BMCR 2022.09.29

The passion of Perpetua

, , , , , , , , , , The passion of Perpetua: a Latin text of the 'Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis' with running vocabulary and commentary. The Experrecta Series: Women Latin Authors, 1. Williamsburg: Pixelia Publishing, 2021. Pp. 93. ISBN 9781737033004. $8.99.

Open Access

The Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis is a work of extraordinary interest. Presenting text, vocabulary, and notes on the same page, this helpful edition, designed for students at the intermediate level of Latin, enables them to encounter it not through the occluding lens of translation but in the lively language of the original.[1] The Passio incorporates the writings of three different authors.[2] At its core is something precious, an ancient Latin prose text written by a woman: Perpetua’s vivid first-person account of her arrest and imprisonment for her Christian faith and of four astounding visions she has while in custody. Following Perpetua’s account is a shorter narrative composed by her fellow prisoner and Christian, Saturus. A third writer, the so-called redactor, bookends the martyrs’ narratives: he adds a preface promoting his own theological take on their stories and a long epilogue that describes the deaths of Perpetua, Saturus, and their companions in a North African amphitheater during the early years of the third century, probably in Carthage on 7 March 203.

The Passio is an excellent candidate for use in the Latin classroom. Though relatively brief, it invites inquiry from many angles, among them gender, politics, law, and religion; the distinctive Latinity of its three narratives also offers a good opportunity to consider stylistics. So this new edition, which won the 2022 CAMWS Bolchazy Pedagogy Book Award, is welcome. Before its contents are examined, the unusually collaborative nature of its composition should be highlighted.

Ten co-authors are listed on the book’s cover and title page: nine students from an advanced Latin class taught at Stanford Online High School in 2020–21 and their instructor, Thomas G. Hendrickson, who received a Ph.D. in Classics at the University of California at Berkeley and has written inter alia an award-winning monograph.[3] Students and instructor shared responsibility for this edition of the Passio, as explained in its front matter (i, iii) and, at greater length, in a blog post on the SCS website (wherein Hendrickson interviews two of his student collaborators) and a forthcoming article in Teaching Classical Languages. The class started with a macronized Latin text and a running vocabulary provided by Geoffrey Steadman, known for his open-access editions of Greek and Latin works. The text was divided into sections, each assigned to a student responsible for checking macrons, revising vocabulary, and writing commentary. The results were repeatedly edited by the students and then by Hendrickson, who wrote the introduction, itself subsequently reviewed by the students. The book is the first volume in the Experrecta Series, dedicated to “student editions of Latin texts written by women” (ii), issued by Pixelia Publishing, which produces open-access texts “meant for students … created by students.”[4] Just as this book is the product of student-faculty synergy, so too is this review. I field-tested the volume in an advanced Latin course on Roman women that I taught in Fall, 2021 at Kenyon College. After reading selections from the first book of Livy, all of the Laudatio Turiae, and the accounts of Agrippina and Boudicca in Tacitus Annals 14, we worked through this edition of the Passio in its entirety. This review integrates students’ responses to the book, which were generally positive, garnered from class discussions and course evaluations, in which they were specifically invited to comment on it.[5] It seems appropriate to fold student feedback into the review of a book developed by and aimed at students.

The 29-page introduction to the text is clear, thoughtful, and well-informed by scholarship. Over nine sections, it covers much ground with admirable concision, though occasionally a somewhat fuller discussion would be beneficial. It opens with a three-paragraph précis of the Passio, which also appears in a modified form on the book’s back cover, wherein Perpetua is described as an “already-radicalized woman,” who “fell in with an obscure religious sect that must have seemed to outsiders like a kind of death-cult” (1). The word choice here prompted discussion. Some students found it anachronistic, an intrusive imposition of contemporary language on an ancient text; others observed that it was meant to support the claim that Perpetua’s “beliefs would have seemed strange and alarming to many in the high Roman empire” (1). The opening paragraphs of the introduction piqued interest, and thus served as an effective hook.

The introduction then turns to the authorship of the text, considering to what extent the redactor may have altered Perpetua’s narrative or whether he in fact wrote it himself; the latter possibility is deemed unlikely. A summary of the Passio’s content comes next, followed by a convenient survey of the dramatis personae; especially strong is the consideration of Perpetua’s family, personality, and identity. The next section, on early Christianity, provides useful background, but at about four pages it is too short to do justice to its subject. It would benefit from further discussion of the heterogeneity of early Christian belief, which would help readers appreciate apparent dissonances in the three narratives, and of the roles of women in the early church, which would help them contextualize Perpetua and her female companions within their faith community. This is followed by a handy treatment of the Passio’s Latinity, which identifies thirteen “non-standard” features of syntax and vocabulary that students may not have previously encountered, and by a discussion of the Latin text printed in the book. It is based on J. Armitage Robinson’s edition (1891), now in the public domain; however, a table lists more than thirty alterations to Robinson’s text made after consultation with later critical editions, such as those of Van Beek (1936), Amat (1996), and Heffernan (2012). A brief orientation to the vocabulary and commentary and a guide to further reading cap the introduction, which is followed by a well-selected, up-to-date bibliography of more than twenty scholarly works cited in the introduction that one student evaluator rightly deemed a “helpful research tool.”[6]

Then comes the text itself. It is presented in the triple-decker style familiar from Clyde Pharr’s Aeneid and frequently found in open-access editions of Greek and Latin texts, such as Steadman’s and those produced by Faenum Publishing. The layout is clear and uncluttered, with a typeface and formatting that facilitate reading. Each section of the text is introduced by a one- or two-line summary of its contents in English. At the top of each page appears the Latin text, printed with macrons; in the middle, all but the most basic vocabulary is presented in alphabetical order, with the commonest definition appearing after the lemma and then, as needed, a definition more suited to the word in context; at the bottom, notes, mostly grammatical. On my course evaluations, five of the six respondents praised, albeit to varying degrees, the decision to print text, vocabulary, and commentary on the same page. Three of these five also said that the edition offered too much help at points, a familiar criticism of Pharr-style texts, but it should be remembered that this book is primarily pitched at intermediate students rather than the advanced Latinists in my course. After the text appears a glossary of words that appear four or more times in the Passio as well as elementary words with which students should be familiar.

At the conclusion of a now-classic article on the Passio, Brent D. Shaw writes that, after studying Perpetua, he is left with “two dominant impressions.”[7] The first is the “overpowering singularity of her achievement,” the lucidity and vibrancy of her sui generis account. The second is that her text, one of the very few composed in classical antiquity by a woman, “was buried under an avalanche of male interpretations, rereadings, and distortions,” beginning with the redactor. Many of us who are familiar with the Passio find Shaw’s impressions to resonate with our own experience. The co-authors of this book deserve much credit for enabling students to hear Perpetua’s story as told in her own voice, in her own striking Latin, and to help excavate it, as it were, from the avalanche.


[1] The work is extant in both Latin and Greek. Most contemporary scholars believe that it was originally composed in Latin: Thomas J. Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 79–99; Barbara K. Gold, Perpetua: Athlete of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 18–20; Brent D. Shaw, “Doing It in Greek: Translating Perpetua,” Studies in Late Antiquity 4 (2020): 309–45. There is also a student edition of the Greek version (ed. Seumas Macdonald, 2015). I am grateful to Bayla Kamens for drawing the latter to my attention.

[2] In this review, Passio refers to the Latin text of the martyrdom generally, to differentiate it from the particular presentation of that text in the Pixelia edition.

[3] Ancient Libraries and Renaissance Humanism: The De bibliothecis of Justus Lipsius (Leiden: Brill, 2017), which won the 2018 Jozef IJsewijn Prize for the best first book on a Neo-Latin subject from the International Association for Neo-Latin Studies.

[4] The quotation is from the About Pixelia page on the publisher’s website; the italics are original. The title of the Experrecta Series is borrowed from a phrase that recurs toward the end of Perpetua’s visions (4.10, 7.9, 8.4, 10.14): experrecta sum, “I woke up.” (Some critical editions instead print experta sum.) A second volume in the series has just been published; a third is slated to appear in June, 2023.

[5] Six students responded to the prompt on the course evaluations, which read, “In your estimation, what were the strengths and weaknesses of the particular edition of the Passion of Perpetua that we used? Your instructor has volunteered to write a book review of the text, and would welcome your perspective.”

[6] The most recent item in the bibliography dates to the book’s year of publication, 2021. The bibliography includes the only other student edition of the Latin Passio, James W. Halporn’s Bryn Mawr Commentary. The introduction of the book under review rightly acknowledges that in Halporn “students will still find much value” (29). But Halporn’s edition offers far less help with vocabulary and, as it was published in 1984, has not benefited from the considerable scholarship on the Passio that has appeared in recent decades.

[7] Brent D. Shaw, “The Passion of Perpetua,” Past and Present 139 (1993): 3–45; the quotations are from 45. The article was reprinted with slight revisions and a postscript in Studies in Ancient Greek and Roman Society, ed. Robin Osborne, 286–325 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).