Reading: The Passion of the Holy Women Perpetua and Felicitas (PDF attached above)

Objective: Primarily, to learn firsthand of how Christianity was transforming Romans (or not) and changing their family dynamics, the present example coming from the province of North Africa; secondarily, to have the rare opportunity of reading prose written by a woman whose Christian faith and imminent death caused her to have spectacular visions or dreams, to glory in her own martyrdom, all while maintaining some sense of her identity and dignity as a Roman matron.

Background: The young Roman woman Vibia Perpetua, in her very brief life (she dies at about age twenty-one), embodied many of the strong currents of social change that were pressing on the Roman social order at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century. Along with a female companion of hers named Felicitas—perhaps a slave or servant in Perpetua’s household—Perpetua had converted to the new religion of Christianity. Perpetua was from a reasonably well-off family that came from a Roman town located not far from Carthage, the provincial capital city of the Roman province of Africa (in modern-day Tunisia). Because of her steadfast adherence to her new faith, Perpetua was charged with the crime of ‘being Christian’ and was condemned to death ‘against the wild beasts’ in the great Roman amphitheater at Carthage. Both Perpetua and Felicitas were executed in the arena in March of the year A.D. 202, in the reign of the great Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who was also an African. He came from the city of Lepcis Magna, a wealthy Roman city some distance to the east of Carthage in what is today Libya.

The document that you will read was originally written in Latin soon after Perpetua’s death. It includes, however, a long passage of continuous prose written by Perpetua herself while she was awaiting death in the prison at Carthage–in effect, part of her prison diary. It is one of the very few reasonably lengthy pieces of narrative prose composed by the hand of a woman that survives from the whole period of the Roman Empire.
Assignment: Use the assigned passage(s) to answer the following questions
1. What conflicts are there between traditional Roman social and political order and Perpetua, and her ideals and behavior? Consider the conflict between her and figures of authority like her father, of how she views marriage and family, and of her views of things that were valued highly in Roman society (as discussed in class and in your assigned readings)
2. On the other hand, in what ways does she remain quite Roman, despite her adherence to her new Christian faith? Consider elements of her behavior and thinking that seem to fit the mold of a Roman noblewoman as you understand it from class discussions and assigned readings about the Roman elite.
3. How does the fact that she is a woman affect the nature of the account that she has left us? How does it affect you, as the reader?

Sample Answer

Sample Answer

Title: The Transformation of Roman Society through the Eyes of Vibia Perpetua

Thesis: Vibia Perpetua’s narrative provides a fascinating insight into the conflict between traditional Roman social and political order and her Christian ideals, while also revealing her steadfast adherence to her Roman identity and noblewoman traits.

Conflicts with traditional Roman social and political order:
Vibia Perpetua’s defiance of her father’s authority and her refusal to renounce her Christian faith despite his pleas epitomizes the conflict between her ideals and the traditional Roman family hierarchy. In Roman society, familial loyalty and obedience to the father’s wishes were highly valued, but Perpetua’s unwavering commitment to her Christian beliefs challenged these established norms. Additionally, her unconventional view of marriage as a spiritual union rather than a societal obligation further clashed with the prevailing Roman concept of marriage as a means of strengthening social and political alliances.

Furthermore, Perpetua’s willingness to face martyrdom rather than renounce her faith directly contradicted the Roman emphasis on self-preservation and conformity to societal norms. Her defiance of the Roman authorities’ expectations highlights the profound impact of Christianity on individuals’ values and priorities, challenging the existing power structures.

Adherence to Roman identity and noblewoman traits:
Despite her fervent commitment to Christianity, Perpetua’s behavior and thinking reflect her adherence to her Roman identity and noblewoman status. Her unwavering courage and stoicism in the face of impending martyrdom align with the Roman virtue of fortitude, demonstrating her embodiment of traditional Roman values of bravery and resilience in adversity.

Moreover, Perpetua’s emphasis on maintaining her dignity as a Roman matron is evident in her composed demeanor and articulate expression in her prison diary. Her ability to articulate her thoughts in a manner befitting a member of the Roman elite underscores her deep-rooted connection to her Roman identity, despite embracing a new faith that was at odds with traditional Roman religious practices.

The impact of Perpetua’s gender on the narrative:
The fact that Perpetua was a woman significantly influences the nature of the account she left behind. As one of the few surviving pieces of narrative prose authored by a woman from the Roman Empire, Perpetua’s account provides a rare glimpse into the experiences and perspectives of women in this period. Her portrayal challenges traditional gender roles, offering a counter-narrative to the predominantly male-authored historical records.

As a reader, Perpetua’s account evokes admiration for her resilience and unwavering conviction, transcending the gender norms of her time. Her narrative serves as a powerful testament to the agency and strength of women in challenging societal expectations and shaping their own destinies.

In conclusion, Vibia Perpetua’s narrative not only sheds light on the conflicts between traditional Roman social order and her Christian ideals but also exemplifies her unwavering commitment to her Roman identity and noblewoman traits. Her account serves as a valuable historical testimony, offering a unique perspective on the transformative impact of Christianity on Roman society and the resilience of women in asserting their beliefs and identities.



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