Lent is a great time to meet new travelling companions—and revisit old ones.

The commemoration of Sts Perpetua and Felicity—some of the oldest saints in the calendar—generally falls during Lent, so their liturgical celebration often takes a back seat.

This is a shame because the account of their arrest and martyrdom, some of it authored by Perpetua herself, was a popular text among early Christians, copied and distributed to the various Christian communities to encourage them during a time of intense persecution.

They are also regularly invoked during the first eucharistic prayer of the Mass.

The account is short, easily read in about half hour, but it also offers great themes for Lenten reflection, including the claim faith makes on us, how the hope of eternal life shapes our perception of the present, and how to face suffering without fear, because Christ has gone before us to the deepest limits of suffering.

What is it about?

The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas tells of two young Christian women—noblewoman Vibia Perpetua and her slave Felicitas—being arrested following their baptism and put to death in the amphitheatre in Carthage in AD 203. With them were three male converts: Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus. Another, Sarturus, possibly their catechist or priest, gave himself up with them in solidarity.

At the time they were being kept in a dungeon, Perpetua was 22 years old and with a young child, and Felicity was eight months’ pregnant. It wasn’t until the children were respectively weaned and born that the women were delivered to the arena to face wild beasts. While others were killed by predators, Perpetua and Felicity were made to face a wild cow. When neither of them were killed by the beast, they were put to death by the sword instead.

Prior to death, Perpetua and Saturus detailed prophetic visions they received from God along the journey to the amphitheatre.

It is possible that Perpetua and Felicity are an early example of increased Christian persecution following an edict in AD 202 from Emperor Septimius Severus, though historians debate whether such an edict ever existed. While prevalent, Christian persecution is thought to have been mostly the result of action by local governments around that time.

The significance of Carthage

Carthage was an ancient Phoenician city on the northern coast of Africa. Because of its impressive harbour on the Mediterranean, with some 200 docks, and being a centre of trade throughout the ancient world, Carthage grew rapidly into rivalry with Rome.

This rivalry resulted in the three Punic Wars, fought between 264 and 146 BC. These protracted wars, fought on land and sea, ended with a three-year siege and the burning of Carthage to the ground.

In about 44 BC, by which time Rome had become an empire rather than a republic, Julius Caesar re-established Carthage as a colony of Rome. Once more, Carthage would grow to become a powerful centre of commerce.

Thanks to this, Christianity grew rapidly through northern Africa. Carthage even produced two significant Christian apologists, Tertullian (AD160–240) and St Cyprian (AD 200–258), and played an important role in the development of Christian theology—especially the development of trinitarian theology—with a number of Church councils held there.

Historians speculate that Carthaginian resentment towards Rome was another part of what helped Christianity grow and flourish in the region, since Christians refused to sacrifice to Roman gods and often suffered for such resistance.

New York Mirror The Ruins of Carthage 1841 2
1841 steel engraving of The Ruin of Carthage

The visions

In her portion of the text, Perpetua outlines the visions she received from God. The first was a premonition of the suffering they would have to endure in the coming days.

She describes seeing a ladder reaching to heaven, but on the sides were ‘every kind of iron weapon’ that made the ascent dangerous for those not doing it carefully or without ‘looking upwards’. At the base of the ladder was a dragon who ‘lay in wait for those who ascended, and frightened them from the ascent’ (§1.3). In the vision, Sarturus ascended first and warned her of the dragon.

Perpetua replied: ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.’ And with that, she stepped on the head of the dragon and began climbing.

At the top, she saw a man dressed like a shepherd, surrounded by countless white-robed people, and he gave her a little cake to eat. At that point, she wakes up, tasting sweetness. This was the vision that made her realise she would not get out of her arrest alive, but also that something greater awaited her on the other side of her suffering.

Another vision, more personal, was of her seven-year-old brother, Dinocrates, who died tragically of disease. In the vision, he was desperate for a drink of cool water he couldn’t reach. Sensing he was suffering still, she prayed for him, trusting that her prayers ‘would bring help to his suffering’ (§2.3). She prayed for him every day until she reached the amphitheatre, and only then did she see a vision of him healthy and playing like a child, drinking cool water happily.

It is thought that this vision in particular contributed to the growth and popularity of prayers for the dead in Christianity, especially prayers for those in purgatory.

Her final vision was of a confrontation with an Egyptian gladiator. In it, she was made to enter fierce combat with him, and she won.

‘Then I awoke,’ she writes, ‘and perceived that I was not to fight with beasts, but against the devil. Still I knew that the victory was awaiting me’ (§3.2).

Perpetua and Felicity
Acrylic painting of Sts Perpetua and Felicity in the amphitheatre

Faith, hope, and courage

There are many touching moments in the account. It’s clear from the beginning that becoming a Christian was no trivial thing; more than that, it was defining for Perpetua’s life and not just her death.

On several occasions, her father desperately tries to make her recant the Christian faith, not least because, with the looming prospect of Perpetua’s execution, he and their family will be shamed in the eyes of Rome. But her words to him are simple and unshakeable:

‘Father,’ she said. ‘Do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?’

And he said, ‘I see it to be so.’

And I replied to him: ‘Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’

And he said: ‘No.’

‘Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am: a Christian.’

If the pull of her family wasn’t enough, there was the fact she had a child of her own.

But there is also a moment in the amphitheatre when, after being tossed by the wild cow, Perpetua rose and ‘bound up her dishevelled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory’ (§6.3). Seeing Felicity on the ground too, she goes over and helps her up. ‘And both of them stood together …’

Everything so far had revealed to Perpetua that their struggle was not ultimately against Rome. Nor was it against any wild beast. It was a spiritual struggle to not lose faith in Christ. It was a struggle to see that they could face their suffering without fear—they could step on the head of the dragon—because Jesus had already done so.

We generally suffer over very little things during Lent. And while Lent is not a contest of strength, it is a call to remember the real struggle that lies at the heart of the Christian life: to trust Jesus and never to waver, no matter the dragons in our path.