Chapter VI Tertullian Perpetua and Her Companions



A.D. 181-206.

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in 181, and the Church was little troubled by persecution for the following twenty years.

About this time a false teacher named Montanus made much noise in the world. He was born in Phrygia, and seems to have been crazed in his mind. He used to fall into fits, and while in them, he uttered ravings which were taken for prophecies, or messages from heaven: and some /women who followed him also pretended to be prophetesses. These people taught a very strict way of living, and thus many persons who wished to lead holy lives were deceived into running after them. One of these was Tertullian, of Carthage, in Africa, a very clever and learned man, who had been converted from heathenism, and had written some books in defence of the Gospel, but he was of a proud and impatient temper, and did not rightly consider how our Lord Himself had said that there would always be a mixture of evil with the good in His Church on earth (St. Matt. xiii. 38, 48). And hence, when Montanus pretended to set up a new church, in which there should be none but good and holy people, Tertullian fell into the snare, and left the true Church to join the Montanists (as the followers of Montanus were called). From that time he wrote very bitterly against the Church; but he still continued to defend the Gospel in his books against Jews and heathens, and all kinds of false teachers, except Montanus. And when he was dead, his good deeds were remembered more than his fall, so that, with all his faults, his name has always been held in respect.

After more than twenty years of peace, there were cruel persecutions in some places, under the reign of Severus. The most famous of the martyrs who then suffered were Perpetua and her companions, who belonged to the same country with Tertullian, and perhaps to his own city, Carthage. Perpetua was a young married lady, and had a little baby only a few weeks old. Her father was a heathen, but she herself had been converted, and was a “catechumen”– which was the name given to converts who had not yet been baptized, but were in a course of “catechising”, or training for baptism. When Perpetua had been put into prison, her father went to see her, in the hope that he might persuade her to give up her faith. “Father,” she said, “you see this vessel standing here; can you call it by any other than its right name?” He answered, “No.” “Neither,” said Perpetua, “can I call myself anything else than what I am–a Christian.” On hearing this, her father flew at her in such anger that it seemed as if he would tear out her eyes; but she stood so quietly that he could not bring himself to hurt her, and he went away and did not come again for some time.

In the meanwhile Perpetua and some of her companions were baptized; and at her baptism she prayed for grace to bear whatever sufferings might be in store for her. The prison in which she and the others were shut up was a horrible dungeon, where Perpetua suffered much from the darkness, the crowded state of the place, the heat and closeness of the air, and the rude behaviour of the guards. But most of all she was distressed about her poor little child, who was separated from her, and was pining away. Some kind Christians, however, gave money to the keepers of the prison, and got leave for Perpetua and her friends to spend some hours of the day in a lighter part of the building, where her child was brought to see her. And after a while she took him to be always with her, and then she felt as cheerful as if she had been in a palace.

The martyrs were comforted by dreams, which served to give them courage and strength to bear their sufferings, by showing them visions of blessedness which was to follow. When the day was fixed for their trial, Perpetua’s father went again to see her. He begged her to take pity on his old age, to remember all his kindness to her, and how he had loved her best of all his children. He implored her to think of her mother and her brothers, and of the disgrace which would fall on all the family if she were to be put to death as an evil-doer. The poor old man shed a flood of tears; he humbled himself before her, kissing her hands, throwing himself at her feet, and calling her Lady instead of Daughter. But, although Perpetua was grieved to the heart, she could only say, “God’s pleasure will be done on us. We are not in our own power, but in His.”

One day, as the prisoners were at dinner, they were suddenly hurried off to their trial. The market-place, where the judge was sitting, was crowded with people, and when Perpetua was brought forward, her father crept as close to /her as he could, holding out her child, and said, “Take pity on your infant.” The judge himself entreated her to pity the little one and the old man, and to sacrifice but, painful as the trial was, she steadily declared that she was a Christian, and that she could not worship false gods. At these words, her father burst out into such loud cries that the judge ordered him to be put down from the place where he was standing and to be beaten with rods. Perhaps the judge did not mean so much to punish the old man for being noisy as to try whether the sight of his suffering might not move his daughter; but, although Perpetua felt every blow as if it had been laid upon herself, she knew that she must not give way. She was condemned, with her companions, to be exposed to wild beasts; and, after she had been taken back to prison, her father visited her once more. He seemed as if beside himself with grief; he tore his white beard, he cursed his old age, and spoke in a way that might have moved a heart of stone. But still Perpetua could only be sorry for him; she could not give up her Saviour.

The prisoners were kept for some time after their condemnation, that they might be put to death at some great games which were to be held on the birthday of one of the emperor’s sons; and during this confinement their behaviour had a great effect on many who saw it. The gaoler himself was converted by it, and so were others who had gone to gaze at them. At length the appointed day came, and the martyrs were led into the amphitheatre. The men were torn by leopards and bears; Perpetua and a young woman named Felicitas, who had been a slave, were put into nets and thrown before a furious cow, who tossed them and gored them cruelly; and when this was over, Perpetua seemed as if she had not felt it, but were awaking from a trance, and she asked when the cow was to come. She then helped Felicitas to rise from the ground, and spoke words of comfort and encouragement to others. When the people in the amphitheatre had seen as much as they wished of the wild beasts, they called out that the prisoners should be killed. Perpetua and the rest then took leave of each other, and walked with cheerful looks and firm steps into the middle of the amphitheatre, where men with swords fell on them and dispatched them. The executioner who was to kill Perpetua was a youth, and was so nervous that he stabbed her in a place where the hurt was not deadly; but she herself took hold of his sword, and showed him where to give her the death-wound.