Perpetua and Felicity

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Saints Perpetua and Felicity
Verrière de Sainte Perpétue (église Notre-Dame de Vierson, XIXe siècle).jpg
Stained-glass window of St Perpetua of Carthage (church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France, 19th century): martyrdom of St Perpetua and her fellows in the stadium of Carthage; Saint Felicity on her left
Diedc. 203
Carthage, Roman Province of Africa (modern-day Tunisia)
Honored inRoman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Anglican Communion, Lutheran Church

Roman Catholic Church:

  • 7 March
  • 6 March (Extraordinary Form)

Eastern Orthodox Church:

PatronageMothers, Expectant Mothers, ranchers, butchers, Carthage, Catalunya
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Saints Perpetua and Felicity
Verrière de Sainte Perpétue (église Notre-Dame de Vierson, XIXe siècle).jpg
Stained-glass window of St Perpetua of Carthage (church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France, 19th century): martyrdom of St Perpetua and her fellows in the stadium of Carthage; Saint Felicity on her left
Diedc. 203
Carthage, Roman Province of Africa (modern-day Tunisia)
Honored inRoman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Anglican Communion, Lutheran Church

Roman Catholic Church:

  • 7 March
  • 6 March (Extraordinary Form)

Eastern Orthodox Church:

PatronageMothers, Expectant Mothers, ranchers, butchers, Carthage, Catalunya

Saints Perpetua and Felicity (believed to have died 7 March 203) are Christian martyrs of the 3rd century. Perpetua (born around 181) was a 22-year old married noblewoman and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, an expectant mother, was her slave. They suffered together at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, during the reign of Septimius Severus.

The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions is said to preserve the actual account of her arrest and imprisonment and her fellow martyr Saturus’ own account of his dreams (chapter ii and chapter xi). According to the passion, a number of catechumens were arrested for their faith and executed at the military games in celebration of the Emperor Geta's birthday (chapter ii). The group consisted of a slave named Revocatus, his fellow slave Felicitas, the two free men Saturninus and Seculdulus, and Perpetua (chapter ii).

Text and content[edit]

Summary of the Passion text[edit]

The details of the martyrdoms survive in both Latin and Greek texts (see below). Perpetua's account of events leading to their deaths, apparently historical, is written in the first person. A brief introduction by the editor (chapters i–ii) is followed by the narrative and visions of Perpetua (iii–ix), and the vision of Saturus (xi–xiii). The account of their deaths, written by the editor who claims to be an eyewitness, is included at the end (xiv–xxi).

Perpetua’s account opens with conflict between her and her father, who wishes for her to recant her belief.[3] Perpetua refuses, and is soon baptized before being moved to prison (iii). After the guards are bribed, she is allowed to move to a better portion of the prison, where she nurses her child and gives its charge to her mother and brother (iii), and the child is able to stay in prison with her for the time being (iii).

Painting showing the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

At the encouragement of her brother, Perpetua asks for and receives a vision, in which she climbs a dangerous ladder to which various weapons are attached (iv). At the foot of a ladder is a dragon, which is faced first by Saturus and later by Perpetua (iv). The dragon does not harm her, and she ascends to a garden (iv). At the conclusion of her dream, Perpetua realizes that the martyrs will suffer (iv).

Perpetua’s father visits her in prison and pleads with her, but Perpetua remains steadfast in her faith (v). She is brought to a hearing before the governor Hilarianus and the martyrs confess their Christian faith (vi). In a second vision, Perpetua sees her brother Dinocrates, who had died unbaptized from cancer at the early age of seven (vii). She prayed for him and later had a vision of him happy and healthy, his facial disfigurement reduced to a scar (viii). Perpetua’s father again visits the prison, and Pudens (the warden) shows the martyrs honor (ix). What set Perpetua and Felicity apart from other women saints in the early church was that both were mothers and wives. There were plenty of virgins willing to cling to their true spouse Christ in suffering, but a young mother was something else. Both Perpetua and Felicity lived in the North African city of Carthage and together with their teacher, Saturus, as well as three others, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus, were catechumens. Yet it was apparent that amongst this group of Christians facing persecution, Perpetua was the leader. Like the martyrs at Vienne we also know the details of the martyrdom in Carthage firstly through the diary of Perpetua herself, and its completion by an eyewitness of her martyrdom and the others. Thus through "The Passion of Holy Women" we learn of her leadership in prison; her demands for better treatment and conditions for the prisoners; her love for her own baby, the birth-pains of her slave, Felicity; her relationship with her father; her own preparation for death; her baptism; and the dreams she has to verify that she will indeed be martyred in a cruel way. Her meetings with her father are very vivid as her tries to save her from death, but Perpetua explained that it is God who now rules her life. He in turn told Perpetua, she was his favourite child, and addresses her in an unprecedented way, as 'lady', domina. Perpetua's baptism is significant in more than one way. In making her a Christian it gave her a sense of authority to act for her fellow prisoners. Thus she demands better conditions in prison for them, and she became their spokesman. It also gave her the strength to meet her ordeal. As part of that she recounted four dreams of ladders and dragons, heavenly gardens and good shepherds and cool refreshing waters. Through these dreams, she experiences the healing of all her relationships with her old family and the beginning of her total concentration on her new heavenly family. It is her final dream that pre-empts her martyrdom. She dreams that she is going to her fate in the arena, but that when her clothes are removed, she discovers herself to be a man. In antiquity, the male body was considered the norm, and the strong woman was described as 'becoming male'. (This phrase will also later be used about virginal women). The act of 'becoming male' indicated that all the carnality of the woman/Eve had been left behind, and a new creature was produced. This dream convinced Perpetua that she would prevail on the morrow, when she went to meet the wild beasts in the arena. Despite her dream when she is actually in the arena there is a marked touch of feminity. Sitting down she drew back her torn tunic from her side to cover her thighs, more mindful of her modesty than her suffering. Then having asked for a pin she furthered fastened her disordered hair. For it was not seemly that a martyr should suffer with her hair dishevelled, lest she should seem to mourn in the hour of her glory.

The execution of Perpetua and her companions took place in the 'Circus', that is, in the public arena, for the entertainment of Governor Hilarian and the city of Carthage. It was the Emperor's birthday and, on this special occasion, something special was offered to the city. Yet there was an air of superiority of Perpetua and her companions. The five marched with 'gay and gracious looks' into the arena, but 'when they came within sight of Hilarian, they began to signify to him by nods and gestures: "Thou art judging us, but God shall judge thee".' Perpetua died with total dignity and, at the age of twenty-two, confounded the total power of the Roman Empire, and of the traditional male potestas over women's lives. During her time in the arena she felt herself in direct contact with God. All the cruel power of Roman imperialism was able to prevail against her in bringing about her death, but it was not able to conquer her spirit. In the end, she had to help the 'wavering hand' of the novice gladiator to find the right path for his sword because, as the editor remarks, 'so great a woman, who was feared by the unclean spirit, could not otherwise be slain except she willed'.

And what of Felicitas? Felicitas is introduced in the beginning of the story as a slave together with Revocatus. She was eight months pregnant when arrested and feared that her pregnancy would interfere with her martyrdom as 'it is against the law for women with child to be exposed for punishment.' Two days before the date for execution, all the prisoners joined together in prayer for Felicitas' safe delivery. Immediately, her birth pains started and she gave birth to a girl, 'whom one of the sisters brought up as her own daughter'. As she cried out in pain, the warders taunted her about the much greater pain which awaited her. Felicitas answered: 'Now I suffer what I suffer; but then Another will be in me who will suffer for me, because I too am to suffer for him.' Going into the arena Felicitas rejoiced about her safe delivery: she was going 'from blood to blood, from midwife to gladiator, to find in her second baptism her childbirth washing'. She was gored by a heifer and eventually dispatched with a sword. In recounting those days in prison and the martyrdom it is amazing how much the women's concern for their bodies marks the telling of the story. We hear about their food, their clothing, their breast-milk, their birthing pains, their breast-feeding. There is hardly another account from the ancient world that concentrates with such detail on women's bodies as central to their identities. All the classic conflicts of a woman's life appear in their stories: the desire and duty to please and obey the father against the absolute priority of following God; the sense of responsibility for and love of children against the harsh exigencies of martyrdom; the real fear of bodily pain and humiliation against the search for consolation and healing wherever it could be found. At the end they went towards martyrdom with 'gay and gracious looks, trembling, if at all, not with fear but with joy'. The deaths of Blandina, Perpetua and Felicity revealed in no uncertain terms that they took on themselves the features of Christ's suffering. Could Christ be a Christa as well as Christus. The history of the Church manifested that its hierarchy did not wish this to be. ((Marianne Dorman))

The day before her martyrdom, Perpetua envisions herself defeating a savage Egyptian and interprets this to mean that she would have to do battle not merely with wild beasts but with the Devil himself (x).

Saturus, who is also said to have recorded his own vision, sees himself and Perpetua transported eastward by four angels to a beautiful garden, where they meet Jocundus, Saturninus, Hinda, Artaius, and Dennis Quinntus, four other Christians who are burnt alive during the same persecution (xi-xii). He also sees Bishop Optatus of Carthage and the priest Aspasius, who beseech the martyrs to reconcile the conflicts between them (xiii).

As the editor resumes the story, Secundulus is said to have died in prison (xiv). The slave Felicitas gives birth to a daughter despite her initial concern that she would not be permitted to suffer martyrdom with the others, since the law forbade the execution of pregnant women (xv). On the day of the games, the martyrs are led into the amphitheatre (xviii). At the demand of the crowd they were first scourged before a line of gladiators; then a boar, a bear, and a leopard were set on the men, and a wild cow on the women (xix). Wounded by the wild animals, they gave each other the kiss of peace and were then put to the sword (xix). The text describes Perpetua’s death as follows; "But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it" (xix). The text ends as the editor extols the acts of the martyrs.

Debate over authorship[edit]

The text Passio SS Perpetuae et Felicitatis claims to contain the personal account of Perpetua, and of Saturus’ vision written in his own hand (ii and xi). An editor has included an introduction and conclusion to the text (ii and xi). Scholars generally believe that the narrative was in fact, written by Perpetua.[4] If this is true, the text is important because Perpetua is one of the first Christian female writers before the fourth century whose works have survived.[5] The personal account of a female martyr is also rare, as the stories of other female martyrs were recorded collectively.[4] Perpetua’s style is described as “emotional”, “personal”, “fragmented” and “colloquial”, which is fitting with the circumstances under which she would have been writing. It should still be acknowledged that the style could have been crafted to give the impression of a female martyr’s diary.[6]

Although some have suggested that the editor of the text is Tertullian, the editor’s identity remains uncertain.[7] The writing style and content of the edited material do seem to suggest that the editor is male.[8]

Many scholars have examined the male modification and transmission of a female martyrdom story that challenged power dynamics and gender hierarchies within the organized church.[9] This issue of gender may have influenced the redaction tendencies of the editor. Brent Shaw argues that the editor of the story rewrites Perpetua’s experience in such a way that affirms the technical value of her martyrdom while simultaneously presenting her actions as unnatural.[10] Furthermore, the dream vision of Saturus is considered to be the result of editorial activity, unlikely to have been written by Saturus himself because of its distinctive construction and impersonal bent.[11] If the editor is male, he may have been seeking to show that men and women, rather than women alone, are responsible for the dreams and visions received in the narrative. Others argue that Felicity may have been the initial source for the dream, an attribution changed by the editor in order to circumvent the problematic implications of a female slave who can receive visions.

Dating issues[edit]

The date of their martyrdom is traditionally given as 203 AD. The Severan Persecution of 202-203, was the first calculated attempt through edict to suppress Christianity across the empire.[12] Thus, the martyrdom may have occurred in the aftermath of Septimius Severus’s decrees of 202 that forbade conversion to Judaism and Christianity.[13] The association of the martyrdom with a birthday festival of the Emperor Geta, however, might seem to place it after 209, when Geta was made "Augustus" (having held the junior title Caesar since 198 when his elder brother had been made "Augustus"), though before 211, when he was assassinated. The Acta notes that the martyrdom occurred in the year when Minucius Timinianus was proconsul in the Roman province of Africa, but as Timinianus is not otherwise attested in history, this information does not clarify the date. The Golden Legend, however, places the martyrdom in 256, under the emperors Valerian and Gallienus.[14]


Martyrdom was intended to combine physical punishment with public humiliation and degradation, and understood in context, the resultant cruelty and celebration of imperial tough power were neither unusual nor extraordinary.[15] Ultimately, martyrdom symbolized obedience to the values represented by the church and reflected the belief that the church can fulfill and commend itself by self-sacrifice and death.[5] As seen in the story of Perpetua and other North African females, martyrdom became a means of self-empowerment for women in Christian circles.[4]

Christians challenging the traditions of the family within the text[edit]

In the Passion, Christian faith motivates the martyrs to reject family loyalties and acknowledge a higher authority.[12] In the text, Perpetua’s relationship with her father is the most prominently featured of all her familial ties, and she directly interacts with him four times (iii, v, vi, and ix).[16] Perpetua herself may have deemed this relationship to be her most important, given what is known about its importance within Roman society.[17] Fathers expected that their daughters would care for them, honor them, and enhance their family reputation through marriage. In becoming a martyr, Perpetua failed to conform to society’s expectations.[18] Perpetua and Felicity also defer their roles as mothers to remain loyal to Christ, leaving behind young children at the time of their death.[10]

Although the narrator does describe Perpetua as “honorably married”, no husband appears in the text.[19] Possible explanations include that her husband was attempting to distance himself from the proceedings as a non-Christian, that he was away on business, or that her mention of him was edited out. Because Perpetua was called the bride of Christ, omission of her husband may have been intended to reduce any sexual implications (xviii).[20] Regardless, the absence of a husband in the text leads Perpetua to assume new family loyalties and a new identity in relation to Christ.[17]

Perpetua belonged to an aristocratic family with Roman citizenship, as indicated by her name Vibia Perpetua.[13] Perpetua’s execution alongside slaves demonstrated Christianity’s ability to transcend social distinctions, in contrast to the inequality that pervaded Roman religion and society.[21] As Perpetua and Felicity were equal in martyrdom despite differences in class, they made the dramatic statement that Christianity transcended social structure.[22]

Evidence for Montanism in the text[edit]

Most scholars believe that The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity present a Montanist theology.[23] Montanism was a New Prophecy movement that arose in Phrygia, modern Turkey. The movement was founded by Montanus; a recent convert to Christianity who had shared new prophecies with followers. The New Prophecy movement emphasized a belief in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit visible in the prophetic words of Christians.[24]

Perpetua and Saturus had received new dreams and prophesies within the text in accordance with the beliefs and tenets of Montanism.[25] Further evidence for Montanism is that Perpetua and Felicity may have separated themselves from their partners in accordance with Montanist teachings, which allowed and sometimes even encouraged women to leave non-Christian husbands in favor of celibate lives devoted to preaching the Gospel.[26] However, nothing in the text is explicitly Montanist. Opponents of the new prophecy accused its members of having avoided martyrdom, which makes the identification of the Passio text as Montanist less likely.[27]

The editor’s additions may be an attempt to validate Montanist beliefs, praising prophecy and visionary gifts from the spirit.[28] In the introduction for example, the editor includes a biblical reference to the sons and daughters who shall prophesy in the last days (i). The editor also asserts the importance of acknowledging and honoring both “new prophecies” and “new visions” (i).


Mosaic of Saint Perpetua, Croatia.

In Carthage a magnificent basilica was afterwards erected over the tomb of the martyrs, the Basilica Maiorum, where an ancient inscription bearing the names of Perpetua and Felicitas has been found.

Saints Felicitas and Perpetua (mentioned in that order) are two of seven women commemorated by name in the second part of the Canon of the Mass. The Blessed Virgin Mary is commemorated in the first part.

The feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 7 March, was celebrated even outside Africa, and is entered in the Philocalian Calendar, the 4th-century calendar of martyrs venerated publicly at Rome. When Saint Thomas Aquinas's feast was inserted into the Roman calendar, for celebration on the same day, the two African saints were thenceforth only commemorated. This was the situation in the Tridentine Calendar established by Pope Pius V, and remained so until the year 1908, when Pope Pius X brought the date for celebrating them forward to 6 March.[29] In the 1969 reform of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas was moved, and that of Saint Perpetua and Felicity was restored to their traditional 7 March date,[30] but traditionalist Catholics continue to follow the 1908-1969 General Roman Calendar.

Other Churches, including the Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church, commemorate these two martyrs on 7 March, never having altered the date to 6 March. The Anglican Church of Canada, however, commemorates them on 6 March (The Book of Common Prayer, 1962).

In the Eastern Orthodox Church the feast day of Saints Perpetua of Carthage and the catechumens Saturus, Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus, and Felicitas is February 1.[1][2]

Controversy over Dinocrates[edit]

The account of St Perpetua comforting her dead brother has been a point of controversy. The text specifically says that the child had not been baptized. Renatus used this account to bolster his claim that unbaptized infants could attain paradise, if not the kingdom of heaven. Augustine in turn proposed an explanation for how Dinocrates could have been baptized but later estranged from Christ by his pagan father.[31]

In popular culture[edit]

The once-flowering rambling rose "Félicité et Perpétue" (R. sempervirens x 'Old Blush'[32]) with palest pinks buds opening nearly white, was introduced by Robert Jacques[33] in 1828.[34]

Two historical fiction novels have been written from the point of view of Perpetua. Amy Peterson's Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, A Passion (ISBN 978-0972927642) was published in 2004, and Malcolm Lyon's The Bronze Ladder (ISBN 978-1905237517) in 2006.


  1. ^ a b Great Synaxaristes: (Greek) Ἡ Ἁγία Περπέτουα ἡ Μάρτυς καὶ οἱ σὺν αὐτῇ. 1 Φεβρουαρίου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  2. ^ a b Martyr Perpetua, a woman of Carthage. OCA - Feasts and Saints.
  3. ^ Foley O.F.M., Leonard. Saint of the Day, (revised by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.), Franciscan Media, ISBN 978-0-86716-887-7
  4. ^ a b c Shaw, p.14.
  5. ^ a b Ross, p.1048.
  6. ^ Ross, p.1055.
  7. ^ Shaw, p.30.
  8. ^ Shaw, pp.30-31.
  9. ^ Shaw, pp.33, 36.
  10. ^ a b Shaw, p.36.
  11. ^ Shaw, p.32.
  12. ^ a b Farina, pp.48-49.
  13. ^ a b Shaw, pp.10-11.
  14. ^ de Voragine, Jacobus (1995). William Granger Ryan, ed. The golden legend: readings on the saints. Volume II. Princeton UP. pp. 342–43. ISBN 978-0-691-00154-8. Retrieved 23 October 2010. 
  15. ^ Shaw, pp.7, 10.
  16. ^ Farina, p.51.
  17. ^ a b Salisbury, p.8.
  18. ^ Shaw, p.25.
  19. ^ Farina, p.52.
  20. ^ Shaw, p.31.
  21. ^ Farina, p.49.
  22. ^ Salisbury, p.13.
  23. ^ Litfin, Bryan (1 October 2007), "Perpetua", Getting to Know the Church Fathers, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, p. 128, ISBN 978-1-58743-196-8, retrieved 5 January 2013 
  24. ^ Salisbury, p.156.
  25. ^ Farina, p.76.
  26. ^ Farina, pp.52-53.
  27. ^ Ross, p.1061.
  28. ^ Salisbury, p.158.
  29. ^ "Calendarium", p.89.
  30. ^ "Calendarium", p.119.
  31. ^ Church Fathers Volume 14 Augustin
  32. ^ Its French equivalent name is R. 'Noisette'.
  33. ^ Robert Jacques was director of horticulture for King Louis-Philippe.
  34. ^ Marie-Thérèse Haudebourg, Roses et jardins Hachette, ISBN 2-01-236947-2, p.177



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