The Witness of Perpetua: Woman on the Family Tree
Most Christians know of the story of Polycarp and his powerful testimony to the Christian faith. His name is deservedly remembered and honored. There is another story mostly forgotten among modern Christians, just a generation after Polycarp, of incredible sacrifice that concerns a young twenty-two year old girl who died facing the wild beasts in
Perpetua came of age during the reign of Septimius Severus in
The scene opens with the twenty-two year old being counseled by her beloved father to make a simple concession to the Romans. She asks if a vase can be called anything but a vase? “No,” he replied. “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” At this point in the story we learn that Perpetua is a new mother and has her baby with her.
Perpetua apparently had the gift of prophecy thus her brother asked if she was to die as a martyr. That evening she received a vision of a ladder and a vicious dragon. She comes to understand that the dragon is Satan himself and she will battle him in the arena. Indeed Satan returns in the person of her father. He appeals to her,
“Have pity on my grey head—have pity on my your father, if I deserve to be called your father … do not abandon me to the reproach of others. 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!” (5).
Hilarianus, the governor apparently did not want to kill Perpetua either. He called on her and said, “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” she retorted. “Are you a Christian?” asked Hilarianus. She answered forthrightly, “Yes, I am.” The governor had her father beaten in front of her in an act to get her to "come to her senses." She did not cave in.
On the “day of victory” as Perpetua calls it, she and her compatriots gathered together and exchanged the “kiss of peace.” Indicative of the great esteem she was held in two leaders of the church in
Once in the arena Perpetua led the Christians in singing a psalm (which one is not stated). One by one the Christians, male and female, were murdered either by the animals or an Egyptian gladiator. A “mad heifer” had been “prepared by the Devil” to meet Perpetua. The animal rammed her and tossed her into the air tearing her clothing and exposing her thigh. She stood and fixed her clothing and straightened her 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” (20). As she was being maimed she encouraged her compatriots, “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”
Perpetua end came at the hands of the Egyptian. Being struck with the sword the Egyptian stood in front of her and strangled her to death for the enjoyment of the mob.
Our anonymous editor concludes the Passion of Perpetua by saying “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 …”
The story of Perpetua is filled with gripping pathos. More importantly her life and death empowered Christians to live as resident aliens in