Peter Westmore

Perpetua and Felicity: two extraordinary Christian martyrs

by Thomas J. Heffernan
(Oxford University Press, 2012, 584pp, $100.00, ISBN: 978-0-19977-757-0. Available from Freedom Publishing )

This is a fascinating and scholarly book which will be enjoyed by any person interested in reading and understanding an extraordinary first-hand account of the martyrdom of two early Christians, Perpetua and Felicity.

In the full version of the Roman Canon or First Eucharistic Prayer - rarely said these days in the Mass, even on their feast days - are the words, "To us sinners, ... deign to grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all your Saints."

These are some of the saints and martyrs from the earliest centuries of the church but we know little about most of them.

The exceptions include Perpetua and Felicity who were martyred during the 18-year reign of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211). The reason we know so much about them is that Perpetua wrote a prison diary while awaiting trial, and this, together with an autobiography by their teacher, Saturus, was written into an account of their life and death by an anonymous Christian author, shortly after they were executed in 203 AD.

There is much about them which is now accessible on the internet.


The Passio, as it was called, was so well known among early Christians that it was widely read, and even used as a text during Mass. It has recently undergone rigorous examination by historians, and the present important book by American history professor, Thomas J. Heffernan, is one of the results.

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity has further significance: it is now regarded as the only text from the period, written by a woman, which has survived. It therefore offers a unique insight into the position of women in the latter part of the Roman Empire.

The story took place in a Roman settlement in what is now Libya, south-west of the current capital, Tripoli. Vibia Perpetua was a well-educated woman from a noble Roman family which had settled in north Africa a century earlier. She was aged in her early 20s, and happily married with a baby son.

Along with her servant, Felicity (who was pregnant), she decided to become a Christian. However, there was a long-standing law that Christians who refused to renounce their faith would be fed to wild animals in the amphitheatre. One early Christian writer said that this particular persecution occurred after the Emperor, Septimius Severus, had reinforced existing laws with the new crime of converting to Christianity.

Six newly-converted Christians, including Perpetua and Felicity, were arrested, imprisoned and put on trial.

The most poignant parts of the book are Perpetua's accounts of her father's attempt to get her to recant, of her dreams about her young brother who had died of a terrible disease but entered heaven totally cleansed, of conditions in the prison in which she was confined while eight months pregnant, the premature birth of her baby who was adopted by fellow Christians before her execution, and finally the harrowing account of the martyrs' deaths, where they were attacked by wild beasts and then had their throats cut.

Perpetua's last recorded words were to her brother: "Stand fast in the faith and love one another."

Professor Heffernan's book begins with a description of his own acquaintance with the Passio, which began when he was a doctoral student at Cambridge. He initially believed it was hagiography from the Medieval period, but through careful textual analysis concluded that it was what it purported to be: a unique record of a heroic life and death in the third century, less than 200 years after Jesus himself was crucified.

Heffernan's study analyses the people mentioned in the Passio, and the date and language of its composition. It includes what he considers to be the best of the Latin texts and English translations, as well as a very detailed 250 page commentary on the text.

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is a book to be read, enjoyed and reflected upon. It is an uplifting account of a group of very remarkable saints, whose lives come through to us with immediacy, colour and authenticity.

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