Down through the centuries there have been compilations of the names and narrations of the deaths of the martyrs for the Catholic Faith. These lists of the martyrs and points of interest about their lives and witness to Christianity were probably begun in various parts of the then known world from the inception of the Church, but because of the persecutions throughout the Roman Empire for the first 300 years of the Church's existence, most of the earliest martyrologies have been lost. Those we now possess date only from after the Edict Milan (A.D. 313) issued by the Emperor Constantine. The earliest we have might be the "Chronographer of 354", written concerning the dates of death and the burial places of the Bishops and martyrs of Rome by Furius Filocalus, who was probably a Roman priest. He started his work in A.D. 336 and published it in 354.
The first true martyrology is found in the Syriac Breviary, published in Antioch in 381, and entitled, "The names of our masters, the martyrs and victors, with the dates on which they received their crowns." It tells of the deaths of many thousands of martyrs, including those of Saints Perpetua, Felicity, Saturninus, and others in Carthage, North Africa, on March 7, 203. Saints Perpetua and Felicity are remembered even in our day with veneration in the Roman Canon (First Eucharistic Prayer) of the Mass.
Saint Perpetua was a native of the Carthage region, probably from the town of Thurburbo. She was a wealthy and prominent member of the illustrious Vibii Family, and that may have been the main reason for her arrest, which took place under the decree of the Emperor Septimus Severus. As an historian has observed, "The third century was not an era of general persecution. After the first fury of Nero's reign, the emperors, though without abrogating his decrees, had often refrained from enforcing them. The arrest of Christians was frequent, but it was irregular. As the number of faithful increased, the magistrates gave up hope of exterminating the Catholic Religion, and endeavored only to check its course by the sacrifice for example's sake of a few from among its members. The edict of Severus was aimed, it seems, not at families already Christian, but against new converts from paganism." The Christian mother and brothers of Perpetua were not arrested. Little is known about her husband, who seems to have been a secret Christian in hiding.
Perpetua was a new mother when arrested. Her pagan father tried to persuade her to renounce Christianity for the sake of her baby. Separation from her baby caused her great anguish. Felicity, who was pregnant and a man named Revocatus were slaves of the family and were catechumens taking instructions for baptism. In their catechism class were Saturninus and Secundulus, who were arrested with them at that time. Their religion teacher was a man named Saturus, probably a priest, who insisted on being arrested with his students.
Interrogated by the civil authorities, all of the martyrs fearlessly proclaimed their Christianity. Perpetua's family managed to bribe the guards to let her suckle her child. She said, "After I cared for him, I spoke with my mother and brothers and commended my son to them. I pined because they pined for my sake. Such cares I suffered for many days, but suddenly the prison was made a palace for me so I would sooner be there for Christ than anywhere else." When her father and her jailer asked why she persisted in her faith, she would point to a pitcher in her cell and ask if that could have another name or could be something other than a pitcher. When they said no, she said then neither can I be anything else or have another name than Christian.
While the prisoners were praying and singing together one day, the birth pains came upon Felicity. A guard taunted her saying, "If you are groaning now, what will happen when you are thrown to the wild beasts?" She answered, "I myself suffer now, but then another shall be in me and suffer that which I suffer because I am to suffer for Him." She gave birth to a daughter. It appears that Saturus was able to baptize all the catechumens in prison before their martyrdom.
The narrative says, "Now dawned the day of their victory and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheatre as it were to heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance, with joy and no fear." They refused to don the required robes of the pagan priests and priestesses, so they were stripped naked. However, the crowd that came to watch their deaths, noting that two of them were new mothers, insisted that the women be covered. So eventually a robe was put on each of them. Hilarian, the pagan governor and magistrate of the area, was present to see them die. Perpetua and Felicity then began to sing a hymn. The men who went first into the arena managed to tell Hilarian, "You have judged us, but God will judge you." This so angered him that he ordered them to be whipped by a line of gladiators before being attacked by the beasts. They said they were glad and thankful to suffer in a similar way to Jesus.
Then a leopard, a bear, and a wild boar were set upon them to bite and kill them, to the cheers of the pagan onlookers. The women were then brought in and a wild bull was let loose upon them. Perpetua was the first to be gored and thrown. She modestly covered over her torn robe and fixed her hair, and was heard to say, "It is not meet that a martyr should suffer with her hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory."
Both Perpetua and Felicity were repeatedly gored and thrown by the bull. Finally, they were dragged with the other martyrs to the entrance to the arena and their throats were cut by a soldier. It happened that one of the soldiers on guard duty that day was a secret Christian known to St. Saturus. He took a ring from his finger, as he was dying, dipped it in his own blood, and gave it to the soldier, saying, "Farewell. Remember the faith and me. Let not these things trouble you, but rather strengthen you."
The ancient account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity concludes, "O most valiant and blessed martyrs. O truly called and elected unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who magnifies, honors, and adores His glory, ought to see these witnesses in His light, unto the Church's edification. May these new wonders also testify that one and same Holy Spirit works ever until now, and with Him God the Father Almighty and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom is glory and power unending, for ever and ever. Amen." St. Perpetua and St. Felicity and your holy companions, pray for us.