Early Christians in the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century CE: Faith or Family?

Mileidy Gonzalez
University of Pennsylvania
Classics and Biology
The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity constitutes one of the earliest Christian texts and an example of the personal account of a female martyr. Dating from the beginnings of the 3rd century CE (ca. 203 AD), this text narrates the martyrdom stories of Vivia Perpetua, an aristocratic Roman woman, of Felicity, a pregnant slave, and of other fellow early Christians. The events take place during the reign of Septimius Severus in Carthage, an Imperial Roman city of Africa. In the context of the early Christian church, martyrdom was consciously and systematically promoted for it was considered to securing a “special” place in Heaven for those who suffered and died for the faith. Hence, scholars have debated for decades on how these martyrdoms were seen in early Christian times and what impact did they have on Roman society. This paper will analyze The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity in light of the following questions. Was early Christianity a threat to the established order in the Roman Empire? What effects did this new community have on the Roman family? What role did violence play in the executions? And, was this violence novel or usual in the Roman society of the period? This paper will try to suggest that early Christian martyrdom was an individual’s conscious choice that weakened the Roman family while establishing the foundations of the Christian community.
       First, it is necessary to emphasize that Roman society, thus the Empire, was founded in the model of the familia. The family was at the center of Roman values and expectations: morals, politics, religion, property, and reputation, among others. In The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, Perpetua’s choice of the Christian faith over her Roman family represents an insight into the effects that early Christianity had on the state. Hence, a close up to the relationship between Perpetua and her family is crucial.
       At the center of the Roman family is the paterfamilias, the oldest living male in the household. He is the head of the family and as such, has legal privilege over the property and authority over all the family members. This centrality is observed in Passion since Perpetua is first and more frequently visited by her father, being him who first visits her and not her mother or the brother who is also Christian. Therefore, Perpetua already presents her readers with a strong argument: her relationship with her father is the most prominent one of her Roman family ties but she chooses to reject it in favor of her Christian faith. As Perpetua herself tells her father, she is nothing else but a Christian, thus rejecting her loyalty to her family and to Rome (Passion 1.2). Perpetua’s affection for her father and his for her, however are evident throughout the text for she suffers over his anxiety and pain, and even tries to comfort him. It seems, thus, as if there is not a complete denial and detachment between Perpetua and her family but rather a conscious choice of prioritizing her Christian faith over her duties as Roman daughter and citizen. Nonetheless, the role of paterfamilias seems to have been replaced by God, the highest authority in the Christian faith. Described by Perpetua’s vision as an old, white-haired man, He welcomes her as “daughter,” feeds her cheese, and provides a new home for her, the Garden, all of which imply his role as her new father (Passion 1.1). Consequently, this substitution of the role as the paterfamilias of Perpetua’s father by God parallels that of the Christian faith and the Roman family.
       The remaining members of Perpetua’s Roman family can be singly interpreted, with the exception of her infant son whose role will be discussed later. According to the unknown editor of Passion, Perpetua had “a father and mother and two brothers, one of whom, like herself, was a catechumen, and a son an infant at the breast” (Passion 1.1). Curiously, her husband is never mentioned and is only inferred because the editor describes Perpetua as “a married matron” (Passion 1.1). This lack of any information about her husband is much intriguing and raises countless questions: was he distancing himself because he was non-Christian and did not approve Perpetua’s decision and faith? As B. D. Shaw proposes, her husband was perhaps related to Perpetua’s father side of the family, which “would not take joy in her suffering” and opposed her decision to become a Christian and thus, found her harsh sentence by the Roman authorities entirely acceptable [1]. Or perhaps, he was dead or him and Perpetua, divorced? Or even maybe, he was simply “edited out” from the original text given that his visits to Perpetua might have led some to believe they had sexual relations, a claim that would have been unsuitable for the portrait of a saint. In addition and unlike her father, who dialogues with Perpetua multiple times, one of the brothers is never seen [2] and her mother is a silent character. As a whole, these three individuals—mother, brother, and husband—along with the father represent Perpetua’s Roman family. Perpetua does interact with her other brother, on the contrary, who described as a fellow Christian. Perpetua’s blood family is, therefore, majorly composed of Roman pagans, or at least non-Christians. The absence or silence of three out of four members of this familia along with Perpetua’s rejection of her father alludes to, perhaps, her departure from the traditional expectations of women in a Roman family.
       Another emphasis in regard to this partition is Perpetua’s relationship with her infant son. Analogous to her choice of God over her biological father, Perpetua seems to undergo a conscious and voluntary process: stop being a mother to be a Christian martyr. At the beginning of her imprisonment, Perpetua feels anxiety and distress by having her child away, feelings that seem to be shared by her son who is “enfeebled with hunger” (Passion 1.2). She even describes that upon obtaining for her infant to remain with her in the dungeon, it became like a palace and there was no other place she rather be (Passion 1.2). These two statements imply a powerful connection between Perpetua and her Roman ties, between the mother and the Christian. Nonetheless, Perpetua does not yield to her father’s pleas to have pity on her infant son and to deny her faith, neither before nor after the hearing at the town-hall [3].  On the contrary, this relationship is utterly weakened and put aside after the hearing in front of the procurator. When asked directly, Perpetua firmly replies: “I am a Christian,” which results in her condemnation to “the wild beasts” (Passion 2.2). Soon after, both the child and Perpetua cease to need each other for food or serenity, respectively; in her own words, it seemed as “God willed it” (Passion 2.2). Her maternal affections and thus, her female Roman duty dissolves and leaves place just for the Christian martyr and eventually, Saint. Evidently, Perpetua chooses once again Christianity over her Roman family.
       Perpetua’s choice of the Christian faith over her Roman family results in her adoption into a new community, a “new” familia. Despite her privileged social position as a “respectable born” Roman citizen, Perpetua consciously decides to be part of a more socially inclusive group, which comprises from freedmen to slaves (Passion 1.1). God embodies the paterfamilias of this new “family” and the rest of the members include from other brethren (Christians) to martyrs. As mentioned before, Perpetua has a brother who is also a Christian. Her relationship with him seems close for he refers to her as “dear sister” and also supports her passion, which highly contrasts the relationship between Perpetua and her father. Moreover, the text suggests the possibility of acceptance, if not eventual conversion, from a Roman pagan: Pudens, the soldier. According to Perpetua, this man, who must have been a pagan due to his enrollment in the Roman army, regarded her and her fellow Christian prisoners in great esteem and perceived “the great power of God in them” (Passion 3.1). During Perpetua and her fellow Christians’ martyrdom, Pudens receives a “farewell,” an advice to “be mindful of [the] faith, and a “little ring” bathed in Saturus’ blood as inheritance from him, a fellow Christian friend and martyr (Passion 6.4). The character of Pudens perhaps alludes to the existing increase in early converts in the Roman society. Lastly, one more strong argument for the creation of a new community not based on blood relationship but rather on a common faith, is the example during the execution in the amphitheater of the two female martyrs in Passion: Perpetua and Felicitas. When the latter was crushed by the wild, fierce cow that both of them were fighting, Perpetua goes back to “lifted her up” (Passion 6.3). Overall, this new community is characterized by an evident rejection to the traditional Roman family loyalties and social boundaries. These are replaced by the Christian faith and the strong message it promotes, in words of Perpetua: “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, and be not offended at my suffering” (Passion 6.3).
       This rejection of the “old,” Roman family and adoption into the “new,’ Christian community would have a series of repercussions to both the convert—Perpetua—and her “families.” Passion illustrates these consequences during the Roman Empire of the 3rd century CE, primarily due to the disruption of the established social and religious order built on the model of the familia.
       The plea delivered by Perpetua’s father before his daughter’s hearing at the town-hall best illustrates the risks for Roman families of Christian martyrs. According to him, Perpetua’s self-identification as Christian but especially her refusal to “offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors,” would result in the ruin of her entire family (Passion 2.2). It is important to understand that denial to sacrifice in Roman festivals was considered a crime which carried serious connotations, like political treason, for they were basic practices of civil life [4]. In agreement with Cooper, it seems from Passion that Roman persecutors seem to have been willing to turn a blind eye to the participation in Christian worship, as long as the Christians continued to participate in Roman cults. Perpetua’s refusal thus, would “deliver [her family] up to the scorn of men,” “bring [them] all to destruction,” and prevent them to “speak in freedom” (Passion 2.1). For even after Perpetua’s death, her Roman family would be subjected to surveillance and suspicious of Christian alliances themselves.
       Contrarily to Perpetua’s Roman family who was exposed to “possible” repercussions from which the text describes little, the consequences for her adopted, Christian family would be violent and bloody [5]. Their self-identification as Christians during the hearing in front of the procurator, along with their conscious decision to refuse to sacrifice in Roman cults, would result in Perpetua and her fellow Christians’ sentence to fight the wild beast in the amphitheater. Upon arrival, they are scourged as they pass along the rank of the venatores and then, put to fight with a leopard, a bear, and a wild boar, and a very fierce cow (Passion 6.1-2). Finally, they all share with one another the kiss of peace and suffer martyrdom together by being put to the sword of the gladiators (Passion 6.4). Certainly, the fate of Perpetua and her fellow Christians is one impregnated with blood and violence.
       It is important to note that this type of violence was not a novelty for the Roman society of the period, especially in the context of the amphitheater. In addition, the spectacle did not just present chaos and horror but also, explicit sexuality. As Frankfurter puts it, the martyrology becomes pornography in scenes such as when Perpetua and Felicitas are stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena [6]. The Perpetua’ delicate youth and Felicitas’ milk dropping breasts caused, undoubtedly, attraction, sexuality, and eroticism in the arena that day (Passion 6.3). Therefore, the execution of this group of Christians was parallel to the Roman circus in a sense that it served as entertainment, but it also provided a direct message to the whole society about the violent fate of those who refused to comply with Roman civic life [7]. Simultaneously, Christianity transmitted a strong statement: they were part of a cohesive community which transcended social structures and was willing to suffer together isolation and even death for their faith.
       In conclusion, The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity illustrates how early Christian martyrdom represented a conscious choice that weakened the Roman family, thus the Roman Empire, while simultaneously establishing the foundations for the Christian faith. Passion suggests that the process of conversion from Roman to Christian did not occur at once but it was rather a willful process. There is no evident, complete denial between Perpetua and her family at first but rather a decision to prioritize her Christian faith over her Roman duties as citizen, daughter, and mother. It is this departure from the traditional expectations of a citizen in the civic Roman life what turn Christianity into a threat for the established social and religious order and thus, results in the persecutions and violent events that the 3rd century CE Rome would go through. The bloodshed and cruelty developed from inside the Roman amphitheater into the streets with two strong and opposite messages. On one hand, Romans either complied to the established civic rules and religious sacrifice or else they might suffer the same fate as Perpetua and her fellow Christian martyrs. On the other, Christianity present themselves as an inclusive community that was willing to suffer and sacrifice even their lives for their faith. Therefore, Passion deliberately shows its audience this confrontation between the Roman Empire and the Christian faith, in light of promoting rejection to the traditional Roman family loyalties and Imperial social boundaries, as well as the existence of a new, rising, welcoming community.


[1] Shaw, 25
[2] There is a later reference to a younger non-Christian brother who had died from disease that might refer to this second brother, but it is not clear from the text.
[3] Interestingly, another character in Passion follows a similar path: the slave Felicity. Although her family is not relevant for it is Perpetua’s letters what we have, Felicity takes a similar approach to maternity as Perpetua does. She was pregnant from the moment of her apprehension to soon before the fight at the exhibition. Felicity grieved not because of her death sentence but rather because her pregnancy would not allow her to suffer martyrdom with her fellow Christians. Her child was the impediment. As if God willed it, the baby was born and adopted by a sister of Felicity, allowing her to die with her fellow Christians. The faith surpasses once again the Roman family.
[4] Cooper, 149
[5] Chapter 2.2 in Passion provides only one example of physical suffering by Perpetua’s Roman family. Specifically, Perpetua narrates when her father was thrown down and beaten with rods after trying to persuade her for one last time to refute her identity as Christian. Any other possible repercussions should be imagined by the reader based out of the father’s speech in Passion 2.1.
[6] Frankfurter, 221
[7] Decades later, Emperor Decius’ Edict and libellus on 250 CE and Emperor Valerian on 257 CE would make mandatory the worship of the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor. The former would not target directly Christians but only require sacrifice, similar to the situation in Passion. However, Valerian’s Edict did target Christians and their practices. Overall, the 3rd and 4th century CE will be a tumultuous period until Constantine’s reign, his conversion to Christianity and a reversal in the situation.



  • Cooper, Kate (1998), “The voice of the victim: gender, representation and early Christian martyrdom”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 80(3), 147-157.
  • Frankfurter, David (2009), “Martyrology and the prurient gaze”, Journal of Early Christian Studies 17(2), 215-245.
  • Ιωσήφ, Δέσποινα (2004),«Christianos ad leonem. Οι διωγμοί των χριστιανών και οι επιλογές τους. Η περίπτωση της Περπέτουας», Μνήμων 26, 201-208.
  • R.E. Wallis Translation. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0324.htm>.
  • Shaw, Brent D. (1993), “The Passion of Perpetua,” Past & Present 139, 3–45.

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