A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. Her mother and father were still alive and one of her two brothers was a catechumen like herself. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast.
Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own,
according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it
While we were still under
arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade
me and shake my resolution. 'Father,' said I, 'do you see this vase
here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?' 'Yes, I do', said he. And
I told him: 'Could it be called by any other name than what it is?' And
he said: 'No.' 'Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than
what I am, a Christian.' At this my father was so angered by the word
'Christian' that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes
out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his
For a few days afterwards I
gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was
comforted by his absence. During these few days I was baptized, and I
was inspired by the Spirit not to ask for any other favour after the
water but simply the perseverance of the flesh. A few days later we
were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before
been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd
the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers;
and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.
Then Tertius and Pomponius,
those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers
to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves
for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for
himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I
spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and
I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them
suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for
many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison.
At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and
anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that
I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.
Then my brother said to me:
'Dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a
vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or freed.'
Faithfully I promised that I would, for I knew that I could speak with
the Lord, whose great blessings I had come to experience. And so I
said: 'I shall tell you tomorrow.' Then I made my request and this was
the vision I had.
I saw a ladder of
tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens,
but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up at a time. To
the sides of the ladder were attached all sorts of metal weapons: there
were swords, spears, hooks, daggers, and spikes; so that if anyone
tried to climb up carelessly or without paying attention, he would be
mangled and his flesh would adhere to the weapons.
At the foot of the ladder
lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who tried to
climb up and try to terrify them from doing so. And Saturus was the
first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own accord.
He had been the builder of our strength, although he was not present
when we were arrested. And he arrived at the top of the staircase and
he looked back and said to me: 'Perpetua, I am waiting for you. But
take care; do not let the dragon bite you.' 'He will not harm me,' I
said, 'in the name of Christ Jesus.' Slowly, as though he were afraid
of me, the dragon stuck his head out from underneath the ladder. Then,
using it as my first step, I trod on his head and went up.
Then I saw an immense
garden, and in it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd's garb; tall he
was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of
people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and
said: 'I am glad you have come, my child.' He called me over to him and
gave me, as it were, a mouthful Of the milk he was drawing; and I took
it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around
said: 'Amen!' At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of
something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother,
and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we
would no longer have any hope in this life.
A few days later there was
a rumor that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also
arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the
idea of persuading me. 'Daughter,' he said, 'have pity on my grey
head--have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your
father, if I have favored you above all your brothers, if I have
raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be
the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and
your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you
are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us
will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.'
This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands
and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no
longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my
father's sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see
me suffer. I tried to comfort him saying: 'It will all happen in the
prisoner's dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left
to ourselves but are all in his power.' And he left me in great sorrow.
One day while we were
eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived
at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighborhood
near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the
prisoner's dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt.
Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me
from the step, and said: 'Perform the sacrifice--have pity on your
baby!' Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as
the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me:
'Have pity on your father's grey head; have pity on your infant son.
Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.' 'I will not', I
retorted. 'Are you a Christian?' said Hilarianus. And I said: 'Yes, I
am.' When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus
ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt
sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. I felt sorry for
his pathetic old age. Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we
were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high
spirits. But my baby had got used to being nursed at the breast and to
staying with me in prison. So I sent the deacon Pomponius straight away
to my father to ask for the baby. But father refused to give him over.
But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor
did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for
my child and of any discomfort in my breasts.
Some days later, an
adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show
us great honor, realizing that we possessed some great power within
us. And he began to allow many visitors to see us for our mutual
Now the day of the contest
was approaching, and my father came to see me overwhelmed with sorrow.
He started tearing the hairs from his beard and threw them on the
ground; he then threw himself on the ground and began to curse his old
age and to say such words as would move all creation. I felt sorry for
his unhappy old age.
The day before we were to
fight with the beasts I saw the following vision. Pomponius the deacon
came to the prison gates and began to knock violently. I went out and
opened the gate for him. He was dressed in an unbelted white tunic,
wearing elaborate sandals. And he said to me: 'Perpetua, come; we are
waiting for you.' Then he took my hand and we began to walk through
rough and broken country. At last we came to the amphitheatre out of
breath, and he led me into the centre of the arena. Then he told me:
'Do not be afraid. I am here, struggling with you.' Then he left. I
looked at the enormous crowd who watched in astonishment. I was
surprised that no beasts were let loose on me; for I knew that I was
condemned to die by the beasts. Then out came an Egyptian against me,
of vicious appearance, together with his seconds, to fight with me.
There also came up to me some handsome young men to be my seconds and
assistants. My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man. My
seconds began to rub me down with oil (as they are wont to do before a
contest). Then I saw the Egyptian on the other side rolling in the
dust. Next there came forth a man of marvelous stature, such that he
rose above the top of the amphitheatre. He was clad in a beltless
purple tunic with two stripes (one on either side) running down the
middle of his chest. He wore sandals that were wondrously made of gold
and silver, and he carried a wand like an athletic trainer and a green
branch on which there were golden apples. And he asked for silence and
said: 'If this Egyptian defeats her he will slay her with the sword.
But if she defeats him, she will receive this branch.' Then he
withdrew. We drew close to one another and began to let our fists fly.
My opponent tried to get hold of my feet, but I kept striking him in
the face with the heels of my feet. Then I was raised up into the air
and I began to pummel him without as it were touching the ground. Then
when I noticed there was a lull, I put my two hands together linking
the fingers of one hand with those of the other and thus I got hold of
his head. He fell flat on his face and I stepped on his head. The crowd
began to shout and my assistants started to sing psalms. Then I walked
up to the trainer and took the branch. He kissed me and said to me:
'Peace be with you, my daughter!' I began to walk in triumph towards
the Gate of Life. Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild
animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would
win the victory. So much for what I did up until the eve of the
contest. About what happened at the contest itself, let him write of it
[Here Saturus tells the
story of a vision he had of Perpetua and himself, after they were
killed, being carried by four angels into heaven where they were
reunited with other martyrs killed in the same persecution.] [Here the
editor/narrator begins to relate the story]:
Such were the remarkable
visions of these martyrs, Saturus and Perpetua, written by themselves.
As for Secundulus, God called him from this world earlier than the
others while he was still in prison, by a special grace that he might
not have to face the animals. Yet his flesh, if not his spirit, knew
As for Felicitas, she too
enjoyed the Lord's favor in this wise. She had been pregnant when she
was arrested, and was now in her eighth month. As the day of the
spectacle drew near she was very distressed that her martyrdom would be
postponed because of her pregnancy; for it is against the law for women
with child to be executed. Thus she might have to shed her holy,
innocent blood afterwards along with others who were common criminals.
Her comrades in martyrdom were also saddened; for they were afraid that
they would have to leave behind so fine a companion to travel alone on
the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, they poured
forth a prayer to the Lord in one torrent of common grief. And
immediately after their prayer the birth pains came upon her. She
suffered a good deal in her labor because of the natural difficulty of
an eight months' delivery.
Hence one of the assistants
of the prison guards said to her: 'You suffer so much now--what will
you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them
when you refused to sacrifice.' 'What I am suffering now', she replied,
'I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer
for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.' And she gave birth to a
girl; and one of the sisters brought her up as her own daughter.
Therefore, since the Holy
Spirit has permitted the story of this contest to be written down and
by so permitting has willed it, we shall carry out the command or,
indeed, the commission of the most saintly Perpetua, however unworthy I
might be to add anything to this glorious story. At the same time I
shall add one example of her perseverance and nobility of soul.
The military tribune had
treated them with extraordinary severity because on the information of
certain very foolish people he became afraid that they would be
spirited out of the prison by magical spells. Perpetua spoke to him
directly. 'Why can you not even allow us to refresh ourselves properly?
For we are the most distinguished of the condemned prisoners, seeing
that we belong to the emperor; we are to fight on his very birthday.
Would it not be to your credit if we were brought forth on the day in a
healthier condition?' The officer became disturbed and grew red. So it
was that he gave the order that they were to be more humanely treated;
and he allowed her brothers and other persons to visit, so that the
prisoners could dine in their company. By this time the adjutant who
was head of the jail was himself a Christian.
On the day before, when
they had their last meal, which is called the free banquet, they
celebrated not a banquet but rather a love feast. They spoke to the mob
with the same steadfastness, warned them of God's judgment, stressing
the joy they would have in their suffering, and ridiculing the
curiosity of those that came to see them. Saturus said: 'Will not
tomorrow be enough for you? Why are you so eager to see something that
you dislike? Our friends today will be our enemies on the morrow. But
take careful note of what we look like so that you will recognize us on
the day.' Thus everyone would depart from the prison in amazement, and
many of them began to believe.
The day of their victory
dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully
as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at
all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining
countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ,
putting down everyone's stare by her own intense gaze. With them also
was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she
could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the
midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second
They were then led up to
the gates and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of
Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble
Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end. 'We came to this of our
own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to
pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed
with us to do this.' Even injustice recognized justice. The military
tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they
were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm: she was already treading on
the head of the Egyptian. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to
warn the on looking mob. Then when they came within sight of Hilarianus,
they suggested by their motions and gestures: 'You have condemned us,
but God will condemn you' was what they were saying.
At this the crowds became
enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators.
And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord's
But he who said, Ask and
you shall receive, answered their prayer by giving each one the death
he had asked for. For whenever they would discuss among themselves
their desire for martyrdom, Saturninus indeed insisted that he wanted
to be exposed to all the different beasts, that his crown might be all
the more glorious. And so at the outset of the contest he and Revocatus
were matched with a leopard, and then while in the stocks they were
attacked by a bear. As for Saturus, he dreaded nothing more than a
bear, and he counted on being killed by one bite of a leopard. Then he
was matched with a wild boar; but the gladiator who had tied him to the
animal was gored by the boar and died a few days after the contest,
whereas Saturus was only dragged along. Then when he was bound in the
stocks awaiting the bear, the animal refused to come out of the cages,
so that Saturus was called back once more unhurt.
For the young women,
however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual
animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of
the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought
out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one
was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from
childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they
were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.
First the heifer tossed
Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the
tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs,
thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin
to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should
die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in
her hour of triumph.
Then she got up. And seeing
that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her,
gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But
the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called
back through the Gate of Life.
There Perpetua was held up
by a man named Rusticus who was at the time a catechumen and kept close
to her. She awoke from a kind of sleep (so absorbed had she been in
ecstasy in the Spirit) and she began to look about her. Then to the
amazement of all she said: 'When are we going to be thrown to that
heifer or whatever it is?' When told that this had already happened,
she refused to believe it until she noticed the marks of her rough
experience on her person and her dress. Then she called for her brother
and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: 'You must all
stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by
what we have gone through.'
At another gate Saturus was
earnestly addressing the soldier Pudens. 'It is exactly', he said, 'as
I foretold and predicted. So far not one animal has touched me. So now
you may believe me with all your heart: I am going in there and I shall
be finished off with one bite of the leopard.' And immediately as the
contest was coming to a close a leopard was let loose, and after one
bite Saturus was so drenched with blood that as he came away the mob
roared in witness to his second baptism: 'Well washed! Well washed!'
For well washed indeed was one who had been bathed in this manner. Then
he said to the soldier Pudens: 'Good-bye. Remember me, and remember the
faith. These things should not disturb you but rather strengthen you.'
And with this he asked
Pudens for a ring from his finger, and dipping it into his wound he
gave it back to him again as a pledge and as a record of his bloodshed.
Shortly after he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot
to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought
out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the
sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to
the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing
one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace.
The others took the sword in silence and without moving, especially
Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway was the first to
die. For once again he was waiting for Perpetual Perpetua, however, had
yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone;
then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it
to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by
the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were
Ah, most valiant and
blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of
Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honors, and worships
his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds
of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For
these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the
same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his
Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendor and immeasurable power
for all the ages. Amen.
LETTERS BETWEEN THE CHURCHES
OF ROME AND OF CARTHAGEIn telling the story of the Catacombs of St. Callixtus we have met personalities of the highest order: the martyr popes Fabian, Cornelius, Sixtus II...and the bishop of Carthage St. Cyprian. The Church of Rome and that of Carthage were often in contact. It is interesting to know the contents of some letters, to be acquainted with what those great Pastors talked about and how they judged their times, which were anything but tranquil.
1. The Church of Rome to the Church of Carthage
The Church of Rome, during the persecution of emperor Decius, offered to the Church of Carthage the following testimonial of its faithfulness to Christ.
Rome, early 250.
" ... The Church resists strong in the faith. It is true that some have yielded, being alarmed at the possibility that their high social position might attract attention, or from simple human frailty. Nevertheless, though they are now separated from us, we have not abandoned them in their defection, but have helped them and keep still close to them, so that by penance they may be rehabilitated and pardoned by Him who can forgive. Indeed if we were to leave them to their own resources, their fall would become irreparable.
Try and do the same, dearest brothers, extending your hand to those who have fallen, that they may rise again. Thus, if they should be arrested, they may this time feel strong enough to confess the faith and redress their former error.
Allow me also to remind you of what course to take on another problem. Those who surrendered in the time of trial, and are now ill and have repented and want communion with the Church, should be helped. Widows and other persons unable to present themselves spontaneously, as also those in prison or far from home, ought to have people ready to look after them. Nor should catechumens who have fallen ill remain disappointed in their expectation of help.
The brethren who are in prison, the clergy and the entire Church, that watches so carefully over those who call on the Lord's name, salute you. In return we also ask you to remember us" (letter 8,2-3).
2. The Bishop of Carthage to the Church of Rome
When Cyprian was informed of pope Fabian's death, he wrote this letter to the priests and deacons in Rome.
Carthage, early 250..
"My dear brothers,
News of the death of my saintly fellow-bishop was still uncertain and information doubtful, when I received your letter brought by subdeacon Crementius, telling me fully of his glorious death. Then I rejoiced, as his admirable governing of the Church had been followed by a noble end.
For this I share your gladness, as you the memory of so solemn and splendid a witness, communicating to us also the glorious recollection you have of your bishop, and offering us such an example of faith and fortitude.
Indeed, harmful as the fall of a leader is to his subjects, no less valuable and salutary for his brethren is the example of a bishop firm in his faith... My wish, dearest brothers, is for your continued welfare" (Letter 1).
3. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage to pope Cornelius
Ciprian pays homage to the testimony and fidelity shown by the Pope Cornelius and by the Church of Rome: " a magnificent testimony of a Church entirely united in one spirit and one voice". Foreseeing an imminent time of trial also for the Church of Carthage, Cyprian asks for the brotherly help of prayer and charity.
Carthage, autumn 153..
"Cyprian to Cornelius, his brother bishop.
We know, dearest brother, of your faith, your fortitude and your open witness. All this does you great honor and it gives me so much joy that I feel myself part of and companion in your merits and undertakings.
Since indeed the Church is one, and one and inseparable is love, and one and unbreakable is the harmony of hearts, what priest singing the praises of another does not rejoice as though they were his own glory? And what brother would not feel happy at the joy of his brethren? Certainly none can imagine the exultation and great joy there has been among us here when we have learnt such fine things, like the proofs of strength you have given.
You have led your brethren to testify their faith, and that very
confession of yours has been strengthened further by that of the
brethren. Thus, while you have gone before the others in the path of
glory, and have shown yourself ready to be the first in testifying
for all, you have persuaded the people too to confess the same
the Letter to Diognetus (apology by an unknown author of the