In the ancient city of Carthage, North Africa in the year 203, Perpetua, a young married lady and the mother of an infant son, and Felicita, a pregnant slave girl found themselves in a dark dungeon.
With them were Felicita’s fellow slave Revocatus and two free men Saturninus and Secundulus. Another, Seturus, who declared himself a Christian before the judge, joined them – he was probably Perpetua’s husband.
The first five were catechumens and were imprisoned for violating the decree issued by Emperor Septimus Severus forbidding any one from becoming a Christian. They were baptized before being incarcerated.
Perpetua, who was of a patrician family and well educated, left an amazing chronicle of their ordeal up to the day before their martyrdom. Her father was a pagan and her mother a Christian. Her father repeatedly pleaded with her to give up her faith for the sake of her family and infant son.
In her account she writes: “When my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and thus weaken my faith, I said to him, ‘Do you see this vessel, water pot, or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is? ‘No’, he replied. ‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.’”
Later, in prison she recounts: “What a day of horror! Terrible heat on account of the crowd! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all, I was tormented with anxiety for my baby…” But Perpetua’s mother was able to bring her child to her to suck, which relieved her “…and being relieved of my…anxiety for him, I at once recovered my health, and my prison became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”
In prison Perpetua and Saturus were given visions foretelling their martyrdom and their entrance into heaven.
Felicita was anxious that being pregnant she would not be able to suffer martyrdom with her companions; as Roman law forbade the execution of expectant mothers. But two days before their martyrdom she gave birth to a little girl who was adopted by a Christian woman.
Secundulus died in prison.
The account of the martyrdom of the five holy confessors comes to us through an eye-witness.
The martyrs suffered as part of the games for the Emperor’s birthday on 7 March 203. The pagan mob first demanded they be scourged. Then a boar, a bear and a leopard were set on the men.
The two women were thrown before a raging bull which wounded them. Then they were put to the sword.
Before dying Perpetua made a profession of faith: “For the sake of this cause, we came willingly into prison, that our liberty may not be obscured. To this Christian cause have we devoted our lives.”