Today’s book review actually comes as a two-parter: this Wednesday and next Wednesday

The translation of Perpetua’s first-hand account (in Latin) of the weeks leading up to her martyrdom, her visions, and that of one of her companions, of the loss of her son, and the loss of her servant’s daughter, is available in the public domain following this link. It is not a long account, and the last part was written posthumously by someone of her Christian assembly who was there to watch her die in the arena that day.

I compare their story with a woman named Paula who lived about a hundred years later. Her story can be found here.


In the early centuries of the church, persecution of Christians became so severe many were martyred for refusing to forfeit their faith. Yet, for Christian communities, martyrdom became a second baptism, this time in blood, an entering into the passion of Christ. Two such martyrs were the young mothers Perpetua and Felicity. After Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, rather than embrace newfound safety and security, many Christians sought more severe path, becoming ascetics, moving to the desert, and in the widowed mother Paula’s case, choosing a “living” martyrdom of suffering and self-denial.

From a twenty-first century point of view, reading the stories of these mothers who chose martyrdom raises a compelling question. Why would the relinquishment of their infant children seem nobly tragic in Perpetua’s and Felicity’s case yet seem callous and self-absorbed in Paula’s?

Saint Perpetua | onbekende Venetiaanse kunstenaar., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cultural Context

     “The primary reason for marriage in the Roman world was the production of offspring.”[1] Wives, often married as young as eleven years old with little choice in who they married or even whether to marry, were called to comply. Yet due to the dangers of childbirth, women were so apt to avoid pregnancy or choose abortion that Emperor Augustus legislated substantial rewards for those who birthed three live children.[2]

     Unlike the modern era, “in the Greco-Roman world, mothers had more influence with their adult children, and grew closer to their children as they aged.”[3] Children in late antiquity were seen only as potential adults, “unfinished human beings.”[4] Pregnancies often did not come to term, or resulted in still births, or in weak/deformed infants which died soon after. Healthy infants might still be rejected by the father, then left exposed to die. Fathers did not name even the children they kept until they had survived at least eight days. Greco-Roman patriarchy gave fathers “unconditional control”[5] of their children, which lasted even after they were married,[6] and mothers no legal rights at all.[7] Fathers could sell their children into slavery and retained sole legal power over them if the mother divorced (though mothers could keep their children if widowed).[8] Legal obligation of the father’s family[9] included provision for basic physical needs, instruction, moral development, and an inheritance. In turn, children were obliged to care for their parents in old age, provide a decent burial, bring honor to the family, and continue family traditions.

          Greco-Roman morality expected a mother to love and rear her children, yet high infant and mother mortality combined with acute legal and cultural limitations diminished the mother’s bond. Employment of wetnurses, as noted by contemporary philosophers such as Plutarch, weakened that bond even more.[10] Since public grief was considered dishonorable, mothers were constrained to show strength of character and will in mourning the loss of a child, for “open exhibition of heartache would have negated higher values and convictions.”[11] And a mother’s love was not elevated above a father’s, nor even wetnurse’s love.[12]

Martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicitas, and Secundus, Miniature Minology of Basil II. Constantinople. 985 CE, Vatican Library. Rome | AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Christian Context

     Taken together, teaching in the Christian scriptures radically departed from the Greco-Roman ideal—which placed the function of marriage to produce children above the nature of the relationship—by considering marriage “more important than the bond between parent and child.”[13] Instead, Apostle Paul spoke of a spiritual family in which all were brothers and sisters, obedient to God the Father, and religion was the central function,[14] a relationship which some felt superseded physical families, based upon Christ’s teaching, “whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”[15]

     By the second century CE, Christian theologian Tertullian became the first to completely reorient the Christian ideal away from the Greco-Roman of marriage and family, writing that children “detracted from one’s concentration of the divine” and “were to be endured” whereas parents were “to be pitied.”[16]

Context of Choice

 For both Perpetua and Felicity, there was little choice in their martyrdom, for their only option was to deny Christ and live, or declare Christ and die. To disavow their identity in Christ was not a genuine option, so Perpetua asked the Lord whether they would be martyred or miraculously freed. Because the Lord’s answer was death,[17] they looked to God for provision of their earthly ties in order to be released for martyrdom. Though imprisoned for some time, neither woman spent much of their resources on acts of charity, but rather Perpetua insisted that she be able to nurse her son[18] and that their company be well-fed until their appointed time to die.[19]

In contrast, soon after she was widowed, Paula decided to disregard “her house, her children, her servants, her property . . . to go to the desert.”[20] It was a genuine choice, for to have stayed to rear her children and do good works of charity and devotion would have been culturally supported and affirmed. So final was her act of separation from her old life, she disinherited herself that she “might find an inheritance in heaven.”[21] Paula’s martyrdom was to live as one “appointed to die,”[22] allowing herself no more than the barest minimum to survive, and who for the Lord’s sake “every day die[d] bodily.”[23] Jerome called it a long and daily martyrdom of spotless service.[24] In this manner she lived many years, exhausting her fortune, herself, and finally the women in her convent and money begged and borrowed, in acts of charity and devotion. Paula’s choice was hers alone, without a direct call from God or miraculous acts of God or visions from God or even accolades from her community to affirm her decision.

St Perpetua & St Felicity

“Another inside me suffers for me just as I suffer for him” – St Felicity. This mosaic of SS Perpetua & Felicity is in the crypt of the National Shrine in Washington DC.; Lawrence OP,, flickr, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

[1] Geoffrey Nathan, The Family in Late Antiquity: The Rise of Christianity and the Endurance of Tradition (London:

  Routledge, 2000), 24.

[2] Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Baker Academic,

  2009), 135.

[3] Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 156.

[4] Reider Aasgard, “Children in Antiquity and Early Christianity: Research History and Central Issues.”

  Familia. Revista de Ciencias y Orientación Familiar, Vol. 33, (2006): 23–44, 31. Accessed April 14, 2021.

[5] Milne, Brian. “Intellectual Discourse, Beliefs, Moral and Ideological Positions on Children from Antiquity

  Until the Present – Children from Antiquity to the High Middle Ages.” In The History and Theory of

  Children’s Citizenship in Contemporary Societies, 89-103 (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2013), 91.

[6] Nathan, The Family in Late Antiquity, 27.

[7] Nathan, 24.

[8] Nathan, 7, 13.

[9] Cohick, 133.

[10] Cohick, 145-146.

[11] Cohick, 142.

[12] Cohick 148.

[13] Nathan, 40-41.

[14] Nathan, 43, and such passages as Romans 8:29 and Galatians 6:10.

[15] Matthew 12:50 (NRSV).

[16] Nathan, 44.

[17] Medieval Sourcebook: St. Perpetua: The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (Fordham University), 2.     

   Accessed April 14, 2021.

[18] Medieval Sourcebook: St. Perpetua, 2.

[19] St. Perpetua, 6.

[20] Amy Oden, In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought. “Paula,” 67-73 (Abingdon

   Press, 1994), 68.

[21] Amy Oden, In Her Words, 69.

[22] Oden, 71.

[23] Oden, 71.

[24] Oden, 73.

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