PERPETUA’S END was nothing if not grisly. This young Roman mother, from a respectable family, had already been horribly gored by a bull and then struck on the head by a sword wielded by a young gladiator. It was not, however, a fatal blow. With blood pouring down her face, the preternaturally calm young Christian reached for the offending blade and guided it firmly to her throat. This time the gladiator’s thrust proved fatal, and Perpetua collapsed limply upon the sandy floor of the Carthage arena.
In normal circumstances, the delivery of the coup de grace was received by Roman audiences with enthusiastic applause. These were, after all, criminal executions. This time, however, the audience took in the pathetic tableau of the young mother’s crumpled and bloodstained body in shocked silence. If Perpetua was a criminal, then she was a very strange one.
|Perpetua’s martyrdom in the Carthage arena, 203AD.
What distinguishes Perpetua’s martyrdom from so many others is that a great deal of the detail was provided by the young woman herself. Indeed, Perpetua’s journal, recording her thoughts and experiences in the days leading up to her death, is one of the very few documents written by a woman to have come down to us from the classical era. The gory details of her execution in the arena were, like her journal, the record of an eye witness. We even know the exact date of the day she died: 7 March 203AD.
It is worth exploring why that Roman audience was stunned into silence that March afternoon. A century earlier, they would not have been.
In the first century of the Common Era, the Roman world had very little respect for Christians. They were seen as oddballs and weirdos. Some, hearing they ate flesh and drank blood during their rituals, condemned them as cannibals. For the most part, their obdurate refusal to acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor was dismissed as straightforward treason. In short, first-century Romans would say they deserved everything they got.
A century later, however, and Roman confidence in the established religious and political order was waning. The essentially transactional nature of classical paganism struck many as increasingly empty and unfulfilling. What had seemed like madness and fanaticism in the steadfast refusal of the Christians to compromise their faith, now struck many of the more thoughtful Romans as admirable – even heroic.
It also made them curious. What could possibly be so important to these people that, rather than toss a few grains of incense at the Emperor’s statue, they were willing to die? What sort of God could inspire such unflinching devotion?
This is the powerful political logic of martyrdom: its unparalleled ability to make people ask important questions about fundamental issues. For Christian martyrs like Perpetua, the fundamental issue was their relationship with God. In her journal she describes how her parents pleaded with her to relent and do as the Roman governor commanded – if only for the sake of her new-born babe. Quietly, but firmly, she refused.
Political martyrs display exactly the same uncompromising behaviour. In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, the abolitionist, John Brown, was a murderous, Bible-quoting fanatic from the killing-fields of “Bloody Kansas”. But his botched attempt to foment a slave uprising in Virginia, for which he was tried, found guilty and executed, transformed him, more-or-less overnight, into the symbolic harbinger of a civil war to free the slaves.
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave”, the abolitionists sang, “But his soul goes marching on!” Not many years would pass before the tune of “John Brown’s Body” became Julia Ward Howe’s extraordinary “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The secret to the incredible surges of feeling inspired by the courage of Perpetua and the symbolic sacrifice of John Brown is, of course, the stakes. Both martyrs understood that the consequence of their decisions, of their actions, would be death. What greater stake can there be than one’s own life? The political logic of martyrdom – its extraordinary inspirational power – lies precisely in the implied value of what the martyrs give up their lives to secure.
Who would have heard of Perpetua if her parents had paid a fine and secured her release? Who would have heard of John Brown if he had been remanded in custody for ten days and then released on a good behaviour bond?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 January 2022.