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?