Perpetua: A Christian Heroine in the Carthaginian Literary Tradition

Rachel Freeman

"Perpetua et Felicitas" by Peter Lentz

Overview of The Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis
The Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis is a document which describes the martyrdom of St. Perpetua and her companions at Carthage during the reign of Septimius Severus in 203 CE. [1] The document has three different narrators. First, a narrator-editor sets the scene by informing the audience that Perpetua and her companions Saturninus, Secundulus, Revocatus, and her slave girl Felicitatis have been arrested. He then intoduces Perpetua, saying, “now from this point on, the entire account of her ordeal is her own.” [2] The narrative voice then shifts into the first person account of Perpetuae who reveals the details of her life in prison and her visions up until the day of the martyrdom in the amphitheater. Following Perpetua’s narrative, Saturninus then tells his account, also in a first person narrative. The original narrator-editor then wraps up the work with his final speech which begins, “Oh most valiant and blessed martyrs!” [3]

The authorship of this document is wildly contested. While some believe it to be a biographical account of the martyrs written by Tertullian, others hold that one section is in fact autobiographical and written by Perpetua herself, and still others contend that it is a completely fictional document written as church propoganda with an anonymous author. [4] Nevertheless, one thing is not contested: The Passio Perpetuae was, and is, a significant document for the tradition and history of the Catholic church. It was so important that Augustine saw the need to address its overwhelming popularity in some of his sermons and warned his audience that the Passio should not be placed on the same level as the scriptures. [5]

The editor of this work has a transparent motive: to persuade the audience to the Christian faith. Whether the editor is the early Christian father Tertullian or Perpetua herself, we can assume this editor is going to tell the story in the most compelling way possible in order to accomplish the goal of conversion. A good story teller will always have his audience in mind and cater his story to his audience. Since, we know that the Passio was very successful, it is safe to say that the editor is a good story teller. It would be a misconception to think that just because a work is autobiographical it is factual. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, establishing how and why the story is told is more important that who tells the story.

The Historical Setting of The Passio
Though no one knows how Christianity reached Northern Africa, by 400 C.E. it had produced some of the most influential Christian forefathers for the Catholic church. Figures such as St. Cyprian, Tertullian, and, as Raven called him, “the greatest African,” St. Augustine are still venerated in modern culture. [6] As Christians started popping up around the Roman empire, Roman authorities slowly began to realize that Christianity was especially threatening to empire. Its followers refused to bow to any other god beside their Christ. Therefore, Christians did not recognize the emperor as a deity and they refused to make a sacrafice to him. For this reason, emperor Septimius Severus ordered that Christians be sought out and publicly persecuted. [7] For this reason, when authorites asked Perpetua to pour a sacrafice to the emperor Septimius Severus and she refused, they threw her into prison to ultimately face the wild beasts in the amphitheater.

Life of Perpetua
Perpetua lived during the time of a romanized Carthage. Following the Punic Wars and the complete devastation Carthage in 146 BCE, Rome returned in the 1st c BCE and founded a new city on the very center of the old Punic city. Though the Romans may have been able to destroy the Punic landscape of the city, Punic tradition and social identity were not so easily destroyed. The traditions and culture of a society live on through the generations, and even after Carthage was romanized, we can see evidence of their pre-Roman lives woven into their gods, their architecture, and even their daily lives.
The narrator- editor states that Perpetua was a woman “of good family and upbringing.” [8] Charles- Picard records that evidence, both literary and archaeogical, indicate that a wealthy woman was most likely literate. He goes on to postulate that they were probably more educated in the humanities or “non-utilitarian” arts. [9] The narrator- editor of the Passio also tells us that Perpetua is twenty –two years old at the time of her arrest with a child “at the breast.” Therefore, one can paint a fairly good picture of the main character of the Passio thus far: she is a young, wealthy, and educated, Christian mother living in a Romanized Carthage and certainly influenced, at least to some degree by a Punic tradition.

Placement of the Passio Perpetuae in a Literary Tradition
In order to truly examine the Passio Perpetua as a literary work and to view the way in which its elements (plot, characters, etc.) work together to create its story. It is also important to view this literary work in light of popular literature or stories which preceeded it. In this way, we can establish a literary tradition and gain some insight as to the types of characters and types of stories which a culture embraced. The main character of the story is Perpetua with whom we are already acquainted. In the plot, Perpetua refuses to denounce her Christianity, rejects her father when he begs her, abandons her son, and wills her own death. Although all very shocking, the narrator-editor of the Passio clearly indicates through his praise of her “valor” that Perpetua is a woman to be praised. Regardless of the narrator’s guidance, much of the Punico-Roman audience would have easily identified Perpetua as a heroine on their own. They have heard this story before. Their very existence as a culture has been founded on such a story: the story of a woman who stays loyal even if it results in her own death.
"Death of Dido" by Sebastian Bourdon

Vergil tells the story of Dido as a woman who, desperately in love with the Aeneas, kills herself when he leaves her to found Rome. As a good story teller, Vergil is catering his story to his audience: the Roman people who have been in continual conflict with Carthage. Therefore, Vergil fabricates a female character who will advance his plot. However, the Carthaginians had a different image of their founder. Other literary authors such as Justin and Timaeus tell a different story. In both of their accounts, Dido refuses to marry the North African king out of loyalty to her first husband. In order to escape his advances she kills herself in what the Carthaginians viewed as a loyal noble gesture to her prior husband. Justin even ends his account with, “as long as Carthage stood, Dido was honored as a goddess.” [10]

Carthaginian literary tradition does not take a giant leap from Dido to Perpetua. Although female heroines are few and far between in Carthaginian tales, there were a few other powerful, notable women who laid down their lives in defense of their beliefs. Many historians reference Sophonisba, the daughter of the Carthaginian Hasdrubal, who drank poison in order to avoid surrender to the Romans in the Second Punic War. [11] Likewise, the wife of Hasdrubal in the Third Punic War jumps off the Byrsa when she finds out that her husband has shamefully surrendered to the Romans. [12]

Gender Reversal in Carthaginian Heroines
All these women will their own death and it is important to examine their motivations and why these motivations cause them to be viewed as heroines by their audience. The mere fact of killing oneself does not make one noble. For the both Carthaginian and Roman society, the head of the household was the male. For the Romans, this male is called the paterfamilias. In the tale of the Passio Perpetuae, Perpetua’s husband is not mentioned at all. It is obvious that her father is, for whatever reason, playing the role of the paterfamilias in this story. Women had clearly defined roles as well. Their role was to assume the position under the paterfamilias and, as Irwin puts it, “to inhabit the private space of the home.” [13] When she subjects herself to persecution by purposefully rejecting to worship the emperor, she therefore purposefully rejects her paterfamilias and her role as a female in Carthage.

Many scholars have also commented on the gender reversal evident when Perpetua refuses her father’s pleas to sacrafice. Perpetua says that her father “no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman.” [14] The word translated here as woman, is “domina” in the original text. This word in many contexts, has authoritative connotations such as female head of the household, mistress, or even sexual connotations such as female lover. Although some scholars recognize that their may have been an uncommonly intimate relationship between the two, the more important factor is that Perpetua assumes the upper hand of the relationship. [15] Heffernan suggests that “in this way she attains freedom from the Pauline notion of sexual ‘indebtedness’” to her father. [16] By ignoring her father’s pleas she has established her role as the “domina” and has taken control over her own fate, even if that fate is death. It is also interesting to point out that in the last of Perpetua’s visions she transforms into a man. In her vision, she walks into the amphitheater and sees she is going to fight an Egyptian. She then says, “My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man.” [17] Perpetuae then faces the Egyptian and defeats him with pure, masculine, physical force by stepping on his head. Kitzker comments on the apparent denial of Perpetua’s femininity and how it corresponds to Perpetua’s martyrdom.
“martyrs are transformed into symbols, a kind of proof that members of the weaker sex (as it was commonly considered)- the sex which brought about the fall of Adam- can be rewarded with God’s grace to such an extent that they manage to, in an almost unearthly fasion, heroically and unflinchingly overcome their innate imperfection- that is, their femininity- and die a man’s (brave) death, thus becoming revered role models to their followers.”[18]

In the Dido myth, Dido rejects a dominant man out of loyalty to her husband. Although Perpetua refuses to submit to her father, to whom is she claiming loyalty? Perhaps, as a Christian, Perpetua now views herself as the “sponsa Christi,” or the wife of Christ, and therefore confirms this bond with Christ through her rejection of other male authority figures in her life.

Elements of gender reversal and female dominance can be seen with Hasdrubal’s wife. In Book XIX of Appian’s account of the Punic Wars, Hasdrubal’s wife calls him a “μαλακώτατε νδρν” which translates as “most effeminate of men,”[19] when she finds out that he has secretly betrayed his kingdom and offered peace to the Roman Scipio. After this proclamation of his lack of manhood and refusing to loose dignity by betraying her homeland, she throws her two children off the Byrsa and immediately follows them to their death. The queen no longer sees her husband as an authority since he is “effeminate” now in her eyes and therefore offers him no obedience. By the mere fact of calling him names, she demonstrates that she now views herself as superior and thus reverses the standard gender roles. In her new role as head of the household, she takes control of the family in the only way left to her: by taking her own life and the life of her children.

Just as Roman architecture and religion became assimilated with the Punic tradition, so did its literarature. Therefore, in order to fully realize what Perpetua’s story must have meant to the Carthaginians, one must have an understanding of social context of the author and the audience. Both would have been, whether consciously or subconsciously, influenced by the cultural and literary tradition which preceeded them. In the story of Perpetua, Perpetua is heroic in the same way that her literary predecessors were heroic. She follows the template already established by heroic female literary figures and in so doing sets herself up to be viewed as heroic by her audience.

Annotated Bibliography Primary Sources:
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, XXX
Livy wrote a history of the Rome from its founding through the reign of Augustus. From Book XVI- Book XXX, Livy describes the conflict between Rome and Carthage in the Punic Wars.

Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis
. text and trans. Herbert Musurillo (Oxford early Christian texts). Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1972
The orignal account presented first in Latin and then with a translation of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. A fluid translation provided by Herbert Musurillo can also be found at the following link.

Appian, Punic Wars, VII- XX
A Roman historian of Greek decent who lived c. 95 CE- 165 CE details the Roman wars and conflicts (including the Civil Wars) from the conquest of Central Italy through Tranjan's eastern campaigns. In Books VII- XX he describes the Punic Wars with Carthage including the accounts of both Sophonisba and Hasdrubal’s wife.

Secondary Sources for Teachers

Charles-Picard, G., & Charles-Picard, C. (1961). Daily life in carthage at the time of Hannibal. New York: Macmillan.
Based on archaeological finds up to the time of publication, 1961, and literary sources
Charles-Picard presents a picture of Carthaginian daily life during the time of Hannibal, though he admits that much more is unknown than known. This work helped to provide an understanding of the Carthaginian tradition from which Perpetua, and more importantly, the author of the Passio Perpetuae, descended and in what ways an understanding of Carthaginian tradition and culture might affect a reading of the Passio.
Desmond, M. (1994). Reading Dido : Gender, Textuality, and the Medieval Aeneid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
This book examines the different versions of the Dido myth and their appearance in ancient texts. Desmond shed some light on the Carthaginian interpretation of Dido and her role in the Carthaginian tradition as a founder, a queen, and heroine of Carthage. This would be an excellent resource for teachers or scholars interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the literary history and tradition of Dido beyond the account provided by Vergil in the Aeneid.
Farina, W. (2009). Perpetua of Carthage : Portrait of a Third-century Martyr. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.
Farina tackles a wide range of issues concerning the Passio Perpetuae. In the introduction, Farina admits to a Christian bias, and therefore would be interesting to someone looking for a Christian interpretation of the account supported by literary, historical, and archaeological evidence. Due to the condensed and comprehensive nature of this work, it is highly recommended that the reader have a prior knowledge of the history of Carthage and the Catholic Church.
Heffernan, T. J. (1988). Sacred biography : Saints and their biographers in the middle ages. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heffernan’s book examines the biographies of several saints and the influence of these manuscripts on such important Christian figures as Augustine and Aquinas. One of the most important accounts for Heffernan is the Passion of the Saints Perpetua and Felicitas and its seemingly autobiographical nature. This would be a great resource to teachers interested in the lives of early Christian saints.
Secondary Sources for Students
Kitzler, Pater- Passio Perpetuae and Acta Perpetuae: Between Tradition and Innovtion. Listy filologicke CXXX, 2007, 1-2, pp. 1-19.
This article is divided into two distinct parts with two different sub titles. In the first half of his article, titled a Passio Perpetuae: a Re-examination, Kitzer provides a more general yet thoroughly researched analysis of the Passio Perpetuae and presents scholarship on its main issues. In the second half of the article, titled Passio et Acta: Interpretting the Text, Kitzer dives into a comparision of the Passio Perpetuae and the later, shortened version of the account commonly called the Acta Perpetuae, and attempts to explain the appearance of the latter. While the second half of this article is rather specific and complicated in nature, the first half of the article offers a valuable introduction to the story and history of Perpetua and could be a great jumping-off point for classroom discussions in an upper level course.

Raven, S. (1993). Rome in Africa (3rd ed.). London ; New York: Routledge.
Raven chronicles the history of the North African inhabitants from the indigenous Berbers, c 1,000 BCE, through the Byzantine recapture of Carthage from the Vandals in 697 C.E. Although Raven covers nearly 1,700 years, she divides the history up into small and manageable sections. Many of her desciptions, including the Punic Wars, the Numidian Invasion, the Account of Perpetua, et al., could provide excellent introductory background information for students.

Web Resources
Dysinger, Luke. “Christian Martyrdom: Sharing in the Passion and Ministry of Christ. Saint John’s Seminary, 1990. Web 1 July. 2010.
This website provides side by side Latin and English translation as well as a visual timeline of other important church figures mapped against the reigns of the emperors (from Septimius Severus to Constantine). It also presents the text in smaller and more manageable chunks and provides links to each of the sections. Because of its straightforward layout and its helpful visual components, I would recommend this as a possible resource in the classroom to discuss or even translate sections of the Perpetuae.
This website has several facets: a link to Tertullian, Augustine, Donatism, et al., with simple descriptions and explanations, as well as a link to the website author’s colloquial translation of the Passio. Although a little jarring in its casual vocabulary in an attempt to be contemporary, the translation still maintains the exact meaning, structure, and message of the original document. I think the students would enjoy the author's translation and find it humorous.
This website has a plethera of information on St Perpetua, including a translation of the passio and links to several articles and other various secondary resources on the topic of the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis.

"Sophonisbe" by George Pencz

Annotated Bibliography:

  1. ^ Raven 152
  2. ^ Passio Perp, 2.3 haec ordinem totum martyrii sui iam hinc ipsa narruit sicut conscriptum manu sua et suo sensu reliquit.”
  3. ^ Passio Perp, 11 “O fortissimi ac beatissimi martyres!”
  4. ^ cf. for further discussion on the authorship of the Passio see Farina pp 4-5 and Kitzer page 2
  5. ^ Heffernan, 193
  6. ^ ibid 186
  7. ^ ibid 152
  8. ^ Pass. Perp. 2.1 “honeste nata, liberaliter instituta, matronaliter nupta”
  9. ^ Charles-Picard, 152
  10. ^ Desmond, 25
  11. ^ Livy, Book XXX, xv. Read Livy’s Book XXX for a full account of the Sophonisba story.
  12. ^ Appian, Book XIX
  13. ^ Irwin, 1
  14. ^ Pass Perp 5.5 “basians mihi manus et se ad pedes meos iactans et lacrimans me iam non filiam nominabat sed dominam.”
  15. ^ Kitzer, 3
  16. ^ Heffernan, 185
  17. ^ Passio Perp 10.7 “et expoliata sum et facta sum masculus”
  18. ^ Kitzer, 3
  19. ^ Appian XIX, 131