The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas is an early martyr story that subverts and transforms the ancient Greco-Roman notions of honor and shame.
The short story narrates the martyrdom of six young catechumens in Carthage, North Africa in the year 203. In her prison diary, Perpetua recounts her court trial and four spiritual visions. The book concludes with an eye-witness account of their heroic martyrdom. The narrative is sophisticated and inspiring literature. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas has historical value as one of the earliest Christian martyrdom stories and as the first Christian text written by a woman. Felicitas and Perpetua rank among the most famous saints in early Church history. In fact, Augustine of Hippo warned Christians 200 years later to not esteem this text as canonical Scriptures! You can read the text here or here.
This post examines the honor-shame motifs prominent throughout the story. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas illustrates how Christians adopted and redefined Greco-Roman notions of honor-shame. Moreover, these early martyrdom accounts can help us read other early Christian martyrs, such as Stephen (Acts 7) and Polycarp (c. 155 in Smyrna).
In sum, the story portrays these martyrs as noble and honorable heroes. Perpetua and others were honorable before, during, and after their death for Jesus.
Perpetua’s Honorable Nobility
The opening paragraph introduces Perpetua as a woman of noble descent, education, and marriage. She is an aristocratic woman of status (1). Perpetua retains this sense of dignitas throughout the trial.
Before their deaths, the victims were paraded through the street for the entertainment of onlookers. The Roman guards forced Perpetua and Felicitas to dress as Ceres, the Roman goddess of fertility. The attire likely sexualized the young ladies. However, the “noble-minded women resisted even to the end with constancy.” They retain their honor by refusing to allow imperial powers to objectify and shame them (cf. Queen Vashti, Esther 1).
When thrown before the animals in the arena, Perpetua retains her status, as traditionally marked by clothes and hair. “When she saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering. Then she was called for again, and bound up her disheveled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning” (20). Her honorable instincts shine even in the face of death.
Times of persecution pushed martyrs to form new kinship alliances. A new spiritual family replaces traditional family structures, which were gravely important in Roman society. In antiquity, a 22-year-old lady such as Perpetua was defined by relationships with her father, husband, and brother(s). However, Perpetua redefines all three of these relationships.
Perpetua’s (unnamed) father is actually the narrative’s chief antagonist. In a series of four arguments, he begs and even assaults Perpetua so that she will renounce martyrdom. In Perpetua’s own words, the father uses “satanic arguments” to “cast [Perpetua] down from the faith,” which is the work of the devil. After Perpetua denounces the demands and authority of her pater, she has a vision that reveals her true father. Perpetua ascends to heaven and sees a white-haired shepherd, around whom are many thousand white-robed figures. This divine figure says, “Welcome, daughter” and extends food to her (4). Perpetua has a new father in heaven. In the end, the Roman judge casts down and humiliates Perpetua’s father. The Roman trial functions as a double revelation. The scene, as though an eschatological courtroom, denounces the opponent (Perpetua’s father) to shameful judgment, and reveals the hero’s honorable identification with Christ (i.e., “I am a Christian”).
The scene has great irony because the father appeals to the family honor when trying to persuade Perpetua—“Have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called a father by you. If with these hands I have brought you up to this flower of your age, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not deliver me up to the scorn of men. Have regard to your brothers, have regard to your mother and your aunt, have regard to your son, who will not be able to live after you.” The father’s concern for his family’s reputation, and how Perpetua’s actions may tarnish that reputation, leads to his public disgrace. In fact, Perpetua’s martyrdom actually does enhance the honor of her (new, spiritual) paterfamilias.
The story never mentions Perpetua’s husband. Female ascetics in the early church often claimed marriage with Jesus (cf. Acts of Paul and Thecla, St. Barbara). This new spiritual marriage extended Paul’s language in Ephesians 5. As for brothers, deacons of the church attend to Perpetua throughout her imprisonment. They assume the family role of bringing her supplies and keeping her company. These people, often males, function as spiritual brothers in the narrative. The final demonstration of renewed family occurs just before their martyrdom. Felicitas gives birth to a young girl, “which a certain sister brought up as her daughter.” Fellow Christians adopt the child into their own family.
Rhetoric and Power
Today the word martyr means “a person who dies for Christ.” But the term originally meant “witness,” someone who spoke authoritatively and eloquently before others. Martyria was a rhetorical argument delivered in a court. In the early Church, martyrs were socially prominent Christians with the authority and education to publicly defend themselves. In this ancient rhetorical context, martyr stories are not focused on the deaths of passive victims, but their public declarations, even in the face of death.
Martyr accounts like The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas portray Christians as competing in public competitions. Through their words and divine support, the Christian witnesses emerge victorious and shame their opponents. This function is central to the entire genre of martyr narratives (cf. Stephen in Acts 7, Polycarp). The martyrs claim honor through their public witness, first at their court trial and then in the arena.
Perpetua competes in and dominates verbal honor-competitions. In the opening scene, Perpetua defeats her father with Socratic reasoning. As she says, if a bowl cannot change its name, she too must be called by her essence—”I am a Christian.” Perpetua vanquishes her father’s satanic arguments (2). Later she shames the tribune with her words. They are scandalized and embarrassed, so then treat her better (16). On their final evening, Perpetua and her friends share a love-feast (agape) as curious spectators watch them. However, instead of feeling diminished as exposed criminals, the martyrs shame and expose the onlookers, and many of them believed (17). The next morning, spectators gather for the game’s official procession in order to deride and mock those condemned. But Perpetua stares down the audience and forces them to lower their gaze (18). The shamers have been shamed. Perpetua, through her masterful orator, is a Roman hero who conquers in the face of adversity.
Courage and Noble Death
Perpetua has the courage to die a noble death. She controls the situation with her words and her actions, orchestrating the event to divine plan. In the final scene, Perpetua exercises her courage and control to gain the contest’s ultimate honor. The young gladiator wavers in fear before Perpetua, so she brings his shaky hand up to her own throat. Like Jesus and other Greco-Roman heroes, she controls her own fate and dies a noble death with great courage. In the New Testament, this is most emphasized in John’s Gospel.
The nobility of a courageous death, as Perpetua displays, explains the book’s most famous verse. In her third prophetic vision (10), Perpetua faces a barbarous Egyptian in the arena. Some young men prepare her for the fight. “I was stripped, and became a man. Then my helpers began to rub me with oil, as is the custom for contest.” These sentences have fostered much discussion about “gender-fluidity” and “eroticism.” However, these words are referring to her noble character, not her gender or sexuality. This is evident in the story itself, as in the next scene the referee of the gladiatorial fight refers to Perpetua as “this woman.”
So how did Perpetua “become a man”? In ancient Greece, “manliness” was a noble virtue. To “be a man” meant to face danger with courage, self-control, and resolve. The opposite was an emotional display of fear and cowardice. This ancient virtue system leaks into the Greek language, so the verb “to be courageous” is literally “be a man” (cf. 1 Cor 16:13, ἀνδρίζεσθε, where Paul is speaking to women and men!). Such “manliness” refers to Perpetua’s virtues of self-control and courage, regardless of her gender. In her vision, she conquers the Egyptian (another demonic figure) by striking his face with her heels. This biblical language (cf. Gen 3:15; Rom 16:20) interprets her impending martyrdom as a victory of evil, which Perpetua accomplished by becoming “manly/courageous.”
The onlooking crowds function as another character in the story. Much like Perpetua’s father, they are opponents who embody shame. These blood-thirsty onlookers revel in the violence of death. They demand that the martyrs be “tormented with scourges” (18) and “make their eyes partners in the murder” (20). However, in the end, these crowds are shamed and exposed. The crowds echo the demanding Jewish leadership at Jesus’ trials. The public decrees contrast the heavenly verdict issued from the throne of heaven, as in the book of Revelation. The crowds function as the mouthpiece of the false honor-system. But even as they perpetuate a false reality, their evil advances God’s victory through the martyrs.
And also like Jesus’ passion narrative, the Roman officials are portrayed in a more positive light (though they carry out the execution). The Roman judge “put down” the story’s antagonist, Perpetua’s father. The overseer of the prison, Pudens, “began to regard us in great esteem, perceiving that the great power of God was in us” (cf. Mark 15:39). And the tribune treated the imprisoned martyrs humanly and allowed visitors (16). Though in this last instance, the prisoners shamed them into the action by appealing to their honor—“Is it not your glory if we appear [in the arena] fatter than others?”
Death as Glory
For early Christians, death via martyrdom was the obtainment of glory. Martyrs imitated Jesus; they participated in his suffering and his glory (cf. Phil 3). For example, the narrator declares the moment Perpetua lies disheveled and exposed before the lions as “her glory” (20). Another member of the group, Saturninus, was “doubtless that he might wear a more glorious crown” upon facing the beasts. Martyrdom was the revelation and obtainment of divine glory. In a pre-martyrdom vision, Perpetua enters into paradise with Saturus. As they walk through a garden, “four other angels appeared, brighter than the previous ones, who, when they saw us, gave us honour, and said to the rest of the angels, ‘Here they are! Here they are!’ with admiration” (11). The heavenly crowds publicly honor them along with previous martyrs.
The narrative also utilizes spatial language—i.e., up and down, raised and lowered—to portray status. In her first prophetic vision from prison, Perpetua sees “a golden ladder of marvelous height, reaching up even to heaven,” which represents the martyrdom itself (4). At the base was a crouching dragon waiting to scare potential martyrs from the ascent. This represents Satan’s efforts to lure persecuted Christians into renouncing Christ and offering a pagan sacrifice, and thus to fail to “climb the ladder.” At the end of the story, the narrator says that the initial martyr Saturus “had first ascended the ladder.”
Another motif, common in other martyrdom stories (cf. Daniel 6), is the submission of vicious animals. For example, a boar is released upon the martyrs, but attacks and kills his master. Then a bear does not exit his den (19). The murderous animals do not attack the holy ones. Ancient Roman officials organized gladiatorial games with exotic animals from around the world. In such events, Romans were the glorious masters of all creation. But martyrdom stories reverse that narrative and portray Christians as masters of creation, co-rulers with Christ over all.
The narrator’s final postscript affirms the honor of the martyrs as ones who honor Christ. “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” (21).
For more, see these articles Brian Sower, “Pudor et Dedecus: Rhetoric of Honor and Shame in Perpetua’s Passion” (2015) and Erin Ronsse, “Rhetoric of Martyrs: Listening to Saints Perpetua and Felictas” (2006), both in Journal of Early Christian Studies