Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Roman city of Carthage. Today, Carthage is actually a suburb of Tunis, the capital of modern day Tunisia. The amphitheater at Carthage is the site of some of the earliest recorded Christian martyrdoms. While not much is left of the the amphitheater, there is a commemorative chapel to Saints Perpetua and Felicity in the tunnel under the floor where prisoners and animals would have been kept.
After visiting the ruins, I felt really curious. I wanted to know more about the Christian heritage here in North Africa and especially about Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions. So I started reading—and I was blown away by what I found.
We know this story in great detail because Perpetua actually wrote a first hand account of her time in prison. The the account was finished later by a witness to the martyrdom.
At the time of their arrest, Perpetua and Felicity were both catechumens in the church. That meant they were taking a class to prepare them for baptism and membership. Vebia Perpetua was about 22—just two years younger than I am. She was a noblewoman, recently married, and she was still nursing her infant son. Felicity was Perpetua’s slave, but also her friend. In all likelihood, Perpetua came to faith through Felicity’s witness.
The group of catechumens was arrested in violation of a decree against conversion to Christianity. When they refused to renounce their faith and sacrifice to the emperor during their trial, they were sentenced to be executed in the upcoming games celebrating the emperor’s birthday.
While in prison, the catechumens were baptized and celebrated their first eucharist. At least one of their prison guards converted to Christianity as a result of their witness.
As the games approached, Felicity’s execution was expected to be delayed because she was eight months pregnant with her first child. Pregnant women were not supposed to be thrown to the animals. But Felicity dearly wanted to die alongside her friends, so two days before the games, the group prayed over her. Immediately she went into labor and delivered a baby girl.
On the final night before the games, prisoners were always offered a lavish meal called the “free banquet.” This meal was open to public spectators. Most prisoners chose to gorge themselves on food and wine—they drank like crazy so that they could sleep before the terrible ordeal ahead. These believers chose instead to celebrate a Eucharistic fellowship meal and preach to the watchers.
On the day of the games, the Christians were directed to dress in the costumes of the priests and priestesses of Roman gods. Perepetua, who seems to have had a very feisty personality, refused point blank to wear the costumes. She told the military tribunal—”We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing.” In the end, the tribunal upheld her complaint.
In the arena, the three men were thrown to a bear, a boar, and a leopard. When the women first entered, they were dragged out naked in a net, but the crowd was deeply disturbed. This kind of thing was not supposed to happen to young mothers or noblewomen. The women were retrieved, clothed, and then returned to the arena to face a wild cow. They were mauled, but left the arena singing hymns side by side. All of the Christians were wounded, but none were killed by the animals so a gladiator came out to finish the execution by sword at the crowd’s request. A witness to their death recounts:
“Kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. [They] took the sword in silence and without moving…Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.”
This story touched me at so many levels. I pretty much cried my eyes out during the final account of the arena. Apparently it touched and shaped the church in North Africa deeply too. Two hundred years after their death, in one of Augustine’s sermons delivered on their feast day, he preached:
Just as that one man laid down his life for us all, so the martyrs too imitated him, and laid down their lives for their brothers and sisters; and in order that this crop of Christian peoples might spring up like sprouting seeds, they watered the earth with their blood. So we too are the fruit of their toil. …They strewed their bodies like garments on the road, when the colt carrying the Lord was led into Jerusalem; let us at least cut branches from the trees, pluck hymns and praises from the Holy Scriptures, and offer them in a joint expression of rejoicing.
Amen and Amen.