Suicide by Gladiator? The Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas in Its North African Context




The third-century martyr text that tells the story of Perpetua and her coreligionists as they witnessed to their faith in Carthage—the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas—is much beloved by modern readers. It purports to be Perpetua's prison diary, and, as such, it is the earliest writing by a Christian woman that has been preserved. In the fifth century, two shorter texts—the Acts—were written that recount in quite different ways the experiences of these North African Christians. In this essay, I explore the ways these shorter accounts reimagine the original text as well as the possible motives for doing so. The fifth-century author did not merely shorten the Passion; he made marked changes to it. It presents, for instance, a dramatic change in the death scene: whereas the Passion narrates Perpetua drawing the gladiator's sword to her own throat, the Acts report that she was killed by a lion. An analysis of these revisions to the Passion suggest the author was working from an Augustinian perspective. The author revised the Passion to deny the Donatists’ claims to the Carthaginian martyrs. The author's revision of Perpetua's death, therefore, is best understood as a rejection of Donatist desires for martyrdom.

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Copyright © 2019, Cambridge University Press.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0009640719001215.