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The Martyrdom of Perpetua

During the First Century A. D., Christianity was a religion of mostly poor and oppressed people living in conquered Roman provinces and generally those of the lower classes in Rome itself. During the late Second Century and throughout the Third, Christianity steadily gained ground amongst the wealthy and influential citizens of the Roman Empire. Because of its rejection of the old Roman gods, the emperor Septimius Severus believed it was necessary to pass laws against new converts and those who sought to spread Christianity amongst the pagan population. The laws imposed by Septimius Severus in A. D. 202 did not attempt to make it illegal for people who were already Christians to worship, but imposed strong penalties on those who wished to convert and their teachers. Severus' thinking was that Christianity would die out if there were no new converts.

This approach demonstrated how little the emperor really understood Christianity. The Great Commission given by Jesus Christ was to go into all the world and spread the good news about Jesus' act of redemption and salvation. Furthermore, most Christians believed that there was no greater way of serving the Lord and no quicker way to a glorious resurrection than to die a martyr for their faith. These harsh laws actually served to cause some Christians who might not otherwise do so to openly and vigorously proclaim their faith, welcoming the prospect of martyrdom.

One new convert from an influential family living in an area south of Carthage was Perpetua. She was a young mother of a newborn baby boy in her early twenties. Among her group of catechumens, or new Christians, were several male and female slaves an a couple of men who were new Christians. Perpetua had two Christian brothers and it is also thought that her mother was Christian. Significantly, her father was a pagan.

When it became known to the authorities that Perpetua and her companions were new catechumens, they were arrested and imprisoned in a house in the country.

At this point, Perpetua’s father came and pleaded with her to give up this nonsensical religion. She ran the risk of a humiliating public death in the arena, being torn apart by wild beasts. Perpetua, her faith burning like a fire in her heart, welcomed the prospect of dying for her savior and receiving a martyr’s crown of glory. Repeatedly throughout the ordeal she was about to suffer, the old man would come and beg her to recant, as she was his favorite daughter.

Perpetua had a dream that seemed to foretell her fate. In it she saw a ladder going up to Heaven. At the foot of the ladder was a fierce dragon, and attached to the sides of the ladder were knives, lances, and other sharp instruments set in such a way that anyone ascending the ladder would be severely cut. In her dream she saw Saturus, her Christian teacher and fellow prisoner, calling from the top of the ladder for her to follow him up. She saw many people in white robes standing in a garden and they were led by a man with white hair dressed in shepherd’s clothing. The dragon actually placed his head so she could step up on it to reach the ladder. she climbed up, and the white haired man gave her some sweet curds to eat as the people cried "Amen". She awoke with a sweet taste in her mouth and knew that she was to die for Christ.

On the day of her trial, she was offered the opportunity to sacrifice to the gods for the health of the emperor. When she and her companions refused and reaffirmed their faith, they were condemned to die in the arena. The new acting governor, Hilarian, wanted to do a good job and follow the law to the letter. At this point, Perpetua’s father attempted to get her to recant and tried to drag her off the platform when she refused. Soldiers had to club him with sticks in order to get him to let go of his beloved daughter. In a few days, there were to be games in celebration of the birthday of Geta, the emperor Septimius Severus' son. At that time, the converts and their teacher were to be exposed to the wild animals to be mauled and eaten.

On the day of their death, Perpetua and her companions bravely entered the arena. As she passed beneath Hilarian's seat, she cried out to him, "You may judge us now, but God will judge you later!" At this, the outraged crowd cried, "Scourge them!", at which point the animal handlers struck the victims with their whips. Remembering that Jesus had also been scourged, they received the blows with gladness and were thankful that they were counted worthy to receive treatment like their Lord and Savior had been given.

One of the young men, Saturninus, was the first to die. He was attacked first by a leopard and, when the leopard struck but failed to kill, a bear was sent in to finish him by mauling and chewing him to death. Next, the teacher Saturus was tied to a huge maddened boar. When the boar just dragged him around and trampled him, he returned alive to his jailer. meanwhile, the boar gored his handler, who died a few days later. Though grievously wounded, Saturus had nothing but kindness and concern for the jailer Pudens, who was of a gentle spirit and was distressed by the suffering the victims were undergoing. Saturus suggested that if Pudens were to release a leopard, the messy business would be over quickly. The leopard took a huge bite out of Saturus, who was covered with blood. At this point, the enraged crowd cried "You've really been washed now." Still clinging to life, Saturus returned to Pudens. Asking for his ring, Saturus dipped it into his own blood and returned it to the jailer. Touched by the gentle spirit and bravery of the suffering Christians, Pudens later accepted Christ.

Next, it was Perpetua and her friend, the slave girl Felicitas' turn to die. They were stripped naked and wrapped in a net to have their soft bodies exposed to the claws and teeth of the wild beasts. However the prospect of seeing the two young mothers' bodies ripped and bleeding was a bit much for even this bloodthirsty crowd. After all, the Romans had a deep respect for motherhood and many found that treating even Christians this way to be highly offensive. It was decided that the ladies would die properly clothed.

They were placed in the arena and a huge, maddened wild cow was turned in on them. The cow charged and knocked them down with her huge head, then trampled the two women. Then the cow tried to gore them. At one point, Perpetua calmly asked for a pin to arrange her hair. Disheveled hair was for one who was in mourning, and she was rejoicing at the prospect of going in glory to meet her savior. She would meet death with her hair neatly arrayed.

The cow that was to kill the women was clumsy, however, and failed to kill them cleanly. At this point, it was decided to kill the two remaining women after the games. The crowd would hear none of it, however, and clamored to see them die before their eyes. Gladiators were sent in to kill them with swords.

Felicitas died with dignity, killed by the first blow. Perpetua's executioner was young and inexperienced, though, and struck bone instead of administering a clean, mortal blow the first time. In agony, she cried out. Regaining her composure, she guided the young gladiator's hand to place the point of the blade on the base of her throat and instructed him to kill cleanly. Finally, her agony over, she met her savior and won her martyr's crown.

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