Of the seven women named in the Roman Canon besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, five were virgins: Sts. Agnes, Agatha, Lucy, Cecilia and Anastasia. Cecilia was married but lived in continence with her husband Valerian after his conversion and died a virgin. In this way, she subverts the sexualized patriarchal Roman order. The other two, Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, differ from their sisters in the Canon in two important ways. They suffered martyrdom during the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus, during games in honor of the birthday of the emperor’s son Geta. More importantly, both are mothers (and therefore obviously not virgins) whose children play key roles in their Passion. The other way in each Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas differed from their fellow women in the Roman Canon is the location of their martyrdom. The other five are associated in some way with Italy (Two are associated with Rome and two with Sicily. Anastasia’s Roman credentials are fuzzy, but she is commonly associated with Rome as well). Perpetua and Felicitas are from Carthage in North Africa.
Nevertheless, the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas subverts the established patriarchal order of Rome in favor of the Christian order in a powerful way. Their husbands make no appearance in their Passion. It is entirely possibly that, being a slave, Felicitas had no legal husband. Her master may have forced himself upon her. More likely, since she was a catechumen, she may have been a recent convert and her pregnancy was a result of a relationship prior to her conversion. She is arrested while in the eighth month of her pregnancy and is fearful that she will lose the crown of martyrdom because Roman law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman. (How ironic, that a society, rightly castigated for its bloodthirstiness, was more respectful of the life of a child in the womb then our supposedly more civilized society!) Her companions pray and she gives birth to a daughter in prison. (The fact that her daughter is given to her sister to raise seems to indicate that Felicitas had no legal husband.)
The husband of Perpetua is mentioned in her Passion but he is never seen, either to pressure Perpetua from her martyrdom or to encourage her. (It is unknown if he was a Christian, but this is unlikely.) Instead, her father comes to her three times to entreat her to sacrifice to the Roman gods and thus save her life. Each time, he employs a different tactic. During his first attempt he becomes angry and even resorts to physical force.
While we were still under arrest and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love…Then my father, angry with this word, came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil. –Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 3
In her father’s second attempt, he appeals to her sympathy for him and the rest of the her family.
Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be, called father by you…I have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon you son, who will not endure to live after you. –Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 5
Finally, in his third and final attempt, on the day of Perpetua’s trial, her father actually brings her son with him to try to use him as a prop to convince Perpetua to renounce her faith. "And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying, ‘Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.'" –Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 6
Rejection of the Pater Familias
Perpetua certainly has pity on her father, especially when he continues his attempt to “cast down” her faith and ends up being beaten with a rod for his troubles. But Perpetua follows the words of Our Lord that “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37 RSV) We are commanded to honor and obey our parents by the Fourth Commandment only insofar that our honor and obedience do not entail disobedience or dishonor of God.
However, in Roman society, filial piety and obedience was even more dramatic. The authority of the pater familias was absolute. He even had the power of life and death over his children. As matron, Perpetua was under the authority of her (conspicuously absent) husband, but no Roman matron would deny the request of her father, especially after he willingly debased him by kneeling before her and kissing her hands. Yet, Perpetua does so. Even more so, she rejects her place in Roman society as a wife and mother while continuing to refuse to sacrifice despite knowing that she would leave her son without a mother.
Ultimately, the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas is one of masculine failure. The respective fathers of their respective children are nowhere to be found. The father of Perpetua, unwilling to see her die painfully tries various methods to “cast down” her faith. Even at their deaths, both Perpetua and Felicitas survived being exposed to wild beasts in the arena, so gladiators were sent into the arena to finish them off. The gladiator assigned to Perpetua was either new or hesitant to kill a woman so Perpetua guided the sword to her neck with her own hand, thus ensuring she gained the crown of martyrdom. Here too, a woman is glorified by doing what a man is unable to.
What is the appropriate response to all this? Are we to completely reject even the idea of patriarchy? By no means! Instead, it must be reordered. Patriarchy was instituted by God but almost from the beginning it has been twisted. Adam failed in his own job of protecting his wife and Eve was changed from being in state of subordination to him to one of subjugation to him. Patriarchy was twisted. After the fall of Rome, Christendom attempted to reorient and reorder it to something more in line with what God had originally intended, keeping in mind the words of the Apostle Paul, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave up his life as a ransom for her.” (Ephesians 5:25 RSV)
We must return to this order that existed before Modernism broke our society at a fundamental level. Have we ever fought or rebelled against the will of God because following it would demand suffering, not for us but for our loved ones, especially our children? We must teach our children by our example, that nothing is more important than God. Perpetua succeeded in following the will of God and bring Him glory by winning a martyr’s crown despite her father. How truly glorious would it be, if our children should do the same, if they are so called, because of our paternal examples.
The Roman Canon
The Roman Canon was developed in the late fourth-century, likely during the reign of Pope St. Damasus I (A.D. 366-384). Damasus is most notable for a series of epigraphs he composed in honor of the Roman martyrs and had placed over their tombs. A significant number of those he so honored are named in the Roman Canon, including, in addition to the Apostles Peter and Paul, Clement, Cornelius, Xystus (Sixtus), Lawrence, Marcellinus, Peter and Agnes. Damasus started this epigrammatic program in effort to claim the city of Rome as a Christian city by creating a new cultural memory for the city by replacing the old pagan heroes with Christian martyrs.
Martyrs of Rome
Agnes is the only one of the virgin martyrs whom Damasus explicitly recognizes with an epigraph. It s notable that she is the only one of the five, other than Cecilia, who was definitely martyred at Rome. Lucy and Agatha were both martyred in Sicily. (In fact, the story of St. Agatha also inspired St. Lucy, whose mother visited her Agatha’s shrine and received a miraculous cure.) Anastasia was martyred in Sirmium, despite being a native of Rome. Now, Damasus did not limit his epigrammatic program to martyrs who were originally from Rome. The epigram dedicated to Peter and Paul states,“The East sent the disciples, which we willingly admit. On account of the merit of their blood…Rome deserves to call them her own citizens.” Maura Lafferty explains that “although Damasus allows that both Peter and Paul were born elsewhere, he nevertheless asserts that their new birth in martyrdom turned them into citizens of Rome herself.” Only Agnes of course, had her relics at Rome, which is why only she was honored with an epigraph by Damasus. However, Damasus likely included Sts. Lucy and Agatha as representatives of virgin martyrs from another part of Italy since their stories were similar to those of Agnes.
Martyrs of Carthage
Damasus did not limit his Romanization to martyrs who had suffered at Rome. Damasus also wrote an epigraph for Saturinus, who had suffered martyrdom along with Perpetua and Felicitas. Damasus wrote,“Now an inhabitant of Christ, he was of Carthage before…by blood, he changed his nation, name and family; the birth of saints made a Roman citizen.” He likely felt the same way about Perpetua and Felicitas that he did about their companion Saturinus, and considered them to be Romans by virtue of their martyrdoms. Ultimately Damasus made the claim that to be Christian is to be Roman. He clearly believed that just as Rome was once the center of the Roman Empire, it should now be the beating heart of the Christian world. This is why Damasus included so many Roman saints in the Roman Canon.
Connection with St. Cecilia?
Another saint for whom Damasus wrote an epigraph was St. Tiburtius. Tiburtius was a soldier who was executed during the persecution of Diocletian. Although it is possible that he is not the same saint, Tiburtius was the also the name of St. Cecilia’s brother-in-law, who converted and was executed along with his brother Valerian. Thus, it is interesting that while Damasus did include married women among those he recognized in the Canon, he did write epigraphs for them. Instead, he wrote epigraphs for martyrs who may have been associated with them. Damasus likely included Perpetua and Felicitas for the same reason that he wrote the epigram to Saturinus, to indicate the universality of the Roman church. The inclusion of Perpetua and Felicitas adds that universality to the specific group of female martyrs as well both in terms of their nationality and of their states in life.