Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.34

P. Habermehl, Perpetua und der Ägypter oder Bilder des Bösen im frühen afrikanischen Christentum. Second edition.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2004.  Pp. 341.  ISBN 3-11-018184-3.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by Jan N. Bremmer, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (
Word count: 1620 words

The book under review is the second, revised edition of the one that appeared in 1992, which was not reviewed in Bryn Mawr Classical Review. H(abermehl)'s preface states that it is 'in Auseinandersetzung mit den jüngsten einschlägigen Publikationen ergänzt und verbessert'. The bibliography has been brought up to date,1 but the results of the most recent publications have not always been taken into account sufficiently.

The introduction (pp. 1-5) starts with a brief survey of the text of the Passio Perpetuae. It does not discuss in detail the much debated problem of the original language (Latin or Greek) of the Passio, but accepts the Latin priority. However, it seems that the Greek translation was sometimes based on a better text than the existing Latin version.2 That is why both versions always have to be taken into account. The Greek translation is ascribed to the third century on page 1, but to 'vielleicht sogar erst im 4. Jh.' on page 4 note 9. H dates the two abbreviated versions, the so-called Acta Perpetuae, which were very popular in the Middle Ages, to the third century, although no proof is given for this dating. These versions have long been neglected, and Brent Shaw, in a well received study,3 has even argued that they do not have any value for the reconstruction of the oldest tradition. It seems to me that this opinion has to be reconsidered. The Acta furnish the place where Perpetua was arrested (Thuburbo Minus), and the report of the interrogation in these versions makes an authentic impression. This report has clearly been omitted by the editor of the Passio, who gives only the interrogation of Perpetua but not that of her fellow martyrs; the deaths of the Perpetua and her group also make a much less fictionally elaborated impression, as we will see presently.4 The date of these versions is unclear, but it should be noticed that African sermons of about AD 400 refer only to the text of our Passio.5

Before he starts his discussion, H gives a 'Lesetext' (pp. 8-35) without apparatus criticus, which is basically the text of Van Beek (1936). In itself such a choice is justified, but H seems to have overlooked the recent insight that the Greek version sometimes offers better readings than our most important manuscript A.6 For example, it is now clear that the name of the predecessor of Perpetua's interrogator Hilarianus must have been Minicius Opimiamus (c. 6.3), as the garbled form of the Greek translation still suggests, and not, as H prints, Minucius Timinianus; similarly, the name of one of the men met by Saturus in heaven was Iucundus not Iocundus (c. 11.9).7.

After a discussion of early Christianity in North Africa and the plausible observation that we probably had to do with a local persecution in Perpetua's case (37-43), H gives a short survey of the development of the Christian idea of martyrdom (44-51), which ends with Ignatius.8 Having set the scene, H now turns to Perpetua's diary (52-73). He briefly sketches her arrest, baptism, interrogation, and makes a persuasive case for the recent conversion of Perpetua because of the absence of her husband in her report: presumably, the latter had not followed his wife in her new faith. Christianity had caused a rift in many a family,9 and this is also demonstrated by Perpetua's relationship with her father, from whom she becomes increasingly estranged, as H well shows. We see here a development that we can also witness in modern suicide cells, where members also shut themselves off from their immediate relations.

The analysis by H of Perpetua's visions (74-115) is not always satisfactory. This is partly due to the order in which he discusses them. As I have argued elsewhere,10 we have to read the visions in the order that Perpetua gives them, as they show her growing self-confidence and willingness to die. Moreover, we have to look at Perpetua's environment for the explanation of the, often, obscure motifs of her visions. H has a certain tendency to look to modern psychology for help, but Freud and Jung do not replace knowledge of Perpetua's own world.

These objections do not prevent H from regularly making good observations. Thus he persuasively associates the staircase to heaven that Perpetua ascends with the oriental Jenseitsbrüecke.11 However, there is no proof whatsoever that the weapons on the staircase symbolize her 'Angst vor den Schmerzen der Passion' (87). Curiously, H nowhere reflects upon his methodology and seems to think that such psychological explanations are self-evident -- which is not the case.

H pays much attention to the change of Perpetua into a man (122-144), a motif that has understandably attracted the attention of many a modern commentator. H reasonably argues that with this metamorphosis Perpetua creates a new 'männliches Ich'. Yet there are no indications for this interpretation in the text and parallels from the contemporary Christian world are lacking. Less convincing is the additional attempt to recognize themes of initiation in the metamorphosis. Admittedly, travesty and sexual metamorphosis are attested for Greek myths and rituals of initiation,12 but the motif had long ceased to be productive and nothing in the context suggests influence from myths of initiation.

Next, H analyses the figure of the Egyptian, the opponent of Perpetua in her last vision (145-188). Louis Robert has well explained the presence of the Egyptian from the prominence of Egyptian athletes during the Empire.13 H calls this a 'pragmatische Erklärung', but concedes only that it may have been present somewhere in the background. The 'real' explanation he looks for in Tertullian's usage of Egypt as a symbol for superstition and evil, for which he adduces a number of interesting texts, as he does for the black colour of the Egyptian. Methodologically, however, H seems to me to go here into the wrong direction: he concentrates on the Egyptian only and neglects the other protagonist of the scene, the lanista. Admittedly, he persuasively argues that Perpetua was not familiar with the technical vocabulary of the fights in the amphitheatre; the Greek translator was clearly much better at home in that area. Yet the stress on superstition is not supported by the context. Neither does the text contain any indication that the Egyptian is also Perpetua's father (184), which is one more example of H's misguided trust in modern psychoanalysis. With Robert, it seems more convincing to see the whole scene as a memory of a real pankration, which Perpetua must have attended or have heard about. The colour of the Egyptian well fitted Christian ideas about the Devil, who is also elsewhere depicted by Perpetua as her most dangerous opponent (3.3, 10.14, 20.1).

After a good analysis of Saturus' vision (189-196) and other descriptions of the deaths of martyrs (197-205), H turns to the editor of the Passio (206-237). Given that most scholars have concentrated on Perpetua and her visions, it is not surprising that this is an interesting part of H's book. It is still a highly debated question to what extent the editor has adapted his material. H has clearly not quite made up his mind in this respect. He wonders whether the description of Felicitas' giving birth to a girl is 'Faktum oder Fiktion' (209), but there seems no reason to doubt the basic truth of this report. Felicitas was a slave (2.1: conserva), who was the partner of a free man according to the Acta Perpetuae (I.5.5 Amat).14 We may assume that she, like Perpetua, had left her partner after becoming Christian.

It is more problematic to what extent we can trust the description of the deaths of Perpetua and her fellow martyrs. The vividness of the editor's description suggests an eyewitness, but his literary skill should not deceive us, as there are several improbabilities in his report. Most of these are mentioned by H, but he does not firmly stress the fact that the description of the deaths is, in all likelihood, fiction: his doubts are mostly expressed in the notes. The first improbability is the employment of a cow to kill off Perpetua and Felicitas. We have a number of African mosaics with scenes of such fights, but a cow is never amongst the animals displayed on them.15 Second, H rightly doubts whether the spectators would have really protested against the fact that Perpetua and Felicitas were led into the amphitheatre dressed only in nets, and he also rightly doubts whether the spectators could have seen milk dripping from Perpetua's breasts. Third, and most importantly, H draws attention to the fact that Perpetua's covering of her womanhood is modeled on Euripides' description of Polyxena's death in his Hecuba (568-70), which was highly popular in Roman times.16 But he should have also pointed out that Perpetua even outdoes Polyxena by also asking for a comb to readjust her hair (!). In short, the conclusion seems inescapable that the editor did not give a trustworthy account of the deaths of Perpetua and her fellow martyrs but wanted to please his readers with a description that catered to the taste of the times for violence and pornography.17 This conclusion is supported by the fact that the Acta (I.9.3-4 Amat) gives a much more matter of fact report of these deaths.

After some good observations on the narrative techniques of the Passio (238-52), the optio Pudens (252-56) and the cultic usage of the Passio (257-66),18 H concludes his book with some considerations on the authenticity of Perpetua's diary, which he persuasively defends with excellent arguments (267-75).

Summing up, H's book is a worthy addition to the literature about Perpetua. However, its strength is more in the area of literary and narrative techniques than in that of historical content and context.


1.   Add now J.N. Bremmer, 'The Motivation of Martyrs: Perpetua and the Palestinians', in B. Luchesi and K. von Stuckrad (eds.), Religion im kulturellen Diskurs. Festschrift für Hans G. Kippenberg zu seinem 65. Geburtstag (Berlin and New York, 2004) 535-54; K. Waldner, '"Was wir also gehört und berührt haben, verkünden wir auch euch...". Zur narrativen Technik der Körperdarstellung im Martyrium Polycarpi und der Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis', in B. Fichtinger and H. Seng (eds), Die Christen und der Körper Munich and Leipzig, 2004) 29-74.
2.   Bremmer, 'The Motivation of Martyrs', 535f.
3.   B. Shaw, 'The Passion of Perpetua', Past & Present 139 (1993) 3-45 has now been reprinted in R. Osborne (ed.), Studies in Ancient Greek and Roman Society (Cambridge, 2004) 286-325 with a 'Postscript 2003'.
4.   For a more detailed discussion see my forthcoming 'Het martelaarschap van Perpetua en Felicitas', Hermeneus 78 (2006).
5.   F. Dolbeau, 'Un sermon inédit d'origine africaine pour la fête des Saintes Perpétue et Félicité', Analecta Bollandiana 113 (1995) 89-106, reprinted in Dolbeau, Augustin et la prédication en Afrique. Recherches sur divers sermons authentiques, apocryphes ou anonyms (Paris, 2005) 337-54, 630-1.
6.   As is argued in the important review of Amat's edition (1996) of the Passio by C. Mazzucho, Rivista di Storia e Letteratura Religiosa 36 (2000) 157-67 (not in H's bibliography).
7.   Bremmer, 'Perpetua and Her Diary: Authenticity, Family and Visions', in W. Ameling (red.), Märtyrer und Märtyrerakten (Stuttgart, 2002) 77-120 at 82, 91-92 (Minicius); Bremmer, 'The Vision of Saturus in the Passio Perpetuae', in F. García Martínez and G. Luttikhuizen (eds.), Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome. Studies in ancient cultural interaction in honour of A. Hilhorst (Leiden 2003) 55-73 at 57 (Iucundus).
8.   See now the detailed discussion by H. Bakker, Exemplar Domini. Ignatius of Antioch and His Martyrological Self-Concept (Diss. Groningen, 2003).
9.   See now K. Bradley, 'Sacrificing the Family: Christian Martyrs and their Kin', Ancient Narrative 3 (2003) 150-81, who does not collect all the available material nor show much understanding of religious choices.
10.   Bremmer, 'Perpetua and Her Diary', 95-120.
11.   See now also F. Graf, 'The Bridge and the Ladder: Narrow Passages in Late Antique Visions', in R.S. Boustan and A.Y. Reed (eds.), Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions (Cambridge, 2004) 19-33.
12.   Bremmer, 'Transvestite Dionysos', The Bucknell Review 43 (1999) 183-200.
13.   L. Robert, 'Une vision de Perpétue martyre à Carthage en 203', CRAI 1982, 228-76, reprinted in his Opera minora selecta V (Amsterdam, 1989) 791-839.
14.   H has not taken this passage into account.
15.   K. Dunbabin, The Mosaics of Roman North Africa (Oxford, 1978) 65-87.
16.   As was first noted by R. Braun, '"Honeste cadere". Un topos d'hagiographie antique', Bulletin du Centre de Romanistique et de Latinité Tardive (Nice) 1 (1983) 1-12.
17.   For this taste in art and literature see now R. von den Hoff, 'Horror and amazement: Colossal mythological statue groups and the new rhetoric of images in late second and early third century Rome', in B. Borg (ed.), Paideia: The World of the Second Sophistic (Berlin and New York, 2004) 105-29.
18.   H could have referred here to B. de Gaiffier, 'La lecture des actes des martyrs dans la prière liturgique en Occident: à propos du Passionaire hispanique', Analecta Bollandiana 72 (1954) 134-66.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:41, Friday, 03 April 2009