The Blood of the Martyrs

The crowds gathered in the amphitheater to celebrate the feast day of Caesar as the North African sun rose, tinting the sandy steps red.1 Jostling, chattering, they found their places, vying for the best view, as anticipation built for the day’s spectacle, the drama, the animals, the costumes, and the culminating execution of the criminals. Finally, the prisoners paraded into the arena, a group of three men and two women. The tribune had organized a truly glorious show, with the prisoners to be dressed as priests of Saturn and priestesses of Ceres. Some commotion, however, seemed to be occurring near the gate, with one of the women refusing to put on the costume. Catcalls and boos echoed around the arena, but she was stubborn. Refusing to wear the clothes of a pagan priestess during execution for being a Christian, the woman (Perpetua was the name whispered round the stands) defied the tribute. The people held their breaths, but it was the tribune who backed down, allowing the criminals to keep their prison grime. SSsss… Ssss… The show had started unpropitiously.

The criminals continued to act oddly, singing songs to their god, shaking their heads at the tribune, and refusing to show fear. Perpetua held herself upright and piercingly met her spectators’ gaze, as they quickly averted their eyes. Enraged, the crowd demanded the men, Saturninus, Saturus, and Revocatus, be beaten by a line of gladiators. Scourged, the men were then given to the wild animals, torn apart by a bear, boar, and leopard. Having seen the deaths of their companions, the two women, Felicity the slave and Perpetua the noblewoman, were forced to strip in front of the crowd and put on fishnet dresses. Shuddering, even the enthusiastic crowd drew back at the humiliating sight of a young, naked girl and a woman, who only a few days before had given birth. Redressed in loose robes on popular demand, they were again thrown to a raging, savage cow. Lying on the ground, mauled, bloodied, Perpetua stood up, arranged her dress, and pinned up her hair, stubbornly refusing to be demeaned by the sexual implications of her persecution. Helping Felicity up, they stood together in the arena, kissed each other with a kiss of peace and parting, and waited while the crowd gathered round for their beheading. Perpetua called to her brother, who had stayed with her during her persecution, and gave him her last words, saying, “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion.”2 After Felicity’s death, Perpetua too was to be killed, but the swordsman was an inexperienced executioner. First, he pierced her bones and she shrieked in pain. His sword was still unable to find the right place, Perpetua had to help guide it to her neck. With that blow, she was gone.

This is a true story. Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions lived in Carthage, North Africa, a Roman province, and were executed for their Christian beliefs in the year 203 A.D. We know of these martyrs, because two of them, Perpetua and Saturus, wrote about their experience while imprisoned. Perpetua’s account is especially remarkable, because it is one of the few authentic voices of women from the Roman Empire. Although the world has changed its façade many times since her death, the intimacy of her thoughts returns with her writing. The reader confronts both her fear and the great faith which she placed in her religion. Perpetua relates her ordeal, with first legal surveillance, then imprisonment, a trial, and finally the wait for her death. Once imprisoned, she writes of her fear of the dark, of the great heat, of the rough soldiers, and of her fear for her baby, whom she had to leave. Throughout her ordeal, though, she was far from a model Roman daughter. Children in Rome, male and female, were legally under the authority of their father until he died. Perpetua, shockingly and insubordinately, refused her pagan father’s heartbroken requests and threats to give up Christianity and be released from prison. Reducing her father to begging, he asked, “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be, called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of youth… Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together.”3 The authoritative patriarch here was degraded by groveling; and yet, Perpetua would not listen to him, even though she wrote of suffering because of her love for him. Her faith not only caused her to refuse to listen to her own, beloved father, but her actions flew in the face of all normal societal expectations. Her faith had made her a rebel against Roman religion, and along with that, Roman society.

Perpetua lived in a period where religion held a rather different role in society than now. Roman religion was not an organized set of dogmas or beliefs, nor was religion the main identity for most Romans.4 Instead, religion in the Roman understanding was based on public rituals, usually sacrifices, carried out to ensure the continuance of the gods’ favor towards the community. Religion and civic life were closely tied together, with temples grouped with public buildings at the center of cities. In the empire, religion and the public sphere were tied together in a new form by the creation of cults surrounding Roman emperors, honoring and sacrificing to them as gods. Organically spread throughout the provinces, the cults served as social organizations for some and as a tie to the distant emperor. The general perception of the emperor as a god enforced the civic nature of worship.

The expansion of its empire changed the nature of Rome. Foreign influences from a broader, Mediterranean context introduced new elements to traditional Roman ways of life, a trend that was both embraced and censured. Religion at the height of the Empire included a wide range of practices, varying with regional differences or personal preferences. Romans believed that there were local gods everywhere, and so were careful to honor the gods of conquered peoples in order to prevent divine retribution. Often these local gods were reinterpreted as the traditional Roman gods based on matching characteristics, such as the association of the Latin Jupiter and the Greek Zeus. With the incorporation of many cultures under the umbrella of Rome, interest in foreign, Eastern religions grew, such as in the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Persian god Mithras, or the Syrian goddess Magna Mater. Private, often secretive cults that developed around these divinities broke from the standard public worship of traditional, Roman religion. The more conservative elements of Roman society occasionally persecuted religious practice that was considered superstitio, meaning excessive or wrong, including Isis worship, Druidism, and the Jewish faith. Christianity thus had precedence both for the growing interest in it and for its persecution.

In this context, however, the growth of Christianity was radical, exceeding even the alienness of other cults. Other cults could coexist with Roman religious practices, but Christians refused to participate in normal civic behavior, such as offering sacrifices to the gods or the emperor, defiant behavior that could endanger the empire. Their communities inverted traditional, Roman values towards society, family, slavery, and hierarchy, as they asserted the shockingly radical belief, for the first time in history, that the slave and the master, women and men, and the stranger and the countryman were all equal.5 But perhaps just as radical, Christians ludicrously and stubbornly worshipped a criminal, executed with the shameful death of crucifixion. 6

A radical religion, Christianity was persecuted intermittently from the 1st century AD, when the mad emperor Nero blamed Christians for a fire in Rome that raged for days in large portions of the city. The historian Tacitus, though unsympathetic to Christians, recalled the horror of the persecution, writing that, “covered with the skins of beasts, [the Christians] were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”7 Until the 3rd century, persecutions were local, perhaps provoked by local disasters or signs of disfavor from the gods. In 249, however, an Empire wide edict called for citizens to get a certificate showing they had sacrificed to a god, any god. This was naturally aimed at Christians, who would not participate. In the next 60 years, until the emperor Constantine began supporting Christianity, there were periods of severe empirewide persecutions, whether through punitive economic measures or through physical torture and death.

Sts. Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions are only a few of the martyrs still remembered today. While St. Perpetua’s account is one of the most first-hand stories, other stories of saints’ lives, called hagiography, celebrate hundreds or thousands of early Roman martyrs. Prominent female martyrs stand out if only for their shocking stories, with a few being St. Catherine, St. Sophia, St. Thecla, St. Barbara, and St. Marina. Many male martyrs also persisted in their faith to death, including St. Justin the Philosopher, St. George (but not with a dragon), and the first of Christ’s disciples, the apostles. Throughout the history of Christianity, Christians have honored the most exceptional followers of Christ, presenting them as models for faith, with martyrs as models for ultimate commitment to God. These radical models did not cease after the establishment of Christianity as an official religion, with persecution often accompanying its spread. In addition, after the end of persecution in Rome, Christians seeking to imitate the radical commitment of martyrs began to practice asceticism, as a dramatic sacrifice of their comfort in order to be closer to God. Christians celebrate martyrs under more recent persecutions as well, such as in the Boxer Rebellion or under Turkish control of the Balkans. Within even the last hundred years, thousands of Christians died or were persecuted under the purges of Communism, such as the Romanian Fr. George Calciu, who survived brutal prisons to forgive and offer love to his torturers.8 Perhaps these Christian martyrs seem crazed, suicidal, unreasonable. In order to understand why they preferred death to compromise, it is necessary to understand the role of suffering in the Christian faith, beginning with Jesus Christ. While many of His followers expected Jesus to serve as a leader against oppressive Roman rule, He challenged their expectations by passively accepting persecution, arrest, and a violent death, seemingly failing his mission as Messiah. Yet, his closest disciples believed that the God-Man’s death had in fact brought about true life for humankind, by destroying the separation between man and God.9 Death, thus, no longer could trap mortals in an eternal division from God, but rather fulfilled the goal of existence by uniting the soul and its creator with the message that suffering and death are no longer frightening, but rather a partial experience of Christ’s suffering for humanity, before the ultimate triumph of Paradise.10 Paradoxically, public humiliation and death are not shameful, but a victory, greeted with joy and expectancy.11 The early Christians looked beyond death, and felt that, as the Apostle Peter wrote, “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rev 8:18).

Perpetua and her companions were absolutely certain of a better life after death, and that their death would only sting for a moment before the joy of eternity. For Christians in times of persecution, death on the one hand was the ultimate defiance and rebellion against a culture that wanted to change their beliefs and their identity. However, death was also their entrance into a greater reality beyond the grave. In being ready to die voluntarily, they modeled themselves on Jesus Christ’s voluntary, radical, and sacrificial death on the cross. Because of their certainty and faith in God, martyrs were liberated, set free from fear of death and torture, looking beyond the momentary into eternity. Perpetua’s fear and her suffering appear in her writing, but her absolute belief and her determination compelled her to declare, “I am a Christian,” even though it led to her death.12

Today a tamer Christianity often prevails, one that is less likely to throw itself at the unknown beyond the grave or appear as rebels in society. Indeed, the word rebellion and Christianity rarely mix in America, where the image of a Christian is often a staid and obedient follower, not a rebel who pushes boundaries and thinks freely. Since the 1960s and 70s, American society has distanced itself from the ‘traditional’ Christian, rather glorifying the rebel in music, movies, art, and attitudes. Yet, true Christianity and this societal rebel might not be so very far apart. The search for truth impels many counterculture movements to find something worth living for, as the search for truth calls Christians to live out a life committed to their ideals. Both are willing to perhaps sacrifice their comfort or prestige in society for an ideal. Christians indeed must be rebellious against any culture that tells them to be satisfied with the minimum requirement. The Christianity of the martyrs is lived out at the edge, with a heart that throws itself at the unknown.

The core of Christianity is not comfortable, and should even be disturbing. The death and suffering in the lives of martyrs, and their strength of belief, should challenge us to reexamine the implications of faith. Christians should be confronted by the belief that Christ suffered and died a violent death, and that his followers have often been willing to give up their own security and lives for Him. The logical result of faith in a God of drastic measures must be freedom from fear of death, ridicule, humiliation, and failure. Even if Christians in America today are not martyred, they are still called to sacrifice themselves for others and for God to the point of discomfort and even suffering. Literal martyrdom may no longer be necessary, but it is often still necessary to sacrifice personal security and prestige in order to fulfill the commandments of love for God and neighbor, for example through service to the needy. Perhaps today followers of Christ have lost some of the freshness and radicalness of the original Christians, but the profound belief at the heart of Christianity remains, requiring an honest seeker of truth to face the implications of the sacrifice on the cross.

1 Based on The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Trans. W.H. Shewring. Fordham University: Medieval Sourcebook. Accessed 10 March 2013.

2 The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity.

3 The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity

4 Any student of “The World of the Roman Empire,” taught by Prof. Emma Dench in the fall of 2012, will recognize my explanation of Roman religion. See Emma Dench. “The Roman World of Early Christianity.” (History 1011, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 13 November 2012.) and Emma Dench. “Jews in the Roman World.” (History 1011, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 9 November 2012.)

5 Gal 3:28 NIV [There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.]

6 See the Alexamenos graffiti for pagan attitudes toward the crucifixion.

7 Tacitus. Annals 15, 44. Trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Accessed 1 March 2013.

8 Calciu, Gheorghe. Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies, and Talks. Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2010.

9 Heb 2:9 “But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

10 Rom 8:17. I Pet 4:1. Phil 3:10.

11 I Pet 4:16. “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

12 The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity.


Margaret Eichner ’14 is a History concentrator in Winthrop House. She is the Book and Arts Editor of the Ichthus.

Tags: , , , , , , ,