Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 41
Perpetua | c. 182–c203
The jeers from the crowd in the arena were overwhelming as Perpetua and her friends quickly took in the sights and smells from the Carthage arena.
This was it. Their moment.
A few weeks prior, new believers gathered for worship and fellowship. Perpetua, a 22-year-old, wealthy, married woman who had recently given birth, joined with her friends Saturninus, Secundulus, Revocatus, and Felicitas. Given the cultural moment, they were well aware they were under the watchful eye of the magistrate and asked the church to baptize them. A few days after boldly declaring their faith in Christ in the water, soldiers came and arrested the members of their small group and took them away to their death.
In one of the earliest testimonies written by a woman, Perpetua kept a journal of her time in prison. She records how her father came and pled with her to think of her son, her mother, and her family. Could she not simply renounce Christ for the sake of her family? Pointing to a simple water pitcher in her cell, she asked, “Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?”
He answered in the negative.
“So neither can I call myself anything other than that which I am, a Christian,” Perpetua replied. With this response, her father left her and Perpetua steeled herself for her impending judgement from the magistrates.
The day of sentencing came. Perpetua and her friends were marched along with other Christians to the public forum. The tribunal attracted a large crowd and, one by one, the Christians were asked to renounce Christ. None did. Person by person, they confessed Christ alone as their Lord and King.
As Perpetua moved toward the front of the line, she saw her father who began again to plead with her to renounce her new-found faith and offer the sacrifice to the prosperity of the Emperor. As Perpetua stood before the tribunal, she confidently declared, “I am a Christian!”
With her public confession joining the chorus of other believers being judged that day, the governor sentenced them to death in the arena—to be put to death by beasts at games in celebration of the Emperor’s birthday. Perpetua records that they all “went cheerfully back into the dungeon” to await the fateful day.
Perpetua records moments of intense prayer both alone and along with the other believers as they waited. They fellowshipped and encouraged each other in their faith. In answer to their prayers, Felicitas gave birth to the child she was carrying when they were arrested. They found favor with the soldiers who managed the prison and many of them came to faith in Christ.
Perpetua’s journal finishes with an amazing dream where she fights and defeats a great warrior in the very arena where she was scheduled to die the following day. As she awoke from her dream, an overwhelming sense of peace flooded her. “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil,” she stated. But her final words betrayed her full confidence in Christ.
“I knew that mine was the victory,” she wrote.
The next morning, as an editor picks up the story, Perpetua and her friends were escorted into the arena in Carthage. As they entered, they strode with confidence—like gladiatorial champions onto the competition floor. Perpetua sang, conveying the joy she felt as part of the chosen Bride of Christ. As she and her comrades stood once again before the tribunal, they confessed Christ together and prophetically spoke to the governor how the Lord would judge him. Soldiers were summoned and the believers were whipped for their insolence in addressing the governor.
After their scourging, animals were released into the arena to the delight of the spectators. Perpetua and Felicitas were knocked down by an enraged bull, but both encouraged each other and stood back up. According to the narrative, Perpetua fixed her hair and her torn clothing before the next assault, demonstrating her composure even in the midst of the chaos of the arena.
Eventually, as the beasts wore out, the surviving believers were brought to the middle of the arena near the bodies of their friends. They gave each other the traditional kiss of peace, the greeting they would have used at church, and the soldiers ran them through. Perpetua, pierced between the ribs, cried out in a loud gasp. The young soldier who ran her through looked frightened as he retracted his sword, but Perpetua, looking him straight in the eyes, guided his shaking sword to her throat and he completed her martyrdom.
The account of the Martyrdom of Perpetua is an incredibly special narrative that records the boldness of a woman of faith—something the culture could not comprehend. The fact that the claims of Christ superseded everything—wealth, social status, and even family—provided a testimony to the truth of Christianity that reverberated well beyond the provincial confines of North Africa. As spectacular as the death of Perpetua in AD 203 was, it was simply yet one more voice in a growing choir of men and women of all ages choosing Christ above all.
Stories like that of Perpetua and her friends may seem distant and remote, but we can find encouragement even for our own day within the lives of those who journeyed before us. As I walk through this narrative with my students, we tend to find some threads that are key for believers of any era:
Discipleship and small groups have always mattered. Perpetua’s arrest came on the heels of her meeting with a small group as part of her catechumenate training. This discipleship structure took place to help new believers deepen in their faith before becoming members of the local church. Their church still functions in the background of the narrative as deacons come and visit, secure better care for them in prison, and help ensure Perpetua’s child has every need met. But it is together, this small band of believers encouraged each other in the faith prior to imprisonment, during imprisonment, standing before the tribunal, and even on the battlefield of the arena.
Christians bend the knee to no one except Christ. Perpetua’s father pled multiple times with her to simply cave momentarily to the demands of the authorities. For her father, if Perpetua would perform the meaningless cultural ritual, she could be free. She could even choose Christ again once she was out of prison. In the narrative, Perpetua’s father never understood her devotion to Christ nor her commitment to follow Him above all others.
Finally, personal identity is abandoned to Christ. In The Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas, the claim by Perpetua to her father, “I am a Christian,” echoes the broader Acta Martyrum. In these accounts, Christians, when asked for their identity, refused to give their name as anything other than “Christian.” They understood their personal identity was defined by nothing else save for Christ. How fitting in our day when culture presses us to define ourselves by multiple labels. In the narrative, we are told of the social status of Perpetua (wealthy) and Felicitas (slave), but neither of these define them. Rather, in Christ, they transcend the cultural markers laying claim to their one Lord. For the early church, there was only one identity—Christ.
As men and women who follow Christ, our hope in the 21st century is no different from those in the first or third century. May we stand faithfully in Christ alone.
John Mark Yeats | Professor of Church History; Vice President of Student Services; Dean of Students and Student Success; and Title IX Coordinator, Midwestern Seminary