Vibia Perpetua was a young married woman, aged twenty-two, who is forever linked with her co-martyr, her slave Felicita ; they suffered together at Carthage, traditionally on March 7, 203, though the association of the martyrdom with a birthday festival of the Emperor Geta would seem to place it after 209, when Geta was made caesar but before 211 when he was assassinated. The year of the martyrdom is not given in the documents, but it was the year when Minucius Timinianus (not otherwise attested) was proconsul in the province of Africa. Perpetua suffered martyrdom together with three companions, Revocatus and Saturninus, and Saturus, their teacher. The details of the martyrdom of these five (technically called a Passion) and their visions while in prison survive in both Latin and Greek texts. Saint Perpetua's account is apparently historical; it is the earliest surviving text written by a Christian woman. After a brief introduction (chapters i - ii), the narrative and the visions of Perpetua (iii - 1x) are followed by the vision of Saturus (xi - xiii) and the account of their deaths, written by an eyewitness, are appended (xiv - xxi).
By order of Septimius Severus (193 - 211), all imperial subjects were forbidden under severe penalties to become Christians or Jews. Only recent converts were affected. In consequence of this decree, these five catechumens at Carthage were seized and cast into prison. After their arrest, and before they were led away to prison, the five catechumens were baptized. Their sufferings in prison, the angry and then despairing attempts of Perpetua's father to induce her to renounce Christianity, the vicissitudes of the martyrs before their execution, the visions of Saturus and Perpetua in their dungeons, were all committed to writing by the last two.
Terrors of their prison was increased for Perpetua by anxiety for her young child, not yet weaned. Two deacons succeeded, by bribing the jailer, in gaining admittance and Perpetua's mother brought in her arms the little son, whom she was permitted to nurse and retain in prison with her, "and straightway I became well and was lightened of my labour and care for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me." A vision, in which she saw herself ascending a ladder leading to green meadows, where a flock of sheep was browsing, assured her of her approaching martyrdom.
A few days later Perpetua's father, hearing that the trial of the imprisoned Christians would soon take place, again visited their dungeon and besought her not to put this disgrace on their name; but Perpetua remained steadfast. The next day the trial of the six confessors took place, before the Procurator Hilarianus. All six resolutely confessed their Christian faith. Perpetua's father, carrying her child in his arms, approached her again and attempted, for the last time, to induce her to apostatize; the procurator also remonstrated with her but in vain. She refused to sacrifice to the gods for the safety of the emperor. The procurator thereupon had the father removed by force, on which occasion he was struck with a whip. The Christians were then condemned to be torn to pieces by wild beasts, for which they gave thanks to God. In a vision Perpetua saw her brother Dinocrates, who had died at the early age of seven, at first seeming to be sorrowful and in pain, but shortly thereafter happy and healthy. Another apparition, in which she saw herself fighting with a savage Ethiopian, whom she conquered, made it clear to her that she would not have to do battle with wild beasts but with the Devil. Saturus, who also wrote down his visions, saw himself and Perpetua transported by four angels, towards the East to a beautiful garden, where they met four other North African Christians who had suffered martyrdom during the same persecution, viz. Jocundus, Saturninus, Artaius, and Quintus. He also saw in this vision Bishop Optatus of Carthage and the priest Aspasius, who prayed the martyrs to arrange a reconciliation between them. In the meanwhile the birthday festival of the Emperor Geta approached, on which occasion the condemned Christians were to fight with wild beasts in the military games; they were therefore transferred to the prison in the camp. The jailer Pudens had learnt to respect the confessors, and he permitted other Christians to visit them. Perpetua's father was also admitted and made another fruitless attempt to dissuade her.
Secundulus, one of the confessors, died in prison. Felicitas, who at the time of her incarceration was with child (in the eighth month), was apprehensive that she would not be permitted to suffer martyrdom with the others, since the law forbade the execution of pregnant women, but two days before the games she gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted by a Christian woman. On the day of the games, the five confessors were led into the amphitheatre. At the demand of the pagan mob they were first scourged; then a boar, a bear, and a leopard, were set at the men, and a wild cow at the women. Wounded by the wild animals, they gave each other the kiss of peace and were then put to the sword. Their bodies were interred at Carthage.
Their feast day, March 7, was kept even outside Africa, entered in the Philocalian calendar , i.e. the calendar of martyrs venerated publicly in the 4th century at Rome. At Carthage a magnificent basilica was afterwards erected over their tomb, the Basilica Majorum, where an ancient inscription bearing the names of the martyrs has been found.
The Acts of Perpetua
The Latin Acts was rediscovered by Lucas Holstenius in the 17th century and published. Many transcribed Greek words have suggested that it was originally written in Greek. J. Rendel Harris discovered a Greek variant, which he published in collaboration with Seth K. Gifford (London, 1890). Tertullian refers to the Acts of Perpetua in his treatise on the soul (De anima ch. 55) The statement that these martyrs were all or in part Montanists also lacks proof; at least there is no intimations of it in the Acts.