There is no other ancient work quite like The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas for shocking us out of our 21st century complacency that the ancients thought of gender along similar lines to ourselves. Male and female are not separate categories – they are stations along a pole. There is no idea of the personality as distinct from one’s gender. Only the virile man was fully equipped to attain the heights of the greatest virtue. A man could demonstrate courage and be resolute in the face of danger. Women by nature were not able to ellicit such virtue ordinarily, but in exceptional circumstances she could attain them. The circumstances needed to be beyond the usual, for a woman to become courageous meant that she was to become a man, as we see in The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas. These ideas are in play long before the first century and shape the discussion of Christian virtue in the New Testament.  

By L.M.Kidson © 26 Sept 2013

The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas primarily tells the story of a young woman Perpetua and her fellow Christians, who are brought to trial as Christians before the governor Hilarianus in Carthage around the year 203. There are three voices in this martyrology: “that of Perpetua, who records her experiences in a diary (3-10), that of Saturus, who offers a short account of one of his dream visions that included Perpetua (11, 2-13), and that of an anonymous redactor, whose narration frames and presents the texts of the two martyrs (1-2; 11, 1; 14-21).”[1] Perpetua’s diary records her struggles as a mother of a baby and a faithful daughter who believes she is called upon to confess the name of Christ. She has a number of visions which embolden her to stay true to her confession. The most startling of these visions is of Perpetua transgendered. In this vision she sees herself in the gladiatorial arena and she exclaims, “I was stripped and became a man” (The Martyrdom of Perpetua 3.2). It is this statement that has piqued scholars’ interest in the way gender is constructed and manipulated in this martyrdom.[2] Sharon Dunn observes a tension between women as life givers and martyrs as dealers of death.[3] She writes, ‘As with the term “martyr”, what is meant by “woman” in these narratives is hardly self-evident and frequently is marked by ambiguity and paradox.  Gender is both constructed and de-constructed in these texts [martyrologies including The Martyrdom of Perpetua], seeming at times a very rigid concept and at others a fluid one.’[4] The way gender is constructed may arise from the general Greco-Roman formulations of masculinity and femininity or it could be influenced by the Montanist tradition in Africa. There were tensions between the Montanist movement in Anatolia and Catholic clergy over a woman’s role in the church (Epiphanius  Panarion XLIX.2-3).[5] This raises tantalising questions about the underlying influences in The Martyrdom of Perpetua. This essay will consider three potential influences behind this martyrology, the New Prophecy (Montanism), Phrygian religious traditions, and ordinary Christian teaching, and assess the contribution that these influences make to the “ambiguous and paradoxical” way gender is constructed.

Rex Butler sees the martyrology as a “distinctly Montanistic document.”[6] There are distinct elements of Montanism in the editor’s preface and concluding narration of the martyrdoms. The preface chimes with Montanist ideas. The stated purpose is that he has collected ‘new instances’ illustrating faith so that ‘God may be honoured’ and ‘man may be strengthened’ (Preface).[7] He asks why these new instances may not also be preserved just as the ancient ones are.[8] This places the ancient instances of faith and the new on an equal plane. He goes on to justify this by appeal to the continuing activity of the Holy Spirit. He cites Joel 2:28-29 as scriptural proof of this continuing activity of the Spirit.[9]  Thus there is a concern for the ongoing work of the Spirit, of prophecy, of spiritual gifts to the church, all of which feature in the Phrygian Montanist movement.

Does the Montanist influence extend to the editor’s introduction to Perpetua’s diary (Ch. 1)? It is curious that Perpetua’s husband is not mentioned, although she is described as ‘a married matron.’ Butler suggests that this silence shows that Perpetua and Felicitus (whose status is not mentioned) have renounced their marriages as Montanist women (Apollonius in Eusebius Church History 18.2).[10] However without any other evidence this inference cannot be made. It was not unknown for spouses to leave their Christian partners (1 Corinthians 7:15). Roman women were able to divorce their husbands, but usually the children stayed with their father.[11] This may not have happened here because Perpetua’s baby is still at the breast. However, Perpetua gives the baby to her parents to raise instead of her husband’s family. It could be that in Carthage there was confusion over the adoption law as there was in Egypt.[12] Nevertheless, it is not possible to say that the absence of Perpetua’s husband is as a result of his wife’s Montantism. It maybe that the editor did not know about Perpetua’s circumstance and so refrains from comment.

We turn now to consider how the possible influence of Montanism in the presentation of gender in Perpetua’s diary. In the diary there is an interweaving between Perpetua’s recounts of her interactions with her father and her visions. In this way the reader gains insight into the tensions that tear at Perpetua- between her earthly responsibilities as a woman and her spiritual calling as a Christian witness. In her discussions with her father we see her resisting the socially expected role of a mother and daughter. A woman’s centre was to be her family and her household (Musonius Rufus, 40, 17-20). Women were publically praised for it.[13] In the narrator’s description of Perpetua one is left with the impression that she was such a woman. Certainly she was nursing her own baby rather than engaging a wet nurse. This was Tacitus’ ideal respectable mother (A Dialogue Concerning Oratory, XXVIII). The Montanist women Priscilla and Maxilla left their households to take up a life as prophetesses. In the case of Perpetua she is arrested and taken away. Her role, however, is not primarily as a prophetess but as a martyr.

Rex Butler suggests that Perpetua is a reputed prophetess before she is imprisoned.[14] Yet the martyrology gives the impression that at first Perpetua was given nothing more than a revealed assurance at her baptism, “nothing else was to be sought for bodily endurance” (1.2). Perpetua’s first vision is given to her after her brother informs her that she could ask for a vision. Her second vision comes after a time of communal prayer (2.3). All three visions are pictorial rather than words of instruction. This is in contrast to the prophecies of Asian Montanism as Christine Trevett describes,

They [Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla] taught, expounded and expanded the tradition, declared things to come, convicted hearers of wrongdoing or compromise and stressed the need to bear witness…For the Three παρακαλειν meant speaking ‘with almighty power in the name of God’…This was Christian prophetism.[15]

Further, Eusebius says that when Montanus prophesied he,

‘suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church’ (Church History 16.7).

There is no indication in Perpetua’s diary that she underwent any such physical manifestations before or during her visions. The only word she speaks comes to her in the time of prayer and is the name of her deceased brother. Perpetua takes this as a sign from God that she should pray for him. This bears some similarity to the Montanists who believed that God spoke through them (Epiphanius, Panarion 48.11.1). Maximilla said ‘Do not listen to me, but listen to Christ’ (Epiphanius, Panarion 48.12.4) suggesting that the Montanist prophets saw their role as bringing new words from God to their community. Yet there is no indication that Perpetua saw her role as an intermediary. Indeed, Perpetua’s visions are principally for herself as a martyr rather than for her community.

This is a good point at which to consider whether Phrygian religious traditions are influential in the presentation of gender in the martyrology. It is tempting to draw a line between Perpetua as a visionary, the Phrygian prophetess and the devotees of the Phrygian mother goddess, Cybele.[16] Evidence from Roman literature indicates that she was attended by eunuch priests.[17] The eunuch priest was a grade below a woman “‘neither man or woman’, whose appearance and manners incorporated the most disagreeable aspects of both male and female.”[18] This, however, may be a Roman assessment of the eunuch’s status while in Phrygia the priest was accepted.[19] These priests are described as engaging in frenzied behaviour, dancing wildly to beating drums and raucous music.[20] This behaviour may have reminded Jerome of Montanist’s ecstatic behaviour and lead to him to suggest that Montanus was himself a priest of Cybele.[21]  This similarity with pagan practice may explain the Catholic antagonism to Montanist’s practice and the belief that they were inhabited by the demonic (Epiphanius, Panarion 47. 2-3). Indeed, this may explain the careful description of Perpetua’s visions. At no time is she not in control of herself nor does she practice glossolalia. Even when she is described by the narrator to be ‘in the Spirit and in an ecstasy’ (6.3), she is still able to maintain her decorum and modesty. Perpetua’s spiritual gift is as a visionary. Some have thought that these are dreams but this is unlikely as Perpetua is hardly asleep when she awakes from her ecstasy in the arena.[22] Her visions do not come from any ritualistic behaviour associated with pagan worship.[23] She passively receives her visions in a dream like way (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 45). Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) says that the soul, even though the body sleeps, “cannot rest or be idle altogether, nor does it confine to the still hours of sleep the nature of its immortality. It proves itself to possess a constant motion…” (A Treatise on the Soul, 43). So too Athanasius envisaged the soul was active while the body was at rest and pointed to this as a sign of the soul’s rationality (Against the Heathen, 31.5). This suggests that both Tertullian and Perpetua shared the catholic understanding of the soul and the role of dreams/ visions. Moreover, her visionary activity owes little to the pagan practices of Phrygia.

Rex Butler claims that “Perpetua’s prophetic activity indicated her association with the egalitarian [Montanist] movement.”[24] Yet her visions are set within recognisable social bounds for a woman. It is her brother who introduces her to visionary practice. This vision relates to her as a caring member of her family as she seeks to save her brother through prayer. The interweaving of the visions with Perpetua’s story about how she leaves her family suggests the purpose of the visions is to transition Perpetua from earthly womanhood to Christian martyr. In one vision Perpetua sees her mentor Saturus ascend first into heaven while escaping the traps of the devil. He then calls Perpetua to follow. She is led in the Spirit as she is led in the world by her catechist. She is not leading as a Montanist prophetess as Butler claims. She has a place as a member in the community. This allows her to withdraw from her earthly family in a way that is above scandal. The membership of the community was important since a woman without the usual constraints of a marriage was believed to be in danger of shameless behaviour (Cicero, For Marcus Caelius, 31, 49).

What are we to make of Perpetua’s vision of herself as a man? Sharon Dunn suggests that Perpetua has reached the deconstruction of her womanhood at this point.[25] It is tempting to see this deconstruction as a strategy by the editor to reconcile the tension between Perpetua’s role as female homemaker and public combative.[26] But there is no reason not to see this strategy stemming from Perpetua as she drew on her community’s tradition. Tertullian in his On Martyrs utilises the imagery of the solider and athlete to encourage those in prison. He says to the martyrs,

You are about to pass through a noble struggle, in which the living God acts the part of superintendent, in which the Holy Ghost is your trainer…Therefore your Master, Jesus Christ, who has anointed you with His Spirit, and led you forth to the arena, has seen it good, before the day of conflict, to take you from a condition more pleasant in itself, and has imposed on you a harder treatment, that your strength might be the greater (Ch.3).

This provides a suitable context in which to see Perpetua’s vision of herself as a gladiator and God as her trainer (3.2). Just as Tertullian says that martyrs are prepared by the Holy Ghost, so too is Perpetua prepared by her trainer. Tertullian goes on to say that God will strengthen the martyr, “and this is not only in the case of men, but of women too, that you, O holy women, may be worthy of your sex” (On Martyrs 4). Perpetua’s vision puts flesh on the promise of God; it brings to life what happens conceptually in Tertullian. Perpetua gains manly courage from God to face the public arena where no woman of status belonged.[27]

The story of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her fellow Christians is told by the editor. This is not a simple recount of events but a carefully crafted story aimed at persuading the audience of Perpetua’s nobility of soul. The editor makes the most of the athletic/gladiatorial metaphor that was a part of Greco-Roman rhetoric.[28] The athlete was an image used by philosophers to describe their training for the soul.[29] Diogenes is reported to have said that he was a greater victor than the athletes because his training was poverty, exile, disrepute, anger, pain, desire, fear and the ‘most redoubtable beast’ of all, pleasure, ‘which no Greek or barbarian can claim he fights and conquers by the strength of his soul’ (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 9.11-12).[30] The New Testament writers used the similar metaphoric language to describe the Christian life and the strength that God provides (Hebrews 12:1-13; 1 Timothy 4: 7-10, 6:11-12; 2 Tim 4: 6-8). Later Christian writers used this same language to describe the strength that God provided for martyr’s souls as they faced combat with the devil in the arena. In The Martyrs of Lyons‡ Blandina is described as having put on the ‘great and noble athlete, Christ’ (5.1.42) to participate in the gladiatorial sports of the arena (5.1.53). Similarly in The Martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicitas when asked by the guard how she would endure the pain when thrown to the beasts since she struggled in pain in childbirth answered, ‘Now it is I that suffer…; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him’ (15.6). This declaration by Felicitas is the key to understanding the ambiguity of gender in the martyrology of Perpetua. Christ is in the women enabling them to publically represent Him. To do so they must not be stricken with feminine weakness but with the virtues of masculinity- courage and self-control (Martyrs of Lyons 5.1.50).[31] It was not that masculine virtues were unobtainable by women since women were believed to be able to achieve such virtues if circumstances necessitated (Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women). But decorum dictated that a woman would remain in her place (Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 139.C.10).[32] There is a tension here since the female Christian martyr is masculinised by Christ but yet is made a virtuous woman (Martyrs of Lyons 1.17, 42; Augustine, Sermon 280. 1, 4; Tertullian, On Martyrs 4). In The Martyrdom of Perpetua, Perpetua is empowered by Christ to keep her womanly decorum and modesty (20. 1; cf. Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 142. C.11-D.5, Letter to Melissa, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Timothy 2: 9-10, Tertullian, On Apparel of Women). Thus her masculinised soul enables her to maintain her womanly virtue. Lastly Perpetua is empowered in her death.[33] In Greek thought Socrates’ death was the noble epitome.[34] This theme of Christ’s self-sacrificing noble death was taken up by the New Testament writers (Luke 23: 41, 46; Romans 5:6; Ephesians 5:2; 1 John 3: 16 etc). So too Ignatius (ca. b. 35 or 50- d. 98 to 117) voluntarily sought a noble death (To the Romans 5). It is by Perpetua’s own act of will that she is killed and this to the editor demonstrates that she is a noble woman (21.10).

The portrayal of the martyrs’ deaths by the editor demonstrates an appropriation of the Greco-Roman assumptions about masculinity to showcase the power that Christ gives to all believers.[35] In doing so he, like the other Christian writers, must deal with the tension between the empowering but masculinising presence of Christ in the female martyr. He does not elevate Perpetua beyond her station in life, which appears to be the crux of the tension between the Montanists and the Catholics. Perpetua, in her diary, is careful to present herself as one spiritually led. This is a modified Montanism that Perpetua and the editor share with Tertullian, who saw no place for a woman to teach and lead (On Baptism XVII). Perpetua’s visionary activity shares little with the frenetic ecstasy of the priests of Phrygia. Her vision of herself as a man actually moves away from their unvirtuous, de-gendered bodies. It owes more to the ennobling presence of Christ in the prevailing Christian teaching than to any other influence. Thus, despite the Montantist trappings of the martyrology, the construction of gender owes most to ordinary Christian teaching.

† For brevity the martyrology will be referred to as The Martyrdom of Perpetua.

The Martyrs of Lyons = The Letter of the Churches of Vienna and Lyons to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia including the story of the Blessed Blandina.


End Notes

[1] H. Vierow, ‘Feminine and Masculine Voices in the “Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicita”’, Latomus July-September (1999), 601.

[2] L. S. Cobb, Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (New York, 2008); R. P. Seesengood, Competing Identities: The Athlete and the Gladiator in Early Christianity (New York, London, 2006); A. Jensen, God’s Confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women, trans. O. C. Dean  (Louisville,1991).

[3] Sharon Dunn, ‘The Female Martyr and the Politics of Death: An Examination of the Martyr Discourses of Vibia Perpetua and Wafa Idris’, JAAR 78. 1 (2010), 202-225.

[4] Dunn, ‘The Female Martyr’, 204.

[5] Trevett, Montanism, 174-175.

[6] Butler, The New Prophecy & “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas (Washington, 2006),129.

[7] Butler, The New Prophecy, 28.

[8] Montainists recorded their prophesies, Butler, The New Prophecy, 33-34.

[9] Monantists utilised Scripture, Trevett, Montanism, 156.

[10] Butler, The New Prophecy, 90.

[11] R. Saller, ‘Family and Household’ in A. Bowman, P. Garnsey & D. Rathbone (eds.), The High Empire AD 70-192, CAHS 11 (New York, 2000), 859-860.

[12] E. A. Mathieson, The Perspectives of the Greek Papyri of Egypt on the Religious Beliefs, Practices and Experience of Christian and Jewish Women from 100 CE to 400 CE (Thesis Macquarie University, 2006), 227-228.

[13] ‘She kept the house and worked in wool,’ CIL 1.1221 (Roman funeral epitaph).

[14] Butler, The New Prophecy, 64.

[15] C. Trevett, Montanism: Gender, authority and the New Prophecy (Cambridge, 1996), 93-94.

[16] The connection has been made by a number of scholars, Bulter, The New Prophesy, 14-15.

[17] L. E. Roller, ‘The Ideology of the Eunuch Priest’ Gender and History 9.3 (1997), 542-559.

[18] Roller, ‘The Ideology of the Eunuch Priest’,

[19] Roller, ‘The Ideology of the Eunuch Priest’, 554.

[20] Roller, ‘The Ideology of the Eunuch Priest’, 547, 550.

[21] W. Tabbernee, Fake Prophecy and Polluted Sacraments: Ecclesiastical and Imperial Reactions to Montanism (Leiden, 2007), 387.

[22] For example, P. Cox Miller, ‘‘A Dubious Twilight’: Reflections on Dreams in Patristic Literature’, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, 55.2 (1986), 153-164.

[23] C. E. Arnold, ‘I am Astonished that you are so Quickly Turning Away! (Gal 1:6): Paul and Anatolian Folk Belief’ New Testament Studies 51.3 (2005), 429-449; L. J. Kreitzer, ‘‘Crude Language’ and ‘Shameful Things Done in Secret’ (Ephesians 5.4, 12): Allusions to the Cult of Demeter/ Cybele in Hierapolis?’ JSNT 71 (1998), 51-77.

[24] Butler, The New Prophecy, 64.

[25] Dunn, ‘The Female Martyr’, 206-208.

[26] As Dunn does ‘The Female Martyr’, 205.

[27] Female gladiators were viewed as exotic contradictions, whose sexuality was publically compromised, Seesengood, Competing Identities, 85-87.

[28] E. Gunderson observes that the figures of the athlete and gladiator were used interchangeably, ‘The Ideology of the Arena’, Classical Antiquity, 15. 1 (1996), 113-151, fn 2.

[29] Seesngood, Competing Identities, 10.

[30] Translated in Seesengood, Competing Identities, 13.

[31] Cobb, Dying to be Men, 30.

[32] Note that Plutarch’s heroines always returned to their appointed womanly positions, Bravery of Women.

[33] Cobb, Dying to be Men, 66-70.

[34] A. Yarbo-Collins, ‘From Noble Death to Crucified Messiah’, NTS 40 (1994), 481-503.

[35] Cobb, Dying to be Men, 78.

© October 2013, L.M. Kidson