Among the few preserved texts from antiquity written by women, the visions recorded by the Roman matrona, or formally married woman of elevated social status, Vibia Perpetua while awaiting execution for lèse-majesté (harming the ruler) are among the most widely studied. This is not surprising, for Perpetua's visions form part of a larger account that details her execution in the then-customary manner: she was savaged by a wild cow as part of an elaborate public spectacle (a form or gladiatorial games known as ad bestias) staged on March 7, 203 C.E., in her hometown of Carthage, in North Africa, for the birthday of the emperor's son Geta.
Perpetua's crime had been adherence to Christianity, at the time outlawed as a dangerous superstition that, among other crimes, denied the emperor's divine character. Her death made her, in Christian eyes, a martyr. Perpetua is one of the earliest female martyrs known, and she was a remarkable woman. Then around twenty years old, Perpetua was the nursing mother of a newborn. She was accompanied, even in death, by her slave Felicitas, herself highly pregnant. Both Perpetua's visions as well as the account of the two women's death highlight their maternal status. Perpetua speaks of her aching breasts and is tormented over her son's fate, and Felicitas' pregnancy causes her great concern.
Public executions of women in the context of gladiatorial games were very rare in antiquity, those of high-status women were even rarer, and pregnancy was virtually an excluding factor. Later accounts document that "martyrdoms" of pregnant women had became illegal, and Perpetua's story emphasizes the authorities' attempts to prevent her execution; the judge asked Perpetua repeatedly to have pity on her child and recant. Indeed, the framing narrative highlights the audience's reaction to Perpetua's leaking breasts and Felicitas' pregnancy–compassion, pity, and outrage directed against the authorities. In fact, the mere presence of a matrona in the arena was a shocking sight: the reversal of all norms that defined and maintained society. Perpetua's own account, as well as the framing narrative, leave no doubt that this was the point of the exercise. By admitting her Christianity, Perpetua explicitly defied her father and his powerful tutelage (called patria potestas) and hence his role as paterfamilias, of an elite household, the cornerstones of Roman society. Her insistence on being executed, against the will of the authorities, meant abandoning her son to almost certain death, since he would be without her milk–so unthinkable an act that a miracle had to occur to prevent it (in the framing narrative, the child no longer required milk).
Perpetua's husband is never mentioned (Felicitas' companion is, but there was no formal marriage for slaves). Further, the manner of Perpetua's death, nearly naked and in public, classified her as a prostitute, the antithesis of a matrona. For the early Christian audience of this text, all these factors symbolized the destruction of the Roman Empire and its power in favor of the apocalyptically desired "heavenly kingdom." But even this audience could take only so much disruption: The narrator reestablishes (and elevates) Perpetua's status as married mother by calling the deceased matrona Christi, and elevates Felicitas by freeing her posthumously. This authorial act is significant: both women, as martyrs and mothers, became exemplars of the highest order for subsequent generations of Christians until the early fifth century. By then Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and in the hands of Bishop Augustine, who wrote several sermons celebrating both women, the highborn Perpetua loses her motherhood to become a chaste virgin. Her slave Felicitas is now married and gives birth before her public death. Thus in Augustine's re-interpretation both women are still martyrs but no longer explicitly martyr-mothers–far less threatening to the social fabric their religion now upheld.
Coleman, Katherine. 1990. "Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged As Mythological Enactments." Journal of Roman Studies 80: 44–73.
Elm, Susanna. 1994. Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Salisbury, Joyce E. 1997. Perpetua's Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge.