Perpetua: A martyr by no other name


Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:28-30)

She was young. She had an infant. She had a devoted father and a wealthy family.

And she gave it all up in the name of Christ.

In 202, Roman emperor Severus issued an edict banning conversions to Christianity or Judaism, declaring such actions to be disloyal to the empire. Into this context, Perpetua, a 22-year-old noblewoman, and her servant, Felicitas, underwent instruction for their baptism in Carthage.

The story of their martyrdom is told in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, which was allegedly written by Perpetua herself. In it, we read about her visions of martyrdom, her life in prison, her trial and the final days before her death.

And we read of the pleas of her father, who begged her on more than one occasion to turn from the faith she had so recently embraced. In one such visit, Perpetua uttered words that have lived on through the centuries.

While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’

‘Yes, I do’, said he.

And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’

And he said: ‘No.’

‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’

Her father made a final desperate attempt to sway Perpetua at her trial. With her infant in his hands, he begged her to have pity on the baby and perform the required sacrifice.

Hilarianus, the governor presiding over the trial, echoed her father’s plea, saying, “Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.”

Perpetua refused.

Maintaining her faith sealed her fate. Perpetua and Felicitas were thrown to the beasts along with others who were arrested with them. Perpetua is said to have sung a psalm as she entered the arena, and survived the initial onslaught of a mad heifer who tossed her into the air, causing her to land in an bone-crushing thud. It was left to the gladiators to finish off with the sword what the beast had started.

The narrator of The Passion described what happened next.

“She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.”

Though young in age, and younger in faith, Perpetua made a decision that thousands have faced since the dawn of Christianity. When the time came to choose, she remained faithful to Christ rather than choose riches, status or even family.

I’m blessed to live in a country in which such a choice is not likely to be put before me, but – if it were – what would I choose? What would you choose? What can we both be doing to strengthen our faith to withstand any challenge?


This is the second post in my Write 31 Days series for 2017 in which I am taking a devotional look at key women in Christian history. For more information, or to start the series from the beginning, visit the introductory post.

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