Review of “Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman” by Joyce E. Salisbury

image from goodreads

The use of the word “passion” in the title reflects an old meaning, that is, “suffering.” It’s often used religious terms, as in the present book.

Vibia Perpetua (c. 182- 203 CE) was a young noblewoman of Carthage (present-day Tunisia) in the Roman province of Africa, executed in the Carthage amphitheater after converting to Christianity. During her imprisonment, she wrote a first-person account of the days leading up to her death and recorded a series of vivid dreams. The diary was completed by an anonymous Christian who observed Perpetua’s death along with those of a slave named Felicitas and several others.

Author Joyce E. Salisbury writes, “I wanted to try to understand the mentality that would allow someone to walk confidently into an arena knowing that he or she would die violently.”

Salisbury’s book on Perpetua examines the diary in the context of Roman and Carthaginian history, society, and religion. Romans traditionally detested human sacrifice, but Carthaginians were said (…by the conquering Romans…) to have practiced it widely, particularly on infants. Salisbury uses this history—which only has to be believed to make the difference—as a framework to make martyrdom a viable path.

Perpetua’s father visits her in custody and tries to persuade her to renounce Christianity. He brings her infant to her as if to remind her the boy’s survival would be unlikely if she died. He begged her to renounce Christianity, but she remained firm.

“Would you call a lamp anything but a lamp? Neither can I call myself anything else but a Christian,” she tells him.

The diary does not mention Perpetua’s husband, but the reader is told she is “respectably married.”

Salisbury interprets Perpetua’s dreams as the young woman’s way of reconciling herself with her approaching death. None of the group fear death; it was the means of achieving glory. Indeed, near the end, one young man actually denounces himself as a Christian and joins the group.

Among the Christians of the classical and later the medieval world, the story was seen as inspirational. Perpetua and those with her were willing to sacrifice not only their lives, but give up their infants. In Perpetua’s case, she also defied her father, the pater familias, whom traditionally even adult children depended on and had to obey—all this in service of being a Christian.

The book is relatively short at 230 pages and is aimed at the general reader. It does not assume familiarity on the reader’s part with ancient Rome, Carthage, or early Christianity.

Author Joyce E. Salisbury is a retired professor of history from the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where she held the Frankenthal Professorship of Medieval History and Humanities.

I found this book interesting but mostly sad.

Title: Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman
Author: Joyce E. Salisbury
Print Length: 231 pages
Originally published: 1997

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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