She was only about 21 years old and her faith was new, but the young mother Perpetua was strong in the Lord and ready to face any test.
When Carthage officials placed Vibia Perpetua and other Christians under official restrictions for practicing Christianity, she was in danger of public execution, as was her slave Felicity. Her father was almost out of his mind with shame at the public scandal and for fear of losing her. Perpetua was his favorite child and had recently given birth to a son.
He begged Perpetua to renounce her faith.
“Father,” she answered, “Do you see this pitcher sitting here?”
“I see it.”
“Can it be called by any other name than what it is?”
“Neither can I call myself anything but what I am—a Christian.”
Her father was so angry that he threatened to tear out her eyes, but he only abused her verbally.
A Rare Gift
Perpetua, who was well-educated, left us with a rare gift: the first known diary from a Christian woman and a first-hand account of a martyr’s experience. We rely heavily on her own words to share her story. “He left defeated,” she wrote, “he and the arguments of the devil.” Once her father was gone for a few days she thanked the Lord; it had been hard to resist her parent’s appeals to recant her faith.
Meanwhile, Perpetua was baptized and immediately felt the Spirit urging her to pray for endurance.
After a few days, Perpetua and several other Christians were taken to prison and put in the dungeon. “I was really scared because I had never known such darkness,” wrote Perpetua. “O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the closeness of the air, there was cruel handling by the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented by concern for my baby.”
Two Christian deacons, Tertius and Pomponius, bribed the guards to let Perpetua and the other prisoners into a better part of the prison. Family brought her baby to her—he was faint with hunger—and she was able to nurse him. “And being concerned for him, I spoke to my mother and strengthened my brother and entrusted my son to them. I was sad because I saw they pined for my sake.”
Her Prison Became a Palace
She got permission for her baby to stay with her where she could feed him. “Immediately I became well and was eased of my labor and concern for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me, so that I would sooner be there than anywhere else.”
Her brother suggested she ask God for a vision to learn whether she would die a martyr or be delivered. She asked and was indeed given a vision. In it she climbed a dangerous ladder reaching to heaven, treading a serpent’s head on the first step, subduing it in the name of Jesus Christ. At the top, she was welcomed by a shepherd, who gave her something sweet to eat.
She and her brother were sure this meant she must die: “And we began to have no hope any longer in this world.”
A few days later she learned the trial had been scheduled. Her father returned from the city and pressured her to renounce her faith. “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you . . . don’t give me over to the scorn of men. Think of your brothers; your mother, your aunt. Consider your son, who will not live long if you die. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all.”
“This he said fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and groveling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady.” She ached because he would not rejoice at what she saw as her glorious opportunity to die for Christ, but she soothed him by assuring him God was in charge, no matter the outcome at the tribunal. He left full of sorrow.
A Trial and a Temptation
“Another day while we were eating, we were suddenly snatched away to stand trial; and we came to the forum.” A huge crowd gathered. The other Christians confessed Christ as Lord. When the magistrate got to Perpetua, her father came, holding her son, and tried to drag her off the step, urging her to recant: “Perform the sacrifice; have mercy on the child.”
And Hilarian the procurator said: “Spare your father’s grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.”
Instead Perpetua affirmed her faith: “I am a Christian.”
So Hilarian ordered her father thrown down and beaten with a rod. Perpetua could stop the proceedings by sacrificing to the emporer. But though she felt awful for what her father was going through and sad because of his deep embarrassment, she would not deny Christ.
“Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon.” She asked for the baby to feed him, but her father refused. That same day the baby no longer needed breastfeeding and she herself was able to endure the tenderness of her breasts.
Caring for Others Even in Prison
She concerned herself with others, too. A few days later she began to pray for a deceased sibling. “This Dinocrates had been my brother in the flesh, seven years old, who being diseased with ulcers of the face had come to a horrible death, so that his death was abominated of all men.” In a vision, she saw him in torment.
“I prayed for him every day till we passed over into the camp prison. (For it was in the camp games that we were to fight; and the time was the feast of the Emperor Geta’s birthday.) And I prayed for him day and night with groans and tears, that he might be given me.” On a day when she was locked in stocks, she had a vision of her brother clean and refreshed. “And I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from his pains.”
Pudens, who ran the prison, was impressed with the grace of the Christian prisoners. As the day of the games drew near, he let them have visitors. Her father came, worn out, and began to tear out his beard and to fall on his face, cursing his years. Perpetua wrote, “I was grieved for his unhappy old age.”
The Fight Is Not Against the Beasts
The day before the games, Perpetua had another vision. In this one an ugly Egyptian came to fight her. Helpers stripped her and oiled her for combat. She became a man. She was told if she conquered she would receive a reward. In her vision, she defeated the Egyptian, received the reward, and entered the Gate of Life.
“And I awoke,” she wrote, “and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that the victory would be mine.”
Perpetua’s narrative ended there, but a friend added details of her martyrdom.
Bound in nets, Perpetua and her servant Felicitas were exposed to a mad heifer, which charged the pair and tossed them. When Perpetua saw that Felicitas had been crushed under the animal, she helped her to her feet. The crowd was sated with what they had seen and so the women were taken back to the gate with the other Christians.
At the end, all the Christians kissed one another with the kiss of peace and silently and without flinching faced the swords of guards who came to finish them off. Perpetua alone cried out, for the soldier assigned to her was young and struck her in a bone, causing her agony. She then guided his sword to her throat.
Joined together, the names Perpetua and Felicitas mean in Latin “everlasting happiness,” which is what they trusted to receive. They courageously clung to Jesus, and ultimately found him faithful.
The Christian hero Perpetua’s story is told in the Torchlighters Heroes of the Faith video series. The episode on Perpetua shares her story tactfully with children ages 8 and up, inspiring them to also trust in Jesus and aim for “everlasting happiness” over earthly rewards.
Chronology of Perpetua's Life and Times
Tertullian is born in Carthage region. He will become a famous North African theologian. Seeing the bravery of Christian martyrs, he will convert to Christianity.
Perpetua is born.
189 (March 7)
Geta is born, later becomes a Roman emperor and is mentioned in Perpetua texts.
Tertullian converts to Christianity after his return to Carthage from Rome.
Proconsul Minucius Opimianus (aka Timinianus?), mentioned in Perpetua texts, dies.
Procurator Hilarian replaces Minucius. He will have Perpetua executed.
Perpetua, Felicity, and other Christians of Carthage are martyred.
Geta (mentioned in Perpetua’s narrative) becomes co-emperor with his father, Severus, and his brother Caracalla.
Perpetua may have been martyred during one of these years in which Geta reigned.
Caracalla has his brother Geta assassinated in his mother’s arms.
This year is given by some scholars as a possible year for Perpetua’s martyrdom.