Introduction to Digital Humanities

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

Perpetua and Felicitas: Is Martyrdom Worth It?

The story of Perpetua and Felicitas is a tale of Christians preferring martyrdom over recanting their faith. They find strength in their friendship and companionship with the remainder of those captured, particularly as they are thrown to beasts. A particularly moving example of faith is exemplified by Perpetua who chooses to become a martyr despite all of her family’s attempts at persuading her, voluntarily dying for her faith. She is not even a full Christian yet, merely a catechumen, a young convert or initiate. In the end, all of those who choose to die rather than recant their faith eventually go out peacefully with the knowledge that they have performed their duty.

Martyrdom is an interesting concept. It makes a person wonder what is worth dying for. Some people would say nothing, as a life is one’s own and he or she only has that one life to live for. Others will say it is worth it to save the life/lives of another – equivalent exchange in other words. And perhaps the strangest reason for me is for the sake of a religion or belief. I am not a religious person nor do I hold any belief strong enough such that I would die for it, which is perhaps why dying for religion or belief is something alien to me. For that, I can only say that a life is not worth an idea.

Theoretically, martyrdom is performed as an expression of the deepest faith. It appears to make sense; to galvanize and encourage the remainder of those who hold the same beliefs, show them it’s worth dying for. As the reading explained, Jesus, the focus of Christianity, was one who became a martyr. As martyrdom is something rare, anyone who commits to it is seen as incredible, a person worthy of admiration. However, you then have to question if beliefs are worth the price of  a life or lives. Many will be encouraged by the moving action, but when faced with a similar persecution, will they also do the same? The reading from PBS appears to suggest that they won’t. Additionally, as an individual, it is not worth it. Disregarding the idea of equivalent exchange, an individual’s death impacts those who are closest to him or her. Dying for one’s faith, despite encouraging the remainder of the believers, will yet cause pain an anguish to family members and friends, perhaps those who a person should truly be living for.

Perpetua’s case particularly baffles me, as she voluntarily throws herself at the governor, asking to become a martyr. She is not captured nor is she actively pursued. And yet, she chooses to die, very much throwing away her life when she has no need to do so. It is one thing to become a martyr when captured. It is a completely separate matter to do so intentionally without reason save for belief. Should all others commit to the same action, there would be no one left of the belief to follow it and teach it to others (of course, that is highly unlikely, but it still stands). There are better uses for a life aside from voluntary suicide, for that is what it is.

4 Comments

  1. I, too, am baffled by Perpetua’s insistence in voluntarily dying as a means to see “God through Jesus.” She certainly did not have to die at that moment, but it is somewhat admirable that she feels so strongly about her martyrdom. Reading your blog post also had me question what I was willing to die for… Being a Catholic myself, I definitely cannot amount to Perpetua’s devout willingness, though she was a catechumen.

  2. I think you bring up an interesting point, that is, that many people would not be willing to die for their beliefs (especially when they don’t have to, like Perpetua). Also, when you take into account that, during this time, Rome fully supported paganism as its official religion, it seems that both Perpetua and Felicitas not only rejected paganism, but also Rome itself. I think this brings a whole new light to Perpetua and Felicitas’s case of martyrdom, as they completely turned their backs on their city-state. It’s intriguing, I think, that they would do such a thing, and, going back to your main point, are one’s beliefs worth it? It’s an interesting question for sure, and I’m not sure what the right answer is, as I don’t really think I have any strong beliefs that I would be willing to die for. All in all, your post is really interesting, and I think it raises some good questions.

  3. I believe you bring up an interesting point: Martyrdom. In other words, what are people willing to die for? As noted, martyrdom is done as an act of faith and devotion. However, as time goes on I feel as if the meaning behind this term has lost its value and meaning. Perpetua’s decided to die to become closer to her God. This, to a degree, was seen as a way of showing one’s devotion to their God during this time. Is society willing to become martyrs for their religion or beliefs in modern day society?

  4. Your post brought up multiple interesting points and I liked it a lot! You really went in depth about martyrs, and the phrase “voluntary suicide” caught my attention. I liked the perspective that you took and how your words revealed more about the text. Though a martyr perishes professing their faith, he, she, or they cause pain to the people close to them. This is evident when Perpetua doesn’t listen to her father’s pleas.

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