Fourth-century Perpetua mosaic in North Africa, from James Rendel Harris’s and Seth K. Gifford’s The Acts of the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas: the Original Greek text. … (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co., 1890).
Perpetua, a young Christian mother, was imprisoned for her faith pending her execution in a public spectacle. Educated, she wrote an account of her incarceration and trail, up to the day before her execution. This is the first writing that we have from a Christian woman, apart from Mary’s “Magnificat” which is recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
Perpetua’s Account of Her Imprisonment
When, she said, 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 example) 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. Then because I was without my father for a few days I gave thanks unto the Lord; and I was comforted because of his absence.
Excerpted from the video curriculum series, The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church takes a close-up look at two Early Church martyrs, Polycarp and Perpetua, who would rather pay with their lives than deny their faith.
In this same space of a few days we were baptised, and the Spirit declared to me, I must pray for nothing else after that water except only endurance of the flesh. After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was much afraid because I had never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the press, there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented there by concern for the child.
Then Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, obtained with money that for a few hours we should be taken out to a better part of the prison and be refreshed. Then all of them going out from the dungeon took their pleasure; I suckled my child that was now faint with hunger. And being concerned for him, I spoke to my mother and strengthened my brother and commended my son unto them. I pined because I saw they pined for my sake. Such cares I suffered for many days; and I obtained that the child should abide with me in prison; and straightway I became well and was lightened 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.
Then said my brother to me: “Lady my sister, you are now in high honor, even such that you might ask for a vision; and it should be shown you whether this be a passion or else a deliverance.” And I, as knowing that I conversed with the Lord, for Whose sake I had suffered such things, did promise him nothing doubting; and I said: “Tomorrow I will tell you.” And I asked, and this was shown me.
I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were swords there, spears, hooks, and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there was right at the ladder’s foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first (who afterwards had of his own free will given up himself for our sakes, because it was he who had edified us; and when we were taken he had not been there). And he came to the ladder’s head; and he turned and said: “Perpetua, I await you; but see that the serpent does not bite you.” And I said: “it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ.” And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd’s clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: “Welcome, child.” And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, “Amen.” And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet.
And at once I told my brother, and we knew it should be a passion; and we began to have no hope any longer in this world.
A few days later, the report went abroad that we were to be tried. Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be, called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of youth—and I—have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught.”
This he said fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady. And I was grieved for my father’s case because he would not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: “That shall be done at this tribunal, whatsoever God shall please; for know that we are not established in our own power, but in God’s.” And he went from me very sorrowful.
Another day as we were at meal we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we came to the forum. Therewith a report spread abroad through the parts near to the forum, and a very great multitude gathered together. We went up to the tribunal. The others being asked, confessed [Christ as Lord]. 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. Then because my child had been used to being breast fed and to staying with me in the prison, straightway I sent Pomponius the deacon to my father, asking for the child. But my father would not give him. And as God willed, no longer did he need to be suckled, nor did I take fever; that I might not be tormented by concern for the child and by the pain of my breasts.
A few days after, while we were all praying, suddenly in the midst of the prayer I uttered a word and named Dinocrates; and I was amazed because he had never come into my mind before then; and I sorrowed, remembering his fate. And straightway I knew that I was worthy, and that I ought to ask for him. And I began to pray for him long, and to groan unto the Lord. Immediately the same night, this was shown me.
I beheld Dinocrates coming forth from a dark place, where were many others also; being both hot and thirsty, his raiment foul, his color pale; and the wound on his face which he had when he died. 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. For him therefore I had made my prayer; and between him and me was a great gulf, so that either might not go to the other. There was moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, a font full of water, having its edge higher than was the boy’s stature; and Dinocrates stretched up as though to drink. I was sorry that the font had water in it, and yet for the height of the edge he might not drink.
And I awoke, and I knew that my brother was in travail. Yet I was confident I should ease his travail; and 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 the day when we abode in the stocks, this was shown me.
I saw that place which I had before seen, and Dinocrates clean of body, finely clothed, in comfort; and the font I had seen before, the edge of it being drawn to the boy’s navel; and he drew water thence which flowed without ceasing. And on the edge was a golden cup full of water; and Dinocrates came up and began to drink from it; which cup failed not. And being satisfied he departed away from the water and began to play as children will, joyfully.
And I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from his pains.
Then a few days after, Pudens the adjutant, in whose charge the prison was, who also began to magnify us because he understood that there was much grace in us, let in many to us that both we and they in turn might be comforted. Now when the day of the games drew near, there came in my father to me, worn out with weariness, and began to pluck out his beard and throw it on the ground and to fall on his face cursing his years and saying such words as might move all creation. I was grieved for his unhappy old age.
The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come here to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. And I went out to him and opened to him; he was clothed in a white robe ungirdled, having shoes curiously wrought. And he said to me: “Perpetua, we await you; come.” And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much panting we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. And he said to me: “Be not afraid; I am here with you and labor together with you.” And he went away. And I saw much people watching closely. And because I knew that I was condemned to the beasts I marvelled that beasts were not sent out against me.
And there came out against me a certain ill-favored Egyptian with his helpers, to fight with me. Also there came to me comely young men, my helpers and aiders. And I was stripped naked, and I became a man. And my helpers began to rub me with oil as their custom is for a contest; and over against me saw that Egyptian wallowing in the dust. And there came forth a man of very great stature, so that he overpassed the very top of the amphitheatre, wearing a robe ungirdled, and beneath it between the two stripes over the breast a robe of purple; having also shoes curiously wrought in gold and silver; bearing a rod like a master of gladiators, and a green branch on which were golden apples. And he besought silence and said: “The Egyptian, if shall conquer this woman, shall slay her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch.” And he went away. And we came near each other, and began to buffet one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my helpers began to sing. And I went up to the master of gladiators and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: “Daughter, peace be with you.” And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life.
And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.
Thus far I have written this, till the day before the games; but the outcome of the games themselves let him write who will.