1800 years ago, in the North African city of Carthage, two young Christian women, Perpetua and Felicitas, were put to death for their faith in Christ. At that time it was a crime to be a Christian.
Perpetua was a well-educated noble-woman. Converted at the age of 22, she was married, with a son still young enough to be breastfed. Her parents were still pagans. Felicitas, by contrast, was a slave. She too was married and was several months pregnant.
It became clear that the authorities were keeping watch on Perpetua while she was still attending baptismal preparation classes. So, shortly before the date set for her baptism, her father tried to persuade her to give up the Christian faith.
In reply, Perpetua pointed to a water pot. She asked her father: ‘Is it right to call the pot by any other name than what it is?’ ‘No’, said her father. ‘So’, said Perpetua, ‘I will not be called by any other name than what I am – a Christian’.
On hearing that word, Perpetua’s father exploded. He lunged at her as if he were going to poke her eyes out. But then, to Perpetua’s great relief, he walked away.
Perpetua’s baptism went ahead, and her prayer was that God would give her perseverance. Just a few days later she, Felicitas and five Christian young men were arrested and imprisoned.
Initially she was fearful. She was oppressed by a sense of darkness. In the prison the heat was stifling. There were so many prisoners that conditions were extremely cramped. One of the young men died as a result of the harsh conditions.
Ladder up to heaven
The soldiers guarding Perpetua were cruel. She was severely anxious about her baby, whom she had kept with her, even though official permission to do so had not yet been granted.
One day Perpetua’s parents visited her. They relieved her worries by agreeing to take the child and look after him until permission was given for Perpetua to have him with her in the prison. The separation taxed Perpetua’s health.
Eventually permission came through, and Perpetua’s parents returned her son to her. She wrote in her diary: ‘At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace’.
As Perpetua came to terms with the fact that she must suffer death for Christ’s sake, she imagined a ladder. On either side were weapons. There was a dragon at the bottom. She pictured herself treading on the dragon’s head, and climbing safely between the weapons until she reached a beautiful garden where sweet milk was served to people dressed in robes of white. This boosted her confidence.
All in his power
But then her father came to try again to persuade her to give up her faith. His approach was gentler this time.
‘Daughter’, he pleaded, ‘have pity on my grey head. Have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favoured you above your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life.
‘Do not abandon me to the reproach of men. Think of your brothers. Think of your mother and your aunt. Think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.’
Perpetua’s father then demonstrated his love for his daughter. He kissed her hands, with tears in his eyes.
Perpetua felt sorry for him and tried to comfort him with these words: ‘It will happen as God wills. For you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power’. He left in great sorrow.
Perpetua was summoned to a trial at the City Hall. She was offered an escape route – she was given an opportunity to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. Just then her father appeared. ‘Perform the sacrifice’, he called. ‘Have pity on your baby.’
The mayor then spoke up: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head. Have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice’. However, Perpetua insisted: ‘I will not’.
‘Are you a Christian?’ the mayor asked. ‘Yes, I am’, replied Perpetua.
Her father continued pleading, until in the end the mayor ordered him away, and a soldier beat him. In her diary Perpetua wrote: ‘I felt sorry for my father, just as if I myself had been beaten’.
Sentence was then passed. Perpetua was to be thrown to the wild beasts. Meanwhile she was returned to the prison. When her father left he had taken the baby. He refused to return him to Perpetua. This added to her trial, but she was greatly relieved to hear that the boy no longer needed breastfeeding.
The prison keeper allowed many Christians in to visit Perpetua, Felicitas, and the four surviving young men. They found this refreshing, and Perpetua recounts how she was enabled to remain cheerful.
Perpetua’s diary ends with the account of a dream which she had. She was in the stadium facing a devilish giant, whom she defeated. She was facing death assured of victory in Christ. The story was completed from this point by a fellow believer.
The Christian prisoners were treated roughly, so Perpetua went to speak to the keeper. She pointed out that they were due to die on the Emperor’s birthday. Wouldn’t it be more honouring to him, she suggested, if they were brought to the stadium in a healthier condition?
The officer was embarrassed, blushed, and ordered the Christians to be given more humane treatment. As a result of observing their courageous conduct, the deputy keeper was converted.
Suffering for Christ
By now Felicitas was eight months pregnant. It was illegal for a pregnant woman to be thrown to the beasts. As the date fixed for the martyrdoms approached, Felicitas shrunk from the thought that her companions might be taken, leaving her alone amongst common criminals.
So the six Christians began praying that the baby might be born before the due date. Three days before the date fixed for the stadium contest, Felicitas gave birth, and her daughter was adopted by another Christian lady. It had been a very painful labour.
This prompted one of the prison warders to mock: ‘You suffer so much now – what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice!’
Felicitas responded: ‘What I suffer now, I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him’.
The day of the martyrdoms dawned. The six Christians marched calmly to the stadium as if they were en route for heaven (which, of course, they were). As they went, they addressed the crowd who had turned out to watch. They stressed the joy they would have in suffering. They warned of judgement.
Initially Perpetua and Felicitas were carried into the stadium naked in a net. At this even the pagan mob was horrified, and the women were hurriedly taken out again and dressed.
For the two women a cow had been selected as the beast which they must face. The cow tossed Perpetua on to her back, which dazed her. She came to, not realising that the beast had already attacked her, until she saw a gaping wound in her thigh and her torn clothes.
Modestly, she covered herself. She asked for a pin to tidy her hair. She said that she didn’t want to look like a mourner in the moment of joyful victory.
Felicitas had been crushed by the cow. Perpetua helped her to her feet. The two of them stood side-by-side, the noble-woman and the slave, united by the power of the gospel.
Stand fast in the faith
Soldiers then entered the stadium to finish the women off. Perpetua called to other recent converts, including her own brother: ‘You must all stand fast in the faith, and love one another, and don’t be weakened by what we have gone through’.
A soldier struck Perpetua on a bone, which made her scream. He seemed to hesitate and tremble with nerves as he tried to deliver the final stab. Perpetua took hold of his hand and steadied him, and he pierced her throat with his sword.
The record of Perpetua’s martyrdom stands as a permanent example to Christians in every age. We do not know when we may be called upon to show similar boldness in the face of intense opposition.
We must heed the word of Christ, who says, ‘Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer … Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life’ (Revelation 2:10).