BMCR 2022.03.31

The passion of Perpetua and Felicitas in late antiquity

, , The passion of Perpetua and Felicitas in late antiquity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 362. ISBN 9780520379039. $95.00.

The Passio Perpetuae remains a booming business. Since 2010, we have had three new translations,[1] two editions,[2] two studies of the Latin of the Passio,[3] a monograph and a collection of articles,[4] three studies of its reception in the early church and Middle Ages,[5] a number of articles,[6] and even a graphic history.[7] This continuing interest in one of the most fascinating texts of early Christianity is the reason for Cobb’s book, which is a collection of texts and translations on Perpetua and Felicitas, each of these with a brief introduction and bibliography by Cobb, but mostly translated by Andrew S. Jacobs.

Cobb starts her book with an introduction in which she discusses the authorship, date of the martyrdom and the Passio, the original language, the association with Montanism and geographical location. These reasonable discussions mainly present a survey of current opinions rather than Cobb firmly backing a specific position with new arguments. However, that is also not her aim, which is ‘to bring together in one place the various texts and material objects that illustrate the ways the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas was used by communities across the empire in late antiquity’ (p. 14). In this aim, she has certainly succeeded.

The book is divided into 4 sections. The first presents the accounts of the martyrdom. Unfortunately, the Latin text of the Passio follows the edition of my compatriot Van Beek (1936), as if no work has been done on the text at all since this publication. In fact, the best text at the moment is that by Farrell and Williams (note 1), whose translation is perhaps also the best, but that may be a matter of taste. Next follows the Greek translation of the martyrdom, translated by Cobb, which was discovered by Rendell Harris in 1889. As is typical, Cobb argues that it was written sometime after 257,[8] and that it was already circulating in the fourth century, while also mentioning that Brent Shaw argues for an early sixth-century translation,[9] without weighing the various arguments. The section is concluded by the two smaller Acta. Cobb rightly follows Rebillard in rejecting my dating of the Acta to the fourth century. Whereas Acta B is undoubtedly fifth-century, H. Hoppenbrouwers, Recherches sur la terminologie du martyre de Tertullien à Lactance (Nijmegen, 1961) 88, argued that ‘il semble bien que A (= I) est contemporain, ou peu s’en faut, de la Passio et des premiers ouvrages de Tertullien’. His position has not been discussed by any recent scholar and the debate, therefore, still seems to me to be open regarding Acta A.

The second section, ‘The Interpretations of the Martyrdom’, starts with the reference to Perpetua in Tertullian’s De anima 55. Cobb (p. 98) doubts that the Passio could have been known almost immediately after its composition, but the closeness of the Passio editor to Tertullian has often been seen,[10] and thus the latter’s familiarity with the Passio should not come as a surprise. Subsequently, we get a whole series of authentic and inauthentic sermons and other writings of Augustine, included the sermon found in Erfurt in only 2007 (Serm. 282auct.) as well as of Quodvultdeus and pseudo-Fulgentius, who use Perpetua and Felicitas for reflections on feminine weaknesses and faith in the family, amongst other themes. This section is concluded by mention of the great influence of the Passio on later North African Passiones and by excerpts from the Passions of Polyeuctus and Procopius of Scythopolis, both of which deserve a more detailed investigation, as their editions are more than a century old.

The last two sections are much shorter. The third one starts with the mention of Perpetua and Felicitas in the famous calendar of Filocalus and ends with Irish martyrologies, most of these extremely brief. Moreover, although Cobb gives the text she uses, she does not always provide page numbers, which makes checking laborious. Regarding the Liber Genealogus, Cobb states that the Liber associates the martyrdoms of Perpetua cum suis with Trajan’s reign (p. 276), but this is wrong: the text locates the martyrdom under Geta, which is confirmed by adding as date: in urbe Zefurino praesidente, which does not mean ‘in the city where Zephyrinus was presiding as bishop’ (Jacobs), but ‘when Zephyrinus presided as bishop in Rome’ (ca. 190–217).

The volume concludes with the visual representations of the martyrs. This is a very useful collection, but it seems less clear that Perpetua’s vision is represented in the arcosolium of the Coemeterium Maius (p. 387–88), as nothing specifically points to her, which neither is the case with the arcosolium of Saints Marcus and Marcellianus (p. 343–45)

To conclude, with the assistance of Andrew S. Jacobs, whose name deserved a more prominent place on the title page given his large contribution, Cobb has given us a useful collection of testimonia about Perpetua and Felicitas, many of which had never been translated into English before, even though she has not always looked for the most up-to-date editions. The volume is well edited and I noted few typos, but note p. 300: Wilson’s edition of Willibrord’s calendar is from 1918 not 1998 (reprint); 345: Giuseppe Wilpert > Joseph Wilpert.


[1] P. Maraval, Actes et passions des martyrs chrétiens des premiers siècles (Paris, 2010) 117-44; J. Farrell and C. Williams, ‘The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity’, in J.N. Bremmer and M. Formisano (eds), Perpetua’s Passions (Oxford, 2012) 14–23;B.K. Gold, Perpetua: Athlete of God (Oxford, 2018) 165–74.

[2] Th. J. Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (Oxford, 2012), M. Formisano, La Passione di Perpetua e di Felicita (Milano, 20152).

[3]  J. Clackson, ‘Originality and Pastiche in the Passion of Perpetua’, Rationes Rerum 5 (2015) 79–99; J.N. Adams, An Anthology of Informal Latin, 200 BC–AD 900: Fifty Texts with Translations and Linguistic Commentary (Cambridge, 2016) 317–53, neither of which sufficiently takes into account the different prose rhythms and clausulae of the various parts of the Passio.

[4] Bremmer and Formisano, Perpetua’s Passions; Gold, Perpetua: Athlete of God, to be read with my review in Vigiliae Christianae 75 (2021) 95-99.

[5] A.-M. Damalis, Die Entwicklung des Märtyrerdiskurses anhand der Acta Perpetuae et Felicitatis (Munich, 2012); P. Kitzler, From ‘Passio Perpetuae’ to ‘Acta Perpetuae’ (Berlin and Boston, 2015); M. Cotter-Lynch, Saint Perpetua across the Middle Ages (New York, 2016).

[6] For a full bibliography, see Bremmer and Formisano, Perpetua’s Passions, 371–76; add V. Hunink, ‘“With the Taste of Something Sweet Still in my Mouth”. Perpetua’s Visions’, in B.J. Koet (ed.), Dreams as Divine Communication in Christianity. From Hermas to Aquinas (Leuven 2012) 77–91; R. Mentxaka, ‘Género y violencia(s) en la Pasión de Perpetua y Felicidad’, Index 40 (2012) 447–74; E.R. Urciuoli, ‘“Che non abbia a vergognarmi di fronte alla gente”. Campo religioso e campo familiare nella Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis’, in P. Bourdieu, Il campo religioso, ed. R. Alciati et al. (Turin, 2012) 133–82; L.C. Vuong, ‘The Impact of Social and Economic Status on the Experience of Martyrdom: A Case Study of Perpetua and Felicitas’, in C. Ehrlich et al. (eds), Purity, Holiness, and Identity in Ancient Israel, Judaism, and Christianity (Tübingen, 2012) 224–49; K. Greschat, Gelehrte Frauen des frühen Christentums (Stuttgart, 2015) 30–41; B. Sowers, ‘Pudor et Dedecus: Rhetoric of Honor and Shame in Perpetua’s Passion’, JECS 23 (2015) 363–88; J.N. Bremmer, ‘Perpetua und Felicitas’, in RAC 27 (2016) 178-90. None of these is mentioned by Cobb, who has also overlooked that I have collected, updated and sometimes revised my articles on Perpetua in J.N. Bremmer, Maidens, Magic and Martyrs in Early Christianity (Tübingen, 2017) 349–454.

[7] J. Rea and L. Clarke, Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire (New York, 2017).

[8] As I also have argued: Maidens, Magic and Martyrs, 354.

[9] B. Shaw, ‘Doing It in Greek: Translating Perpetua’, Studies in Late Antiquity 4.3 (2020) 309­–45. Shaw’s study is nicely complemented by C. Mazzucco, ‘Il rapporto tra la versione greca e la versione latina della Passio Perpetuae’, in V. Milazzo and F. Scorza Barcellona (eds.), Bilinguismo e scritture agiografiche. Raccolta di studi (Rome, 2018) 17–75, which has been overlooked by Cobb. As Shaw rightly compares the Greek translation of the Acta Scillitanorum, I may refer to my own discussion of that text, which reaches a comparable conclusion regarding the Byzantine dating of the Greek translation: ‘Imitation of Christ in the Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs?’, in A. Bettenworth et al. (eds), For Example. Martyrdom and Imitation in Early Christian Texts and Art (Munich, 2020) 143–69.

[10] Most recently, W. Ameling and J. den Boeft, in Bremmer and Formisano, Perpetua’s Passions, 99–101, 176, respectively.