During a persecution of Christians under the emperor Septimius Severus, a group of Christians died together in the arena at Carthage. Their final days have been recorded for us in a document that is partly in their own words, and partly in those of an anonymous narrator (sometimes thought to be Tertullian). What follow are extracts, sometimes condensed, from that document.
Vivia Perpetua was a catchumen (i.e. a convert not yet baptized), well educated and from a prosperous family, about 22 years old, married and apparently recently widowed, with a child at her breast, and with two brothers and both parents still living. (Her father was not a Christian.) Felicity was a slave woman in advanced pregnancy. With them were Revocatus (also a slave), Saturninus, and Secundus.
They were arrested and placed in a dungeon, but after a few days two deacons visited the prison and by a gift of money to the jailers arranged (1) that they should have an interval in the better part of the prison to refresh themselves, and (2) that Perpetua should be allowed to keep her child with her.
Perpetua had a vision in which she saw a golden ladder, guarded by a fierce dragon, but she climbed it, stepping on the dragon's head to do so. At the top, she found herself in a green meadow, with many white-robed figures, and in their midst a shepherd, who welcomed her and gave her a morsel of cheese from the sheep-milk. She awakened and understood that their martyrdom was certain.
After a few days there was a report that we were to have a Hearing in court. And my father came to me from the city, worn out with anxiety. He came up to me, that he might cast me down, saying: "Have pity, my daughter, on my grey hairs. Have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called a father by you. If with these hands I have brought you up to this flower of your age, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not deliver me up to the scorn of men. Have regard to your brothers, have regard to your mother and your aunt, have regard to your son, who will not be able to live after you. Lay aside your courage, and do not bring us all to destruction; for none of us will speak in freedom if you should suffer anything." These things said my father in his affection, kissing my hands, and throwing himself at my feet, and with tears he called me not Daughter, but Lady. And I grieved over the grey hairs of my father, that he alone of all my kindred would have no joy in my death. And I comforted him, saying, "On that scaffold, whatever God wills shall happen. For know that we are not placed in our own power but in that of God." And he departed from me in sorrow.
Perpetua had had a brother who died of cancer when he was eight years old. She prayed for him, and received assurance in a vision that all was well with him.
After a few days, Pudens, an assistant overseer of the prison, Began to hold us in high esteem, seeing that God was with us, and he admitted many of the brethren to see us, that we and they might be mutually refreshed.
Perpetua had another vision, in which she saw herself fighting against a gladiator in the arena, and winning. She understood this to signify victory over the devil.
Saturus also had a vision, which he records in his own words, in which he and the others, having died in the arena, are borne by angels into a beautiful garden, where they greet other martyrs who have gone before them, and are brought before the throne of God, surrounded by twenty-four elders (see Revelation 4), who greet them and say, "Enter into joy." Perpetua says to Saturus: "I was joyful in the flesh, and here I am more joyful still."
Now Felicitas was eight months pregnant, and the law did not Allow a pregnant woman to be executed. She was accordingly fearful that her death would be postponed, and instead of dying with her fellow Christians she would be put to death later in the company of some group of criminals. She and her companions accordingly prayed, and Felicity went into labor, with the pains normal to an eight-month delivery. And a servant of the jailers said to her, "If you cry out like that now, what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you despised when you refused to sacrifice?" And she replied: "Now it is I that suffer what I suffer; but then Another will be in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him." Thus she brought forth a little girl, whom a certain sister brought up as her own.
The day of their victory shone forth, and they proceeded from The prison to the amphitheater, as if to an assembly, joyous and of brilliant countenance. At the gate, the guards were going to dress them in the robes of those dedicated to Saturn and to Ceres. But that noble-minded woman [Perpetua?] said: "We are here precisely for refusing to honor your gods. By our deaths we earn the right not to wear such garments." The guards recognized the justice of her words, and let them wear their own clothing.
The men of their company were scheduled to be killed by beasts, But the wild boar turned on its keeper instead, and the bear refused to leave its cage. The leopard, however, attacked Saturus and mortally wounded him. He bade farewell to his guard, Pudens, encouraging him to obey God rather than man, and then fell unconscious.
For the young women there was prepared a fierce cow. Perpetua Was first led in. She was tossed, and when whe saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it as a veil over her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than of her sufferings. Then the was called up again, and bound up her dishevelled hair, for it is not becoming for a martyr to die with dishevelled hair, which is a sign of mourning. She saw Felicity wounded, and took her hand and raised her up, and at the demand of the populace they were given a respite.
Now all the prisoners were to be slain with the sword, and they Went to the center of the arena, first exchanging a farewell kiss of peace. The others died unmoving and silent, but when the awkward hand of the young executioner bungled her death-stroke, Perpetua cried out in pain, and herself guided his hand to her throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.
O God the King of saints, who didst strengthen thy servants Perpetua and Felicity and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
O God the King of saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicity and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.