BMCR 2013.01.58

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity

, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xxvii, 557. ISBN 9780199777570 $99.00.


Heffernan’s edition, translation, and commentary of The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity will be considered the definitive work on the subject. It is adelight to the scholar, teacher, and student of late Latin or early Christianity. This volume offers a comprehensive and expansive introduction to the historical background of the third-century martyrdom of Perpetua that uses evidence from historical, literary, and material culture. This book will be of use to the scholars working on Perpetua or other martyrs in late antiquity, particularly those interested in the social status of women in late antiquity, as well as teachers of intermediate and upper-level Latin courses or those teaching seminars on issues in late antiquity. While the text is rather expensive for students, it includes the Latin text, the Greek text (which is excellent for the students who know both Latin and Greek, as they can readily compare the two versions), a readable English translation, a vocabulary list, notes on grammar, and a discussion on the late Latin of the Passio, as well as a lengthy historical introduction. I used this volume as one of two texts in an upper- division course on early Christian biography, and it did not need to be supplemented with other materials on Perpetua. Because of on its huge success in the one course, I will readily adapt this text for a number of other seminars in the future.

The lengthy introduction (100 pages) is divided into three sections: the personae in the Passio; the date of the Passio, and the language of composition. The first section, on the personae, includes a lengthy discussion on the introduction to the work ( exordium) and the redactor who composed the exordium. (While Heffernan does not try to identify the redactor by name, he does speculate on his rank and background.) In his discussion of rhetorical devices used in martyrdom stories Heffernan exhibits a grasp of early Christian biography (demonstrated by his frequent references and comparisons to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Saints Ptolemaeus and Lucius, and the Acts of Justin, among others). This section also provides lengthy discussions on the major figures in the Passio : Perpetua, Revocatus, Felicity, Saturninus and Secundulus, Saturus, Tertius, Pomponius, Hilarianus, Minicius Opimianus, Pudens, Dinocrates, as well as other minor figures. Heffernan considers their social standing in part by providing an analysis of their names. The treatments of Perpetua’s father and Perpetua herself are the highlights of this section, because they describe the social position of women in late antique Carthage, particularly in the account of Perpetua’s relationship to her father and his role as paterfamilias, a role usurped by Perpetua herself. This section, as well as a subsequent section on Matrona Dei, which covers Perpetua’s shift in identity from Roman matron to a Christian matrona Dei, will be useful for those interested in the history of women in the Roman Empire.

Using several types of evidence, Heffernan dates the composition of the work between the end of 206 and late 209. Using internal evidence, Heffernan points to remarks made by the redactor and a datable historical allusion to the celebration of the games on Geta’s birthday. He further discusses the dating of the work in light of its manuscript tradition, which is also treated in appendix I, on manuscripts and editions (which gives a detailed description of each of the major manuscripts used by Heffernan, including photographs of select folio pages—again, this addition makes this volume an excellent teaching tool for those introducing students to the art of manuscript study.) Also using references found in Tertullian, Heffernan sets the date for composition between the end of 206 and late 209, partly on the evidence ofTertullian’s De Anima, which contains the earliest allusion to the Passio. . The third section of the introduction deals with the language of composition. This section addresses the question of the relative dating of the Latin text and the Greek text, prioritizing the Latin, given historical inconsistencies in the Greek. In addition, Heffernan examines Roman military nomenclature, technical terms, and legal formulae as used in the Latin and Greek traditions of the manuscripts.

Sections IV, V, VI consist of the Latin text, English translation, and commentary (appendix II; the Greek text). The commentary section is immense and offers great insight into the text, which Heffernan treats with sensitivity. This section begins with a general overview of each chapter of the Passio examining parallels in Pauline literature and other early Christian literature, as well as historical practices in the African church, particularly sacramental theology. After the summary and general literary analysis, Heffernan offers a line by line account of the Latin text in the commentary section. Here, he makes notes on unusual usage of Latin syntax typical of later Latin, while providing context for technical terms, and references to scripture. Heffernan’s commentaries on chapters four and ten are particularly laudable, especially his interpretations of Christian imagery in chapter four, which features the rather perplexing ladder image, which he refers to the Mithraic mysteries in North Africa. In addition, Heffernan sheds some light on the reception of Perpetua’s dreams by providing the example of a fourth-century sarcophagus depicting Perpetua’s first dream. He also supplements literary parallels and historical analysis with material evidence in his interpretation of chapter ten, Perpetua’s final dream narrative. Here, Heffernan describes the dress of Pomponius in light of representations of Christ the Good Shepherd found on depictions found in the catacombs of Domitilla and in the cemetery of Peter and Marcellinus. In his commentary on, He draws the lanista who oversees the final gladiatorial contest as a composite figure of Christ-Pudens-Mercury-Hermes, and provides numerous parallels from classical and Christian literature and art to support this claim.

Heffernan’s volume is a multidisciplinary study that will be of use to Classicists, art historians, and those interested in early Christian literature. Because it embraces so many fields, moreover, it is highly recommended for professors wishing to introduce students to the culturally rich world of late antiquity.