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The Martyrdom of Perpetua

The Roman System was to undergo a great change on October 27, 312 AD as Constantine advanced upon Rome. About 3:00 in the afternoon a great light took the form of a cross and dazzled the soon victorious emperor and his veteran troops. Written on the cross were these words: "BY THIS SIGN CONQUER." Under this banner, Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome, and defeated Maxentius, then Licinius, and became the undisputed ruler of the Roman world. Before this conquest, Imperial Rome persecuted an innumerable host of saints who refused their system of worship. One prominent martyr named Perpetua was slain in North African around the year 200.

I heard a cry escape from my lips as I read the account of Perpetua's imprisonment and trial. That poor child, I thought, while waiting for my elevated emotions to stabilize. Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World describes only a fraction of the saints who shed their blood for the faith under the Roman System. And Perpetua's martyrdom touched a sensitive note within. The mental pictures I formed was moving--all of a sudden I saw a real person with feelings like myself. And my concept of pagans would change. The judge was not a barbaric heathen--he actually seemed concerned for her life and was only upholding Roman law. With great reluctance he sentenced this young 26 year-old mother to death.

Perpetua was imprisoned and deprived of her child, a small punishment meant to induce a denial of her faith and a sacrifice to the ruler of Imperial Rome. The infant was briefly fed, then wrested from her mother's arms leaving Perpetua alone in her stone cell--alone, except for her father's brief visit. "Think of the child," he implored. "Don't be so stubborn. Give up this foolishness," he pleaded.

The solitary moments in prison gave ample time for Perpetua to strengthen her commitment. When baptized, she was aware of the scorn Alexandrians had for Christians. Many amused themselves (like today's Saturday night at the movies) watching the hated "sects" extermination. She decided to accept the risk and was baptized knowing full well her fate. The only uncertainty was the method of execution.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me," (Exodus 20:3) came to her mind. The first four commandments told her duty to God, and to break one commandment would disqualify her for the kingdom. "If you say you know him and don't keep His commandments, you're a liar and the truth is not in you" (1 John 2:4). "If you confess me before others, I will confess you before my Father in heaven; If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father in heaven" (Matthew 10:32, 33). "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image... nor shalt thou bow down to them nor serve them..." (Exodus 20:4). The Law, written immutably on tables of stone with God's own finger must be kept," Perpetua undoubtedly thought, "it's better to obey God than man" (Acts 40:19).

Biblically, Perpetua was obligated to obey her husband. Trivial doctrines were to be neither argued in the church or at home, yet God's Law came first. Her husband was exceeding his authority in asking her to renounce her faith in Christ or to disobey God's explicit commands. Obviously he was embarrassed and humiliated by his wife's new faith. There is no record of him visiting her.

Perpetua is Tried

The proconsul, Minutius, asked her if she was a Christian and Perpetua replied affirmatively, "God's will must be done."

Several days later the Christians stood trial before the judge. "Offer sacrifice for Caesar," they were commanded. Suddenly Perpetua's father entered the courtroom with her child in his arms. "Think of your child, it is dependent upon your care," he pleaded.

The judge saw an opportunity for further appeals and added, "Spare the gray hairs of your father, spare your child." The judge soon realized that the father's entreaties were futile and ordered the guards to remove him from the courtroom.

Into the arena

The next holiday was set for execution; the men were to be ravaged by leopards and bears. God comforted Perpetua and some of the other Christians with visions and revelations to strengthen them for the final trial they must endure. Perpetua and another young woman named Felicitas were first hung nude in nets to be brutally attacked by a bull that had been tormented to great fury. The audience felt some compassion and insisted that they be clothed

The bull attacked--Felicitas was extremely mauled and Perpetua was almost stripped of her robe. Perpetua awaited another attack while holding Felicitas at her side--the bull refused to advance further. Upon removing the bull from the arena, the crowd, which feasted on violence and bloodshed, demanded that they both be killed. Two gladiators were dispatched for the assignment. Perpetua's inexperienced assassin was young and quite nervous. After inflicting several wounds that were not fatal, Perpetua took the sword in her hands and guided him to a vital spot.

This story illustrates how Satan used the Roman System to persecute God's people under Imperial Rome. This type of persecution would cease for a few years under Constantine's rule, but Constantine's religious toleration was not perpetual, and before the close of that century, God's saints must endure still more trials.

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