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A Fool for the City? Images of Rome in St. Perpetua's Diary

Jennifer A. Rea

This paper argues that a close study of Roman civic space within the Passio can serve to highlight Perpetua’s transgressive acts of self-assertion and agency within the law courts and the amphitheater, two symbols of Roman authority. Kate Cooper has recently suggested that the appearance of Roman monuments in the Passio, in addition to accentuating the power behind the Roman occupation of Carthage, can also play a critical role in determining how to interpret Perpetua’s actions during encounters with Roman authorities: “At every step along the way, Perpetua’s story has been entwined with that of Rome in Africa” (Cooper, 2011).

Cooper proposes that the “majestic” Roman law court Perpetua encounters in her prison diary may have intimidated her and points out that she is executed in the amphitheater as though she were a common criminal. She uses this evidence to suggest that Perpetua’s interactions with Roman authorities that take place within monumental Roman structures, therefore, can indicate that she is not a “well-born and well-educated recently married woman” as stated in the introductory paragraphs of the prison diary. Perpetua’s triumphs over Roman law, she suggests, must be understood within the context of Perpetua as a member of the lower strata of society rebelling against elite Roman officials’ civic authority. Thus, the appearance of Roman public works in the Passio offer persuasive reminders to Perpetua that she was a subject of Rome and therefore expected to conduct herself accordingly (Heffernan, 2012; Sigismund-Nielsen, 2012).

I am arguing for a reading of the Passio that incorporates an understanding of how Perpetua uses these Roman backdrops – the law court and the amphitheater – to demonstrate that she is an articulate and well-educated woman who is not afraid to exert the kind of influence in public that is normally reserved for male legal authorities. Moreover, Perpetua’s rejection of her father’s pleas to remember her duty (pietas) to her family (Passio 5.3), reinforces the reading of her behavior as transgressive (Gold, 2011). I am extending LeMoine’s interpretation of Perpetua’s capacity to act as an advocate on behalf of herself and others in both the legal and gladiatorial arenas to a discussion of the marginalization of the Roman display of pietas expected within public architecture. In particular, Perpetua appears to have marked the Roman amphitheater as a sacred, not civic, space for the triumph of her Christian beliefs over Roman religious spectacle when she refuses to wear the priestess of Ceres’ attire (LeMoine, 1996).

Rome’s civic representations through monumental buildings in Carthage, therefore, do not signify Roman occupation that would intimidate Perpetua, but bring to light Perpetua’s willingness to break with Roman pietas in locations that were public, and in the case of the amphitheater, hosted spectacular events. A close reading of the ways in which Roman allusions resonate within the Passio emphasizes how Perpetua disrupts and weakens the expectations for how honor and decorum should resonate within Roman civic architecture. Instead, the spectators in the law court and the amphitheater will see Perpetua claim her honor through civil disobedience and a rejection of Roman religious authority.

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Rome: The City as Text

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