Perpetua: Prophetess, Leader, Mother and Martyr

Perpetua: Prophetess, Leader, Mother and Martyr

Early Christian communities varied greatly in their beliefs. There was no Bible or canon of scripture and there was no sense of central control over how communities of believers were to behave in relation to the Roman empire. This led to a great variety in expressions of Christianity. Some communities of Christians blended well among the other religions at the time. Other Chrsitian groups stood out for their secretiveness, their disruption, or their defiance against the Empire. A young woman named Perpetua was a part of a group of Montanists, an early Christian movement that embraced the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit above all else.

Perpetua’s martyrdom account is the earliest first hand account we have of a Christian woman.[1] The insights uncovered in Perpetua’s writings give us a wealth of understanding of early Chrsitian theologies and views on gender, family dynamics, suffering, motherhood and redemption. After her martyrdom, Perpetua’s letter was edited to include an introduction and conclusion. It circulated widely for many years, greatly influencing the early church as it spread across the empire.[2].

Perpetua's Story

Perpetua was arrested in her hometown of Carthage, North Africa around 202 C.E. for her refusal to pay allegiance to the Emperor. The Roman Empire did not require that Christians denounce their faith, however, it was required for all citizens to perform an act of patriotism once a year to the Emperor.[3]. It was a common belief of Christians at the time that in order to remain faithful they must renounce any affiliation with patriotism or leadership outside of Christ.[4] Similarly, some Christians believed any allegiance to powers outside of Jesus was demonic and should be avoided to the point of death. In contrast to what we would think today, this act of defiance against the empire was seen as a form of “atheism” to Roman authorities, and was punishable by execution in the arena.[5].

“When religious irregularity was seen as a threat to the state that's become especially obnoxious, those who were accused of it and were convicted of it could be thrown into the games and condemned to the beasts” [6] They were made an example of.

Perpetua was from an upper class, very privileged family in Carthage. She was the daughter of a wealthy civil servant.[7] She had the means to escape her martyrdom if she had been willing to pay her respects to the Emperor, after being given several opportunities, she was sentenced to death. She followed a Christian teacher by the name of Saturus, who was arrested alongside her, two other men and her slave, (who was very pregnant at the time), named Felicitas. Perpetua herself was also a young mother, only 22 at the time of her arrest. Perpetua records in her account in prison of her yearning for her infant son, who she is given the privilege of bringing into prison with her to nurse at which point, she describes her prison became her palace [8].

Perpetua was known as a prophetess and was seen as authoritative in her church community. She regularly experienced vivid, divinely inspired dreams, several of which are recorded in The Martyrdom of Perpetua. In one of her several dreams in prison she saw a tall ladder, an echo of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, which stretched from the earth into the heavens. In this dream she trampled the head of a serpent (Echoing Genesis 3), and began to climb, defeating Satan and ascending into heaven. Scholars have pointed out the parallels to Christ in this narrative and the significance of a female represented as Christ-like.[9] She also receives a vision of her martyrdom, instead of beasts coming out to devour her (as was expected), a sorcerer came out (perhaps representing evil), and she immediately transformed into man, pummeled him, and came out victorious. In the same vision, she is “the peaceful daughter who is given the branch of victory, representing the Christian who is freed from society’s expectations of women and men”[10].

The gender fluidity in this narrative of Perpetua is important because it represents how a young woman has transcended her earthly expectations of her body, of her  motherhood and of cultural expectations into a new identity with God. Her visions emboldened her to do some of the hardest things imaginable, reject her father's pleas to stay alive and to give up her infant son to him to die a martyr’s death. Her ties to her earthly family were broken with great sadness and suffering, but she remained fixed on an otherworldly reality. When asked one final time if she was a Christian by the governor Hilarion, and if she would offer sacrifice for the emperor she replied: “I will not... I am a Christian”.[11]

Perpetua, along with her slave Felicitas, together prayed for Perpetua’s milk to dry up and for the baby to wean. They also prayed for Felicitas to give birth early, so the two of them could be martyred together (it was against the law to put a pregnant woman in the arena). Felicitas also had the opportunity to escape her martyrdom and reject her faith, however she also refused. The women’s prayers were answered and they faced the arena together.

Ancient Romans had no idea how to treat animals, and the beasts used in the arena were often sick, scared and dying by the time they were used for fighting. They were often unable to do much more than cause injury. Death for those being persecuted was achieved most regularly by the gladiator’s sword, slave boys usually between the ages of 17 and 22.[12] As the gladiator raised his sword to kill Perpetua, Perpetua guided his trembling hand to her own throat to finish the job.

Perpetua's Legacy

Martyrdom wasn’t incredibly common, only those who were the loudest and most threatening to the empire faced the fate typically reserved for thieves and criminals. Perpetua’s influence due to her ability to write her story down and its wide circulation left a massive imprint on the early church. Her authority, resilience and defiance against the social norms of the day represented a clear mark of egalitarianism and was a rallying cry for women’s equality in the early church. She was a prophetic leader and held great authority in her community, the preservation and circulation of her work is a testimony to its importance not only to the Montanists but to all of the early church, and was used as official liturgy in many locations.[13].

Perpetua’s legacy in the church has disappeared most likely due to the agendas of male clergy over time who consider women’s writing less appropriate then men’s writings. As well as the preference for male martyr stories over women’s stories. Historys shows us her legacy and importance lasted for centuries: Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo preached many sermons in her honor and Perpetua (along with Felicitas) had a basilica erected in their honor in Carthage over the tomb of the Martyrs.[14].

Relevance Today

As modern readers it may be hard for us to understand the deeply rooted conviction of Perpetua. Her reality is so far removed from our own, her story and even her choices can seem horrific and tragic, even avoidable. However, her story is one that most uncompromisingly challenges power in all its forms. She chooses to trust in God’s power, and rejects earthly power. By all accounts, she is powerless and she chooses to rest in her weakness. She is weak as a young female body, as a hormonal nursing mother, and as a daughter who has rejected her family’s security. However inwardly she is strong. She is faithful. She does what she can to claim her own agency for her faith which she deeply believes in. And she is successful.


  1. This story of Perpetua can bring up so many big emotions within us. What emotions does it stir up for you? Frustration? Anger? Fear? Confusion? Hope?
  2. What do you think it means that Perpetua represents Christ and tramples the head of the serpent in her vision? What does this make you think of?
  3. The descriptions of Perpetua’s body, as both male and female, and as a nursing mother is quite descriptive and rich in female imagery (and the descriptions of Felicitas’ birthing and nursing body even more so). Do you think these vivid and even graphic descriptions of the female body had anything to do with the silencing of this piece of writing in church history?
  4. What do you think of the reason behind Perpetuas arrest? Christians at the time refused to identify with any political powers and instead viewed any system of power outside Jesus as demonic. How has this changed in modern understandings of Christianity and western politics?
  5. Perpetua is an example of equal parts female and male by the end of the story. She is seen as nurturing mother and loving daughter that severed ties with her loved ones to become a strong and valiant fighter against evil. What is problematic for us today about a narrative like this? What ways is this story more about culture than it is about God?

About the Art

Perpetua and her slave Felicitas were both women who lived in Northern Africa in Carthage. Icons over the centuries have incorrectly represented them both as white women. The reality is, we don’t exactly know their skin color, although it most likely was dark. As we will read about next week, Felicity was a slave and slaves at the time were not race-based like we think of in our modern history. I have found it incredibly important with this project to intentionally represent women of all racial and ethinic backgrounds within the possible likelihood of what we know of these ancient mothers. We must be careful not to read our western, modern understanding of race into these stories.

Perpetua likely would have had long hair, dark skin and was very young (22 years). We know she was considered attractive from the response of the audience in the arena at the time of her martyrdom. When Perpetua and Felicity were brought out naked (as was customary), the crowd protested at the indecency of having such attractive young mothers on display and demanded they be covered before they were killed.[15]

The background of Perpatua’s portrait is dynamic in its movement of lines and wavy shapes. This abstract representation of fur alludes to the animals she faced in the arena and her wild courage to proceed with her martyrdom, reject social norms and expectations, and even to the point of guiding the executioner’s sword to her own throat.

This quote from Perpetua is in reference to one of her prophetic dreams she had while in prison awaiting her martyrdom in the arena. In this dream, she was emboldened to act as a heroic fighter in her faith and as an example of Christian witness.
She was given prophetic awareness of the battle ahead and she received holy peace with the knowledge that her martyrdom would not be in vain but instead was a direct battle with evil.
Roman authorities at the height of Christian persecution (early 200s C.E.) were interested in making examples of the most outspoken religions. Any influential religious group that threatened the power of the Roman empire was seen as dangerous and was made an example in the arena.


  1. Barbara MacHaffie J. Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2006), 26.
  2. MacHaffie, “Her Story”, 28.
  3. Eliza Rosenberg, Katie Nelson & Olivia Meikle. “The Martyrs: Perpetua and Felicitas”. What’shername podcast. Podcast audio, August 27, 2018.
  4. Rosenberg, “The Martyrs”.
  5. Jane McLarty. “Early Christian Women Outside the Bible: wives, mothers and martyrs”, Cambridge Divinity. April 20, 2020.
  6. Rosenberg, “The Martyrs”.
  7. MacHaffie, “Her Story”, 26.
  8. McLarty, “Early Christian Women Outside the Bible”.
  9. McLarty, “Early Christian Women Outside the Bible”.
  10. MacHaffie, “Her Story”, 28.
  11. MacHaffie, “Her Story”, 27.
  12. Rosenberg, “The Martyrs”.
  13. MacHaffie, “Her Story”, 28.
  14. MacHaffie, “Her Story”, 28.
  15. Rosenberg, “The Martyrs”.