Carthage: Early Christianity's Leading Light

By Morrison, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Carthage: Early Christianity's Leading Light


Morrison, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


She was young, eight months pregnant, and on death row. When she moaned in pain during labor, one of the guards taunted her: "You can't even handle having a baby! What will you do when you're executed?" Her courageous reply resounds across the centuries: "Now, I'm the one who's suffering. But then, another will be in me and will suffer for me, because I am to suffer for him."

The woman's name was Felicity, a slave. Her cellmate was her friend and mistress, Vibia Perpetua, 22, a Roman noblewoman who just recently had a baby.

On March 7, 203, Perpetua and Felicity, along with several men, were killed in the amphitheater at Carthage for being Christians. The story of their imprisonment and martyrdom has come down to us thanks to the journal that Perpetua kept while in prison. At her death, an eyewitness saved her notes and completed the story: As entertainment for the emperor's birthday, the Christian prisoners were thrown to wild animals in the arena. The men were mauled by leopards and a bear, the two women gored by a heifer. Tossed by the cow, Perpetua was dazed and disheveled and badly injured. But she assisted her slave Felicity, who was on the ground. When they didn't die from their injuries in the animal attacks, soldiers finished them off by slicing their throats.

The story of these remarkable women, The Acts of Perpetua, is the earliest authentic document written by a female Christian. It became so popular in the North African church that St. Augustine had to restrain people in his diocese from reading the story in church and giving it the same level of respect as scripture.

Today, Perpetua and Felicity are still honored by Catholics worldwide. Their names, always linked, are among those of the 41 saints commemorated at Mass in the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon. Their fellow Carthage native, St. Cyprian, shares the distinction.

Carthage, where they lived and died, is today's Tunis. And although Christians now make up just 1 percent of Tunisia's predominantly Muslim population, the church of North Africa, with headquarters in Carthage, was a powerhouse of early Christianity. As early as 197, the scrappy, Carthage-born Tertullian taunted the pagans of North Africa, boasting: "Just yesterday Christians filled every place among you: cities, islands, fortresses, towns, marketplaces . …

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