For ourselves, too, we ask some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs, with…Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.
[Fifth Century Eucharistic Prayer]
In Tunisia near the blue waters of the Mediterranean, shards of brownstone and cement, ravaged by time is all that remains of the amphitheater arena of the ancient City of Carthage. Tourists picking their way through the ruins find little to convince them that this site was once the entertainment center of the second largest city in the Roman Empire. It was also the location of one of the celebrated martyrdoms of the early Christian era.
In March of 203 several days of games were held here on the occasion of the 14th birthday of the Emperor’s son: the young man was to assume put on the toga of an adult. The newly appointed procurator to the province, Publius Aelius Hilarianus, was responsible for several-day celebration and his reputation was as stake. Scenery, costumes, and musicians were prepared. Exotic animals, delivered in crates by sea from different parts of the Empire, numbered in the hundreds.
In the Roman world, expensively staged events involving the death of animals and slave swordsmen (gladiators) epitomized the excesses of popular culture. St. Augustine – also a North African –described the psychological impact of these blood sports on a devout Christian friend. “The crowed let out a great roar [and] the moment he saw blood… he was riveted to the scene. … The thrill of seeing blood shed intoxicated him. He was no longer the man who had come into the arena, he was now part of the crowd to.”
North Africa had a particular tradition of violence. In pre-Roman Carthage, children had been sacrificed to the gods, and in more recent times there had been considerable tension with the growing Christian community, and cries that Christians be put to death were common. Many persons, a contemporary noted, “think the Christians the cause of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, “Send the Christians to the lions!”
Shortly before the games were scheduled to begin, the procurator conducted an inquest before a hastily gathered crowd in a neighborhood market place. Christians had been caught up in a police sweep and were publicly questioned. Most quickly agreed to offer a few grains of wheat to the emperor and were allowed to leave. Among those who refused, were three men, and two women catechumens. All were slaves with the exception of 22 year-old Vibia Perpetua, a nursing mother, and a member of the patrician class.
Soon after the trail, Perpetua recorded in her diary her account of what had transpired in the marketplace.
“’When it came my turn,’ Perpetua wrote, “my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the platform, and said: ‘Perform the sacrifice–have pity on your baby!’
Hilarianus the governor said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’
”I will not’, I replied.
‘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.”
While awaiting the games in prison, the woman was baptized. In the short period that followed, her diary records a vivid dream while in prison. In her dream she saw herself being prepared to enter the arena. When an effort was made to dress her like priestess of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, she refused. Instead, after being oiled and dusted like an athlete, she engaged in combat with an Egyptian gladiator. “He fell flat on his face and I stepped on his head…and the crowd began to shout and my assistants started to sing psalms,” she wrote. “Then I awoke.”
Perpetua, however, had no illusions about what awaited her. The North African writer Apuleius described damnation to the animals as “the cruelest of deaths.” Prisoners condemned to the beasts were known to have committed suicide rather than enter the arena.
On March 7, 203, the 35,000 capacity amphitheater at Carthage was overflowing. From the high galleries, gladiators, hunters, animals, and human victims appeared as small creatures flitting about the stage scenery in life and death struggles. As each act ended, bodies were dragged away, and young boys could be seen spreading perfumed sand upon the arena floor. Not until the end of day, were the five Christians brought out: the three men and then the two women.
Matters, however, had not gone as planned. A bear had refused to come out of its cage, and a wild boar had turned on its handler and severely gored him. Eventually a leopard was turned loose. The animal mauled, but did not kill them.
Nor had the handling of the women pleased the raucous crowd. When Perpetua and her slave Felicity, stripped naked and draped in a fishnet, had been brought in the arena, the spectators had booed. The women were removed from the arena, only to return shortly afterwards clothed in light garments. A maddened cow was set loose upon them, goring them and them knocking them to the ground. A short time later the procurator abruptly ended the show. The Christians were brought to the center of the arena where gladiators dispatched them with the sword.
Today, little remains of Roman Carthage. Vandals plundered the city in the 5th century, and Arab invaders destroyed the city in 698 A.D. Stones of the enormous stadium were carted away, and today only a small altar in a subterranean chamber marks the site of martyrdom. Within the Christian community, however, the account of the persecution of Vibia Perpetua, and her woman friend Felicity was widely known. By the fourth century the feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity was annually celebrated in Rome. A hundred years later their names are found among those of the seven women were invoked in the Eucharistic Prayer, where they remain today. Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox churches also celebrate liturgies in their honor. The account of events leading up to the martyrdom of St. Perpetua, is the earliest example of Christian literature written by a woman, and has given rise to a large body of scholarly research.
Each year on March 7, the Universal Church honors Vibia Perpetua of Carthage in the Eucharistic Liturgy. The responsorial psalm invited us to join Perpetua’s defining witness to faith, with our own hesitant, but hope-filled words: “In all of these trials the victory is ours, because of Christ who loves us. What can separate us from the love of Christ? Not suffering, hardship, persecution, not hunger, destitution, peril or sword.”