Year 202 A.D., a great persecution broke out under the orders of Emperor Septimius Severus against all those who would not worship the Roman Empire’s god; “The unconquered sun”.
Vibia Perpetua, a young Christian woman of noble family, along with her slave Felicitas, Rebocato, Saturnino and Secundulus, were arrested and taken to jail pending sentence. Her martyrdom would be the main event in the arena of Carthage in North Africa. The motive: to entertain the crowd at the festivities reserved for the anniversary of Geta, son of the Emperor.
Perpetua’s father was influential, so he was allowed to visit her and try to persuade her against her faith. She was an educated and prepared woman, which allowed her to write much of the history of their sufferings. The culmination of martyrdom was described by the Roman guard Pudens, who mocked and derided incisively to “Christians” until they earned his respect and ended professing the same faith.
Perpetua’s letters were constantly read in churches, they were so popular that Augustine, commonly known as St. Augustine, was forced to write complaining that they were not of the same importance as the Scriptures…
Today, little is remembered. Time has gone dusting the letters and they are only preserved as one of the few existing ancient documents written by a woman.
“I was still with my friends. My father, who loved me, was trying to reason with me to weaken my faith and drive me away from my purpose. I replied: Father, do you not see that jug … Could you call it by any other name that describes what it is? No, no way, he replied. Well I can not call myself by any other name that does not mean what I am: a Christian. At the word ‘Christian’, my father lunged at me and tried to pull out my eyes, but he just hit me a little, for my friends stopped him.
“In those days I was baptized and the Spirit moved me to not ask for more grace than to endure martyrdom. Soon, we were transferred to a prison where I was very afraid, for I had never lived in such darkness. What a horrible day! The heat was unbearable as the prison was full, but my biggest concern was for my little one. The soldiers treated us brutally.”
These martyrs were willingly joined by Saturus, the minister who had been instructing them in the faith. And together, they were led to a public trial… to the marketplace to try them before the crowd.
“All who were tried before I was confessed their faith. When my turn came, my father approached with my son in his arms and, making me leave the platform, he pleaded, ‘Have mercy on your son. My daughter, have pity on my gray hairs; Have pity on your father, if I deserve the name of father. I’ve done the work with these hands for you to arrive to the prime of life. Look at your mother, look at your brothers, look at your mother and maternal aunt, look at your son who will not survive your death’. He kissed my hands, he lay at my feet and begged me with tears, calling me not daughter, but lady of his. I was the first one to feel my father’s sadness. President Hilarian joined the supplication of my father, saying, ‘Have mercy on the gray hairs of your father and your son’s infancy. Offer sacrifices for the prosperity of the emperors’. I answered, No! ‘Are you a Christian?’ Hilarian asked. I replied: Yes, I am a Christian.
“As my father persisted in turning me from my resolution, Hilarian commanded to cast him out, and the soldiers beat him with a cane. That hurt as if they had hit me, because it was horrible to see them abusing my father an elder. Then the judge sentenced us all to the beasts and we joyfully returned to prison. As my son was accustomed to the breast, I begged my servant to bring him to the prison, but my father refused to let him come. However God arranged things so that my son did not miss the breast and I did not suffer the milk of my breasts.”
A few days before martyrdom, the body of Secundulus found rest in the cool darkness of the dungeon and God answered the prayers of the martyrs allowing Felicitas, who was eight months pregnant, to gave birth to a little baby girl which was adopted by a Christian family.
“And as she complained on the pains of childbirth, one of the guards said to her: — Well, if you feel these pains now, what will happen when you are thrown to the beasts? — Now I’m the one who suffers, —she replied—, but there will be another who will suffer for me, because I will suffer for Him.”
The day of martyrdom as the four walked like those who are walking towards heaven, they raised their voice glorifying God and recited psalms joyfully. The smiles of the spectators wore off and a morbid crowd shouted angrily: scourge them, destroy them, release the beasts to feed on them!
Wanting to please the crowd they scourged them before the games begin. The men died clawing torn and people mocked them.
Perpetua and Felicitas were thrown to a wild cow. It launched them violently into the air, and finished on the floor. Perpetua fell backward, her torn clothes exposed her bloodied thighs but she, standing up, straightened her clothes and when she noticed her hair was tousled and scattered as a signal grief, immediately with resolved air she fixed her hair because she was suffering for Him… He who suffered the unimaginable, for the One who gave it all for love… for Perpetua, suffering for her Lord and Master was a great privilege.
The Porta Sanavivaria opened and Vibia Perpetua crossed as one who crosses this world with her eyes fixed on her Lord, or lost in Christ’s. Meekly she bowed on her knees and gave her life to the executioner who, facing such a great hope fearfully missed the strike until she guided his hand, as if he needed to have her permission…