In the source book Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant include several historical stories and laws concerning the private and public lives of women in ancient Rome and Greece, including societal expectations of them and their inferiority to men. The consistent depiction of traditional gender roles that were largely evident in Ancient Rome allows historians to conceptualize what life was like for men and women. These resulting stereotypes portrayed men as hard-working, strong, and superior, and women as weak, nurturing, and inferior.
However, The Martyrdom of St. Perpetua, a narrative within the source book, illuminated Saint Perpetua’s masculine character and equated the strength of her Christian devotion to the strength of a man, shown when she abandons her caregiving role, holds power over her weak father, and transforms into a man during her vision of triumph, thus challenging traditional gender roles and reinforcing the strength of religion. Perpetua may very well have served as justification for the emperor’s continued ban on Christianity, due to her defiant and dominant nature. Her unwavering commitment to God also meant her lack of devotion towards the Emperor, Septimius Severus, giving him further reason to forbid conversion, in order to maintain his power and influence over Rome and prevent disobedience.
Saint Perpetua was one of few imprisoned catechumens who devoted her life to God and Christianity, rather than to her family, motherhood, and the emperor, as was expected of all women. Once, while pointing to a vase and emphasizing that it could not be called anything else, Perpetua told her father “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian” (Pg. 314). Perpetua firmly reinforced to her father that being a Christian was the subject of her identity, unlike most women whose identities were tied to their husbands’ or fathers’ societal status. Another example of her devoted Christianity over her family was during her imprisonment, when she did not care to further raise her child, and stated “But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort of my breasts” (Pg. 316).
With such devotion to God, over and above everything else, came her failure to uphold the quintessential woman’s lifestyle, as demonstrated when she emotionally detached herself from her son after she no longer needed to breastfeed him. Her primary focus on Christianity challenges that of a typical mother or wife in Ancient Rome, defeminizing herself and straying away from the gender roles by which all women were expected to abide. Perpetua was imprisoned and sentenced to death by military games due to her devotion to God and her defiance of the emperor’s authority. It is apparent that the emperor sought to make an example of her and deter conversion to Christianity. Had he not done so, Perpetua’s rebellious way of living may have actually inspired the growth of Christianity and destruction of standard social norms.
Perpetua’s masculine character was also displayed by the power she seemed to hold over her submissive father, demonstrating a reversal in gender roles. Her father’s constant emotional outbursts as well as his begging and pleading became a common occurrence in the story. Perpetua recalled a moment when her father visited her in prison, begging for her to deny Christianity, as she stated “This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me” (Pg. 315). Women in Ancient Rome were generally seen to display their emotions drastically, often being referred to as the weaker, hysterical gender. Here, however, Perpetua’s father begged on his knees to her, displaying his feminine characteristic of inferiority as he physically kneeled below her as one would do to yield dominance to the person standing.
This can be contrasted to Perpetua’s masculinity over him as she constantly asserted her power over him and “felt sorry for his unhappy old age” (Pg. 317). The recurring pattern of her father’s frantic, emotional attitude and Perpetua’s careless, calm responses were atypical characteristics for their genders and proved to be a clear reversal of roles in Ancient Rome. This could also be seen when her father admitted that the family needed her, much like a typical family would demonstrate their need for the father. In attempt to convince her to deny her devotion to God, her father yelled, “Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone! Give up your pride! You will destroy us!” (Pg. 315).
Her father confessed that she was a crucial member of their family’s structure, putting her power above his in the sense that they would not be able to go on without her to care for them. Giving a living woman praise in Ancient Rome seemed to be rare, but her father destroyed that norm and voiced his and their family’s dependence on her. Perpetua, showing her strength and dominance as a result of her faith, may have caused Christianity to be linked to a power shift for women in society, giving Rome a reason to be afraid of the religion’s growth.
Finally, as if Perpetua herself recognized the strength of Christianity, she took on the identity of a man in the last of her many visions, giving her the power of masculinity to defeat the beasts in the military games. Perpetua entered the battle in her vision and recalled, “my clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man” (Pg. 317). Her gender transformation resulted in her imagined victory over her opponent, a vicious Egyptian, as if only a man has the ability and power to conquer. Despite her identification as a man, she was constantly referred to as “she” and “her” throughout the battle. This clearly distinguished the stereotypical power a man had over a woman, because her christianity allowed her to strip herself of her femininity and gain the strength of a man; however, her opponent still refused to see her as someone with the same status and abilities as one. Perpetua’s transformation to a man exposed her knowledge of gender roles and her choice to challenge them as she envisioned victory for herself under a masculine mask. This idea of a Christian woman having the power equivalent to a man’s, may have furthered the belief that Christianity should be abolished and frowned upon, so that women and other Christians were not seen as superior.
Femininity and masculinity played big roles in Ancient Roman society, being depicted through the status of powerful men over weak women. In this story, gender roles were challenged and reversed, displaying the strength of Perpetua’s Christianity and her uncommon place in society. Perpetua’s devotion towards god, dominance over her feminine father, and transformation into a man for power created a change of normality in gender roles, while also alluding to a possible influence on the disapproval of Christianity due to the immense power it gave her. The idea of women having any sort of power in Rome was shocking and frowned upon, and since Christianity was also rejected, the combination of the two would have been greatly immoral. Perpetua, having been that strong Christian woman, and therefore seen as masculine, can give historians a glimpse of possible reasoning behind the disallowment of Christianity and the fear that its growth could’ve influenced more rebellion in society, ultimately leading to more devotion towards God and less power for the Emperor.