Once Rome’s most feared enemy, the city of Carthage on the North African coast had a fighting force and a love of violence second to none. At length, the Roman army defeated these powerful Phoenicians. To make sure Carthage would never pose a problem again, in 146 B.C. they razed the city to the ground, salting the earth so that nothing would grow.
Three centuries later, however, Roman emperor Hadrian reconstituted the city, and by A.D. 200 Carthage was again a thriving metropolis. In addition, it became the setting for an unusual story of love, courage, and martyrdom.
As a youngster, Perpetua got a good education and a tender upbringing from her doting Carthaginian parents. They lived in swanky comfort, enjoying the amenities of a typical Roman city, as Carthage now was, and pledging allegiance to the emperor, as all citizens of the empire now did.
After Perpetua married, she became part of the young matrons’ circle. Somewhere along the line, though, she fell in love with the Christian movement. Not only that, she persuaded her African servant Felicity to convert. Her husband and parents could have tolerated this aberration but for one thing: hard-core Christians refused to pay even lip service to the emperor. (Here’s a prime example of how words change meaning over time: this refusal was labeled “atheism,” which back then meant “denial of the [pagan] gods.”)
At that time, Septimius Severus of Lepta Magna on the North African coast was emperor. Unlike some Caesars we could name, Severus wasn’t a bad guy. He loved his wife Julia Domna and doted on his two sons, counting on them to follow him in office. Geta, the elder by one year, was his special pet.
As had earlier emperors, Severus worried about the growing Christian movement and the audacious behavior of some of its adherents. To quell it, in 202 he passed a law that forbid Christians to openly promote their faith.
By now Perpetua was a very vocal activist, proselytizing on the streets of Carthage. Conflict with the authorities was inevitable. When the twenty-two-year-old got arrested for religious agitation, she was a new mother, breast-feeding an infant. The authorities also arrested four male activists and Perpetua’s maid, a now heavily pregnant Felicity.
A number of women became early Christian martyrs, but only Perpetua documented her ordeal. While imprisoned for eight months, she kept a diary; on her day of execution, she handed it off to a fellow Christian, who recorded the grisly details of Perpetua’s martyrdom.
The original meaning of the word martyr is “witness,” and that is what Perpetua and others like her set out to do: to suffer and possibly die rather than give up their faith. And to do it publicly, so that others would in turn be witnesses. Christian activists were routinely sentenced to be thrown to the wild beasts in the gladiatorial arena. Their willingness to undergo such torture showed the strength of their belief.
In the dank, overcrowded Carthage prison, Perpetua and her Christian companions received word of their sentence date. They were joyous but stressed out over Felicity, who would not be able to appear in public (and thus miss out on martyrdom) if she were still pregnant. After an intense group prayer session, Felicity finally went into labor and gave birth to a little girl in their cell, three days before their arena date.
On a clear March day, this small band of Christians marched into the amphitheatre of Carthage. All wore brave smiles, and Perpetua was singing. (Neither infant was present, having been taken in by relatives or friends.)
The true horribleness of death by wild beasts was that most carnivores will not attack humans on demand; thus the Romans resorted to starving and/or abusing the animals. At times, they simply trussed the human victim to the wild animal—itself a victim, since no animals ever left the arena alive.
First, several of the men in Perpetua’s group were dispatched by a fierce leopard and an aggressive bear. But when Perpetua and new mother Felicity came into the center of the arena, members of the audience were sickened at the sight of milk leaking from the breasts of the lactating women, both of them naked. After the crowd protested, the two young mothers were taken out of the arena, given tunics to wear, and returned.
A wild heifer entered the arena, and tossed Perpetua into the air. She was unhurt. The heifer then attacked Felicity and knocked her savagely. More animals were released, but failed to kill the two women and one man remaining.
At length, all three were made to climb upon a platform where a gladiator waited to dispatch them. His sword missed with the first stroke; Perpetua cried out, then positioned his sword on her neck for the final blow.
She died with extraordinary courage, expressing her love for her god and her joy at going to meet other martyrs in heaven.
As this sanguinary event unfolded, the emperor who had set it in motion was busy celebrating. It was the fourteenth birthday of his well-loved son Geta. As was the custom, the executions of both the beasts and the martyrs represented a sacrifice, made on the boy’s birthday, to ensure his health and prosperity. It was in vain. Emperor Severus would pass away in six years. And that same year, Geta would die at the hands of his own brother.
A Roman citizen, Perpetua loved Christianity and longed for martyrdom. She left behind a journal documenting her activism and death in the gladiatorial arena of Carthage.