The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas in Late Antiquity

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L. Stephanie Cobb
Andrew S. Jacobs
L. Stephanie Cobb
Joan Palevsky Imprint in Classical Literature
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , March
     338 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Among the dozens of early Christian martyr narratives composed in late antiquity, none rivals the popularity of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas among modern scholars. Purportedly written in a North African prison in the first decade of the 3rd century, this striking story offers the first-hand account of a Christian Roman woman’s experience in captivity in the days leading up to her death, including a confrontation with her frustrated father, her concerns about her infant child, and several dream-visions about the afterlife (chapters 3–10). Appended to Perpetua’s “diary” is the first-hand account of visions recorded by her fellow prisoner Saturus (chapters 11–13).

Framing these two narratives is a liturgical introduction (chapters 1–2) and an account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her fellow captives (chapters 14–21) written by an anonymous editor long thought to be Tertullian (ca. 150–220 CE), but whose identity is unknown. This Latin text circulated in two forms in late antiquity: a long version called the Passio sanctarum martyrum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, which was composed in the early 3rd century and is witnessed by ten manuscripts; and a much more popular short version known as the Acta brevia sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, which was produced in the 5th century and survives in two recensions in eighty-nine manuscripts dating from the Carolingian period to the 17th century. A Greek translation of the Passio discovered in a unique manuscript in the late 19th century may have appeared as early as 260 CE.

This new book by L. Stephanie Cobb, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas in Late Antiquity, provides a useful introduction to this well-known narrative and its manuscript traditions, but its primary purpose is to provide access to the many late antique and early medieval texts that attest to the reception history of these martyr narratives between the 3rd and 8th centuries. In her words, the aim of this source collection is “to put these distinct, though related, traditions in conversation, to see the geographical spread of the cult of the martyrs, and to appreciate the differences in community concerns as witnessed by changes to the accounts” (14–15). The book comprises four parts, some of which are more successful than others in advancing the objectives of the study.

Part 1 (“The Accounts of the Martyrs”) reprints editions of the original texts of the three late antique accounts of Perpetua’s martyrdom alongside new English translations: the Latin Passio (22–41), the Greek Martyrdom (43–65), and the two recensions of the Latin Acta (67–93). Although scholars from Herbert Musurillo (1972) to Eric Rebillard (2017) have presented some of these texts in the same way, this section of Cobb’s book is essential not only because it provides a foundation for the reception history of these stories in the pages that follow, but also because it demonstrates how their authors were already adjusting the detail and tone of these narratives to meet their own particular needs.

Part 2 (“The Interpretations of the Martyrdom”) is the heart of the book (97–259). Here Cobb marshals an impressive array of texts that bear witness to the enduring appeal of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her companions between the 3rd and 8th centuries. These include an excerpt from Tertullian’s treatise De anima; several sermons by Augustine of Hippo as well as excerpts from his treatises De natura et origine animae and Ennarrationes in Psalmos; anonymous North African sermons and homilies inspired by Augustine; the sermon De tempore barbarico by the 5th-century bishop of Carthage Quodvultdeus; an early 6th-century sermon attributed to Fulgentius, which represents “the last reference to Perpetua in African literature during the period covered by this volume” (241); and finally brief references to Perpetua in Greek accounts of the martyrdoms of Polyeuctus and Procopius of Scythopolis. The general impression of this section is the enduring local, North African currency of the cult in the late antique homiletic evidence.

The final two sections of the book build on this foundation and succeed in desmonstrating the spread of Perpetua’s fame across the Mediterranean, but neither of them is as useful as what precedes them. Part 3 (“The Celebrations of the Martyrs”) records references to the North African saint in martyrologies and chronicles from the Codex-Calendar of 354 and the 4th-century Syriac Martyrology to the 8th-century Gelasian Sacramentary, laconic entries in the writings of Bede, and the meager evidence provided by Latin-Irish martyr lists of Tallaght and Félire of Oengus the Culdee (263–333). Taken together, these martyrological materials illustrate the spread of the knowledge of the cult of Perpetua far from her North African homeland by the 8th century, but the texts themselves are so short—often only a line or two—that it would have been better to present this information as a discursive study rather than as a sequence of very thin filaments of textual evidence. Part 4 (“The Representations of the Martyrs”) displays a short gallery of images of Perpetua and Felicity, the earliest of which cannot be identified firmly with the saints (337–358).

As an exercise in the reception history of the cult of the best known North African saint of late antiquity, Cobb’s book provides a worthwhile summary of the state of current research and convenient access to the relevant primary source texts in Latin and Greek with new English translations, both for the most important witnesses to the martyrdom and for the resonances of these texts in late antique homiletical and martyrological literature. I was somewhat perplexed by the fact that many of the Latin sources in the volume were translated from the 19th-century Patrologia Latina, which reprints unreliable or sometimes incomplete early modern textual studies, rather than from state-of-the-art editions like those in the Corpus Christianorum. This observation aside, Cobb’s book is a valuable introduction to the reception history of stories related to the martyrdom of Perpetua and her companions, especially for students and others new to the traditions surrounding their cult.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott G. Bruce is a professor of history at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
November 4, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

L. Stephanie Cobb is George and Sallie Cutchin Camp Professor of Bible at the University of Richmond. She is the author of Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts and Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Narratives.

Andrew S. Jacobs is a historian of early Christianity based outside Boston, Massachusetts. His most recent book, Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity, won the Philip Schaff Prize from the American Society of Church History.



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