As March 17 or St. Patrick's Day (his feast day on the Catholic and Anglican church calendars) is quickly approaching, I am reminded of March 7--St. Perpetua and Felicitas Day. Remember them?
In 202, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus--the first emperor of African origin--issued an edict banning conversion to Judaism and Christianity. Some months later in Carthage, three young men and two women (Perpetua and Felicitas) were arrested because they had embraced Christianity. Perpetua was a noblewoman from a well known family in Carthage while Felicitas was her servant. At the time of their arrest, Perpetua was nursing an infant while Felicitas gave birth to her baby in prison. Though they were from different social classes, they were both young mothers, young Christians, and both equally condemned by the State because of their faith.
In her diary, Perpetua describes her appearance in court before the governor of Carthage who attempts to persuade her to offer sacrifices to the emperor and deny her Christian faith:
Hilarianus the governor . . . said to me, "Have pity on your father's gray head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors." "I will not," I retorted. "Are you a Christian?" said Hilarianus. and I said, "Yes, I am." Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits (Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, 2.2).
On March 7, 203, the young Christians were killed by wild beasts in the Carthage Amphitheatre (see photo). As the women were stripped of their clothes, it became apparent to the crowd that they were nursing mothers; so they demanded that the women be reclothed. However, the mob did not demand that the women be set free. A red heifer was set loose in the arena that mauled them and eventually they were finished off by some Roman soldiers.
Through the testimony of Perpetua and Felicitas and their friends, we can better understand the statement of another African Christian, Tertullian of Carthage, who just a few years prior penned the famous words, "The blood of the martyrs is seed [for the Christians]" (Tertullian, Apology, 50).
Though March 17 is coming soon, let us not quickly forget March 7 and the conviction of faith of Perpetua, Felicitas, and their friends. To read the complete story of their suffering (probably edited by Tertullian), click here.
I reviewed this excellent and stimulating book of essays for the Journal of Early Christian Studies. To read my review, click here.