Libretto by Nick Pitts-Tucker
Perpetua and Felicitas, her slave, were early Christians, martyred in the arena at Carthage in 203 AD for defying the Roman Emperor’s instructions to worship the official Roman gods.
Perpetua’s story still resonates today as, across the world, personal sacrifices are continually being made to secure freedom and to challenge the excessive power of the state. It is told in a synthesis of original episodes from her autobiographical journal with scenes of the confrontations with her father, brother, jailer and the Roman governor. The English sung dialogue often includes Latin sections, and is punctuated with Greek lyrical and liturgical passages of great beauty and substance – all drawn from original contemporary sources.
Vibia Perpetua is a very well educated young Roman provincial mother, the wife of a military tribune serving with the legions. She lives with her traditional family in the town of Thuburbo Maius in the province known as Africa (roughly equivalent to Tunisia today). Perpetua knows Greek, the language of thought and philosophy; she’s a bit of a bluestocking and she has a well-defined place in her family’s life. Until her husband dies on active service.
Will she follow her family’s wishes, and remarry, or fulfil her own hopes for an independent life?
Then comes an appalling challenge: Dinocrates, Perpetua’s younger brother, has incurable cancer. Neither prayers to the family gods nor to the city gods nor to the deified Emperor himself avail. Dinocrates dies in her arms. She sings a heartrending lament for a flower lost too early.
In reaction to this failure of the traditional ways, and to escape the family and its ties, Perpetua is persuaded by her slave, Felicitas,to move to join the Christians. This group, all living in the capital Carthage, is made up of Christian catechumens led by Saturus, a slave who is to marry Felicitas. They welcome the two women, and intoxicated with the new liturgy of light and freedom, they decide to challenge the Roman state by refusing to sacrifice to the city gods and the Emperor. Perpetua and Felicitas are, however, attracted rather to the feminist appeal of the Virgin Mary, whose liturgy is more thoughtful – but also more subversive.
Perpetua realises all too well the danger of the Christian challenge to Rome, but she decides to stand with her new family.
Perpetua’s natural family turn against her, and her brother Sextus informs on the group to the Roman authorities in the person of the proconsul Hilarianus. The Christians are all arrested and thrown into the stinking heat of the city jail where, ironically, the prison governor, Pudens, is a tribune and former class mate of Perpetua’s husband. This is not a nice place for women of any sort, let alone two from a good family.
Perpetua now has the first of three dreams which chart her spiritual journey towards martydom. She dreams of climbing a ladder guarded by a huge serpent. When she reaches the top she sees pastures and sheep and an old shepherd who welcomes her.
Back in prison, her father comes to beg her to desist. She stubbornly refuses, using a characteristically existential analogy. Her father leaves in despair and disgust and Perpetua has her second dream, which is about her dead brother, Dinocrates.
The trial of the Christian prisoners takes place before the proconsul, who is very rattled by the awkward presence of the women. He gives them every chance to recant. All the prisoners hold firm, in their own ways, and the consequence of their decision is remorseless and inevitable. The Roman state does not tolerate dissent in matters of the offical religion. They are declared enemies of the state for which the punishment is death in the arena: "mittantur ad bestias".
The prison governor tries everything to dissuade Perpetua from this disastrous course. He appeals to her sense of duty to her late husband, her child, her family, her Roman-ness. But all to no avail.
Perpetua herself now starts to come to terms with the seriousness of her situation. In the third dream, she finds herself turning into a gladiator, preparing for a fight to the death with a huge Egyptian adversary. She wins the fight by breaking his neck. Now she knows that she is mentally strong enough to go through with the ordeal.
The day nears for the Emperor’s birthday games. In the prison the catechumens sing their liturgy, but are shouted down by the other prisoners. A riot breaks out. Perpetua runs to Pudens and insists that he treats them with respect, as they are now the playthings of the Emperor.
Next day the prisoners are brought out into the brilliant daylight. The Christians sing their liturgy of light and Perpetua and Felicitas their hymn to the Virgin. The proconsul arrives and gives the women one last chance, which they do not take. They are thrust out to face a mad heifer and tossed and trampled. Felicitas’ back is broken but Perpetua is able to help her back to the “Gate of Life” at the arena’s edge, where they await the final decision of the proconsul. Half the crowd wants them to be spared, the other half demands their deaths.
Under the law, the proconsul has no choice. They are driven back with the other surviving Christians to be despatched by the swords of gladiators. The proconsul leaves the stage. The crowd falls silent. Only Pudens remains.
The world has changed for ever and Pudens recognises this. He recites a famous prophecy foretelling the end of the old religion.