Book review by Dr. Peter Thonemann

Dr. Peter Thonemann teaches Greek and Roman history at Wadham College, Oxford.  He is the author of The Maeander Valley (2011) and The Birth of Classical Europe (2010, with Simon Price).

Dr. Thonemann has kindly allowed us to use his article for the Times Literary  Supplement (14 September 2012), reviewing two books about Perpetua, both published by Oxford University Press:

Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano (eds.). Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. 400pp. Oxford University Press. £75 (US $150). 978 0 19 956188 9

Thomas J. Heffernan. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. 688pp. Oxford University Press. £60 (US $99). 978 0 19 977757 0

A mother’s dreams by Dr. Peter Thonemann

One spring morning in AD 203, a young woman by the name of Vibia Perpetua, about twenty-two years old, well born, liberally educated, honourably married, went joyfully to her death before a great crowd in the amphitheatre at Carthage.  Alongside her were four other men and women, including two slaves, Felicity and her husband Revocatus.  The show began with a varied programme of wild beasts – a boar, a maddened heifer, a leopard – who tossed and mangled their five victims for the spectators’ amusement.  At length the men and women were assembled in the centre of the arena.  They kissed one another, and said ‘Peace be with you’.  Perpetua was the only one to cry out; the first blow caught on a bone, and she had to guide the gladiator’s sword to her neck herself.

A few days earlier, in the forum at Carthage, Perpetua and her friends had been put on trial before the Roman governor Hilarianus.  All had refused to offer sacrifice to the reigning emperor, Septimius Severus; choosing to profess and call themselves Christians, they sentenced themselves to death.  The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is a short Latin account of their arrest, trial, imprisonment and eventual martyrdom.  The anonymous author of the Passion – apparently a North African clergyman, with a rather un-Christian taste for the Grand Guignol – predicted that these novel ‘examples of faith’ (exempla fidei) ‘will themselves one day be ancient, and will prove indispensible (necessaria) for future generations’.  He has been proved right.  In recent years, the Passion has probably excited more critical attention than any other single piece of early Christian writing.  Two massive studies have appeared in the last four months alone, a meticulous line-by-line commentary by Thomas Heffernan, and a collection of nineteen essays edited by Jan Bremmer and Marco Formisano.  This is, beyond doubt, a text whose time has come – if perhaps not quite for the reasons that its author expected.

In the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams (Acts 2:17).  Shortly before her execution, Perpetua wrote out in her own hand an account of her final weeks.  In simple, everyday language, she described the dreams that came to her on four nights while she was in prison, the last of them on the very night before her death.  Perpetua believed that these dreams were visions sent from God.  The author of the Passion agreed, and rather than summarising Perpetua’s account in his own words, chose to include her whole diary unaltered.  Over the past century, these four pages of Latin have been tested to destruction by philologists, historians and theologians.  As Heffernan says: ‘I began my study of the text as a skeptic, believing the authenticity of the narrative a traditional pious fiction.  Yet the more time I spent reading and pondering... the more my skepticism waned.  I began to consider that perhaps the historical record could include a unique record that violates what we have come to read as normative and received.’ 

Unlikely though it seems, almost everyone now agrees that Perpetua’s diary is indeed exactly what it claims to be: the sole surviving journal intime written by a woman in antiquity.  Modern readers have been most excited by Perpetua’s four dream-visions, and understandably so – a glimpse, however fleeting, into the dreaming subconscious of a young Roman woman is worth a whole shelf-full of arch Latin love-poetry.  But the rest of her diary is scarcely less extraordinary.  As Erich Auerbach remarked half a century ago, Perpetua ‘speaks of things that do not occur elsewhere in ancient literature’.  Her first hours in prison have a terrible clarity: her fear of the darkness (‘I had never been anywhere so dark before’); the suffocating heat and press of bodies; soldiers looking for bribes; and above all, her gnawing anxiety over her baby son, who was still breast-feeding, but was not allowed to stay with her in the prison.  Whenever her mother and brother came to visit her during the first few days, Perpetua took the opportunity to breast-feed her child, ‘who by that point was starving to death’.  When at last she gets permission for the baby to stay with her in prison, ‘the prison suddenly became a palace for me, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else – no more pain and anxiety for the baby’s sake’.  In the end, when Perpetua is condemned to death, her baby is taken away for good, but now Perpetua knows that it is God’s will – ‘not only did the baby stop wanting my breasts, but they didn’t become inflamed either, and so I was tormented neither by worry for the baby nor by sore breasts’.

This is, to say the least, not the kind of thing we usually expect from the noble army of martyrs.  Aside from anything else, Christian women martyrs – like most sanctified women in Church history – were almost always virgins.  Perpetua (along with Felicity, the slave who died alongside her) is all but unique in being a mother.  Indeed, as Julia Weitbrecht shows in her contribution to Perpetua’s Passions, later mediaeval accounts of Perpetua’s martyrdom do their best to play down or ‘normalise’ Perpetua’s femininity by insisting that she violently repudiated her child along with the rest of her family.  The author of the original Passion, to his credit, claims nothing of the kind.  When, a little later, he is recounting Felicity’s last days, he makes her motherhood, too, central to her story.  Just before the five Christians were due to be executed, Felicity gave birth in prison to a baby girl.  She was more than a month premature, and the birth was a difficult one; he describes the prison guards laughing at her while she strained in labour.  Almost our last glimpse of this young slave comes as she is being led into the arena to her death, her breasts just beginning to drip milk.  

Perpetua’s dreams, too, have an unmistakably maternal colour.  Soon after Perpetua’s baby was taken away, while she was at prayer, she suddenly and involuntarily cried out the name ‘Dinocrates!’.  Dinocrates was her little brother, who had died aged seven of a horrible cancer of the face; Perpetua had not thought of him for many years.  That night, she dreamed that she saw Dinocrates in a place of shadows, naked, thirsty and pale, his face still disfigured by the cancer.  He was standing in front of a basin of water, trying to drink from it, but the lip of the basin was too high, and he could not reach.  When she awoke, Perpetua began to pray fervently for her brother’s soul, and a few days later she saw a second dream.  Dinocrates’ face was healed, and he was dressed in good clothes, and now the basin was waist-high and overflowing with water.  Dinocrates was drinking from a golden cup, and when he had had enough, he began to play, splashing around in the water ‘as children do’ (more infantium).  ‘Then’, writes Perpetua, ‘I woke up, and I knew that he had been released from his punishment.’

One does not need to be Carl Jung to see why Dinocrates suddenly sprang unbidden to Perpetua’s mind at this exact moment.  Her sorrow and guilt at abandoning her baby child forced themselves into her waking consciousness in the guise of another ‘lost’ child from her family: her younger brother, naked and thirsty, unbaptized and (at least to Perpetua) all but forgotten until now.  By rescuing Dinocrates from the ‘place of shadows’, Perpetua reassures herself that her terrible choice was the right one after all.  

Christiana sum – I am a Christian!  On trial for her life, Perpetua insisted that her identity as a Christian was all that mattered.  But in fact, like all early Christians, Perpetua really lived in two worlds at once: the private world of her little Church community, and the public world of a rich Roman province at the height of its material prosperity.  In Perpetua’s unconscious mind, the wall between the two worlds collapses, and Dinocrates appears to her amidst a confused blur of pagan and Christian images.  The ‘place of shadows’ in Perpetua’s dream is recognisably the dreary underworld of Homer and Virgil, inhabited by pale figures that still carry the wounds and disfigurements that they had in life.  Yet the boy is redeemed by drinking the water from what can only be a baptismal font – in this jumbled dream-world, baptism and the eucharist (‘drink, this is my blood’) seem to have merged into one.

Still more startling is the last of Perpetua’s dreams, which came to her the night before her death in the arena.  She is brought across a rocky landscape to an amphitheatre, where she is to fight a hideous Egyptian.  

And I was stripped naked, and I became a male (facta sum masculus); and my supporters began to rub me down with oil, as they do in the contests.  And I saw the Egyptian opposite me rolling in the dust.  And a man of huge stature came forward, towering high over the walls of the amphitheatre, wearing a loose robe, a purple tunic with two stripes across his chest, elaborate sandals of gold and silver, and holding a green branch with golden apples.  He called for silence and said: ‘If the Egyptian defeats her, he will kill her with a sword; if she defeats him, this branch will be hers.’

Perpetua wrestles with the Egyptian, and wins, and the crowd shouts; the master of ceremonies hands her the branch, kisses her and says ‘Peace be with you, daughter’.  Now she is a woman again, and she leaves the arena in glory through the Gate of Life (the Porta Sanivivaria, through which victorious gladiators left the arena).  Perpetua’s own interpretation of the dream – that on the next day she will be fighting not only with wild beasts, but with Satan, and that the victory will be hers – is true, but is only part of the truth.  The huge overseer with the branch and golden apples is of course Christ; but he is also the pagan master of ceremonies at the Carthaginian festival-games of Pythian Apollo, where gilded bronze apples were awarded as prizes to victorious athletes.  Perpetua’s unconscious mind, seeking an image of glory and victory, lighted upon a memory of a wrestling-match at the Pythian games: she became a male, and wrestled, and was a victorious gladiator, and heard the cheering of the great crowd, just as she must often have done as a spectator in the amphitheatre at Carthage. 

It is no wonder that, as Joseph Farrell shows in ‘The Canonization of Perpetua’ (one of the best essays in Perpetua’s Passions), Perpetua’s diary has proved such an embarrassment to the Catholic church over the centuries.  Her views on doctrinal matters seem to have been idiosyncratic to say the least.  During her first days in prison, Perpetua’s brother suggested that she consult the Lord about her likely fate, whether she would die a martyr or be set free.  ‘Since’, writes Perpetua, ‘I knew that I could chat (fabulari) with the Lord, who had done such great things for me, I gave my brother a confident promise in return: ‘I’ll let you know His answer tomorrow’.  And so I demanded (postulavi) a vision.’  Even the holy martyrs are really not supposed to be able to chat with God – fabulari means something like ‘have a good gossip’ – let alone to demand and receive prophetic visions on call like a third-century Joanna Southcott. 

Perpetua’s two dreams about her brother Dinocrates posed no less of a problem.  All too evidently, Perpetua thought that she had managed to save the soul of her long-dead brother Dinocrates by the power of prayer, even though he had died an unbaptized pagan.  For the stoutly orthodox St Augustine, writing two centuries later, this was really not on.  No doubt, he says, little Dinocrates was really a baptized Christian after all; Perpetua must just have forgotten to mention it.  For that matter, who was to say that Perpetua’s diary was genuine at all – it could be a forgery!  Anyway, even if it were authentic, the story of Dinocrates is not part of scripture, and so has no canonical authority.  One can sense Augustine squirming with irritation.  It seems that Perpetua’s Passion, complete with dubious views on posthumous salvation, was still being widely read among Augustine’s North African congregation in the early fifth century AD; otherwise it is hard to see why Augustine should have taken such trouble to impugn its authority. 

Classicists and theologians are only just beginning to work out what to do with this extraordinary text.  Fifty years ago, Auerbach suggested that Perpetua’s plain, vivid, realistic narrative might offer the first example of a distinctively Christian ‘humble style’ (sermo humilis) which culminated with Augustine himself.  This argument is gently deflated by Walter Ameling in Perpetua’s Passions, who rejects the whole notion of Perpetua as ‘artful narrator’: her humble style results from a limited education, not a conscious repudiation of the rules of Classical rhetoric.  Nonetheless, a few of the contributors to Perpetua’s Passions still hanker after a traditional literary reading of Perpetua’s account.  Mieke Bal (‘Perpetual Contest’) even has a go at deconstructing her narrative à la Kristeva: ‘What if we don’t even know what the story is about, since its structure perpetually undermines the dichotomies of form-content, or sign-meaning, in what is maybe the master-contest of this text, its fight against itself?’  Heffernan’s commentary retreats still further into the comfort-zone of traditional Classical philology, interpreting Perpetua a word at a time as if she were Sophocles or Virgil (complete with liberal chunks of quotation from the Oxford Latin Dictionary). 

However, the best of the essays in Perpetua’s Passions – a deliberately kaleidoscopic and open-ended collection – suggest bold new ways forward.  Perhaps the most effective of all is Marina Warner’s ‘Memories of the Martyrs: Reflections from a Catholic Girlhood’.  On the surface, Warner does little more than spin a series of anecdotes about a convent education of the late 1950s and early 1960s – bathtime chats, rapid neat handwriting, the nuns’ rough and reddened hands, ‘like tapsters or navvies’.  But by juxtaposing these homely images with the savage and lurid deaths of the early Christian martyrs (read to the girls as bedtime stories), Warner perfectly captures the grace and sadness of Perpetua’s Passion, an ordinary life abruptly terminated on the hot and bloodstained sand of the arena.  

‘Ancient literature’, wrote Auerbach, ‘had its Antigone, but there was nothing like this, nor could there be; there was no literary genre capable of presenting such a reality with so much dignity and elevation.’  The Passion shows us a confused young mother, facing the end of her mortal life, afraid of the dark, tormented with worry for her baby, finding hope and strength in the depths of her unconscious mind.  She has left us a strange and precious piece of writing, unlike anything else surviving from antiquity.  To judge from the essays in Perpetua’s Passions, she may at last be starting to find the readers she deserves.