Volume > Issue > The Fourth Last Word

The Fourth Last Word


By Casey Chalk | November 2023
Casey Chalk is a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity (Emmaus Road Publishing). He is a regular contributor to The American Conservative, The Federalist, Crisis Magazine, The Spectator, and more. His website is caseychalk.com.

Vibia Perpetua was a well-educated Roman noblewoman, recently married and the mother of an infant son. Felicity was a pregnant slave. Both were Christians in the province of Carthage, imprisoned and sentenced to death for their faith around A.D. 203.

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, one of the earliest recorded first-person female accounts in history, written by Perpetua herself before her death, describes the noblewoman’s father’s pleading with her to recant her newfound faith. Perpetua, a nursing mother, refuses. Two days before their scheduled execution at military games celebrating the Emperor Septimius Severus’s birthday, Felicity goes into labor. Her guards mock her. “You suffer so much now,” they say, “what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts?” Felicity responds, “What I am suffering now, I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.” Shortly thereafter, Felicity gives birth to a healthy girl, whom she relinquishes to the care of another Christian woman.

On the day of their execution, Perpetua and Felicity, alongside four Christian men, are led to the gates of the arena and forced to don the raiment of the priests of Saturn and priestesses of Ceres. Perpetua protests this treatment, and the tribune, perhaps himself ashamed, relents. Before the spectators, the Christians suggest by their gestures that God condemns the crowd, who in their rage demand that the Christians be scourged before a line of gladiators. Perpetua and Felicity are mauled by a mad heifer before finally having their throats cut by a gladiator.

These are undoubtedly gruesome and shameful deaths. Even the pagan audience was scandalized by the treatment of the two Christian women, who first were stripped naked and placed in nets. “The crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts,” the book recounts. “And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.” Two young mothers brutally murdered before a crowd of hecklers — what good can come from such evil?

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