Perpetua and her slave Felicity (or Felicitas) were third-century Christians who bravely faced martyrdom together. They are remembered for their steadfast faith in the face of suffering and are named saints of the Catholic Church. Their story is recorded in “The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions,” which is thought to be written by Perpetua herself, along with an editor/narrator who begins and ends the account.
Vibia Perpetua was a 22-year-old noblewoman who lived in Carthage, North Africa. She was recently married and the mother to a nursing infant. Because her husband is never mentioned in her diaries, many historians assume she was already a widow as well. Perpetua followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a Christian in AD 203, despite major discouragement from her pagan father. When he begged her to abandon Christianity, she asked him if he could call a water jug by any other name than what it was. When he said no, she told him, “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian” (“Perpetua,” www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/perpetua.html, accessed 7/7/21).
Not much is known about Felicity except that she was a young slave-woman who was eight months pregnant at the time of her arrest. Perpetua and Felicity were arrested along with three other catechumens—Christians who had not yet been baptized—Revocatus, Saturninus, and Secundulus. Their teacher in the faith, Saturus, chose to share in their punishment and submitted to arrest as well.
The prison was hot and crowded, subjecting the believers to intense suffering, the worst of which was Perpetua being separated from her baby. Two deacons in Perpetua’s church were eventually able to pay the guards to place the prisoners in a better cell. The prisoners’ faith, strength, and courage then convinced the warden to allow family to visit, and Perpetua could finally feed her child again. The testimony of these Christians would eventually lead the warden to faith in Christ as well.
The execution of the prisoners was scheduled to take place during the military games celebrating the birthday of Emperor Septimius Severus. Felicity was worried she would not be able to die with her companions because it was illegal to execute a pregnant woman in the Roman Empire. She did not want to give birth too late and die at a later date with common criminals. Her fellow prisoners did not want to leave so “good a comrade” behind, either.
Miraculously, Felicity went into labor two days before the execution. The guards made fun of her pain, telling her much worse was coming. She calmly responded, “What I am suffering now, I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for Him.” She gave birth to a little girl, who was adopted by another woman in the church (“The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas,” www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/perpetua.html, accessed 7/7/21).
During Emperor Severus’s military games, the prisoners were placed in the arena, where the men of the group were mauled by bears, leopards, and wild boars. Perpetua and Felicity were stripped of their clothes and forced to face a rabid heifer. The crowd called out that they had seen enough, so the women were removed and re-clothed.
Then Perpetua and Felicity were thrown back into the arena with gladiators. Perpetua’s last recorded words before they met the sword were, “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through” (ibid.). Perpetua and Felicity died side-by-side in the arena, faithful martyrs for the gospel.
Such cruelty and injustice toward two young mothers in front of an approving crowd is almost incomprehensible. But Jesus identified the reason the world hated Perpetua and Felicitas so much: “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).