The Martyrdom of Perpetua Essay

Mara March 8, 2013 Ancient History The Martyrdom Of Perpetua In the year 203, there were many Christians tried, arrested, and found guilty by the governor of Carthage. Among them was a young woman named Vivia Perpetua who was nursing a young child at the time. (Perspectives from the Past 188. ) Through her diary entries, one can see Romans view of women in their society. It also shows how Perpetua is a significant example of a changing view of women in the new Christian society by showing how she was not confined by how she was supposed to act as a woman and took a traditionally masculine role in several situations.

Though she excelled in what was expected of her as a woman, she did not exclude the idea of gender roles. She still conformed to a strict masculine and feminine separation where masculinity was associated with strength and conviction and femininity was associated with weakness and passivity. She did not value her femininity as strength; rather she shed it and deliberately masculinized herself to be strong.

Though Perpetua was a strong woman, her narrative still upheld the idea that the only way to be heroic is to be like a man, and this is shown several times throughout the text. The first example of this presentation as well as Perpetua’s transcendence of gender roles was the complete lack of presence or influence from her husband. He was not even named in the text, and there was no indication of his existence other than a statement that Perpetua was “honorably married” (Perspectives from the Past 188).

On the whereabouts of the husband, a theory that I had was that he may have been dead or that Perpetua took the path of many women after her, who, in the process of becoming Christians, separated themselves of her prior familial relationships, including husbands and children, so that they might become virginal and dedicate themselves to God. Whatever the truth, it’s clear Perpetua’s husband was not important to her story. She went about her business as if she was unattached and has no duties as a wife.

She was completely independent. The lack of a husband’s presence also means that the reader never saw Perpetua in a sexual situation or saw any indication Perpetua could love someone other than God. Whether or not this was a purposeful decision Perpetua made-as I believe it to be-it is true that she did essentially act as a virgin dissociated of men within her narrative. When Perpetua rejected the roles of wife, lover and mother, she was essentially rejecting her womanhood as it was defined by her third century religious beliefs.

Perpetua’s rejection of her motherhood was an essential turning point in her journey that allowed her to truly be a martyr. Her baby and her lactating breasts were proof of previous sexual orientation and strong symbols of her femininity. She was nurturing and caretaking in the way a woman was expected to and devoting herself to a being other than God. But Perpetua separated herself entirely from her child in order to become a true martyr, therefore opting out of both sexuality and femininity. In fact, both her child and her own body reflected this.

Perpetua stated, “As God willed, the baby no longer desired my breasts, nor did they ache and become inflamed, so that I might not be tormented by worry for my child or by the pain in my breasts” (Perspectives from the Past 190). The baby entirely detached himself from his mother as if he had been erased from her very past, and her own biology erased all evidence of motherhood and previous sexual liaisons. The leaving of her family, renunciation of her husband, and eventual giving up of her baby, together with a miraculous drying up of the milk in her breasts, that is, a sort of symbolic restoration of virginity.

It is clear that Perpetua did not yield to her father as a daughter is expected to and failed to even recognize his authority at all. In fact, the roles of father and daughter were completely reversed Perpetua’s role in their first conversation was simply using calm logic, while her father was frantic, and hysterical with emotion. He is described as “weeping” and “pitiable” (Perspectives from the Past 190. ) in begging her to lie about her religion while Perpetua remained calm and determined.

She defeats his emotional outbursts with logic to explain to her father using a pitcher, in that a pitcher is a pitcher and cannot be called anything other than what it is. She says to him, I am a Christian, and cannot be called anything other than was she is. (Perspectives from the Past 189. ) Perpetua made it very clear that she considered her role as daughter a cage and wanted to be freed from her obligation to her father by directly stating these feelings. She described herself as “freed from my father” and says she “was refreshed by my father’s absence” (Perspectives from the Past 189. . In a culture where a woman’s loyalty to her father was of the utmost importance, Perpetua considered this loyalty to be a trap she was freed from, and would have rather not having her father around. Her father was feminized further during their next encounter. Perpetua described him as “kissing my hands and throwing himself at my feet. Weeping, he no longer called me daughter, but lady” (Perspectives from the Past 190). This was the ultimate proof that Perpetua had truly surpassed her role as daughter.

Even her father no longer referred to her as a daughter and addressed her in a way that showed she has authority over him. (Perspectives from the Past 190. ) But Perpetua used her authority to ignore and deny his plea. Her only reaction to her father was to pity him for his weakness and old age. A man who is old would have been drained of the physical strength that was supposed to define a man, and therefore he would be pitied for having lost his masculinity. As such, the younger, fitter Perpetua clearly considered herself the more masculine of the two of them, and therefore she could resist her father’s pleas.

The ultimate example of Perpetua masculinizing herself in order to escape the constraints of her assigned gender role was her description of her vision of gladiatorial combat, in which she turned into a man to triumph. Perpetua had a vision of herself entering the arena to face off against a “foul Egyptian” (Perspectives from the Past 191. ) who is described as if he is the embodiment of all evil. She stated, “I was stripped naked, and I became a man”. It cannot be certain if whether she meant that she transformed physically, mentally or symbolically, but the implication is unquestionable.

Perpetua had to masculinize herself to win her battle. She could not win it as woman. As a woman, she was constrained. She and her society did not see any worth in femininity as a way to help her achieve her goal. She had to become a man to achieve victory because only men are capable in that arena. She won against her opponent by asserting dominance over him in a violent and traditionally masculine way, fighting with him and then stepping on his head to declare her victory. Only after acting as a man was she able to “walk in triumph towards the Gates of Life” and receive her heavenly reward.

On the other hand, despite her transformation into a man, she was still constantly referred to as a woman in the vision. The gladiator trainer said, “This Egyptian, if he defeats this woman, will kill her with the sword, but if she defeats him, she shall receive this branch. ” And when she departed to heaven, the same man referred to her as “Daughter” (Perspectives from the Past 191). So even though she had transformed into a man, her femininity was still acknowledged in that she was addressed and identified as a woman. She still preserved some womanhood.

It’s very interesting to see that in both her vision and reality, Perpetua was naked. But while her naked male body granted her victory, her naked female body was “pitiable” and had to be covered up because “the crowd shuddered, seeing that one was a delicate young girl and that the other had recently given birth, as her breasts still dripping with milk” (Perspectives from the Past 193). The naked female body is still today recognized as a strong symbol of weakness and vulnerability and that is why Perpetua is supposed to die naked and in a feminine manner but when Perpetua was a naked male in her vision, she triumphed.

This reaction is expanded by how even Perpetua went out of her way to cover up her female body, though she proudly displayed her body as a man in her vision. “Sitting up, she noticed that her tunic was ripped on the side, and so she drew it up to cover her thigh, more mindful of her modesty than her suffering” (Perspectives from the Past 194). The shame of uncovering her female body trumped even the physical pain that Perpetua was experiencing. While her naked male body in her vision was oiled up and beautiful, her female body was suffering in the reality of her suffering before her death.

She “fell on her loins” (Perspectives from the Past 194), her tunic was ripped and her hair was messy. The unkempt hair and exposure of the body were obviously powerful symbols of shame for women’s bodies whose honor could only be preserved by keeping it hidden and kept up. Perpetua even “requested a pin and she tied up her tousled hair; for it was not right for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, since it might appear that she was grieving in her moment of glory” (Perspectives from the Past 194).

She gained control over the situation and lessened the shame of her femininity in the way her society taught her to, by maintaining order over her appearance. Despite her tormentor’s attempts to shame her with her femininity, Perpetua remained unfazed, and did not even feel the pain. “Not feeling pain” is a usually a masculine sign of strength, and Perpetua demonstrated it proudly. It is also interesting that while a sword eventually killed Perpetua, an object filled with masculine symbolism, a man was not able to kill her. She aided in her own death while the man meant to urder her showed weakness in his resolve and was too hesitant to actually kill her. “When the right hand of the novice gladiator wavered, she herself guided it to her throat. Perhaps such a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been killed, unless she herself had willed it”  (Perspectives from the Past 195). Once again, Perpetua was compared with a man and came out as the more dominant and masculine one while the man showed traditionally feminine weakness by hesitating to violence. Perpetua triumphed, even in death.

The theme of the piece seems to be that women can take on a masculine role for the sake of God. Perpetua deliberately masculinized herself in order to challenge the restrictions placed on her in her role as a woman. Unfortunately, her society did not allow her to see strength in her femininity and even tried to shame her with it, so she saw no other choice but to do what she did. Though Perpetua’s piece still presents masculine as strong and feminine as weak, it at least blurs the lines by presenting a woman as possessing those strong masculine qualities.

This implies that the piece considers the femininity and masculinity to be social constructs rather than inherent to sex. For the third century, this is a progressive idea. While The Martyrdom of Perpetua definitely doesn’t celebrate womanhood, it is about a woman who explores the boundaries of her society and comes out as triumphant. Which is why this piece is so important for martyrs to come as well as interesting and important for scholars in the future.


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