Thursday, July 1, 2004

Perpetua: Historical Fiction About an Early Church Martyr

Perpetua: A Bride, A Passion, A Martyr, by first-time author Amy Rachel Peterson, tells a fascinating story which is made all the more interesting because it is based on a true one. In 203 A.D., five recently converted Christians in Carthage were turned over to the authorities for the crime of converting to Christianity, during the reign of Septimius Severus. These five included 22-year-old Perpetua, a noble woman with a baby; also two slaves, Felicitas and Revocatus; and Secundus and Saturninus. Saturus, their leader/mentor, soon turned himself in, to join these catechumen (converted less than three years before) in martyrdom. Perpetua is perhaps most remembered because she kept a diary during her capture. Her written account, and a subsequent eyewitness account, tells us of the imprisonment and martyrdom, but little is known about Perpetua (or her companions) before that point.

This novel attempts to fill that unknown part, depicting with great detail a fictional story about Perpetua’s last three years of life. From a dramatic conversion experience, through early days of immaturity followed by spiritual growth and understanding, Perpetua approaches her destiny even as she experiences the normal stages of young life. The 19-year-old living at her parents’ home soon falls in love, marrying and becoming a mother to a young son.

Two of the other martyred Christians appear prominently: Saturninus as Perpetua’s brother, and Saturus as her husband. Though these relationships are most likely fictional, the story is interesting and thus involves the other martyred characters. Felicitas and Revocatus also have an interesting story, at first on the sidelines but revealed later on as martyrdom approaches. A cast of mostly fictional characters completes the world of ancient Carthage, as Perpetua in her daily life moves among the different social circles – her wealthy pagan friends from the years past along with her new friends (mostly from the lower social classes), that meet in small house-churches. The early church leader Tertullian is also present, a minor character (in terms of actual dialogue) but a major part of the early Christians’ lives, as they discuss his ideas.

The author has done an excellent job, too, with her historical research, blending in the social and religious dynamics of Carthage, creating a world that Perpetua might very well have experienced. The Punic influence still abides, harkening back to an earlier civilization (originally settled by Tyre) crushed by Rome. This later society speaks both Latin and Punic, and some of Punic descent mingle with the pure-blooded Romans. The author wonderfully describes Carthage’s plethora of gods and goddesses with a wry sort of humor, exposing the moral hypocrisy of the times. As one character puts it, a woman can partake in sexual immorality to please Venus at night, and then give offerings to Isis (for the women who deny such pleasures) the next morning: "please Venus at night, Isis in the morning." Other aspects of the story likewise reflect the Carthaginian spirit: festivals for their god Tanit, and even the dark underworld of pagans still practicing the old religion of child sacrifice.

The story’s outcome, martyrdom, is known and clear from the beginning; and perhaps the theme of impending martyrdom is overdone, as though the characters knew from the very beginning what would happen. Still, Christians of that time no doubt considered such things, given the hostile climate they faced in a land that did not understand such "freedom of religion" American concepts we so take for granted.

The author skillfully blends the fictional with the true story, fitting all the pieces together even to the ending, which is largely based on the actual document of "The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas." In a clever, interesting way the author creates rich details of real characters behind the names of those only mentioned in that document, such as Quintus and Jocundus. Perhaps to avoid publishing bad doctrine, this novel also offers a more theologically-sound twist on the real Perpetua’s dreams about her lost brother, Dinocrates, who had died of cancer at a young age. Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, a Passion is an excellent book that focuses attention on a story we don’t hear much about today, while enlightening us about ancient Rome -- a setting further back than most historical novels care to consider.