BMCR 2018.04.49

Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire. Graphic History Series

, , Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire. Graphic History Series. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xxi, 208. ISBN 9780190238711. $19.95.

The newest issue in Oxford’s Graphic History Series transports readers into a striking martyr narrative set in the ancient Christian world: the story of Perpetua’s last week of life, as represented in the first-person account often attributed to her as a “diary” and included in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. The Passion frequently appears on syllabi for courses in early Christianity or the history of Christianity more broadly. (An informal poll on Twitter showed that 82% of the 73 respondents have assigned it.) Valued for how vividly it recounts the narrative of a group of male and female Christians in conflict with local authorities, the text is a boon to teachers who want to use it to highlight women in the ancient Christian world. Rea and Clarke’s attractive and affordable new treatment will only increase the Passion ’s popularity in classrooms, as it supplements its story and ancillary resources with a graphic representation of the text (1-86).

The traditional teaching tools that Perpetua’s Journey provides are both generous and detailed. Rea’s English translation of the text of the Passion (169-81) is accompanied by a short bibliography (202-6), a timeline (198-201), a glossary (207-8), and sample questions for discussion. Rea also compiled an extended review of the historical topics an instructor might need to contextualize the Passion according to its most common reading: as a document that records directly the experiences of early-third-century Carthaginian Christians (91-165). The question of the text’s documentary quality—that is, whether the Passion is the veridical record of the thoughts and visions of a group of Christians in their last days—is briefly entertained in a preface (xi-xvii). Rea presents the diversity of existing scholarly views about the issue carefully, even encouraging readers to let go of the question altogether. (xiii) Yet Perpetua’s character, represented so idiosyncratically and realistically in the Passion, has exerted a considerable pull on most readers, and Rea is eventually no different. Elsewhere in this preface, the text simply “is the first extant diary authored by a Christian woman,” which gives readers direct access to “her experiences” and “Perpetua’s authentic voice” (xi, xiii). Such phrases erase the nuance of Rea’s other cautions, and advocate for one perspective on the text: that this is a historical record created by its actors.

The graphic representation of the Passion included in Perpetua’s Journey, brilliantly executed by Clarke, reinforces that this is the best way to approach the text. It may seem strange already to say that a graphic representation could add to a text’s realism. After all, “graphic” is just the more recent label for the drawing style we used to call “comics,” a medium that has habitually represented superheroes, monsters, and fantastical beings. Yet, in the past three decades the graphic medium has been adopted to recount histories of events, memoirs, and explorations of the communal past. Audiences that have already encountered graphic representations of historical events—whether in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home —may in fact be primed to see work conveyed in graphic form as representing the accurate and necessary narrative of actual events, often voiced by actors whose authenticity is central to the narrative.

Beyond the use of the graphic medium itself, Clarke’s choices within the medium also lend weight to the impression that Perpetua was a historical actor. Clarke’s style of illustration, here and in other issues in the Oxford series, is finely detailed, particularly in the depiction of individual faces. Graphic artists are not required to draw this way; indeed, many choose to depict their characters with less-detailed, cartoonish faces, even when they are representing historical events (for examples, see Chester Brown’s Louis Riel or Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler.) The effect of such “masking,” as Scott McCloud has termed it, is to induce the reader to identify with the characters so drawn. Though Perpetua, as an object of veneration in Christian martyrological culture, may have inspired many to think themselves brave and self-determined like her, Clarke’s choice not to cartoon her face places Perpetua out of the reader’s reach, but at the same time, more directly in the historical register. In the selection of realism out of the full range of graphic options for drawing Perpetua, Clarke codes her less as an exemplar for identification and more an artifact for inspection.

Other, seemingly contradictory choices in illustration reinforce from different angles the sense that the Passion is a documentary record which includes the unmediated voice of a third-century woman. Throughout Perpetua’s Journey, beginning even on the front cover, Perpetua is almost always depicted in positions and from perspectives that signal her earnestness. She is wide-eyed and fresh-faced, even under duress. As viewers, we almost never see her on the level; we are either looking at her from above, as if we were watching her contest as spectators, or from slightly below, as we were seated and viewing her standing before us. Taken together, these stylings present the impression of an innocent, steadfast woman. What is fascinating is that the visual cues of angle and pose Clarke has used are what usually depict purity, innocence, and determination to us. That is to say, Perpetua is drawn in the modern idiom that represents young women we are to admire. Though the scenes do not present Perpetua according to the ancient visual vocabulary of elite Roman womanhood—where bodily dignity and facial continence rule—she paradoxically will feel more like a “real” historical actor because she follows a template that we have learned from our media. Her earnestness and her directness, perhaps ahistorical for a Roman woman, convey the authenticity readers will need to assume in order to accept Perpetua as a historical Roman woman.

These are subtle effects, but the claim that Perpetua is the third-century author of the “diary” included in the Passion is more explicitly made by other visual details of Clarke’s work. In one frame, we see Perpetua, seated against the wall of the prison where she is held, papyrus on lap and quill in hand (44). Through the section that recounts her “diary,” the words of the first-person text appear in dialogue boxes marked with a small vertical quill, drawn to match the one we have seen her holding. When Perpetua’s “diary” reports visions, the entirety of the text of the vision is written out on one page, in a font roughly reproducing American print handwriting, and on a background hashed and colored to suggest papyrus. In this way, readers “see,” so to speak, the document that Perpetua created. The artifacts of writing presented in these illustrations (papyrus, quill) are not just the components necessary for a realistic style; if that were Clarke’s intent, then an ink bottle would have appeared at some point. Instead, they are iconic, shorthand references to the claim of authorship itself. The words of the “diary,” Clarke’s visualization insists, are in fact from Perpetua; they are manu sua, just as the Passion claims.

What I have just discussed barely scratches the surface of the meaning that an illustrated version adds to the story of the Passion and its possible interpretations. To give just a hint of how much can be conveyed by this format, let me draw your attention to the part of the graphic narrative that corresponds to Passion 3.1-5, Perpetua’s famous argument with her father. In the Latin text, Perpetua uses an example of a jar to make a point to her father about the necessity of her speaking directly about what she is, namely, a Christian woman. Just after the argument is reported, Perpetua is baptized, and in the text of the Passion, this development is easily read as a confirmation of the faith that she had just fervently affirmed to her father.

Clarke depicts the argument and the baptism on facing pages, which appear at this link courtesy of Oxford University Press. As Perpetua and her father argue over the course of six overlaid panels on page 8, we are introduced to several important narrative elements: the two argue by a fountain, which allows for water to appear in almost every panel on the page; the jar, likewise, appears multiple times on the page. In each of the page’s six panels, Perpetua’s father appears; noticeably, his hands also feature in each panel on the page. In one, the largest, we see only a snippet of his clothing, green like much of page 8’s scenery, but we see the entirety of his left hand, including a signet ring he wears. His hands reach out violently toward Perpetua in another panel, in which the jar is overturned (a clear allusion to Perpetua’s lament, me pater verbis evertere cupiret —she and the jar are being violently upended).

All these elements reappear, transformed, in the second page of the spread: a jar appears just barely in the lower right corner, now arguably bearing the water of baptism that drips from the large hand in the center of the page—not that of her father, but the bare hand of the baptizer. Even Perpetua’s outfit signals the transition: on page 8, her yellow garment is distinct against the dominant green color of the panels; it more rightly conforms to the scene of baptism on the next page, where green gives way to gold. Her outfit, or lack of it, also distinguishes the two scenes. In all the panels before her baptism, Perpetua wears an undershirt and tunic, gathered by two gold braces, golden earrings on display under a careful coiffure, a substantial golden necklace and two thick gold bracelets on her wrists. Yet when we see her baptized, she is clearly bare-shouldered, her hair loosed. This is, of course, a visual reference to the tradition that early Christians were baptized naked. At the same time, the contrast of the two figures pairing shows the reader that Perpetua’s Roman identity is an accoutrement that can be shed, while her naked self, her unadorned and natural self, is Christian. All this (and more I must leave out for brevity’s sake) is legible, for those who read visual narratives, on the spread of pages 8 and 9. There are seventy-two other pages of illustration, each of which can be read as deeply and profitably.

A palpable excitement bubbled up among scholars of early Christianity when this book was first publicized, and for good reason. Remediating the Passion into the graphic medium obviously expands the possibilities for undergraduate engagement with this workhorse of the early Christianity syllabus. Yet with those possibilities come a few limitations. Those who take the Passion as a historical record, including a diary written by a Carthaginian woman in the week before she is executed, will have that viewpoint subtly but firmly supported by Clarke’s illustrations and Rea’s teaching tools. But teachers who want to use an array of approaches, perhaps including but not bound to such documentary authenticity, may need to work harder to cultivate such nuance with readers of Perpetua’s Journey. Once acquired, the sense of surety about Perpetua’s reality may extend to other literary creations from early Christian writing, inducing a way of reading that defaults to the narrative claims any other text makes about its creation. This is not an inconsequential result in the undergraduate classroom, or in the study of early Christian literature, and it is worth thinking about for those of us who plan to adopt Perpetua’s Journey in our courses. This graphic treatment of the Passion is outstanding and inventive, because it brings Christian history so vividly to life for the reader—but that may be an outcome orthogonal or even contrary to one’s pedagogical aims.