Phoenician Saints Perpetua and Felicity

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Saints Perpetua and Falicity were Carthaginian Phoenician martyrs of the early 3rd century.
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Saints Perpetua and Felicity

No saints were more uniformly honored in the early Christian era than Saints Perpetua and Felicity. The two women were arrested and imprisoned, along with three other Christians, in Punic or Phoenician Carthage in 203 A.D. Perpetua was 22-year-old noblewoman with a son a few months old; Felicity a slave with a child not yet born. Their crime was defying Emperor Septimus Severus' (also of Phoenician Punic origin) prohibition of conversions to Christianity.

The account of their martyrdom and courage is one of the earliest historical accounts of Christianity, and one of the most feminist. Read in African churches for the next several centuries, it was treated as nearly equivalent to scripture. (A full English translation appears in Musurillo's The Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford, 1972]; Butler's unabridged Lives of the Saints contains lengthy excerpts.)

While the five (along with their instructor in faith) were being held awaiting execution, Perpetua's father urged his favorite child to save her life and life of her baby by renouncing her faith. "Father," she answered, "do you see this vessel--waterpot 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."

At a trial shortly thereafter, Perpetua refused to offer a sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors. When the court asked "Are you a Christian?" she answered, "Yes, I am," thereby condemning herself to death.

A few days before the festival games, at which the martyrs would face wild beasts in the coliseum, Perpetua had a dream in which she was transformed into a man, and engaged in unarmed combat with an Egyptian (signifying the devil). "I was lifted up into the air and began to strike him as one who no longer trod the earth...I caught hold of his head and he fell upon his face; and I trod on his head," she dreamt. The other captives also had visions which fortified their courage.

Felicity, meanwhile, had been afraid, that she would not suffer with the rest, because Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women. In answer to her prayers, her child was born while she was in prison, and was promptly adopted by a Christian couple.

Perpetua had managed to convert their jailer to Christianity, and so the captives were treated well in their final days.

The prisoners turned their last meal into an agape, a lovefeast, and spoke of the joy of their own sufferings--thereby astonishing most witnesses, and converting some.

When the day of the Games arrived, Perpetua and Felicity went to the amphitheater "joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven," as Perpetua sang a psalm of triumph. The guards attempted to force the captives to wear robes consecrated to Roman gods, but Perpetua resisted so fiercely that they were allowed to wear their own clothes. The three male martyrs threatened the crowd, including the procurator who had condemned them, with the judgement of God, thereby enraging the crowd.

One of the men, Saturnius, although prepared for martyrdom, was terrified of bears. Saturnius was first exposed to a wild boar, which turned upon its keeper, and promptly killed him. Saturnius was then tied up, and exposed to a bear, which refused to come out of its den. As Saturnius had hoped, he was quickly killed by a single bite from a leopard. As he died, he said to his newly-converted jailer, "Farewell: keep the faith and me in mind, and let these things not confound but confirm you."

A wild heifer was sent against the women. The heifer tossed Perpetua, who got up, straightened her hair, and helped Felicity regain her feet. Absorbed in ecstasy, Perpetua was unaware that she had been thrown, and did not believe it until Felicity showed her the marks on her body.

Having survived the animals, the women were to be executed. They exchanged a final kiss of peace. A nervous gladiator tried to kill Perpetua, but failed to finish the job until she guided the knife to her throat. "Perhaps so great a woman...could not else have been slain except she willed it," the Passion observes.

Although the execution in the Coliseum was intended as entertainment, and enjoyed as such by most of the jeering crowd, some of the spectators, inspired by the martyrs' fearlessness, became converts; nor were these spectators the last people who would be encouraged by Perpetua and Felicity, who, even at the cost of their lives, worshipped God and not the state. They are celebrated on March 7.

Additional information about the two saints from Catholic account of saints

With the lives of so many early martyrs shrouded in legend, we are fortunate to have the record of the courage of Perpetua and Felicity from the hand of Perpetua herself, her teacher Saturus, and others who knew them. This account, known as "The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity," was so popular in the early centuries that it was read during liturgies.

In the year 203, Vibia Perpetua made the decision to become a Christian, although she knew it could mean her death during Septimus' persecution. Her surviving brother (another brother had died when he was seven) followed her leadership and became a catechumen as well.

Her father was frantic with worry and tried to talk her out of her decision. We can easily understand his concern. At 22 years old, this well-educated, high-spirited woman had every reason to want to live -- including a baby son who was still nursing. We know she was married, but since her husband is never mentioned, many historians assume she was a widow.

Perpetua's answer was simple and clear. Pointing to a water jug, she asked her father, "See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is?"

Her father answered, "Of course not." Perpetua responded, "Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am -- a Christian."

This answer so upset her father that he attacked her. Perpetua reports that after that incident she was glad to be separated from him for a few days -- even though that separation was the result of her arrest and imprisonment.

Perpetua was arrested with four other catechumens including two slaves Felicity and Revocatus, and Saturninus and Secundulus. Their catechist, Saturus, had already been imprisoned before them.

She was baptized before taken to prison. Perpetua was known for her gift of "the Lord's speech" and receiving messages from God. She tells us that at the time of her baptism she was told to pray for nothing but endurance in the face of her trials.

The prison was so crowded with people that the heat was suffocating. There was no light anywhere and Perpetua "had never known such darkness." The soldiers who arrested and guarded them pushed and shoved them without any concern. Perpetua had no trouble admitting she was very afraid, but in the midst of all this horror her most excruciating pain came from being separated from her baby.

The young slave, Felicity was even worse off for Felicity suffered the stifling heat, overcrowding, and rough handling while being eight months pregnant.

Two deacons who ministered to the prisoners paid the guards so that the martyrs would be put in a better part of the prison. There her mother and brother were able to visit Perpetua and bring her baby to her. When she received permission for her baby to stay with her "my prison suddenly became a palace for me." Once more her father came to her, begging her to give in, kissing her hands, and throwing himself at her feet. She told him, "We lie not in our own power but in the power of God."

When she and the others were taken to be examined and sentenced, her father followed, pleading with her and the judge. The judge, out of pity, also tried to get Perpetua to change her mind, but when she stood fast, she was sentenced with the others to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Her father was so furious that he refused to send her baby back to Perpetua. Perpetua considered it a miracle that her breasts did not become inflamed from lack of nursing.

While praying in prison, she suddenly felt "gifted with the Lord's speech" and called out the name of her brother Dinocrates who had died at seven of gangrene of the face, a disease so disfiguring that those who should have comforted him left him alone. Now she saw a vision that he was even more alone, in a dark place, hot and thirsty -- not in the eternal joy she hoped for him. She began to pray for Dinocrates and though she was put in stocks every day, her thoughts were not on her own suffering but on her prayers to help her brother. Finally she had another vision in which she saw Dinocrates healed and clean, drinking from a golden bowl that never emptied.

Meanwhile Felicity was also in torment. It was against the law for pregnant women to be executed. To kill a child in the womb was shedding innocent and sacred blood. Felicity was afraid that she would not give birth before the day set for their martyrdom and her companions would go on their journey without her. Her friends also didn't want to leave so "good a comrade" behind.

Two days before the execution, Felicity went into a painful labor. The guards made fun of her, insulting her by saying, "If you think you suffer now, how will stand it when you face the wild beasts?" Felicity answered them calmly, "Now I'm the one who is suffering, but in the arena Another will be in me suffering for me because I will be suffering for him." She gave birth to a healthy girl who was adopted and raised by one of the Christian women of Carthage.

The officers of the prison began to recognize the power of the Christians and the strength and leadership of Perpetua. In some cases this helped the Christians: the warden let them have visitors -- and later became a believer. But in other cases it caused superstitious terror, as when one officer refused to let them get cleaned up on the day they were going to die for fear they'd try some sort of spell. Perpetua immediately spoke up, "We're supposed to die in honor of Ceasar's birthday. Wouldn't it look better for you if we looked better?" The officer blushed with shame at her reproach and started to treat them better.

There was a feast the day before the games so that the crowd could see the martyrs and make fun of them. But the martyrs turned this all around by laughing at the crowd for not being Christians and exhorting them to follow their example.

The four new Christians and their teacher went to the arena (the fifth, Secundulus, had died in prison) with joy and calm. Perpetua in usual high spirits met the eyes of everyone along the way. We are told she walked with "shining steps as the true wife of Christ, the darling of God."

When those at the arena tried to force Perpetua and the rest to dress in robes dedicated to their gods, Perpetua challenged her executioners. "We came to die out of our own free will so we wouldn't lose our freedom to worship our God. We gave you our lives so that we wouldn't have to worship your gods." She and the others were allowed to keep their clothes.

The men were attacked by bears, leopards, and wild boars. The women were stripped to face a rabid heifer. When the crowd, however, saw the two young women, one of whom had obviously just given birth, they were horrified and the women were removed and clothed again. Perpetua and Felicity were thrown back into the arena so roughly that they were bruised and hurt. Perpetua, though confused and distracted, still was thinking of others and went to help Felicity up. The two of them stood side by side as all five martyrs had their throats cut.

Perpetua's last words were to her brother: "Stand fast in the faith and love one another."

In Their Footsteps:

Perpetua said that she couldn't call herself any other name but Christian. Write down a list of names and designations that people could call you. Is Christian high on that list? How can you help make your name as Christian be more important? Live today as if that was the only name you could be called by.


Saints Perpetua and Felicity, watch over all mothers and children who are separated from each other because of war or persecution. Show a special care to mothers who are imprisoned and guide them to follow your example of faith and courage. Amen

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