Monday, March 06, 2017

The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas

St. Perpetua rebuffs her father's entreaties.
On March 7, AD 203, during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, five Christians were martyred in the amphitheater of Carthage under the procurator Hilarian. The three men were named Revocatus, Saturus, and Saturninus. The two women, however, are more famous, having their names entered into the Roman Canon of the Mass: Felicitas, a slave eight months pregnant, and Perpetua, a young Roman matron of noble birth who had recently given birth to a child.

Unlike many of the Acts of these early martyrs, the antiquity and authenticity of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas is not seriously challenged by most scholars. Indeed, the first piece of the Acts is thought to have been written or dictated by Perpetua herself, in Latin. Here she describes her father's reaction to the fact that she was under official suspicion of being a Christian:
"When we were still under legal surveillance and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love: 
'Father,' said I, 'Do you see (for examples) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?' 
And he said, 'I see it.' 
And I said to him, 'Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?' 
And he answered, 'No.'
'So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian?'
Then my father angry with this word came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil."
A few days later, Perpetua was thrown into prison along with other Christians. There she experienced visions and was troubled that she was unable to breast-feed her child. Adding to her worries, her father came to see her and entreated her to apostasize in dramatic fashion, grovelling at her feet and tearing out his beard. When this availed nothing, the five abovementioned Christians were brought to public trial. Perpetua continues:
"We went up to the tribunal. The others being asked, confessed. So they came to me. And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: 'Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.'
And Hilarian the procurator—he that after the death of Minucius Timinian the proconsul had received in his room the right and power of the sword—said: 'Spare your father's grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors' prosperity.'
And I answered: 'I am a Christian.'
And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father's harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. 
Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon...."
After recording several other visions and conversations that she experienced in prison, Perpetua's account ends and the climax of the martyrdom is recounted by another voice. Felicitas is delivered of a baby girl a few days before the scheduled execution, and the child apparently survived her mother to be raised by a sister. On the day of their execution, the martyrs parade to the amphitheater is described as follows in the Acts:
Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheater as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism. 
And when they had been brought to the gate and were being compelled to put on, the men the dress of the priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres, the noble Perpetua remained of like firmness to the end, and would not. For she said: "For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives, that we might do no such thing as this; this we agreed with you."
Injustice acknowledged justice; the tribune suffered that they should be brought forth as they were, without more ado. Perpetua began to sing, as already treading on the Egyptian's head. Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus threatened the people as they gazed. Then when they came into Hilarian's sight, they began to say to Hilarian, stretching forth their hands and nodding their heads: "You judge us," they said, "and God you."
At this the people being enraged besought that they should be vexed with scourges before the line of gladiators (those namely who fought with beasts). Then truly they gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord. 
Mosaic of a prisoner gored by a leopard
in the arena, Tunisia, 3rd century AD 
The Christians were then made to fight the wild beasts. Saturninus as mauled by numerous beasts. Revocatus was torn by a leopard, then by a bear. Saturus was dragged by a boar and faced a bear, but emerged largely unharmed from both encounters to be slain finally by the bite of a leopard. Both Perpetua and Felicitas were made to face a cow that had been trained and goaded to behave like a wild bull:
Perpetua was first thrown, and fell upon her loins. And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful rather of modesty than of pain. Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her dishevelled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair dishevelled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory. So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity smitten down, she went up and gave her her hand and raised her up.
Not killed by the mad cow, Perpetua cried out to her brother and the other catechumens present:
"Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion."
It seems that four of the five survived their ordeals with the beasts and were slaughtered, in the end, by sword strokes from the gladiators present. In Perpetua's case, however, the gladiator was inexperienced in killing and made a mess of her execution:
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. 
So perished these five to the glory of God the Father Almighty, and His Son Jesus Christ. The entire Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas may be read at the Early Christian Writings site.

Septimius Severus from the
British Museum.
Though this persecution occurred during the reign of Septimius Severus, it is thought to have been a local persecution only, not empire-wide. The reputation of Severus is quite mixed regarding his attitude toward Christianity. The Historia Augusta records that he promulgated an edict making it illegal to convert to Judaism or Christianity. Meanwhile, Tertullian, writing in AD 212 (or 217) in his Ad Scapulam, admits that though persecutions have taken place under Severus, that emperor was:
"graciously mindful of the Christians...Both women and men of highest rank, whom Severus knew well to be Christians, were not merely permitted by him to remain uninjured; but he even bore distinguished testimony in their favour, and gave them publicly back to us from the hands of a raging populace."

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