Perpetua (1) , martyr. Her full name was Vibia Perpetua. She was well born, and had a father, mother, and two brothers living, one of whom was a catechumen. When 22 years old, married, and having lately borne a son, she was arrested. Her father repeatedly strove to induce her to recant. She and her fellow-martyrs were baptized after their arrest, possibly before their transference to the public prison (cf. Le Blant, Actes des Mart. v. 9, p. 48). They were attended in prison, according to the ancient discipline of the Carthaginian church, by the deacons Tertius and Pomponius (Cypr. Ep. 15 ad Mart. ). Perpetua now had her first vision, indicative of her future passion. She saw a ladder reaching to heaven guarded by a dragon. Saturus mounted first and then Perpetua followed. They came to a large garden, where was a shepherd clad in white, feeding sheep, while thousands in white robes stood around. The shepherd gave Perpetua a piece of cheese, which she received "junctis manibus" and consumed, the attendants saying "Amen." Their trial came soon after. The procurator Hilarianus condemned the martyrs to the beasts. After her condemnation Perpetua saw a vision of her brother Dinocrates, who had died when 7 years old, in punishment, but after continuous prayer for him it was revealed to her that he was removed into a place of refreshment and peace. This vision is a clear proof that prayers for the dead were then used by that party in the church which claimed to adhere most closely to apostolic usages. Some, supposing Dinocrates unbaptized, have claimed it as sanctioning the view that the unbaptized dead are helped by prayer, a view which Augustine combated in de Orig. Animae , lib. i. c. 10, and lib. iii. c. 9, where he maintains that Dinocrates was in punishment for sins committed after baptism. The day before her passion Perpetua saw another vision, wherein she triumphed over an Egyptian, representing the devil, and was rewarded with a golden branch. When the hour of execution arrived the tribune attempted to array the men as priests of Saturn, the women as priestesses of Ceres, but yielded to the indignant protest of Perpetua. She suffered by the sword, after being tossed by an infuriated cow, but, like Blandina at Lyons in a like trial, was unconscious of any pain (cf. Dodwell's Diss. in Iren. ii. §§ 43, 46; Routh's Rel. Sacr. i. 360).
The precise year of the martyrdom is uncertain, the succession of African proconsuls being very imperfectly known. We know that they suffered in the year when Minucius Timinianus was proconsul. One circumstance would seem to fix the date as 202, or at farthest 203. There was as yet no general persecution of the Christians, such as soon after developed itself. The freedom enjoyed by the clergy and Christians in ministering to the martyrs is sufficient proof of this. Why, then, did they suffer? On Jan. 1, 202, Severus was at Antioch, where he appointed himself and Caracalla consuls for the ensuing year. During the month he proceeded by easy stages through Palestine to Egypt, exercising severities upon the Jews which, according to Renan, have left their mark on the Talmud (Mission de Phénicie , pp. 775, 776). He published an edict forbidding any fresh conversions from Paganism to Judaism or Christianity, while imposing no penalties on original Jews or Christians. Now all our martyrs were fresh converts, and as such seem to have suffered under this edict.
Some have maintained that Tertullian wrote the Acts of these martyrs. The style is in many places very similar to his. The documents themselves profess to have been written mainly by Perpetua and Saturus, and completed for publication by a third party, who cannot now be identified. Tertullian certainly knew the Acts, as he refers to the vision of Perpetua in de Animâ , c. 55.
All our MSS. are in Latin; yet Aubé (Les Chrét. dans l’Emp. Rom. p. 615) thinks they may have been originally written in Greek. One MS. represents Perpetua as speaking Greek to bp. Optatus in Paradise. The Acts contain very many Greek words in Latin characters, whence we may at least conclude that the martyrs were bi-lingual, and that Greek was then very current at Carthage. The Acts contain some interesting illustrations of ancient church customs. The kiss of peace is given (c. x.). The Trisagion is sung, and in Greek (c. xii.). In the language of the visions we can clearly see the influence of the Apocalypse (cf. specially c. xii.). The Acts were discovered and pub. by Lucas Holstenius in 17th cent. They are in Ruinart's Acta Sincera ; Acta SS. Boll. Mart. i. p. 630; Munter, Primord. Eccles. Afric. p. 226; and trans. in Clark's Ante-Nicene Series, Cyprian's works, t. ii. p. 276. Aubé, l.c. p. 521, has pub. another version from a Parisian MS. The best ed. of all three texts is ed. by J. A. Robinson, The Passion of St. Perpetua , with intro., notes, and original Lat. text of the Scillitan martyrdom, in Camb. Texts and Studies , i. 2 (1901).