Perpetua of Carthage

3rd Century Martyr

Biography – In the early third century, Perpetua – a young, educated, upper-class woman – found herself in a prison awaiting execution.  While an unlikely place for a respectable Roman woman like herself, such persecution was not uncommon for Christians in the ancient Roman world.  Although the current emperor, Septimus Severus, was fairly tolerant of all gods, he required acknowledgement of the “Unconquered Sun” as the highest deity.  This was certainly not something many Christians or Jews were willing to do, including Perpetua.

The evidence for Perpetua’s story may come from her own words.  Embedded within The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity are chapters purportedly written by Perpetua herself, recounting her experiences within the prison. If this is true, it is the earliest written work in Latin by a woman that we have. Other parts of the passion include chapters written by an editor (some speculate Tertullian, but this has not been proven) and a vision from Saturus, a fellow prisoner. Regardless of the authorship, this passion account recorded the martyrdom of Perpetua (and Felicitas) which would deeply move church for centuries to come.

Much of Perpetua’s experience in prison is wrapped up in familial interactions and several visions.  Throughout her time awaiting execution, her father would visit her and beg that she recant her faith – she was, after all, shaming the entire family. In one such encounter, Perpetua responds to her father by pointing to a water pitcher in the room. She asks him, “Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?” When he says, “no,” she replies, “So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian”.  Her dedication to Christ is evident.

Curiously, Perpetua was also breastfeeding her young son throughout this time in prison. While one may speculate that she was abandoning her child to face death in the arena, she also dedicated herself to his wellbeing by not passing him off to a wet nurse.  Indeed, she cared well for her child, and felt a sense of relief when he was weaned from her bosom, no longer needing her for nourishment.

Perpetua also experienced four separate visions while in prison.  The first and fourth regarded themes of imminent suffering in the arena as well as triumph and celebration of the Eucharist.  While Perpetua and her fellow prisoners knew that they would die, they tightly held to the bold belief that they would be resurrected after death.  The second and third visions were of her deceased brother.  She sees him in distress, prays for him, and he is healed from his ailments.

At the end of their time in prison, they are sent into to the arena.  When the beasts were unleashed on them but did not finish the job, the women and men of this group were killed by sword.  But such a death was a reminder to the early church that in death, there is life in the resurrection. In fact, this story was shared each day on March 7 to honor their martyrdom account.  Even Augustine, about 200 years later, was recounting this story in his sermons.  Today, Perpetua is part of the Catholic Canon and continues to be celebrated by Christians worldwide.


  • Cohick, Lynn H., & Amy Brown Hughes, “Perpetua and Felicitas: Mothers and Martyrs.” In Christian Women in the Patristic Word: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Sixth Centuries. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.
  • Fuller Seminary. “The Great Persecution and the Coming of Imperial Christianity.”
  • The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Translated by W.H. Shrewing.  London, 1931.
  • Marchetti, Guido. Women in the Mosaics of Ravenna. Ravenna, Italy: Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna, 2015.