Two Tales of the Martyr Perpetua
7 January 2014
As I was studying the book Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven last year, I came to the section of the book which explores martyrdom in the early Church. It was then that I first discovered the astonishing story of the The Martyrs of Lyon. Right after that account came the story of the Martyrs of Carthage in 203 AD, which features an amazing young woman named Perpetua.

One of the notable aspects of this story is that Perpetua was an educated noblewoman who kept a written account of the arrest and imprisonment of herself and her companions. Shortly thereafter, an eyewitness account of their deaths was added. This document is one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman. You can read an English translation of the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas.

As you can see, although that account is fascinating and full of detail, it is nevertheless quite short, and does not really go into the details of Perpetua's life before her arrest. Therefore, within the past decade, two different authors have taken up their pen and used historical research and much imagination in order to write a historical-fiction account of Perpetua's life.

The first book I read was The Bronze Ladder by Scottish author Malcolm Lyon — available in both a Kindle edition and in paperback. I opted for the immediacy of the inexpensive 99¢ Kindle version. The book-cover blurb reads:
This novel tells the story of early North African Christians whose lives belong with equal merit to the noble Christian history of Roman Africa. His source is perhaps the most vividly personal of all the extant records of the early Christian centuries. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas has attracted increased attention in recent decades because it includes the earliest known writing by a Christian woman — Perpetua's own prison diary, a text of quite remarkable sensitivity to women's experiences. The story of this group of Christian martyrs put to death at Carthage (near modern Tunis) in the year 203 has not yet been picked up by Hollywood, but this moving and dramatic Passion with its unimpeachable historical authenticity lends itself so naturally to the imaginative genre of a novel.
Because there are no historical records of Perpetua's earlier life, the author can give his imagination free rein to invent a plausible story. This 288-page account is well-written, informative, engaging and easy to read. At 99¢ you can't go wrong, and even the price of the paperback version is well worth it — highly recommended!

The second account, which I just finished, was Perpetua: A Bride, a Martyr, a Passion by American author Amy Rachel Peterson. The blurb for this book reads:
Perpetua is a historical novel based on the real life and death of a young Roman noblewoman. Perpetua was martyred in the amphitheater of Carthage in 203 AD, but kept a diary of her arrest and time in prison. While many martyrs were poor or illiterate, Perpetua was neither. A new mother, a noblewoman, wealthy, highly educated — she had much to lose, and she chose to give it all away for the privilege of dying for Jesus. The novel expands her diary to include the less than three years between her conversion and her execution. As she experiences love, life, persecution and self-discovery, we are taken along on her heart journey. All the while danger is building — the shadow of death encroaches — betrayal and jealousy threaten to expose her faith to the Roman authorities. And by the time she is willing, even eager, to give her life, we are with her rejoicing at the chance to die, hoping for the same chance ourselves.
At 394 pages, this book would seem to be slightly less than 40% longer than The Bronze Ladder if your considered only the page count. But because of the small type size which was used, I would estimate that Perpetua is at least twice as long. In fact, the extended story line and abundance of detail start to make The Bronze Ladder seem a bit bare bones in comparison. Nevertheless, in both books not only is Perpetua's life realistically fleshed out, but you will also learn a lot about the North African Roman culture of that day.

As I mentioned above, due to the scarcity of historical facts regarding Perpetua's life, the author is free to let her imagination run wild, within, of course, the confines of the generally-known facts of that historical period and location. Compared to The Bronze Ladder, Miss Peterson comes up with fairly-different but equally-vaild scenarios and relationships between the main historical characters.

In The Bronze Ladder, the first part of the book is recounted from the point of view of a male character, but the majority of it is from Perpetua's point of view. In the Perpetua book, the entire story is told from Perpetua's point of view. Because the author of this second book is female, I think it gives her an advantage over Mr. Lyon in the telling of Perpetua's story. In the end, the male imagination can only go so far when trying to write from a female perspective.

So which one should you read? They have enough differences to be both well worth reading. My suggestion is to follow the approach I took: I whet my appetite for Perpetua's story with the Kindle edition of The Bronze Ladder because I could start reading it immediately (and it was inexpensive), but I also ordered the paperback Perpetua: A Bride, a Martyr, a Passion as the main course to feast on once it arrived in the mail and I had finished the first book. Bon appétit!