A violent persecution broke out under the Emperor Severus, in 202. It reached Africa the following year; when, by order of Minutius Timinianus, or Firminianus, five catechumens were apprehended at Carthage for the faith; namely, Revocatus, and his fellow-slave Felicitas, Saturninus, and Secundulus, and Vivia Perpetua.
Felicitas was expecting her confinement; and Perpetua had an infant at her breast, was of a good family, twenty-two years of age, and married to a person of quality in the city. She had a father, a mother, and two brothers; the third, Dinocrates, died about seven years old.
These five martyrs were joined by Saturus, probably brother to Saturninus, and who seems to have been their instructor: he underwent a voluntary imprisonment, because he would not abandon them. The father of S. Perpetua, who was a Pagan, and advanced in years, loved her more than all his other children. Her mother was probably a Christian, as was one of her brothers, the other a catechumen.
The martyrs, for some days before they were committed to prison, were kept under a strong guard in a private house: and the account Perpetua gives of their sufferings to the eve of their death, is as follows: “We were in the hands of our persecutors, when my father, out of the affection he bore me, made new efforts to shake my resolution. I said to him, ‘Can that vessel, which you see, change its name?’
He said, ‘No.’
I replied, ‘Nor can I call myself any other than I am, a Christian.’ At that word my father in a rage fell upon me, as if he would have pulled out my eyes, and beat me; but went away in confusion, seeing me invincible.
After this we enjoyed a little repose, and in that interval received baptism. The Holy Ghost, on our coming out of the water, inspired me to pray for nothing but patience under bodily sufferings. A few days after this we were put into prison; I was shocked at the horror and darkness of the place; for till then I knew not what such sort of places were. We suffered much that day, chiefly on account of the great heat caused by the crowd, and the ill-treatment we met with from the soldiers.
I was, moreover, tortured with concern, because I had not my baby with me. But the deacons, Tertius and Pomponius, who assisted us, obtained, by money, that we might pass some hours in a more commodious part of the prison, to refresh ourselves. My infant was then brought to me almost famished, and I gave it the breast. I recommended him afterward carefully to my mother, and encouraged my brother; but was much afflicted to see their concern for me.
After a few days my sorrow was changed into comfort, and my prison itself seemed agreeable. One day my brother said to me, ‘Sister, I am persuaded that you are a special favourite of heaven; pray to God to reveal to you whether this imprisonment will end in martyrdom, or not.’ I, knowing God gave me daily tokens of His goodness, answered, full of confidence, that I would inform him on the morrow.
A Golden Ladder
I therefore asked that favour of God, and had this vision. I saw a golden ladder, which reached from earth to heaven; but so narrow that only one could mount it at a time. To the two sides were fastened all sorts of iron instruments, swords, lances, hooks, and knives; so that if any one went up carelessly, he was in great danger of having his flesh torn. At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, who kept guard to turn back and terrify those that endeavoured to mount it.
The first that went up was Saturus, who was not apprehended with us, but voluntarily surrendered himself afterward on our account: when he had reached the top of the ladder, he turned towards me, and said, ‘Perpetua, I wait for you; but take care lest the dragon bite you.’ I answered, ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.’ Then the dragon, as if afraid of me, gently lifted his head from under the ladder, and I, having got upon the first step, set my foot upon his head.
Thus I mounted to the top, and there I saw an extensive garden, and in the middle of it a tall man sitting down dressed like a shepherd, having white hair. He was milking his sheep, surrounded with many thousands of persons clad in white. He called me by my name, bid me welcome, and gave me some curds made of the milk which he had drawn: I put my hands together, and took and ate them; and all that were present said aloud, Amen.
The noise awakened me, chewing something very sweet. As soon as I had related this vision to my brother, we both concluded that we should suffer death.
“After some days, a rumour having got about that we were to be examined, my father came from the city to the prison, overwhelmed with grief. ‘Daughter,’ said he, ‘have pity on my grey hairs, if I yet deserve to be called your father; if I have brought you up. I pray you consider that my love of you made me always prefer you to your brothers, and make me not now a reproach to mankind. Have respect for your mother and your aunt; have compassion on your child that cannot survive you; lay aside this obstinacy, lest you ruin us all; for not one of us will dare open his lips any more if misfortune befall you.’
He took me by the hands at the same time, and kissed them; he threw himself at my feet in tears. I confess, I was pierced with sorrow when I considered that my father was the only person of our family that would not rejoice at my martyrdom. I endeavoured to comfort him, saying, ‘Father, grieve not; nothing will happen but what pleases God; for we are not at our own disposal.’ He then departed, much concerned.
Next day, whilst we were at dinner, a person came in suddenly to summon us to examination. The report of this soon brought a vast crowd of people into the audience chamber. We were placed on a sort of scaffold before the judge, Hilarian, procurator of the province, the proconsul having lately died. All who were questioned before me boldly confessed Jesus Christ. When it came to my turn, my father stood forward, holding up my infant. He drew me a little aside, conjuring me in the most tender manner not to be insensible to the misery I should bring on that innocent creature, to which I had given life.
The president Hilarian joined with my father, and said, ‘What! will neither the gray hairs of a father, nor the tender innocence of a child, move you? Sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors.’ I replied, ‘I will not do it.’
‘Are you then a Christian,’ said Hilarian.
I answered, ‘Yes, I am.’ As my father attempted to draw me from the scaffold, Hilarian commanded him to be beaten off, and he had a blow given him with a stick, which I felt as much as if I had been struck myself, so much was I grieved to see my father thus treated in his old age. Then the judge pronounced our sentence, by which we were all condemned to be exposed to wild beasts. We then joyfully returned to our prison; and as my infant was not yet weaned, I immediately sent Pomponius the deacon, to demand him of my father, but he refused to send him.
And God so ordered it, that the child no longer required to suck, nor did my milk incommode me.” Secundulus, being no more mentioned, seems to have died in prison before this interrogatory. Before Hilarian pronounced sentence, he had caused Saturus, Saturninus, and Revocatus to be scourged; and Perpetua and Felicitas to be beaten on the face. They were reserved for the shows which were to be exhibited for the soldiers in the camp, on the festival of Geta, who had been made Cæsar four years before, by his father Severus, when his brother Caracalla was created Augustus.
The Vision about Dinocrates
S. Perpetua relates another vision with which she was favoured, as follows: “A few days after receiving sentence, when we were all together in prayer, I happened to name Dinocrates, at which I was astonished, because I had not before had him in my thoughts; and I that moment knew that I ought to pray for him. This I began to do with great fervour before God; and the same night I had the following vision: I saw Dinocrates coming out of a dark place, where there were many others, exceedingly hot and thirsty; his face was dirty, his complexion pale, with the ulcer in his face of which he had died at seven years of age, and it was for him that I had prayed.
‘There seemed a great distance between him and me, so that it was impossible for us to come to each other. Near him stood a vessel full of water: he attempted to drink, but could not reach it. This mightily grieved me, and I awoke. By this I knew my brother was in pain, but I trusted I could relieve him by prayer: so I began to pray for him, beseeching God with tears, day and night, that he would grant me my request; and I continued doing this till we were removed to the camp prison: being destined for a public show on the festival of the Cæsar Geta.
‘The day we were in the stocks I had this vision; I saw the place, which I had beheld dark before, now luminous; and Dinocrates, with his body very clean and well clad, refreshing himself; and in the place of his wound was a scar only. I awoke, and knew he was relieved from his pain.
A Dream of Battle
“Some days after, Pudens, the officer who commanded the guards of the prison, seeing that God favoured us with many gifts, had a great esteem of us, and admitted many people to visit us, for our mutual comfort. On the day of the public shows, my father came overwhelmed with sorrow. He tore his beard, threw himself on the ground, cursed his years, and said enough to move any creature; and I was ready to die with sorrow to see my father in so deplorable a condition. On the eve of the shows I was favoured with the following vision.
“The deacon Pomponius, methought, knocked very hard at the prison door, which I opened to him. He was clothed with a white robe, embroidered with innumerable pomegranates of gold. He said to me, ‘Perpetua, we wait for thee, come along.’ He then took me by the hand and led me through very rough places into the middle of the amphitheatre, and said, ‘Fear not.’ And, leaving me, said again, ‘I will be with thee in a moment, and bear a part with thee in thy pains.’
I was wondering the beasts were not let out against us, when there appeared a very ill-favoured negro, who came to encounter me with others. But another beautiful troop of young men declared for me, and anointed me with oil for the combat. Then appeared a man of a great stature, in rich apparel, like the master of the gladiators, having a wand in one hand, and in the other a green bough on which hung golden apples.
Having ordered silence, he said that the bough should be my prize, if I vanquished the negro: but that if he conquered me, he would kill me with a sword. After a long and obstinate engagement, I threw the negro on his face, and trod upon his head. The people applauded my victory loudly. I then approached the master of the amphitheatre, who gave me the bough with a kiss, and said, ‘Peace be with thee, my daughter.’ After this I awoke, and found that I was not to combat with wild beasts so much as with devils.” Here ends the relation of S. Perpetua.
Saturus had also a vision, which he wrote down himself. He and his companions were conducted by a bright angel into a most delightful garden, in which they met some holy martyrs lately dead, namely Jocundus, Saturninus, and Artaxius, who had been burned alive for the faith, and Quintus, who had died in prison. They inquired after other martyrs of their acquaintance, and were conducted into a most stately palace, shining like the sun; and in it saw the king of this most glorious place surrounded by his happy subjects, and heard the voice of a great multitude crying, “Holy, holy, holy.”
Saturus, turning to Perpetua, said, “Thou hast here what thou didst desire.” She replied, “God be praised, I have more joy here than ever I had in the flesh.” He adds, that on going out of the garden they found before the gate, on the right hand, the bishop of Carthage, Optatus, and on the left, Aspasius, priest of the same church, both of them alone and sorrowful. They fell at the martyrs’ feet, and begged that they would reconcile them together, for a dissension had happened between them.
The martyrs embraced them, saying, “Art not thou our bishop, and thou a priest of our Lord? It is our duty to prostrate ourselves before you.” Perpetua was discoursing with them; but certain angels came and drove away Optatus and Aspasius; and bade them not to disturb the martyrs, but be reconciled to each other. The bishop, Optatus, was also charged to heal the divisions that reigned in his church. The angels after these reprimands seemed ready to shut the gates of the garden.
“Here,” says he, “we saw many of our brethren and martyrs likewise. We were fed with an ineffable odour, which delighted and satisfied us.” Such was the vision of Saturus. The rest of the Acts were added by an eye-witness. God had called to himself Secundulus in prison.
Eve of Martyrdom
Felicitas was eight months gone with child, and as the day of the shows approached, she was inconsolable lest she should not be confined before then; fearing that her martyrdom would be deferred on that account, because women with child were not allowed to be executed, before they were delivered: the rest also were sensibly afflicted on their part to leave her behind.
Therefore they unanimously joined in prayer to obtain of God that she might be delivered before the day of the shows. Scarce had they finished their prayer, when Felicitas found herself in labour. She cried out under the violence of her pain; then one of the guards asked her, if she could not bear the throes of childbirth without crying out, what she would do when exposed to the wild beasts.
She answered, “It is I myself that am enduring these pangs now; but then there will be another with me who will suffer for me, because I shall suffer for Him.” She was then delivered of a daughter, which a certain Christian woman took care of, and brought up as her own child. Pudens, the keeper of the prison, having been already converted, secretly did them all the good offices in his power.
The day before they suffered they were given, according to custom, their last meal, which was called a free supper, and they ate in public. Their chamber was full of people, with whom they talked, threatening them with the judgments of God, and extolling the happiness of their own sufferings. Saturus, smiling at the curiosity of those that came to see them, said to them, “Will not to-morrow suffice to satisfy your inhuman curiosity? However you may seem now to pity us, to-morrow you will clap your hands at our death, and applaud our murderers. But observe well our faces, that you may know them again at that terrible day when all men shall be judged.”
Into the Arena
They spoke with such courage and intrepidity that they astonished the infidels, and occasioned the conversion of several among them. The day of their triumph having come, they went out of the prison to the amphitheatre full of joy. Perpetua walked with a composed countenance and easy pace, with her eyes modestly cast down; Felicitas went with her, following the men, not able to contain her joy.
When they came to the gate of the amphitheatre, the guards would have given them, according to custom, the superstitious habits with which they adorned such as appeared at these sights. For the men, a red mantle, which was the habit of the priests of Saturn; for the women, a little fillet round the head, by which the priestesses of Ceres were known. The martyrs rejected those idolatrous vestments; and, by the mouth of Perpetua, said they came thither of their own accord, on the promise made them that they should not be forced to anything contrary to their religion.
The tribune then consented that they should appear in the amphitheatre habited as they were. Perpetua sang, as being already victorious; Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus threatened the people that beheld them with the judgments of God: and as they passed before the balcony of Hilarian, they said to him, “Thou judgest us in this world, but God will judge thee in the next.” The people, enraged at their boldness, begged that they might be scourged, and this was granted.
They accordingly passed before the Venatores, or hunters, each of whom gave them a lash. They rejoiced exceedingly in being thought worthy to resemble our Saviour in his sufferings. God granted to each of them the death they desired; for when they had discoursed together about what kind of martyrdom would be agreeable to each, Saturninus declared that he should prefer to be exposed to beasts of several sorts, in order that his sufferings might be aggravated. Accordingly, he and Revocatus, after having been attacked by a leopard, were also assaulted by a bear.
Saturus dreaded nothing so much as a bear, and therefore hoped a leopard would despatch him at once with his teeth. He was then exposed to a wild boar, but the beast turned upon his keeper, who received such a wound from him, that he died in a few days after, and Saturus was only dragged along by him. Then they tied the martyr near a bear, but that beast came not out of his lodge, so that Saturus, being sound and not hurt, was called upon for a second encounter.
This gave him an opportunity of speaking to Pudens, the gaoler that had been converted. The martyr encouraged him to constancy in the faith, and said to him, “Thou seest I have not yet been hurt by any beast, as I desired and foretold: believe then steadfastly in Christ; I am going where thou wilt see a leopard with one bite take away my life.”
It happened so, for a leopard being let out upon him, sprang upon him, and in a moment he was deluged with blood, whereupon the people jeering, cried out, “He is well baptized.” The martyr said to Pudens, “Go, remember my faith, and let our sufferings rather strengthen than trouble thee. Give me the ring thou hast on thy finger.” Saturus, having dipped it in his wound gave it him back to keep as a pledge to animate him to steadfastness in his faith, and soon after, fell down dead. Thus he went first to glory, to wait for Perpetua, according to her vision.
The Death of the Women
In the mean time, Perpetua and Felicitas had been exposed to a wild cow; Perpetua and Felicitas were the first attacked, and the cow having tossed the former, she fell on her back. Then putting herself in a sitting posture, and perceiving her clothes were torn, she gathered them about her in the best manner she could, to cover herself, thinking more of decency than her sufferings.
Getting up, not to seem disconsolate, she tied up her hair, which was fallen loose, and perceiving Felicitas on the ground much hurt by a toss of the cow, she helped her to rise. They stood together, expecting another assault from the beasts, but the people crying out that it was enough, they were led to the gate Sanevivaria, where those that were not killed by the beasts were despatched at the end of the shows by the confectores.
Perpetua was here received by Rusticus, a catechumen. She seemed as if just returning out of a long ecstasy, and asked when she was to fight the wild cow. When told what had passed, she could not believe it till she saw on her body and clothes the marks of what she had suffered. She called for her brother, and said to him and Rusticus, “Continue firm in the faith, love one another, and be not distressed at our sufferings.”
All the martyrs were now brought to the place of their butchery. But the people, not yet satisfied with beholding blood, cried out to have them led into the middle of the amphitheatre, that they might have the pleasure of seeing them receive the last blow. Upon this, some of the martyrs rose up, and having given one another the kiss of peace, went of their own accord into the arena; others were despatched without speaking, or stirring out of the places they were in.
Perpetua fell into the hands of a very timorous and unskilful apprentice of the gladiators, who, with a trembling hand, gave her many slight wounds, which made her languish a long time. Thus, says St. Augustine, did two women, amidst fierce beasts and the swords of gladiators, vanquish the devil and all his fury.