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Perpetua, Felicity, & the Roman empire

Mar 07, 2024

Today, on the feast of Saints Perpetua & Felicity, I thought about their martyrdom. The account of their martyrdom—most of which is written by Perpetua herself—is a witness not only to the victory of life over death upon which Christianity is founded, but also of resistance against imperial oppression. Indeed, it is precisely in their dying that Perpetua & Felicity overcome the death-dealing ways of the Roman empire. From Perpetua’s Passion:

The heifer threw Perpetua first, & she fell onto her hip. Her robe had been torn on the side, & her thigh exposed. When she sat up, she covered herself, since she was more mindful of her modesty than of her pain. Then she asked for a pin & fastened her disheveled hair. For it was not fitting to endure martyrdom with her hair in disarray, since she might seem to be mourning in her moment of glory. In this state she got up, & when she saw that Felicity had been struck down, she went to her, gave her a hand, & picked her up. & the two of them stood side by side.

Perpetua’s equanimity in the face of torture & death—perhaps, admittedly, exaggerated by the narrator—shows her resolve to resist Roman oppression to the end. When her robe tears, Perpetua covers herself. For modesty, the narrator tells us; but we can read this as Perpetua’s resistance against the sexual exploitation the crowd. Even faced with the violence of wild animals and a jeering horde, Perpetua does not allow herself to be reduced to a sexual object. Perhaps Perpetua covering her thigh & fixing her hair likewise shows her refusal to allow the Roman empire to take her dignity from her.

Even more striking is Perpetua going to help Felicity up. Perpetua is a noblewoman & Felicity a slave; according to the strictures of Roman imperial society they should not associate with one another. Perpetua should certainly not be putting herself in the service of Felicity. Yet in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Gal 3:28). Whatever divisions the Romans impose upon peoples are washed away in the waters of baptism & the blood of martyrdom. These two women stand up against the oppression of the Roman empire & face their deaths together, standing side by side.

Perpetua & Felicity resist the Roman empire by asserting to the very end their dignity in small ways—fixing their hair & clothes; crossing class lines to assist one another. They do not respond to the Roman empire in kind—they do not respond to violence with violence; they do not give in to the Roman empire’s death-dealing social order. In remaining true to their Christian commitments—of dignity, of service, of equality in Christ—& in refusing to answer violence with violence, Perpetua & Felicity testify to the unreality of oppression, injustice, & death. The victory of life over death is a victory had in refusing to give into the corruptions of death. Such is the structure of all martyrdom, then & now.

Saints Perpetua & Felicity, pray for us!