NOTABLE WOMAN STATS:
Name: Vibia Perpetua
Birthplace and dates: Roman Carthage, North Africa; 181-203 CE
Occupation/Claim to Fame: The first diarist in recorded history, Perpetua kept a record of her time spent in a Roman prison awaiting execution by wild beasts and gladiator.
Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers: Besides being an extraordinarily self-possessed and courageous young woman, Perpetua is also the first person in history to keep a record of her daily activities, hopes, dreams, and fears. From a Waldorf perspective, she’s important because she is a perfect example of what Steiner saw as one of the most innovative “gestures” of early Christianity–the privileging of the inner life of the individual and his/her relationship to the godhead over and against the dominant, often hyper-intellectual religious and philosophical traditions embodied in the power of the Roman state. (If that last statement is a little dense, keep reading–I’ll unpack it in my next post, Perpetua, Part 2.)
Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum: HS Ancient or Medieval History (wherever your school places its history of Rome); 6th grade Roman History; HS English skills classes that focus on journaling and/or autobiographies. Because of the extreme violence, I wouldn’t recommend her story for the second-grade saint tales.
If you read only one thing about Perpetua, read: Her actual diary. (It’s only about 12 pages long.) If you get inspired and want to read a whole book about this remarkable woman, read Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman, by Joyce E. Salisbury.
Perpetua, One Tough Mother
Like Enheduanna, whom I wrote about recently, Perpetua is one of these women who it’s hard to believe isn’t taught in every ancient history class (not to mention every history of literature class). She is so important, so unique, so indubitably kick-ass, that the mind just boggles as to why she’s not everyone’s favorite ancient personality. I mean, as if writing the first diary in recorded history were not enough, the woman also nursed her newborn son while awaiting execution in a Roman prison, successfully convinced a Roman governor to grant her fellow-prisoners better living conditions, and then, to top it all off, when she was finally fed to the wild beasts in the Carthaginian gladiatorial games, she actually GUIDED THE GLADIATOR’S SWORD TO HER OWN THROAT. Now those are some serious lady-cajones.
Perpetua: Just the Facts
Before I get into her diary and its importance, let’s go over what we know about Perpetua’s life. (1) Vibia Perpetua was a young woman (22 years old) from a leading Carthaginian family when she was arrested with four other people accused of being Christians, one of whom was her own female slave Felicitas, who was pregnant at the time. (2) (There were at least three other people arrested with her as well–two free men and a male slave.) Their arrests took place as part of a larger persecution of Christians in the years 202-203 CE under the emperor Septimus Severus. At the time of her arrest, Perpetua was a new mother, and her concerns over her newborn son’s health and eventual fate worried her while she was imprisoned. Interestingly, Perpetua’s husband is never mentioned in the text–whether because she was a widow, as some scholars surmise, “disowned” by her husband because of her Christian faith, or simply didn’t regard him as important enough to write about is hard to say.
Missing husbands aside, during her detention in prison, Perpetua and her comrades were visited by family members and members of her small Christian community. She recorded her conversations with them, including an ongoing fight with her father, who tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to convince her to renounce her faith. Perpetua also recorded her dreams in great detail, along with her interpretations of their meaning.
Finally, after some time in prison, Perpetua’s group was tried by the governor of the province. At the trial, Perpetua’s father publicly begged her one last time to recant her faith and sacrifice to the Emperor. In fact, he raised such a ruckus that he was beaten by the guards for disturbing the hearing, causing Perpetua deep distress. (3) Because the group confessed forthrightly to their faith, the governor rather quickly sentenced Perpetua and her fellow inmates to death by wild beasts. The men were dispatched by leopards, bear, and wild boar, but the powers that be ordained that Perpetua and Felicitas should be attacked by a wild cow in deference to their female sex. (Though not with too much deference, as they were both stripped and enclosed in nets to await the cow.) Remarkably, the two women both withstood the charge of the heifer, and so eventually were put to death by sword. (But not before Perpetua, clad for execution in a simple tunic, stopped to tidy her hair to avoid seeming “to be mourning in her hour of triumph.”) The final, very vivid account of their deaths was added to Perpetua’s own diary by an anonymous fellow-Christian, who says he/she completed the account at “the command…of the most saintly Perpetua.”
Now if that ain’t a movie just waiting to be made, I don’t know what is. (4)
So what to make of this remarkable story and the woman who wrote it?
Perpetua’s Diary: The Text Itself
Perpetua’s account of her time in prison is one of the few literary documents we have that was written by a Roman woman. (Sulpicia’s poetry and Severa’s letters are the other two notable female literary endeavors from the Roman era.) As several scholars have shown, Perpetua’s work bears all the hallmarks of having actually been written originally as a diary–the use of the first person, informal language, repeated references to time (“after three days…”, “the next day,” etc.), recordings of family arguments and other interactions with loved ones, and so forth. That makes it the first diary known to us from any time or culture. (She certainly beats out Samuel Pepys, who is often listed as the first diarist by, oh, about 1400 years. And even another early contender for the title, the Chinese diarist Li Ao, wrote in 9th century CE.)
The text itself, entitled The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity and their Companions, can be broken down into several portions, as outlined below:
a) A brief, laudatory (and very formal) introduction written by a later person (some attribute it to Tertullian, an eminent church leader from Carthage), that also describes the dramatis personae mentioned in the diary. This is where we get the information that Perpetua was 22 years old and from a well-born family.
b) The diary itself, which records her daily experiences in prison, and which forms the bulk of the text.
c) A short section in which her fellow-prisoner Saturus recounts his vision, writing it “in his own hand.” (5)
d) A posthumous, detailed account of her (and her compatriots’) death, written by an eyewitness who was not necessarily the writer of the introduction, and who explicitly states that he/she is finishing the work at Perpetua’s command.
Of the four sections outlined above, only section “b” is actually, as far as we can tell, Perpetua’s diary. (6)
Like the best diaries of any time period, Perpetua’s work is startling in its immediacy. She writes, for instance, about her initial terror at the “dark hole” of the prison, the stifling heat of the crowd, the extortion of the soldiers who guarded her (and who, after receiving some bribes from the church deacons, allowed them access to a better-ventilated area in the prison). She writes of being thankful that her breasts have not become engorged and inflamed when she is finally separated from her son (who is given to her mother to raise). She writes of her experiences in prayer, including a vision of her long-dead brother. She writes of her slave Felicitas’ hopes and fears, and of the pain she suffers when her child is born prematurely. She writes also of her own dreams–images that would be familiar today on any analyst’s couch: of ladders and dragons, of gardens and shepherds, of her brother alive again, of herself changing genders, and as a naked man, fighting with a vicious Egyptian gladiator. In short, it is a diary that feels so fresh you can almost imagine it was written yesterday by some political prisoner of a 21st century regime, and smuggled out of prison by Amnesty International.
And like a document smuggled out and publicized by Amnesty, Perpetua’s diary seems to have been written with the explicit intention of circulating it to the larger public–in this case, other Christians who might themselves face martyrdom one day. But why did she choose to encourage her fellow Christians in the form of a diary, as opposed to a more standard, formulaic sermon or epistle? We have plenty of other documents written by early Christians that take a stance on the issue of martyrdom. Take, for example, the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop who was arrested and taken to Rome to be executed, and wrote open letters to churches while he was en route to the lions. Or sermons by a number of Church fathers encouraging Christians to stand firm in their faith even unto death. So why didn’t Perpetua just write inspirational letters to her peers? What impelled her to detail her daily life in jail and, furthermore, to pass it on to others for posterity?
The answers to that question, I would suggest, are both practical (i.e. having to do with her position as a woman in Roman society) and momentous–that is, of great import in the unfolding (or dare I say “evolution”?) of human experience and consciousness. The brilliant thing about Perpetua’s diary is that it does two things at the same time. It illuminates a particular moment in history AND it gives us a glimpse into the human condition writ large.
And that, my friends, is where I’ll leave you hanging until next time, when we look at the significance of Perpetua’s diary–for us as teachers, and for humanity as a whole.
(1) Most of what we know about Perpetua comes from her own diary. Aside from the diary, Perpetua’s historicity is attested to by Saint Augustine, who preached several sermons on her in the 4th c. CE. He quotes and/or paraphrases directly from her diary, so we know that he had access to something like the text we now have today. During medieval times, her story was known and date of martyrdom celebrated, but it seems as though the actual manuscripts were lost, since medieval accounts of her life and death seem to diverge from the diary itself. (The manuscript was rediscovered in the 1600s.) Since the late 1900s we have possessed several Latin copies and one Greek copy of the text–giving rise to a debate about the original language of the diary. All this background is well-covered in a master’s thesis on Perpetua by Melissa C. Perez, available online here, as well as in several scholarly books, the most recent of which is The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, by Thomas J. Heffernan.
(2) Felicitas really merits her own page on this blog, but I’ll settle for a really long footnote since we only know of her through Perpetua’s writings. This brave woman, a slave, was pregnant when arrested (and for most of her imprisonment). She apparently was tortured during the trial. Under Roman law, torture for slaves was mandatory. Interestingly, though it was apparently ok to torture pregnant women, the diary states Felicitas couldn’t have been executed, given her condition. (You gotta draw the line somewhere, I guess.) As it turned out, she wound up giving birth in prison to a baby girl (and, bless her, dealing a withering verbal blow to some guards who were taunting her, even as she pushed the baby out). After delivering the infant, she gave her over to a Christian woman to raise and went forward to her death willingly. But the sight of milk flowing from her engorged breasts during the games caused even the hardened Carthaginian crowd to call for relief in the form of a tunic to cover her nakedness.
Judging from the title of the text (The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas and their Companions), which gives Felicitas credit as the “co-star” of the story, the slave woman’s bravery was widely acknowledged not just by her own community, but by the early church in general. Perpetua’s diary indicates that the two women were close, something the later editors of the tale obviously picked up on and enshrined in the title.
One final point about Felicitas: It’s interesting that in most modern depictions of the two women, Felicitas appears as dark-skinned while Perpetua is portrayed as lighter-skinned. In actuality, we have no evidence for the skin color of either woman. Though it’s reasonable to assume that Perpetua was of North African origin, as a slave, Felicitas could be of any background whatsoever–from having been born in Perpetua’s own household to imported from any corner of the Roman empire (including Britain or Eastern Europe) or beyond. The idea that Felicitas is a “black” slave therefore betrays more about our own racial ideas than those of the Roman empire. For that matter, Perpetua herself could have been “black,” since skin color was not an impediment to Roman citizenship.
(3) At the time Perpetua was arrested, being a Christian was a political crime–that is, a person’s refusal to participate in the cult of the emperor by refusing to sacrifice to him (or to the state gods) was seen as treasonous. Whereas we might see Perpetua’s actions as primarily religious (i.e. her worship of a different god), the Roman state saw her as a threat to the political stability of the empire. Of course, this division between political and religious is our division–neither the Roman state nor Perpetua would have separated the two. The earliest Christians were, for the most part, pointedly rejecting the status quo of empire, gender and family norms, as well as distinctions between slave and free people. Of course, the status of women and slaves was hotly contested even within early Christian communities, but here in Perpetua’s diary we see a woman as the de facto leader and diarist of the group. And all the Christians, male and female, slave and free, suffer the same fate and receive the same heavenly reward.
(4) There have, in fact, been some non-academic books and movies about Perpetua. A Catholic company actually made a Perpetua cartoon (!) about her martyrdom, in which Perpetua’s attractive appearance rivals a Disney princess. (Warning for those who might be tempted to show this cartoon to their kids: like the original story, there is plenty of violence.) There’s also a 2009 (Christian) documentary about her. (You can see the trailer here.) And there’s also a novel about Perpetua (also from a Christian perspective): Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, A Passion.
(5) It’s very interesting that even though Saturus was obviously literate, he is not the primary author of the text. His portion comprises only a very small part of the total work, and is introduced (presumably by one of the editors) as a short “add-on” to Perpetua’s main diary, sandwiched in before the account of the prisoners’ deaths. And Saturus’ contribution simply recounts his vision, without any reflection on the meaning (as Perpetua had provided for her dreams) or any other account of his feelings, actions, or interactions with others. In other words, it is simply the recording of a single dream, not a diary.
(6) It seems reasonable to assume that section c (Saturus’ vision) was written at the same time as Perpetua’s. If we take the writer of part d at his/her word, it would appear that portion was written shortly after Perpetua’s death (though we don’t actually have any external proof that this is true). Part a, the introduction, could have been composed at an even further remove from the original diary.