Saint Perpetua was a well-educated, married noblewoman and mother. Born to a pagan father and Christian mother, she chose to follow her mother’s faith and ignored the pleas of her father, who feared for her safety.
Saint Felicity was a Christian slave girl, imprisoned with Perpetua, and was herself expecting a child. Both free and slave alike were tortured and condemned to death. While incarcerated, Felicity gave birth to a daughter who was secretly taken away and cared for by Christian friends. Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Third Century martyrs, are among seven women and eight men commemorated by name in the list of ancient martyrs.
The passion narrative describes the arrest of five catechumens, that is, Christians being instructed in the faith but not yet baptized. The five included three men, two of whom were free and one a slave and Perpetua and Felicity. An additional man joined their group, one who voluntarily went before a magistrate and declared himself a Christian. The six were tortured and executed at military games held in celebration of the Emperor Septimius Severus’s birthday.
Controversies surround the authorship of Perpetua’s Passio. Personal accounts of female martyrs are rare and crucial documents accredited to female authorship even more so. Modifications of her writing reveal the struggle of gender issues that were prevalent and the accepted definition and role of women within the church itself. However, in this story of male and female, slave and free, we honor the courage and unbreakable unity of those called Christian. Martyrdom recognizes no class distinction and all are made one in the love of Christ.