Perpetua stepped out from the shadows of the underground tunnels and into the glaring light of the arena. The dull roar of the crowd grew louder as their entertainment came into sight. The sand was steaming from the heat, and the scent of too-long caged animals and humans hung heavy in the air. Perpetua shielded her eyes against the glaring sunlight, struggling to see the faces in the audience past the high walls of the arena. The people she could see looked either angry and vicious or bored as they waited for the next spectacle. Perpetua and her five friends were Christians, and they were here because they were followers of Jesus. Perpetua thought about her young child and tears streamed down her face. She wouldn’t be able to see him grow up, learn to walk and talk, smile, and laugh. She took a deep breath, steadying herself for her next steps, God, I trust you with the life of my son. Be with him. Be with me now in this arena.
An Illegal Faith in Rome
Carthage was one of the wealthiest port cities in the Roman Empire. It had been conquered after the third Punic war, and Rome built it up as a key part of its trading routes along the Mediterranean and African continents. By the third century, Carthage had also become a vibrant center of Christian worship and community. Many people were coming to faith in God and encouraging their family and friends to believe in Jesus Christ. But Emperor Septimus Severus, a man known for his cruelty, saw the success of Christianity as it spread across the Roman empire as a threat. He decreed Christianity illegal in all of the Roman Empire.
A young woman during this time, Perpetua lived with her family and baby son in Carthage. She became a Christian and would worship with other believers in their homes. We don’t know how Perpetua first heard about Jesus, but when authorities discovered she was a Christian, they threw her into prison with a group of other believers, including her servant and friend, Felicity. It was then that Perpetua began keeping a record of her story. Perpetua’s family were pagans and could not understand her attraction to this new faith. While in prison her father visited her and urged her to recant her faith in Jesus Christ. Perpetua looked at her father lovingly and, noticing a vase in the corner of the room, she said, “Father, look at this. What do you call it?” “Why a vase, of course,” he responded, undoubtedly confused by the turn in the conversation. “Exactly,” she said, “it cannot be called by any other name. That’s how it is with me, I am a Christian and cannot be called by any other name.” A few days later the governor of Carthage held a public trial in which the prisoners would have the chance to recant their faith and demonstrate deference to the Roman Emperor by offering a sacrifice at the temple. One by one Perpetua’s friends were commanded to sacrifice, and they each refused. When it was Perpetua’s turn, her father followed her through the crowd holding her baby and begging her to change her mind and deny her faith. “You don’t have to mean it,” he whispered. “Just do it to be set free.”
Perpetua, with tears in her eyes, kissed her son and told her father she loved him. Turning bravely toward the temple steps, she walked up to where the governor sat. “Will you sacrifice to the emperor and recant your faith in this Jesus?” he sneered. “No. I am a Christian,” she replied firmly. Immediately, she and her fellow prisoners were condemned to death in the gladiator arena and returned to prison.
Facing frightening wild animals and jeering crowds, Perpetua and her friends prayed for courage. First, the soldiers flogged them, then the animals were sent out into the arena. At one point, a wild boar charged toward Perpetua and tossed her into the air. She landed on her back and stood right back up. One of her friends rushed to her and asked how she was ok, and she replied that she had felt no pain at all! Eventually, the animals grew tired of attacking them, and the crowd grew bored of watching. The same governor who had tried to force them to deny their faith in Jesus ordered that the gladiators kill them with swords. Knowing that she would soon meet the Jesus who had conquered death forever, Perpetua faced her death confidently.
A Martyr’s Faith Lives On
Thanks to the detailed journal Perpetua kept from her time in prison, Perpetua’s story remains with us today. One of the earliest pieces of writing from a Christian woman ever found Perpetua’s account perseveres as a testimony of her faith in God and her refusal to deny it to save her life. The story of Perpetua has inspired Christians throughout history. Even when threatened with separation from her child and ultimately death, she remained committed to her belief in Jesus Christ. May this Torchlighter’s life remind us that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).