From the beginning of the Church until the end of time, the devil will continue to wage war against the offspring of the woman — those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus. Included in the evil serpent’s strategy is the demise of a young Roman wife and mother, Perpetua (A.D. 182–203), who converted to Christianity during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193–211), a brutal period of persecution in the Church.
In second and third centuries, Roman girls, even those from noble families like Perpetua’s, were not usually educated. But because of her father’s affection, Perpetua was privileged; she could read and write, and the Church is blessed because we have her prison diary. From it, we learn about her and her companions during their imprisonment. We also come to understand her personal challenges. Perpetua unashamedly shares her mystical experiences, illuminating the spiritual reality of the situation.
We do not know the details of Perpetua’s conversion. But we do know that at the time of her arrest, she and her four companions (which included Felicity, a pregnant young slave), were still catechumens, receiving Christian instruction in preparation for the sacrament of Baptism. During the initial phase after the arrest, “while still with the persecutors,” they were baptized. A few days later, they were sent to the dungeon.
The early Church found ways to reach out to and support imprisoned disciples, and for a time Perpetua’s father, mother, and brother were able to visit her. From her diary, we can conclude that she came from a loving family and consequently suffered immensely because of the distress that her imprisonment caused them.
The separation from her infant created a particular anguish, a torment unique to motherhood. Since she was breastfeeding, her breasts swelled and she ached for her child: a constant reminder that her baby was hungry. What a torment for any mother to endure! Perpetua does not tell us how she managed it (perhaps a monetary payoff), but she found a way to have her child brought to her. She writes:
I obtained for my infant to remain in the dungeon with me; immediately I grew strong and was relieved from distress and anxiety about my infant; and the dungeon became to me as it were a palace, so that I preferred being there to being elsewhere.Saint Perpetua and Tertullian of Carthage, Martyrdom of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity and Other Writings, trans. R. E. Wallis (Philadelphia: Dalcassian Publishing, 2017), 7
All Things Visible and Invisible
In the Nicene Creed, we acknowledge the spiritual world and affirm a belief in God, “the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” There is always more to a situation (the invisible) than what is obvious (the visible). What we do in this life, in this visible world in which we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (see Phil. 2:12), has spiritual and eternal consequences. Perpetua was keenly aware of both the material and the immaterial world. She was a mystic. It is understandable, then, that when her brother (who was also a Christian), came to visit her, he asked, “My dear sister, you are already in a position of great dignity, and are such that you may ask for a vision, and that it may be made known to you whatever this is to result in, a passion [martyrdom] or an escape.” Perpetua understood that God had given her mystical gifts. She writes, “And I knew that I was privileged to converse with the Lord,” so she asked the Lord to reveal the outcome of her imprisonment and recorded the experience in her diary:
And I asked, and this was what was shown me. I saw a golden ladder of marvelous height, reaching up even to heaven, and very narrow, so that persons could only ascend it one by one; and on the sides of the ladder was fixed every kind of iron weapon. . . . And under the ladder itself was crouching a dragon of wonderful size, who lay in wait for those who ascended, and frightened them from the ascent. And Saturus went up first . . . and turned towards me, and said to me, “Perpetua, I am waiting for you; but be careful that the dragon does not bite you.” And I said, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.” And from under the ladder itself, as if in fear of me, he slowly lifted up his head; and as I trod upon the first step, I trod upon his head. And I went up.
In the vision, Perpetua ascends the ladder up to heaven and is welcomed by God and greeted by the saints. From the content of the vision, she and her brother “understood that it was to be a passion [martyrdom], and we ceased henceforth to have any hope in this world.”
Pressure from Her Father
During her internment, Perpetua’s father visited her with heartfelt pleading. He did everything in his power to convince Perpetua to deny her Christianity and come back to her family, appealing to her motherhood and her child’s need as well as Perpetua’s obligation to him in his old age. What daughter’s heart would not be wrenched by such entreaties? She records her father’s words in her diary:
Have pity, my daughter, on my grey hairs. Have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called a father by you. . . . I have preferred you to all your brothers, have regard to your mother . . . have regard to your son, who will not be able to live after you. Lay aside your courage, and do not bring us all to destruction.
His actions, perhaps, spoke louder than words. Perpetua described her father’s conduct as he tried to dissuade her from her inevitable end of death in a Roman amphitheater:
These things said my father in his affection, kissing my hands, and throwing himself at my feet; and with tears he called me not Daughter, but Lady. And I grieved over the grey hairs of my father. . . . When the day of the exhibition drew near, my father, worn with suffering, came in to me [his last visit], and began to tear out his beard . . . and to cast himself down on his face . . . and to utter words as might move all creation. I grieved.”
The little band of believers was taken from the prison to a town-hall-style gathering and given the opportunity to make the obligatory offering to one of the Roman gods, which would secure their release. In this public setting, Perpetua’s father came with Perpetua’s infant son in his arms and begged her to “offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.” She refused. What happened next led to the condemnation of her and her companions. “Are you Christian?” the procurator asked. “I am Christian,” came her reply and her friends answered in kind. Perpetua relates:
The Procurator then delivers judgment on all of us, and condemns us to the wild beasts, and we went down cheerfully to the dungeon. [From this point onward, Perpetua’s infant was no longer brought to her in prison.] And even as God willed it, the child no longer desired the breast, nor did my breast cause me uneasiness, lest I should be tormented by care for my babe.
The Head of the Serpent
In another vision granted the day before the exhibition, the eternal perspective of her struggle was shown to Perpetua. The saints in heaven called to her, “Perpetua, we are waiting for you; come!” Again, Perpetua was confirmed that her battle was indeed with the devil, and for a second time in her mystical vision, she “trod upon his head.”
The bruising (crushing) of the head of the serpent is a recurring theme with warrior women, prefiguring the Virgin Mary throughout salvation history, and it occurs explicitly in Perpetua’s first and last vision.15 That connection was not lost on the early Church Fathers. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) draws attention to it in a sermon:
The dragon therefore was trodden down by the chaste foot and victorious tread of the blessed Perpetua, when that upward ladder was shown her whereby she should go to God; and the head of the ancient serpent, which to her that fell was a stumbling, was made a step unto her that rose.Saint Augustine, The Passions of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity(London: Sheed and Ward, 1931), 46.
The head of the dragon, the thing created by the devil to dissuade souls from making the ascent to God, became in fact, Perpetua’s stepping-stone to heaven. What Satan contrives for our downfall, God uses for our victory. It has backfired on the him since the beginning in the Garden of Eden. In this way, God humiliates Satan, turning Satan’s own work against him.
The devil threw all he had at Jesus, and from a worldly perspective it appeared as though Jesus was defeated on that Roman Cross. Yet we know that the Crucifixion was the definitive victory over mankind’s greatest enemy: death. Until the end of time, the followers of Christ will continue to use the devil’s own weapons against him. This is an invisible, spiritual reality that must be seen through the eyes of faith. What appears to be lost or defeated by the design of the evil one does not have to be so. Have faith — the victory belongs to Christ!
“The Day of Their Victory Shone Forth”
The Christians were led from the prison to the amphitheater, where each gave a final witness before the crowd. Remarkably, the account describes the Christians as joyful. Perpetua and Felicity “stripped and clothed with nets, were led forth. The populace shuddered as they saw one young woman of delicate frame, and another with breasts still dropping from recent childbirth.”
The women were tossed about by a “savage cow,” while the others were made sport of by various means for the spectators. When the crowd had had enough, they called for the sword. The valiant disciples “first kissed one another, that they might consummate their martyrdom with a kiss of peace. The rest indeed, immovable and in silence, received the sword-thrust,” as did Perpetua. But it did not kill her, and the executioner was visibly shaken. She therefore assisted him: “She herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat.”
For the early Church, whose members bore the weight of horrific persecution, the martyrdoms of Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions was truly fortifying. To this day, we are spiritually enriched, inspired, and encouraged by their ultimate witness.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Julie Onderko’s Holy Handmaids of the Lord: Women Saints Who Won the Battle for Souls. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.
image: Mary and Child with Saints Felicity and Perpetua (Sacra Conversazione), 15th century / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain