Ask and you shall receive, answered their prayer by giving each one the death he had asked for. For whenever they would discuss among themselves their desire for martyrdom, Saturninus indeed insisted that he wanted to be exposed to all the different beasts, that his crown might be all the more glorious. And so at the outset of the contest he and Revocatus were matched with a leopard, and then while in the stocks they were attacked by a bear. As for Saturus, he dreaded nothing more than a bear, and he counted on being killed by one bite of a leopard. Then he was matched with a wild boar; but the gladiator who had tied him to the animal was gored by the boar and died a few days after the contest, whereas Saturus was only dragged along. Then when he was bound in the stocks awaiting the bear, the animal refused to come out of the cages, so that Saturus was called back once more unhurt.
For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.
First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.
Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life.
There Perpetua was held up by a man named Rusticus who was at the time a catechumen and kept close to her. She awoke from a kind of sleep (so absorbed had she been in ecstasy in the Spirit) and she began to look about her. Then to the amazement of all she said: ‘When are we going to be thrown to that heifer or whatever it is?’
When told that this had already happened, she refused to believe it until she noticed the marks of her rough experience on her person and her dress. Then she called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: ‘You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.’
At another gate Saturus was earnestly addressing the soldier Pudens. ‘It is exactly’, he said, ‘as I foretold and predicted. So far not one animal has touched me. So now you may believe me with all your heart: I am going in there and I shall be finished off with one bite of the leopard.’ And immediately as the contest was coming to a close a leopard was let loose, and after one bite Saturus was so drenched with blood that as he came away the mob roared in witness to his second baptism: ‘Well washed! Well washed!’ For well washed indeed was one who had been bathed in this manner.
Then he said to the soldier Pudens: ‘Good-bye. Remember me, and remember the faith. These things should not disturb you but rather strengthen you.’
And with this he asked Pudens for a ring from his finger, and dipping it into his wound he gave it back to him again as a pledge and as a record of his bloodshed.
Shortly after he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving, especially Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway was the first to die. For once again he was waiting for Perpetual Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.
Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honours, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendour and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen.
From The Acts of the Christian Marytrs, texts and translation by Herbert Musurillo (c) Oxford University Press, 1972