Introduction to Digital Humanities

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

Perpetua and Felicitas: Counter-Culture in the 3rd Century (October 5th, 2015)

This article from PBS about early Christian martyrs is an interesting one. Within, Professor Wayne A. Meeks describes what is happening with Christianity is a sort of counter-cultural movement. Now as someone who attended Catholic school for eight years, counter-culture was pretty much explained to me as that which goes against the teachings of the church. And that interested me, the perspective shift from Christianity being the counter-culture of its day, to defining counter-culture to me as that which was not them. This is likely some weird thing from my early Catholic school days, but it has always stuck with me. And I found counter-culture to be an intensely interesting subject. Maybe the martyrs did too. I do not know the specific context for this story other than what I read in the article and what I have learned from school, and I always have been bad with historical context, but I think that a lot of these martyr stories are hard to relate to our own personal context. Here in the United States we at least try to have a separation of church and state, the Roman government had no such distinction and thus had rituals embedded into their culture as something that the community does as a whole. I think a big part of historical context that escapes me, and may escape others is that the further back you go in time, individuals and small groups just become numbers that we don’t relate to. Or generalizations of a story. But this story, that of Perpetua and Felicitas (though as a child I was always told it was Felicity), focuses on two individuals and helps to reign that back in for me. It was individuals who were persecuted. Individuals who offered themselves to God by the edge of the sword. Small groups of society being persecuted interacting with other small groups of society that wanted to persecute. I think, that since the Roman government at large did not have a strict policy on the persecution of Christians that it was the small minority that banded together as a group to execute those of another faith, or at least those who did not participate in a same social manner. I think that the outliers on both sides of the story were those well documented because it wasn’t the mundanity of regular culture. Why document the regular everyday happenings of real life if everybody already knows it? The stories of the Christian martyrs, as far as I know, are documented better than the early growth and expansion of Christianity (as well as being part of that growth), and the stories continue to contribute to Christian faith to this day. The importance of their martyrdom, in my eyes, was the counter-culture idea that people believed so strongly in their faith that they would die for it. Again, I do not know the context of the time, but from what it seems like, the Roman community practicing sacrifice could just as easily have taken the same steps that some Christians did and faked their way through the offerings. They could have been weaker in their faith to their gods than the Christian martyrs had in their God. And I believe this is why Christianity drew upon martyrdom as a source of power and not tragedy, it proved their place in the pantheon of religions that existed at the time, and established them as a real participant in humanity’s dialogue with the concept of higher being(s). -Luke Bolle


This image of Perpetua and Felicitas also shows something that wasn’t brought up in the reading: they were also women of color.

Image Source


  1. I think that it is interesting that you bring up the point how ingrained the rituals of Roman religion was in the state at the time, as the traditional religion and the emergence of Christianity is a topic we are currently discussing in one of my other classes this semester. The Romans viewed Christianity as a very real threat to their existence because of the implications that Christian Romans not practicing the traditional forms of rituals and worship could have on the Roman state. One of the reasons for this widespread persecution of the Christians was the fact that Roman leaders attributed the failures and challenges of the Roman society at the time to the traditional gods being angry that Christian Romans were not following their sacrifices. Thus, the Christians were an easy target to be exposed and eliminated, to “fix” their society. That is until Christianity became the official religion of Rome at a later date.

    Where Perpetua and Felicitas fit into this is reinforced by their respective stories. Both imprisoned because of their faith and refusing to go back to the traditional forms of the Pagan religion, both eventually becoming martyrs and dying in the Roman Arena for their faith. Like you said, these stories of martyrdom are a very integral piece of the Christian religion, and, in my opinion, eventually contributed to the adoption of Christianity as the Roman religion because they saw how fierce the loyalty was to the Christian beliefs by these select few.

  2. I find your image caption especially intriguing, because Google images does pull up many pieces of art portraying Perpetua and Felicitas, some depicting the women as colored and some as white. (For example: )
    I also attended Catholic faith formation classes from Communion to Confirmation every Saturday, but I never heard the stories of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (but this can probably be attributed to my inattentiveness to older texts and focus on moral principles instead). What is most notable about their stories, I feel, is that the young women were catechumens and not yet baptized Catholics, yet their faith is strong – to literally die for. Hence, I especially agree with your statement that martyrdom is a source of power rather than tragedy.

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