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St. Perpetua. Why Sex and Gender Matter . Life and Background. Young woman (22 years old) New mother Well born Arrested, tried and imprisoned. Her Execution. She was probably killed on March 7 th in 203 Part of the birthday entertainment for Emperor Septimius Severus’s son

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St. Perpetua

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St. Perpetua

Why Sex and Gender Matter


Life and Background

  • Young woman (22 years old)

  • New mother

  • Well born

  • Arrested, tried and imprisoned


Her Execution

  • She was probably killed on March 7th in 203

  • Part of the birthday entertainment for Emperor Septimius Severus’s son

  • He was 14 at the time


What was Perpetua’s Crime?

  • Charged with civil disobedience

  • Condemned to fight wild beasts in the Roman amphitheater at Carthage


Roman Carthage


The Text

  • Prison diary

  • Simple language

  • Modern scholars accept that this is a first person narrative done by Perpetua


The Structure of the Text

  • Perpetua writes of her arrest, trial, and visions while in prison

  • Someone else (author unknown) adds a introduction, an eyewitness report of her death, and a vision of another martyr named Saturus


Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas


Gender, Identity & Status I

  • Shift from home (women’s realm) and family to public martyr

  • Perpetua is referred to as “domina” yet is her status as a wife relevant?


Gender, Identity and Status II

  • Perpetua’s transformation into a man coincides with:

  • The end of her lactation

  • Her movement into the arena (world of men)


What is remarkable about this text?

  • She becomes the legal advocate for herself

  • She intercedes on behalf of others

  • At this time, women were denied the right to represent others in legal affairs


Where did Roman authority normally come from at this time?

  • The gods

  • The magistrates

  • The paterfamilias


Vision #1

  • Vision of martydom (4)

  • “Domina soror, you are now in such honor that you may ask whether there will be a martyrdom or a stay of execution?” (4.1)


Vision #2

  • Vision of Dinocrates, her brother, who died of skin cancer (7-8)

  • Her brother is disfigured and unable to drink water

  • She sees him healed and able to drink from a golden cup after she prays for him


Vision #3

  • Vision of gladiatorial victory (10)

  • Enters the arena

  • Becomes a man

  • Wins the fight


What is the purpose of these visions?

  • In between the scenes where Perpetua challenges familial and legal authority

  • Visions show her acting independently

  • Interceding on behalf of others


Perpetua’s Conviction

  • Her refusal to submit to her father is considered a disgrace (3.1)

  • “Father, do you see that thing lying there – let’s call it a vase, a little pitcher, or some such other thing?”

  • Perpetua asks, “It cannot be called by any other name, can it?”

  • “So, I can not say I am other than what I am, a Christian.”


Perpetua and Her Father

  • Claims her identity

  • Uses term “urseolus” or “little pitcher”

  • Funeral urn, but also symbolizes her female body and her mortality

  • Reversal of gender roles (6.2-6)


Perpetua in Court

  • Her father appears before her with his infant son in his arms

  • You would expect this scene to be reversed

  • Weeping wife and children can evoke pity from judges


Perpetua and the Prison Warden

  • Uses humor and legal language to assert her authority

  • Prison warden is shamed into treating Perpetua better

  • She tells him they need to be fattened up if they are to be the entertainment for the crowd


Roman Women and Legal Authority I

  • How does one gain honor in Roman society?

  • A man of authority fulfills his duties with decorum

  • Chooses his own destiny


Roman Women & Legal Power II

  • The crowd lowers their eyes to Perpetua when she enters the amphitheater

  • Her procession into the amphitheater is given a triumphal quality

  • She controls the circumstances of her death


Roman Women & Legal Power III

  • “We came into this of our own free will so that our liberty would not be taken away

  • We have legally contracted to forfeit our lives rather than perform any such pagan rites”

  • Injustice acknowledged justice”


Perpetua’s Authority, Part I

  • Perpetua and the other martyrs refuse to wear pagan costumes into the amphitheater

  • Spectators are alternately astonished and horrified


Perpetua’s authority, Part II

  • “We may think of status as static, but but honor was, in ancient Rome, forever open to contest, enmeshed in a chain of challenge and response. It had to be tested; it required an agony and a spectacle”

  • Carlin Barton, The Gladiator and the Monster


Perpetua’s Authority, Part III

  • Terrible death is better than being a slave under fairly decent conditions

  • Choses death in a public and conspicuous way


Rejection of Traditional Roles

  • Rejected birth father

  • Rejected husband

  • Madonna/Child Theme is reversed


Conclusion, Part I

  • Dependence on male relatives

  • Dependence on church authority

  • Replaced by Perpetua’s confidence in her own abilities


Conclusion, Part II

  • In the end, Perpetua behaves in the arena (the public sphere) as is expected for an upper class woman of that time


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