Introduction to Digital Humanities

RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

Perpetua and Felicitas: Incredible, and Maybe a Little Foolish

I must admit, I have mixed feelings about these ladies. On the one hand, I think they’re incredibly badass. They give off that self-sacrificial action heroine vibe that you can’t help but be excited about. I mean, how often do two women come around who would willingly throw themselves into a den of vicious beasts, knowing they were going to die, simply because they believed that strongly in their ideals? Not that I’m saying everyone should start following their example, mind you, but it’s an incredible feat of bravery and loyalty. What makes it even more astounding is something discussed in the PBS reading we had, about how Paganism was essentially tied up with the Roman state. By refusing to follow Paganism, Perpetua and Felicitas were basically denouncing their ties to Rome, and shunning all of its civil practices. That takes serious guts.

I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but generally when I think of Christian martyrs, a lot of men come to mind. That makes Perpetua and Felicitas seem even more important to me, because we have so few stories that recount how women sacrificed for the sake of their religion. Perpetua literally asked for a gladiator to slit her throat, and Felicitas waltzed into that arena right after giving birth. Both of them had to pass off their children to other people to raise because they knew they wouldn’t survive. And what have you all been doing with your Sundays?

Just to add some intensity to the tale, I typed their names into a Google image search, and found this piece of artwork (taken from here), portraying Perpetua’s final moments:

Not the easiest sight to swallow, is it?

Now for the reasons I have muddled feelings about this story. I have already said I’m not religious, and perhaps by default that makes me a skeptic. I’ve always found the idea of martyrdom a bit over the top. Not to say that it isn’t important, because obviously it is, and it’s held very close to the heart of religion. I can respect that. And I can respect being so devoted to something that you would literally die for it. But for me, religion isn’t one of those things I would die for. So as much as I admire Perpetua and Felicitas for being so courageous, I also can’t say I understand why they chose that route. In the reading on the PBS website, it said that being Christian technically wasn’t against the law in the Roman Empire. You were supposed to follow the Pagan rituals, true, but Christianity could still be practiced as well. And it sounded like people faked going along with those crazy Pagan sacrifices all the time. If it were me, I would have taken a safer option and kept myself alive, rather than throwing myself down in an arena full of angry animals. But of course, I’m not Perpetua or Felicitas (and quite frankly I’m glad for that). They clearly inspired uncountable Christians, and that’s not something that should be ignored.

I think the takeaway from this is that we all have the capability to fight for something we believe in. These two mothers died for their beliefs. Now please, friends, don’t go that far, because living is important. But we don’t have to sacrifice ourselves to stand up for something. Cling to your ideals. You never know what kind of impact you can make with them.

4 Comments

  1. To be quite honest, I have to agree with you about the fact that Perpetua and Felicitas’s story seems a little strange in the fact that they willingly walked into a gladiator arena to die for their beliefs when they could have practiced them in secret. But martyrdom seems to be all about that, doesn’t it? When someone is completely willing to be persecuted for their beliefs is one way, I guess, of showing how far they are willing to go for their religion, and I think that’s fascinating (in it’s own way). I thought it was interesting that you brought up the idea that, by rejecting paganism, both Perpetua and Felicitas were also severing their ties to the Roman state. I think it brings a whole new level of understanding to this story, and it definitely makes me admire them more, mainly because that takes a LOT of guts.

  2. I think that the story of Perpetua and Felicitas is important because it shows a side that you do not always get with accounts from Rome, and especially accounts in the early first millennium CE, a women’s perspective on a significant event. What makes this account particularly powerful, in my opinion, is what she gave up for her faith. As you stated she gave up her newborn child and eventually gave up her life in the Roman arena rather that denouncing her Christianity and moving back to the Pagan religion of Rome at the time.

    Her decision to die for her religion is an interesting point in her story, as she was willing to fight for what she believed in. I know from another class I am taking this semester, ironically focusing on this period in Rome at the moment, that martyrs often felt that by dying for their religion it gave them a faster path to salvation. Perhaps that is why the article implied that her death resembled “assisted suicide”, she had it in her mind what salvation awaited her if she died for her faith.

  3. Great Post!

    I find your first couple statements really amusing. lol. Particularly your idea about Christian Martrys being usually men. I had that thought too, until I read this piece. Perpetua and Felicitas are the epitome of Christian Martrys. I mean, come on, two women, fighting against the odds, for what they believe in, making any sacrifice that is necessary. That really showed me a lot about Martyrdom, and peoples’ perception back then. These women gave up the things closest to them, including a child, in order to fight for their beliefs.

    All in all, you did a really good job with this post. I also liked your point on Perpetua and Felicitas, and how they inspired an uncountable number of Christians.

  4. Consider adding that piece of art to our Omeka site!!

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