Viria Perpetua, of noble family, was only 22 when martyred in the Carthage arena on March 7, 203. Her servant Felicitas and three others (pictured) died with her. Her vivid account of her earlier sufferings and visions in prison is one of the first writings by a Christian woman.

She movingly evokes the heartbreak of her father, who begged her to recant, and became so frustrated by her glorying in the name of Christianity that “he threw himself upon me as though he would pluck out my eyes”. Perpetua, though, seemed more concerned with the difficulty of suckling her baby in prison than by the prospect of martyrdom. In the event, the infant was weaned before his mother died. Another hand writes of Perpetua’s end …

Tossed by a mad cow

She walked from prison to the arena, “abashing with the high spirit in her eyes the gaze of all”. Tossed by a mad cow, she seemed unable to comprehend that she had been harmed until she saw her wounds. At the end she guided to her throat the sword of the gladiator who had failed to kill her with his first stroke: “Perhaps so great a woman could not have been slain, except by her own will.”

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