The Passion of Perpetua, Everywoman of Late Antiquity

The Passion of Perpetua,
Everywoman of Late Antiquity

by Mary Ann Rossi - credits

from Pagan and Christian Anxiety. A Response to E.R. Dodds , edited by Robert C. Smith, Trenton State College, and John Lounibos, Dominican College, University Press of America, Lanham, New York 1985, pp. 53-85; here re-published with permission of the publisher and author

The Passio Perpetuae is a diary written by a young mother during her imprisonment before she was executed by Roman soldiers during the persecution of Christians in North Africa in 203 A.D. Within the pages of this woman’s personal testimony may be seen the ease of personal contact with the divine and the intermingling of pagan and Christian images within the four visions experienced by Perpetua before her death in the arena. The ingenuous and intelligent account of the last days of a woman of conviction has afforded contemporary scholars a rich source for interdisciplinary research on the lives of women in Late Antiquity.

E. R. Dodds has observed that new insights into historical problems can develop without the stimulus of sensational discoveries; all that is required is a change in the focus of the eye of the scholar (Dodds, 1973: 28). The analysis of the Passio Perpetuae is particularly receptive to several perspectives. Focusing on the spiritual background from which both pagan and Christian beliefs arose, Dodds has employed a “misery and mysticism” hypothesis in his analysis of the personal experiences of Perpetua and other individuals who lived in the first three centuries A.D. The diary of Perpetua has also been analyzed by Marie-Louise von Franz (1951) from another perspective, with a focus on Jungian interpretation. Franz identifies the archetypal images of Perpetua’s visions for their subjective content in their revelation of the young martyr’s inner turmoil. I propose a third focus for the study of this diary: a feminist focus on the experience of a woman in a society in which the tension between pagan and Christian beliefs was intensified by gender polarity. Perpetua’s diary provides us with the means of assessing her status in a patriarchal society and of perceiving the inner struggle precipitated by her conversion to Christianity.

Before discussing the text of the Passio Perpetuae, it is important to understand the sentiment of self-alienation, “displicentia sui” (Dodds, 1965: 28) that issued from a resentment against the world engendered among the Gnostics and other sects popular in Perpetua’ time. In the Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels /1/ describes the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 after they were buried for 1600 years. Denounced as heretical, they were banned in an intensive campaign that speaks to their persuasive power. One Gnostic text, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind”, offers a remarkable poem spoken by a female divine power:

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin . . . . I am the barren one and many are her sons . . . . I am the silence that is incomprehensible . . . . I am the utterance of my name (Robinson, J.M., 1977: 271-272).

The texts include secret gospels and descriptions of the universe, as well as myths and magic. Most of the writings use Christian terminology related to a Jewish heritage. The Christians who wrote these texts were called gnostics, from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. To know oneself at the deepest level is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis .

The sentiment of alienation is strong in the Christian Gnostics: “Love not the world nor the things in the world” (Dodds, 1965: 20). They were the alien elect in their radical dualist explanation of human life as caused by a fall. There are reflections of Orphic beliefs in such dualism. /2/ These Orphic sects also stressed the alienation of soul from body and gave rise to ascetic cults in the ancient world.

This resentment against the world became a resentment against the ego. The Roman philosopher Seneca (first century A.D.) describes this dissatisfaction with oneself, “displicentia sui” in his work On Tranquillity (De Tranq. 2.10). In this tract the malaise of the time is deftly depicted, and, as Dodds points out, has a modern ring (1965: 28).

Dodds regards the Passio Perpetuae as a vivid illustration of the nearness to God engendered by the “displicentia sui” of the age. She is the Christian counterpart to the pagan Aelius Aristides, whose personal relationship to the god of healing, Asclepius, evoked a fervid devotion. Such intense devotion for the divine is a notably common feature among the pagans and Christians of Late Antiquity.

The dreams of Aristides have been amply discussed by Robert C. Smith in the previous article. It remains for us to examine the extraordinary documentation of a young mother’s experience during the last days of her life, as she awaits execution in the arena at the hands of a Roman soldier for the crime of professing to be a Christian.

The social standing of Perpetua’s family illustrates the recent research into the social and economic strata from which the early Christians were drawn. John G. Gager in Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity, describes the earliest Christian communities, in the light of recent studies of millenarian movements, as being in a condition of relative deprivation. This concept sheds light on the drawing power of early Christianity for people from all walks of life. Although the women and men drawn to Christianity were innocent of political experience and organization, their actions had far-reaching political influence, and they were thus cast in the unwitting roles of enemies of the Roman order. The evidence of early Christian sources, then, shows that the early Christians were by no means limited to the poor and ignorant, and that they did not necessarily come from the lowest social and economic strata (1976: 27-28). Hence Vibia Perpetua, an educationally and economically privileged young woman, was not an anomaly among the early Christians.

The editor of the Passio Perpetuae provides testimony of the author of the young woman’s diary: “Haec ordinem totum martyrii sui iam hinc ipsa narravit, sicut conscriptam manu sua et suo sensu reliquit.” “From here on this woman herself has told the entire account of her own martyrdom, just as she left it written in her own hand and with her own perception.” She is described by the editor in these words:

Of upright birth, liberally educated, married, having a mother, father, and two brothers, one of whom was also a catechumen, and an infant son at the breast. And she herself was about twenty-two years of age.

In Latin: Honeste nata, liberaliter instituta, matronaliter nupta, habens matrem et patrem et fratres duos, alterum aeque catachumenum, et filium infantem ad ubera. Erat autem ipsa circiter annorum viginti duo.

After the personal account of Perpetua, there follows the vision of Saturus, a fellow martyr whose visions are recorded in the same text; following is an account of events in the prison, the martyrs’ death in the amphitheater, and a brief epilogue. The fact that Perpetua’s account (3-10) and Saturus’ account (11-13) do genuinely come from the hands of Perpetua and Saturus appears to be confirmed by their style; each section differs markedly both from the other, and from the rest of the Passio Perpetuae .

Daniélou notes that the language of the Passio Perpetuae testifies to the adoption of many Greek words by the Christian populace (1978: 62). Fontaine has analyzed the style of the diary and suggests that the calm and simple tone of the writing recalls Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and Plato’s Myth of Er at the end of the Republic. He describes the effect of her style: “Une telle purification, un tel apaisement de l’ imagination et de la sensibilité étonnent dans le récit que fait de sa vision une condamnée à une mort atroce” (1968: 89).

The following passages of the Passio Perpetuae point up the closeness of Perpetua’s communication with the divine and her confident self-assurance in her power to communicate. The numbers refer to the chapters and sections in van Beek’s edition:

Then my brother said to me, “Lady sister, now that you are in high honor, so much so that you may ask for a vision and it will be shown to you whether there will be a passion or release.” And I, who knew that I conversed with the Lord, whose benefits I had experienced, with confidence promised, saying to him: “Tomorrow I shall report to you.”

In Latin: (IV) Tunc dixit mihi frater meus. Domina soror, iam in magna dignatione es, tanta ut postules visionem et ostendatur tibi an passio sit an commeatus. Et ego quae me sciebam fabulari cum Domino, cuius beneficia tanta experta eram fidenter repromisi ei discens: Crastina die tibi renuntiabo.

And I knew immediately that I was worthy and that I must pray in his behalf.

In Latin (VII 2) Et cognovi statim dignam esse et pro eo petere debere.

Then I knew that he had been released from punishment.

In Latin (VIII.4): Tunc intellexi translatum eum esse de poena.

And I understood that I would fight not against the beasts, but against the devil; but I knew that the victory would be mine.

In Latin (X.14): Et intellexi me non ad bestias, sed contra diabolum esse pugnaturam; sed sciebam mihi esse victoriam.

These passages are construed by Dodds and others as testimony to the accessibility of the divine to certain people (1965: 47-53).

The four visions that Perpetua experiences in prison reveal the conflicts of a young woman torn between her beloved family, including an infant at the breast, and her longing to be a Christian, an act that had been prohibited by Severus in order to check the spread of Christianity (cf. Appendix). The visions also serve to illustrate the interchange and commingling of pagan and Christian images and symbols, as Perpetua’s pagan upbringing intrudes upon her awakening Christian consciousness.

The following summary of the four visions as analyzed by Marie-Louise van Franz /3/ will serve to emphasize the twofold duality of her dreams: i.e., pagan/Christian and female/male. The first and fourth visions concern Perpetua’s impending execution, and the second and third, her younger brother’s salvation through her intercession.

The content of the first vision presents a melting pot of psychological images and symbols reflecting the meeting of pagan and Christian consciousness. The vision was prompted by her question whether or not she was to suffer martyrdom, and it contained images that were common to the pagan, gnostic, and Christian worlds at that time. The “call” for visions was not an uncommon occurrence; the pagan dreamer Aristides, among others, frequently asks the god Asclepius for help. In this vision of the Passio Perpetuae , the archetypal image of the ladder occurs repeatedly. In Genesis 28.12 Jacob’s ladder reached to heaven. In ancient Egyptian mysteries a stairway with seven gates or seven steps symbolized the seven planetary spheres through which the soul after death had to ascend to God. /4/ The ladder, then, has the meaning of a process of spiritualization by which one is led to an ever higher state of consciousness by ascending steps.

The first vision comprises a series of events. Perpetua steps on the head of a dragon as she mounts a precipitous ladder beset on both sides by dangerous weapons. After reaching the top she meets a shepherd who is milking a goat and who gives her a morsel to eat in the presence of many witnesses. Perpetua construes this vision to mean that she is destined to become a martyr (IV.10). In Biblical imagery the dragon represents the devil (Isaiah 27.1). But it also represents the chthonic element “ouroboros” (the earth-feminine-savior image). Von Franz’s interpretation is remarkable in this embracing of good and evil in the image of the dragon, since the archetypal image embraces both and is ubiquitous in the ancient world. Moreover, Perpetua sees the shepherd as Christ, and the Good Shepherd image is an excellent example of the crossover of mythic and Christian images in early Christian art. /5/ Paintings of Greek mythical fiqures such as Orpheus and Hermes as “Good Shepherds” abound in pagan-Christian art. The compression of the milking process and giving the “communion” of cheese-curds is typical of the time collapse in dreams. The milk image reflects Perpetua’s condition as a lactating mother, who is worried about being able to nurse her baby. Dodds (51) suggests for this image the analogy of semen, as in Job X.10, but it seems to me, on the one hand, to be the androcentric appropriation of a female image, and, on the other, to be the confusion of a procreative with a nourishing function.

Hence the Jungian version of the first vision allows us to appraise the inner struggle that a pagan woman endured upon turning away from her family and home and embracing a social system that offered great rewards, but at a great price.

In the second and third visions, Perpetua dreams of her younger brother Dinocrates, and this dream is used by the Roman Catholic Church as a model for its doctrine of the intercession of the saints for the souls in purgatory. /ó/ In fact, Perpetua herself seems to have construed the visions in this way. In one vision she sees her brother, his face scarred by the cancer that caused his death, trying to drink from a fountain but unable to reach it. She then prays for him fervently, and in the next vision she sees him healed, drinking at the fountain, and then running off to play. Her sense of communication with the divine is strongly evident in this vision.

The picture of the underworld is the pagan conception of Hades, and the idea of the dead suffering from thirst is an ancient and widespread motif in ancient literature from Homer on (cf., for example, Odyssey XI, and Virgil’s Aeneid VI). Such a vision reflects Perpetua’s pagan upbringing and education, and it embodies her accommodation of these symbols of pagan mythology to her new beliefs. This vision of her brother’s redemption (reborn “in novam infantiam”) represents a forecast of Perpetua’s own spiritual development. The child represents her yearning for the salvation of her soul. Dodds refers to von Franz’s analogy of the case of Sophie Scholl, a young German political activist executed by the Nazis in the 1940’s (Dodds, 1965: 52-53; von Franz, 1951: 449). On the night before she dies, Sophie dreams of climbing a steep hill with a baby in her arms; she sets the baby on a ledge before she leaps to her doom. On the subjective level, the child is the self in the process of becoming. In the case of Sophie Scholl, she construed the child as her political ideal that would survive her.

The analogy of Perpetua and Sophie points up the extraordinary quality of self-assertion and strength that mark the lives of these young women of disparate times and social mileux. Both have risen beyond expectations for their sex in their respective societies; /7/ both have insisted on taking control of their own lives in the service of an ideal; both have become models of courage and conviction for women of later ages. The second and third visions are effective illustrations of Perpetua’s inner torment and of the subliminal commingling of pagan and Christian motifs and symbols. As for Dinocrates, the restoration and transformation indicate that Perpetua has grown spiritually and that Christian truth is her source of strength. This growth of confidence in Perpetua recalls the words of Peter Brown: “Friendship with God raised the Christians above the identity they shared with their fellows. . . . The heroism of the martyrs was merely the climax of the inherent sense of superiority of the Christians as a whole” (1978: 56).

The fourth vision concerns Perpetua’s imprisonment and triumphant struggle in the arena with the Egyptian, when she is transformed into a man. In von Franz’s subjective reading of this vision, imprisonment refers to an inner situation. Imprisonment under any circumstances implies restricted freedom of action and isolation from the surrounding world. Prison is often an initial symbol in the process of individuation in the dreams of modern people (1951: 455). Pomponius, the deacon who guides Perpetua, is like a spiritual leader. As he directs her over rough paths to the amphitheater, he symbolizes her faith. He is the psychopomp (“leader of souls”)/8/ on the path of the unconscious. A pagan symbol, the “Lanista” (trainer of gladiators), promises Perpetua a bough of the tree of life. The tree is an important and ubiquitous symbol of life from the tree and pillar cults of the Minoan civilization on, and trees are also found in the Christian tomb paintings of the catacombs. The bough recalls the golden bough, a well known pagan symbol throughout ancient literature. The rough and pathless country indicates subjectively the stress and distress resulting from the conversion to a religion different from that of her upbringing. Perpetua is evidently assailed by doubts and resistance at the thought of her martyrdom. This would seem a natural state of mind for a young woman of good upbringing and education, loving of her family and friends, and concerned for their well being, as her words reveal her to be:

Lately I was tormented for my baby there . . . Concerned about him (the baby), I was speaking to my mother and comforting my brother, and I entrusted my child to them. I was languishing on this account, that I had seen that they were languishing about my well being.

Latin (III 7-9): Novissime macerabar sollicitudine infantis ibi . . . Sollicita pro eo (filio) adloquebar matrem et confortabam fratrem, commendabam filium; tabescebam ideo quod illos tabescere videram mei beneficio.

And my father’s mishap (being beaten for trying to pull her away) pained me as if I had been beaten. So did I grieve for his wretched old age.

Latin ( VI): Et doluit mihi casus patris mei, quasi ego fuissem percussa; sic dolui pro senecta eius misera.

To resume the analysis of the fourth vision in Jungian terms, the amphitheater is a mandala, or magic circle, a symbol of the self that embraces the conscious and unconscious sides of the personality. The amphitheater includes the opposing sides of the pagan Egyptian and Christian assistants, “Veniunt et ad me adulescentes decori, adiutores et fautores mei.” “Handsome young men, my helpers and supporters, came to me” (X.ó-7). There is a possible allusion to this vision of Perpetua’s in a wall painting of the late third or fourth century (cf. Appendix). The conscious portion of this vision is Perpetua herself, and the Lanista holds the value of the self. The ritual mandala maintains equilibrium; that is, it prevents an outburst and it prevents intrusion. It also aims to reconcile opposing forces. The Egyptian stands for the devil, who also symbolizes the central conflict between the spirit of the earth and paganism. It is clear that Perpetua identifies her father’s arguments with those of the devil: “Vexavit tantum, et profectus est victus cum argumentis diaboli.” “He was in a great rage, and he left, overcome by the arguments of the devil” (III.3). When her dream substitutes the figure of the Egyptian for that of her father, the figure symbolizes not only the devil, but her pagan upbringing as it vies with her Christian awakening. Perpetua is then surrounded by young men who undress her and massage her with oil in preparation for the contest.

She is then transformed into a man,which may be construed on several levels. In acting beyond the expectations of her sex,she takes on the masculine role; she emulates Christ as many of the Montanist prophetesses did, such as Maximilla.

The four visions of Perpetua, therefore, reveal the unconscious situation of the early Christians. But as Perpetua asserted her severance from her pagan world and affirmed her belief in a world beyond (1951: 496), the visions also show what difficult battles the believers had to fight within themselves, and how deep the inner struggle for self-recognition went.

In the context of Dodds’ hypothesis of misery and mysticism, one may observe in the Passio Perpetuae an account of a young woman’s contact with the divine, an example of the drawing power of the early Christian sects, and a unique example of the mingling of pagan and Christian symbols in dreams, as they were often commingled in the art of the time (cf. Appendix). Jungian psychology points up the conflicting and irreconcilable elements of Perpetua’s pagan upbringing and Christian conversion. Such an interpretation is not admissible in Dodds’ scheme of bonding and complementarily. Hence he has made rather restricted use of the testimony of the Passio Perpetuae : i.e., to illustrate the accessibility of the divine to certain persons. Dodds also fails to underline the feminine authorship of the Passio Perpetuae ; he is rather content to laud it in general terms: “In the prison diary we have an authentic first hand narrative of the last days of a gallant martyr . . . . It is a touching record of humanity and courage” (1965: 52).

The day after her last vision, Perpetua was killed in the arena by the sword of a Roman soldier after first being trampled by a mad cow. It is fascinating to contemplate the quality of her choice of martyrdom. Was it an example of the phenomenon of voluntary martyrdom, the eager longing for and seeking after execution? According to Nock, voluntary martyrdom was not confined to heretical and schismatic sects, such as the Montanists, but was more common among the orthodox than is generally admitted (1963: 21). Clement of Alexandria deplores these rash acts: “We ourselves blame those who have leapt on death . . . poor wretches, passionate for death. We say that these people commit suicide and are not martyrs even if they are officially executed” (Nock, 1933: 198). This popular attitude reflects a fascination with death and the widespread idea of the body as prison of the soul, very ancient materials, in Brownian terms, reflecting the duality of the Orphic and Pythagorean sects of ancient Greece.

For the Christian, however, there is the special conviction that martyrdom was the way to life (Nock: 198), as we see in Perpetua’s attitude in the fourth vision, “I knew that the victory would be mine.” Such behavior was looked upon as irrational obstinacy by pagans, who viewed such actions as inhuman and theatrical. Perpetua’s father says, “Depone animos”, “Put down your high spirits” and “remember your family”; “pietas”—love and respect of family and household gods were virtuous attributes among pagan families. He speaks to her, in fact, as if she were denying her nature and human sensibility. Her visions, however, serve to reassure her that she has not denied her humanity, but rather affirmed her integrity as a woman of faith (Pizzolato: 105 ff.).

Perpetua’s action, then, is certainly a willing departure from life, but this act must not be confused with cutting off a despised life. It is likely that Perpetua, being well brought up, was versed in classical literature. Daniélou says that there was no question of children not attending school (1978: 176). Tertullian testifies to the worth of pagan studies: “How can we reject profane studies, without which religious studies are impossible? Without them how build up man’s prudence, teach him to understand and to act, since literature is something we need all our lives?” (De Idolatria X.4) Hence Perpetua’s action might have been inspired by the Stoic precepts in the works of Lucretius, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. /9/ In particular, the doctrine of “migrare de vita” (departure from life) was a popular Stoic teaching that one should leave life when one has had enough, just as a guest at a banquet departs when his appetite has been satisfied. As to the likelihood of Perpetua’s education, Davies comments that literate women were no rarity (1980: 101-102 for citations from Martial, Ovid, and Quintilian). Fontaine also discusses the possibility of her education, but with more skepticism: “Elle n’a surement pas reçu une instruction profane aussi poussée qu’un homme” (1968: 89). He then goes on to say that her charming style belies her lack of education! This assumption smacks of the historical stereotyping that Brown warns against. Perhaps a clue to her special education might be found in her father’s statement that he always preferred her to her brothers (“te praeposui omnibus fratribus tuis” V.2). It is wise to accept the evidence of the text. I conclude that a careful reading of the Passio Perpetuae reveals her to be a woman of intelligence and integrity whose decision to die for her faith in the face of her love for her family and her life must be construed as an act of self-affirmation, rather than of self-abnegation.

For a period when women’s writings and teachings were being banned and excluded as heretical (e.g., the Gnostic Gospels), any such testimony as the Passio Perpetuae of women’s active participation in this formative era is precious and arouses curiosity about the paucity of women writers in Late Antiquity. Recent scholarship, however, has revealed the possibility of female authorship of various Apocryphal Acts of this time.

A recent publication, The Revolt of the Widows, by Stevan L. Davies, demonstrates that Apocryphal Acts was derived from communities composed of continent female Christians. As evidence of female authorship, Davies cites the emphasis on sexual continence and the depiction of women as role models. The authors of the Acts describe a social world that was egalitarian and pluralistic; membership in this movement was defined not by gender but by faith commitment to the Christian community. The fact that women exercised responsible leadership becomes clear upon examination of apocryphal and heterodox sources, as well as of canonical and orthodox (1980: 50).

Dodds states that a great variety of apocryphal acts, gospels, and apocalypses circulated among the faithful and that orthodoxy was not clearly marked off from heresy (1965: 104). The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which had a wide circulation, offers a strong parallel to Perpetua’s story. Davies recounts Thecla’s story (from Acts of Paul and Thecla 3: 1-43). Thecla is a well-born virgin engaged to be married when Paul (the Apostle) convinces her to become a Christian. The violent reaction of her mother to this decision—she tries to have her put to death—invites a comparison to Perpetua’s estrangement from her family. Thecla cuts her hair and puts on a man’s clothing. She endures sexual torments and is about to be drawn between two bulls (cf. Davies on sexual sadism, 106-107), when her execution is called off. She converts people to Christianity and baptizes herself. Paul acknowledges her mission to preach and baptize and sends her home to preach. Her mother, however, makes it impossible for her to remain, and she lives like a hermit performing cures, until the district physician hires a gang to rape her, and she flees into a rock that encloses her, recalling the Greek myth of Daphne, who is tranformed into a tree when pursued by Apollo.

Various scholars have suggested reasons for the transvestite disguise. /10/ Marie Delcourt finds that the assumption of a disguise symbolizes a rupture with a former mode of existence made in the service of an ideal androgynous perfection. She concludes that the theme arose in the ambiance of the earliest Christian asceticism, influenced as it was by competing gnostic beliefs. (1956). The disguise furthermore enacts the mystery through which the initiate “puts on” the body of Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians, 3.27-28). Moreover, the Gospel of Thomas includes the evidence of Jesus telling Mary Magdalene that she will become male. Perpetua’s transformation into a man in her fourth vision may have been influenced by these popular beliefs.

The “Pauline” doctrine of absolute chastity “Otherwise there is no resurrection for you, except you remain chaste and do not defile the flesh, but keep it pure,” Acts of Paul and Thecla 3.11, which prompted Thecla to abandon her fiance likewise caused Perpetua to renounce her family. The disgrace that her father feels that she has brought upon him is obvious: “Depone animos; ne universos nos extermines; nemo enim nostrum libere loquetur, si tu aliquid fueris passa,”"Put down your spirits; don’t destroy us all utterly; for no one of us will speak freely if you undergo martyrdom" (V.2; cf. Dodds, 1965: 116).

We know from St. Augustine how widely read and highly regarded the Acts of Paul and Thecla were among his contemporaries. He has to warn his listeners not to put them on a level with canonical scriptures: “Nec scripture ista canonica est” (De nature et origine animae I.10). Tertullian tried to suppress the Acts of Paul and Thecla for advocating the right of women to preach to men.

For Thecla and Perpetua the male disguise represented union with Christ. It effected a transformation of self and the birth of a new identity. For Perpetua the transformation symbolizes her break with the pagan past and her acquisition of full personhood. Burridge says of a millenarian movement that it is a special kind of transition process. It is holistic and all-embracing. It recapitulates the process whereby one sort of person becomes another sort of person (1975: 166).

Davies presents a concise analysis of the Thecla sequence and supports his conviction that the text was composed by a woman (1980: 58). The text displays sensitivity to the problems of a woman in her attempt to lead a Christian life. Passionate men, backed by a male-dominated civil authority, try to use her sexually. Christian men, even Paul, do not take her seriously, but regard her as a beautiful woman prone to temptation despite her status as a confessor. Davies concludes that the author of this text was someone deeply resentful of the male sex and highly sensitive to the difficulties of women (60). This inventive scholar suggests that we might more appropriately apply the term matristics to this work and other writings of early Christianity.

The recent works of scholars like Elaine Pagels, Rosemary Ruether, and Stevan Davies have broken ground by challenging the view that woman-hating was all-pervasive in Late Antiquity. In fact, the idea of God as female as well as male was a popular one. The popular reaction to the recent publication of the Gnostic Gospels is instructive. Elaine Pagels’ book was published in four consecutive issues of the New York Review of Books in 1979, and the proliferation of articles, reviews, and protests across the nation call to mind a Brunonian “shock wave” of sizable proportions. In the Milwaukee Journal a Jesuit priest admonished readers not to take the gnostic gospels seriously. Such an apologetic and knee-jerk reaction attests to the drawing power of these ancient texts. These gnostic gospels abound in female symbolism that is applied to God. Some texts describe God as a dyadic being, consisting of both female and male elements, recalling the dyadic concept of human beings in Plato’s Symposium (190). Instead of the birth of Eve from Adam’ s side, gnostic sources use Genesis 1:26-27: “Male and female He created them.”

Some patristic writings show the influence of gnostic texts. For example, Clement of Alexandria calls himself orthodox but knows gnostic writings. He shows how gnostic teachings can be worked into an orthodox pattern. “The Word is everything to the child, both Father, Mother, Teacher, Nurse. The nutriment is the milk of the Father, and the Word alone supplies us children with the milk of love, and only those who suck at this breast are truly happy; . . . to those infants who seek the Word, the Father’s loving breasts supply milk” (Cf. Cor. 3:1-3 for Paul claiming to give milk; cf. Gal. 4:20 for Paul claiming to be in labor/11/).

Indicative of the tensions engendered by male/ female polarity, other Christians did not follow Clement, but endorsed as canonical the Pseudo-Pauline letter to Timothy: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not allow any woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; she is to remain silent, for Adam was formed first, then Eve. The woman was seduced and came into sin" (Timothy 2:11-14). The woman-hating engendered in these early texts is reinforced by St. Augustine.

Augustine preached at least three sermons on the feast of Saints Perpetua and the slave Felicity. He praises the women for acting uncharacteristically for their sex, in overcoming the inherent weakness and sinfulness of their flesh: “For there is the crown more glorious, where the sex is weaker. Because indeed manly spirit produced something greater in women, when under such a burden feminine fragility was not found wanting” In Latin: “Nam ibi est corona gloriosior, ubi sexus infirmior. Quia profecto virilis animus in feminas majus aliquid fecit, quando sub tanto pondere fragilitas feminea non defecit . . . Ille fecit feminas viriliter et fideliter mori . . . .” (Serm CCLXXXI, Migne 38 1284)./12/ His highest praise for a woman is to say that she is like a man. In Augustine the image of God is androcentric. He assimilates maleness to monism, and this makes femaleness, rather than bisexuality, the image of the lower corporeal nature.

For Augustine, moreover, man as image of God is summed up in Adam, the unitary ancestor of mankind. Woman is not the image, but only when taken together with the male, who is her head (1 Cor. 11: 3-12). This assimilation of male/female dualism in patristic theology conditions the definition of woman, both in terms of her subordination to the male in the order of nature, and her carnality in the disorder of sin (Ruether, 1974). Hence women are seen ethically as dangerous to the male. Tertullian’s notorious passage on women as the “gateway to the devil,” “Tu es diaboli ianua” (De Cultu Feminarum I.1.2), has provoked indignation among scholars with a feminist perspective. The spurning of sexuality engendered the rise of continent groups among the early Christians.

Daniélou states that this “encratist” aspect of Judaeo-Christianity was not confined to heterodox sects, but expressed a much more general movement. Paul (1 Cor.) while not making virginity obligatory, expressed his opinion that virginity is the best condition for men and women (Cf. Daniélou, 1978 121-123, and Davies, 12-13). Robin Scroggs, a Pauline scholar, argues that Paul’s reason for counseling people not to marry is that he wants them to be free of worldly affairs. The demands of pleasing a spouse leave no time for devotion to the Lord. Paul’s advice to women not to teach and be over men, by Scroggs’ “hermeneutical rule,” means that someone is doing it. He is here arguing against groups that shun sexuality (gnostic groups), while they practice full equality of the sexes. Gnosticism holds on to equality and rejects sexuality; whereas orthodoxy holds on to sexuality, but rejects equality. There seems to be an inimical polarity between sexuality and intellectuality in women for any androcentric society. /13/

Pagels observes that every one of the secret texts revered by gnostic groups was omitted from the canonical collection and branded as heretical by those who called themselves orthodox Christians. By about 200 A.D. virtually all the female imagery for God had disappeared from the orthodox Christian tradition (1980: 57). The Christianity of today reflects this deprivation in its exclusion of the female from the idea of God. It is small wonder that those arguing against the ordination of women have ample ammunition in ecclesiastical documentation from which the testimony of women has been painstakingly excluded. Pagels has touched upon the roots of the male/female polarity that is a symptom of the malaise of our own times.

The digression that has led to a new look at modern problems is an example of the kind of inspiration that the Passio Perpetuae has provided through the ages. The young martyr Perpetua, whose courage was said to belie her sex /14/ has offered her testimony, which has become the testimony of Everywoman.

To recapitulate, let us apply Brown’s magnifying glass focus on the pinpoint of one woman’s life: Perpetua’s words have revealed the kind of person whose personal contact with the divine generated a charismatic power that was diffused over the group as a whole. They call up, in Brown’s words, the “milky way” of martyrs’ tombs that broke out along the Mediterranean world and testified to the “shocks” that were like spontaneous combustion, arising from friction within a system of widely shared ideas (1972: 22-23).

Dodds has enticed us to reexamine these shared ideas and the preponderant Stoic backdrop of the world view of Late Antiquity. The Stoic “sympathy of the whole,” belief that mind is God in each of us, the admonition to live according to nature, the theistic tendency expressed in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus and developed in the haunting and yearning passages of Plotinus, such are the ancient materials of Late Antiquity.

Dodds’ thesis that all this madness issued in a personal alienation is contested by Peter Brown’s conviction that such inward turning could never have given rise to the strong monastic communities with their emphasis on serving and loving each other. Perpetua’s life serves to reconcile this opposition, since she is alienated at once from her feminine (weak, passive) social and economic status and from her family, but at the same time she draws together the faithful and remains their source of strength, even after her death. Although it is true that martyrdom is the “ultimate form of discontinuity” (Brown, 1976: 23), nevertheless it is for Perpetua an assertion of her freedom and a bond of commitment, prestige, and influence that was capable of reaching beyond the grave to touch the lives of posterity (Cf. Appendix).

Hence, as Dodds has observed, what we find in a document depends upon what we are looking for, which in turn reflects our own interests and the intellectual development of our times (1973: 28). The harmony of pagan-Christian bonding provided by Dodds’ treatment of the Passio Perpetuae , the lucid insights of von Franz’s analysis, and the questioning reappraisal of the feminist approach amply illustrate this disparity of focus and intellectual temperament.

Nevertheless, the Passio Perpetuae remains a remarkable document illustrating an intelligent woman’s solution to the “displicentia sui” of her time. As an illustration of Dodds’ hypothesis of misery and mysticism, the diary yields psychological insights into Perpetua’s inner conflicts; as a document of a woman’s experience recounted in her own words, the diary yields precious testimony of the influential participation of women in the making of Late Antiquity.

Ball State University Muncie, Indiana, USA


1 The Gnostic Gospels was published in four installments (Oct. 25, Nov. 8, 22, and Dec. 6, 1979) by the New York Review of Books, and among the outbreak of responses across the United States was the following: Milwaukee Journal (Jan. 20, 1980) “Gnosticism May Be Fascinating, but it’s not a Substitute for Today’s Christianity” (R. A. Wild, S.J.).

This article may have been a response to an earlier Journal statement: “John Paul II denies women in priesthood, insisting there is no tradition of women in orders. Yet the gnostic gospels show that rituals existed in which women played the roles of priest and bishop. The gnostics also spoke of God in feminine terms.” Another response was in Psychology Today (April, 1980) “Religion’s Oldest Scoop” (A. M. Greeley’s review of Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels).

2. See collections of Orphic writings in Otto Xern’s Orphicorum Fragmenta.

3. Marie-Louise von Franz wrote “Die Passio Perpetuae. Versuch einer Psychologischen Deutung,” which was first published as Teil II of Jung’s Aion. Untersuchungen zur Symbolgeschichte in 1951, but Teil II was curiously omitted from the English translation of Jung’s work. First translated into English by E. Welsh and published in Spring, 1949: 85-127, it was later published under separate cover by Spring publications with the title The Passion of Perpetua.

4. H. Brugsch, Religion und Mythologie der Alten Aegypter, II. Aufl. (Leipzig, 1891), p. 580, cited in Aion (1951), p. 413, n.7.

5. About twelve statuettes of this sort are known, ranging in provenance from Spain to Greece, Thrace, and Asia Minor (Morey, 1942).

6. Doelger, “Antike Parallelen zum leidenden Dinocrate in der Passio Perpetuae” in Antike u. Christentum Münster, Bd. II 1930, 19, n.40.

7. Cf. Augustine’s comments on Perpetua and Felicity in his sermons.

8. The psychopomp, conductor of souls, is a term used in Greek mythology of Charon, the boatman of the Underworld (Euripides, Alcestis, 361); and of Hermes (Diodorus Siculus 1.96; Plutarch 2.758b); also Synezius, Insom. 14.

9 Cicero, De Finibus 1.15-49; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V.29; Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, III, 94043. A remarkable example of a contemporary “migrare de vita” was that of Jo Roman, a woman who wished to control the time of her departure and who did so in 1979 (Time, June 11, 1979).

10. Cf. Wayne Meeks, “Image of the Androgyne”, History of Religions 13; 165-208 (1974); Marie Delcourt, Hermaphrodite, London Studio Books (1956); John Anson, “Image of the Transvestite” in Viator, V (1974). For the latter reference I am indebted to Natalie Zemon Davis of the History Department at Princeton University.

11. I am indebted to Stevan Davies for these parallel passages; cf. also Nock, loc. cit., p. 99, n. 107 for the milk image.

12. Cf. the translation and discussion of these sermons in Shewring, Perpetua, Saint and Martyr (1931).

13. Robin Scrogg’s lecture at Cedar Rapids, Iowa USA, in October, 1979. Also cf. his work, among others, on Paul’s eschatology in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40 (1972) 283ff.

14 This insistence of women’s weakness always calls to mind a memorable line from Euripides’ Medea: “It is easier to stand in the front line of battle three times than to bear one child” (11.250-251).



The Passio Perpetuae dates from Carthage in the Third Century A.D. 203. The manuscript is preserved in both Latin and Greek: Latin—(sigla are those of van Beek), A Casiniensis 204 MM, saec. X/XI, D Ambros. C. 210 Inf., saec. XI/XII; Greek—H Hierosol. S. Sep. 1, saec X, XI. For a full explication of the ms. tradition, cf. Robinson: 10-15; van Beek: 17-65. The Greek text is generally considered a translation of the Latin (Robinson: 2-3; Franchi de Cavalieri. 12 ff.-43 95.; Rupprecht passim; Lazzati, Note, p 30 Fridh: 46 95.) For editions besides those noted in the references (Robinson, Franchi de’Cavalieri, Musurillo, and van Beek) are von Gebhardt: 61-95 (Latin and Greek); Kropf-Krugerruhbach: 35-44 (Latin) and Lazzati, Sviluppi: 177-89 (Latin). Other critical studies include Delahaye, Passions: 49-55; E. Rupprecht, Bemerkungen zur Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis, in Rh.M.90, 1941, 177-192; G. Lazzati, ‘Note critiche e testo della Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis’, in Aevum 30, 1956: 30-35.

The Passio contains diverse segments, of which chapters 3-10 comprise a narration in which Vibia Perpetua, arrested with other catachumens, Revocato, his slave Felicity, Saturninus, and Secundulus (2.1), recount their experiences from their standing before the prosecutors, to their incarceration, to their trial, and finally to their removal to prison to await their execution. Perpetua also recounts a series of visions that she experiences during her detention in the prison. The authenticity of Perpetua’s diary as an historical document seems assured by the most recent philological research (cf. the conclusions of Fridh, p. 83). The beginning and ending chapters were compiled by an editor who probably belonged to the circle of Tertullian and were put together not long after the actual events.

Translations throughout the paper are mine unless otherwise noted.


A study of the language of the Passio Perpetuae has been done by Petraglio (1976). His analysis of words such as “caro” (“flesh”) points up the semantic crossover between pagan and Christian usages and refIects the “displicentia sui” of the time in words. “Caro” appears when Perpetua speaks of “sufferentia carnis” III.5. This expression, which signifies the capacity to resist materially with the body itself, evidently betrays its origin. It is found in the Biblical exegesis which comprehends the evangelic word on the infirm flesh and on the ready spirit in the sense of the Graeco-Roman dualism between matter and spirit and between soul and body. The word “caro” in the Latin world not only signifies the body, but also insinuates a disparagement of the body. The “caro” is infirm or weak (151). Cf. Forcellini, s.v. “caro”: “Et verbum caro factum est”; Jn. 1.14.

More than the Latin of the Christians, vulgar Latin, and literary Latin, there exist certain phenomena that can be qualified as vulgar, literary, or ecclesiastic. This intermingling of diverse and heterogeneous linguistic elements is not forced or artificial. In them literary and Christian education are not shut off from vital matters (153). Petraglio uses the Passio Perpetuae in this study as exemplary of this semantic and linguistic intermingling of the Pagan and Christian elements of the Latin.


With the mention of artistic reflections of the pagan-Christian melding of images, it is necessary to recall that Septimius Serverus was sole Emperor in 194 A.D., when it was believed that the misfortunes of the Empire might be due to this widespread apostasy, and there was a readiness to believe the strange stories of sexual excesses and ritual murder which always attach themselves to a sect that is under the ban of social disapproval (Nock, 208-9). Many times persecution was forced on the magistrate by the crowds, who cried “Christiani ad leonem.” Tertullian wrote an Apology, in which he defended Christians from these attacks. The Christians were a power to be reckoned with, and Severus was ready to protect them. But he was deterred from his political plans by the apocalyptic movement, in which the end of the world was believed to be at hand. At the moment when Severus was reforming the marriage laws in an effort to strengthen the family, the Christians were condemning marriage and urging continence. At the moment when the frontiers of the Roman Empire were threatened and all forces had to be mobilized, the Christians were urging one another not to serve in the army (Daniélou and Marrou: 143-4).

Hence in 202 Severus issued the edict forbidding the Christians to make proselytes. It was a general order mandating civil servants to check the progress of Christianity. The prohibited offense was to prepare for baptism or to receive it, as Perpetua records that she has done: “In ipso spatio paucorum dierum baptizati sumus; et mihi Spiritus dictavit non aliud petendum ab aqua nisi sufferentia carnis." III.

The measures taken against the Christians, however, gave strength to the resistance of paganism, and artistic remains give testimony of the power of the message. Hippolytus’ commentary on Daniel in 207 A.D., in which he describes types of deliverance, such as that of the three men in the fiery furnace, is paralleled by the decorations of the Roman catacombs of this period. There is, for example, an allusion to this commentary, as well as a possible allusion to Perpetua’s final vision, in a wall painting from the Roman Catacomb on the Via Latina of the late third or fourth century. The painting depicts three men in the flames with arms upraised in an attitude of triumph and dressed in rather elaborate dresses, which remained an enigma to many for a long time. With the realization that the tomb belonged to Christians who were steeped in the pagan tradition, and with the testimony of other paintings in the same tomb, including some of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, it is likely that this very costume of Nike was used to depict victory beyond the grave. This conclusion accords with their attitude of triumph. The allusion to the Passio Perpetuae is X.6-7, ‘Handsome men, my helpers and supporters, come to me." In the painting, as in the diary, martyrdom is seen as a struggle against the devil, and derivatively the relation of the church and world is understood as one of conflict (Daniélou: Plate 11, p. 26).

There is another painting that appears to allude to the Passio Perpetuae in the cemetery of Priscilla and Domitilla. This painting is discussed by A. Amore in “Note di topomastica cimiteriali romana,” Riv. Arch. Crist. 32 (l956) 59-87.

Fontaine ends his study of the diary with the mention of its influence in early Christian funerary painting, such as the one on a paleochristian sarcophagus in northern Spain, described in Madrider Mitteilungen (1965: 139-166) and also in a note by Fontaine in Bulletin Hispanique 69 (1967: 556), “Quatre ans d’archeologic hispanique a l‘inst. arch. allemand de Madrid.” The sarcophagus of Quintana de Bureba, which Fontaine calls “la plus belle pièce de ce groupe” depicts the scene of Perpetua about to climb the ladder of her first vision as she steps on the head of the serpent. The Good Shepherd is also depicted.

It is a charming painting, and its theme indicates the wide popularity of the Passio Perpetuae in the period of early Christianity.


The text of the Passio Perpetuae was selected for a joint research effort by literary scholars and psychoanalysts, and one of the publications resulting from this interdisciplinary approach is entitled “The Motivations for St. Perpetua’s Martyrdom.” In this paper Mary Lefkowitz, Professor of Greek and Latin, presents evidence in the text that provokes new kinds of questions from a feminist perspective. The psycho-historical perspective reveals that the reasons why Perpetua was willing to give up both her life and her infant son in the service of her faith were political and emotional, as well as doctrinal (1976: 417-421). Lefkowitz contends that the demands of an intense relationship with her father, who tries three times to force her to recant so that he will not be disgraced, and who uses violent and aggressive gestures against her, may indicate a conscious or unconscious incestuous relationship.


Tertullian defended Christians against the charge that they were bad citizens and refuted the allegation of immoral rites. He composed works for the Christian public, including the tractate Ad martyras, addressed to certain Christians who had been arrested and were awaiting trial and consequent execution during one of the many outbreaks of persecution. It is possible that Tertullian is thinking especially of Perpetua and Felicity in this work. For differing views of this point, cf. Schanz-Hosius-Kruger, iii, 283; also cf. J. Klein, “Tertullians Theologisch Ethick des Martyrium als Commentar zur Passio Perpetuae” (275-313) Hildesheim: 1940, repr.1975. Tertullian was long thought to be the editor of the the Passio Perpetuae (see attestations in DACL, e g.), but recent scholars do not agree (Fontaine,e.g.). Nevertheless Tertullian’s works are reputed to be the mediator between Christian fervor and pagan learning, and he is close to the spirit of the Passio Perpetuae , whether or not he actually edited the text.


In a recent article in Vigiliae Christianae Pizzolato defends the humanity of the Passio Perpetuae by emphasizing Perpetua’s Stoic mental set, her fervent belief that she is in the hands of God and that He is willing her every action. Her words in V.6 illustrate this state of mind: “There will happen on that platform what God will have willed; for know that we are constituted to be not in our power, but in that of God.” In Latin: “Hoc fiet in illa catasta quod Deus voluerit; scito enim nos non in nostra esse potestate constitutos; sed in Dei.” Pizzolato adds: “Con questa affermazione Perpetua viene a correggere la sua dimensione eroica, legando la sua situazione non ad una scelta della propria volontà, ma di una volontà superiore” (1980). The author illustrates Perpetua’s beliefs that God wills her actions by citing such passages as her father’s refusal to give back her baby (“Pater noluit,” VI.8), but the baby did not wish to nurse, and her breasts did not cause her distress (“Deus voluit” VI.8). Perpetua’s expression of ready and willing conformity to God’s will recalls the early Stoic Hymn to Zeus of Cleanthes, disciple of Zeno, founder of the Stoic sect in the third century B.C. (fr. 527, von Arnim):

Lead me, O Zeus, and Thou, O Destiny; Whithersoever I am appointed by you, There shall I follow resolute; But if, being base, I lag and will not, Follow still I must.

Seneca, an exponent of Roman Stoicism in the first century A.D., has given in Letter 107 (Summers, 1970) Cicero’s translation of Cleanthes’ Hymn:

duc, o parens celsique dominator poli, quocumque placuit: nulla parendi mora est. adsum impiger. fac nolle: comitabor gemes malusque patiar facere quod licuit bono. ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt.

The last line (“Destiny leads the willing, and drags the reluctant”) is a Stoic precept embraced by Perpetua.

The ‘perpetual’ spark

It remains to mention three poems of disparate times by women or unknown poets who were inspired by Perpetua’s life and writing. The poems give testimony of the charismatic quality of her experience.

The contemporary poet H.D. has embraced the spirit of the Passio Perpetuae in many of her haunting poems. The following lines are from Hermetic Definition:

. . . if I can do nothing else, at least, I can recognize this unfathomable, dauntless separation,
this retreat from the world that yet holds the world, past, present, in the mind’s closed recess . . . (Grove of Academe)

A dramatic poem of the nineteenth century is a version of the Passio Perpetuae and reflects the Stoic tenet that mind is God in each of us. The following lines are spoken by Perpetua:

The temples of the living Lord are ye,
His kingdom is within you. Thus for me,
From that time forth, did every human form
Stand for a living shrine of Deity. (Adams, 1841)

Finally, there is a lyric poem of the ninth century inspired by the Passio Perpetuae . The Latin poem was arranged to be sung on the feasts of holy women, and the last six verses in particular are striking in their reminiscence of Perpetua:

Now you can see women made captains in the war that is waged against you.
Women who spur on their sons bravely to conquer all your tortures.
Even courtesans, your vessels, are purified by God,
Transmuted into a burnished temple for him alone.
For these graces let us now glorify him together, both the sinners and those who are just,
Him who strengthens those who stand and gives his right hand to the fallen that at least after crimes we may rise. (Dronke: 42-44)

In Latin: 15. Feminas nunc vices in bello contra te facto duces existere,
16. Quae filios suos instigant fortiter tua tormenta vincere.
17. Quin et tua vasa meretrices dominus emundat
18 Et haec sibi templum dignatur efficere purgatum.
19 Pro his nunc beneficiis in commune dominum nos glorificemus et peccatores et iusti,
20. Qui et stantes corroborat et prolapsis dexterma porrigit, ut saltem post facinor surgamus. (Notker, 1960).

For a discussion of the imagery of the poem, cf. Dronke, pp. 42-44. The references in the poem to married women and widows gives new meaning to all that goes before, since previously only virgin martyrs, apart from Mary, had been celebrated in song:

Now, Notker seems to say, not only the martyr heroines, but women in all their womanly capacities can triumph in that encounter and ordeal by which the divine is attained . . . . Every woman’s life can become a vindication of Eve, a bruising of the serpent’s head; even the lives of courtesans . . . . for Christ did not reject them . . . Perpetua’s dreams become an image of every Christian’s anguish and aspiration, as the concluding lines implicitly take up the opening image once more. Those who stand and fall are helped up again -- they are whoever dares to climb the ladder stretching to heaven: the Perpetuas of this world [or Everywoman] (Dronke: 1968: 43).


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