Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.16

Jan N. Bremmer, Marco Formisano (ed.), Perpetua's Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. (With text and translation by Joseph Farrell and Craig Williams).   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. viii, 383.  ISBN 9780199561889.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by L. Stephanie Cobb, University of Richmond (


Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano have brought together a collection of nineteen essays related to the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, many of which were originally delivered at a 2007 conference at Humboldt University. The editors describe the primary goals of both the conference and the resulting volume as detaching “the text of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas from traditional historical readings by historians of the ancient world and early Christianity by emphasizing its broader literary and cultural aspects” (v). While some of the contributions clearly meet the first aim, the volume also engages with long-debated historical issues relating to this martyr account. Indeed, Bremmer and Formisano rightly describe the volume as having “two souls”: one historical and one literary (7). The editors state that the contributors represent scholars “from various fields (classics, comparative and modern literatures, cultural history) who had not previously worked on the Passion” (v). The description is applicable in part, but readers familiar with important scholarship on the Passio will quickly recognize the prominent authors included in this collection. Yet another goal of the volume is to bridge the fields of classics and religious studies: many of the contributors are trained classicists who approach the text from their disciplinary perspectives in the hope of offering new ways of looking at the story.

The book’s introduction, co-authored by Bremmer and Formisano, may be the most important contribution to the volume. It presents an eloquent examination of the major textual issues relating to the Passio: the date, title, discovery, language, authorship, and versions. It, as well as most of the subsequent chapters, expresses optimism about many historical issues, including the authenticity of the first-person narrative; and, following Timothy Barnes’s arguments about legal records, the editors state that the Passio can be assumed to be derived from “actual court records” (6). But throughout the volume the hermeneutical import of the anonymous editor’s handling of the first-person narrative is less clear. Bremmer and Formisano, for instance, write that one of the contributing authors to the Passio “is Perpetua herself, who evidently kept a diary in prison” (5). But they also concede, “though Perpetua’s diary seems basically authentic, the editor did somewhat edit her text. In the end we cannot be wholly sure to what extent we have access to the ipsissima verba of this remarkable young woman” (6). Readers would benefit from an exploration of the effect of the latter statement on interpretation of the text. The introduction would have been even more valuable if the editors had offered their views of the arguments of J. W. Halporn1 and Ross Kraemer and Shira Lander2 on the issue of authorship or on the relationship of the Passio and the Acta.

Following the Introduction is a new translation of the Passio by Joseph Farrell and Craig Williams, based on the Latin text in C. I. M. I. van Beek’s edition (also included in the volume), though with some modifications. Farrell and Williams follow the Greek translation of the text in the inclusion of the town, Thuburbo Minus, in which the catechumens were arrested (Passio 2) and in the name of the proconsul, Minicius Opimianus (Passio 6.iii). Of special note is the translation of the editor’s introduction (Passio 1), which highlights nicely the argumentative tone of this section much more than does Musurillo’s translation (on this, see Jan den Boeft’s contribution to this volume). One unclear translation decision is found in 6.ii where the imperative parce is obscured: “Your father has grey hair; your body is just a baby” (p. 17). The introduction of a sentence division in the English translation in 6.v suppresses the relational aspect of Perpetua’s pain, an element that is crucial to the narrative’s distancing of Perpetua from her family: “I felt just dreadful. What a pitiful old man” (sic dolui pro senecta eius misera). (Similarly, see 9.iii.) Finally, although the English translation is useful, it would have been more useful if it had been published on facing pages with the Latin.

Part I, “The Martyr and her Gender”, includes seven chapters. Jan N. Bremmer examines evidence in the Passio and Acta for Felicitas, thus addressing a notable lacuna in scholarship. Craig Williams adds to a growing number of studies on gender and the Passio by focusing particularly on the function of the narrative’s employment of grammatical gender. Walter Ameling explores the meaning of the phrase “liberaliter instituta” in 3rd-century Thuburbo Minus, concluding that Perpetua’s education was more limited than many scholars assume. Hanne Sigismund-Nielsen seeks to disentangle the values of the Passio from subsequent late antique/Christian values; she examines the differences between Perpetua as a Roman woman and Perpetua within a Christian framework of virgin/whore. Jan Willem van Henten uses the theme of motherly love in Passio and 2 and 4 Maccabees to test various hypotheses about the constructions of martyrdom in Judaism and Christianity; he concludes that this theme supports the theory of “analogous but independent trajectories” in the development of ideologies of martyrdom (133). Mieke Bal utilizes narratology, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction (134) to examine the role of contest in the Passio, focusing ultimately on the “proto-feminist radicality of the text” (134). In one of the most interesting chapters of the volume, Julia Weitbrecht, echoing some of the interests of van Henten, focuses on the different ways Perpetua as mother is cast in the Passio, Acta, and in medieval legend. She sketches a fascinating movement in the developing notion of sainthood from the Passio to the Acta to the Legenda Aurea and Buoch von den heilgen megden und frowen, both of which derive from the Acta.

Part II, “Authority and Testimony”, includes six chapters. Jan den Boeft offers a convincing argument regarding the editor’s interests in the introduction to the Passio. He argues that the editor of the Passiois attempting to persuade his audience to include the martyr text in the liturgy: “He had to fight against a firmly entrenched traditional view that only ‘old’ texts deserved this privilege” (178). Sigrid Weigel (trans. Joel Golb) argues strenuously against what is (perhaps inaccurately) described as the “the widespread thesis of the singularity of the Christian conception of martyrdom” (180). She examines Lucretia’s death in order to argue that Perpetua’s death is not only an imitatio Christi but also an imitatio Lucretiae (189). Katharina Waldner (trans. Elisabeth Begemann) situates the Passiowithin existing Christian discourses of prophecy, martyrdom, and ekstasis; she argues that while Perpetua herself avoided the term ekstasis because she “clearly did not want to be associated with the Christian diviners (manteis)” (216), the editor applied the term to Perpetua, and, thus, contributed to the Christian debate on prophecy and martyrdom (218). Hartmut Böhme (trans. Jeanne Riou) argues for the relevance of psychoanalytic and psychohistorical theories in interpreting the Passio. He examines various elements of subversion in the text, especially of family and gender. Giulia Sissa examines the death of Socrates as a paradigm and argues that the Passio “resonates strongly—pace Tertullian—with the Platonic construction of the perfect martyrdom” (252). Luca Bagetto reads the Passiothrough the lens of theorist Carl Schmitt, particularly his notion of “exception.”

Part III, “The Text, the Canon, and the Margins” includes six chapters. Christoph Markschies revisits the question of the relationship of the Passio to Montanism, urging readers to reframe the question in terms of North African Tertullianism rather than importing the Phrygian Montanism of heresiology. David Konstan explores the “world of narrative and experience” of the Passio, placing it in dialogue with Xenophon’s Ephesiaca (as well as Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, Acts of the Apostles, Plato’s Crito), especially in the involvement of “a vision of deliverance from prison on the part of a superior figure” (298). Joseph Farrell explores the reception history of Passio “with respect to the various canons, scriptural, saintly, and liturgical” and suggests that the unusual ancient history is paralleled in the modern reception of the Passioas part of the scholarly canon (319). Philippe Mesnard investigates ways in which the Passio—and its commentaries— display “similar logic or narrative dispositifs” as “literary texts that deal with Nazi concentration camps and the genocide of the Jews” (321). Marco Formisano approaches the text from a literary perspective, asking about the “radical marginality” of the text, including both its marginal status as a part of the canon of Latin literature and “its ‘internal’ marginality” (329). Formisano argues that the text “presents itself to the reader as a marginal text, in terms of both genre and gender but also by disclosing a resistance to interpretation” (329). The volume concludes with a personal reflection on martyrs and martyrdom by Marina Warner.

Readers will find individual chapters engaging and thought-provoking, even though the volume as a whole lacks a clear unifying structure. The editors hold up the “uniqueness of the text itself” as the unifying element of the book (v). Volumes of this sort are rarely read from beginning to end, however, and so the lack of more specific unifying themes may not, itself, be problematic. Nevertheless, readers would likely have benefited from introductions to each of the tripartite sections, highlighting the specific contributions of the associated essays with the section theme. Readers may also have benefited from reading such accomplished contributors engaging with one another more directly on important issues relating to this text. Waldner’s chapter, for instance, assumes that Perpetua was literate enough to participate in current theological discourses, while Ameling’s chapter is devoted to demonstrating the limitations of Perpetua’s education. Similarly, Böhme argues that Perpetua could speak Greek, while Ameling argues that she could not. Sustained intra-volume conversation is difficult, but it might move us further toward consensus on some of these issues. In any case, future work on these subjects should now be able to build on this volume and make those connections. The volume contains a selected bibliography but, regrettably, does not include a full bibliography. ​


1.   Halporn, J. W. “Literary History and Generic Expectation in the Passio and Acta Perpetuae.” Vigiliae Christianae 45 (1991): 223-41.
2.   Kraemer, Ross and Shira Lander. “Perpetua and Felicitas.” Pages 1048-66 in The Early Christian World, vol 2. Edited by Philip Francis Esler. London: Routledge, 2000.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010