Perpetua in the Arena: A Translation and Literary Analysis

“Martyr in the Circus Arena” by Fyodor Bronnikov

Perpetua in the Arena: A Translation and Literary Analysis

By Dara Sánchez

Note: This piece consists of two parts: a translation of Perpetua’s final vision followed by a literary analysis of the translated passage.


The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity 10.1–10.15


Pridie quam pugnaremus, uideo in horomate hoc: venisse Pomponium diaconum ad ostium carceris et pulsare uehementer.

On the day before we were fighting, I was seeing[1] this in the vision: that deacon Pomponius went to the door of the prison and aggressively beat it. 



Et exiui ad eum et aperui ei; qui erat uestitus discincta candida, habens multiplices galliculas.

And I reached out to him and opened it for him; and he was dressed in a loose white robe, wearing fancy sandals. 



Et dixit mihi: Perpetua, te expectamus; ueni.

Et tenuit mihi manum et coepimus ire per aspera loca et flexuosa.

And he said to me: “Perpetua, we are expecting you; come.”

And he held my hand and we began to go through rugged and twisted places.



Vix tandem peruenimus anhelantes ad amphitheatrum et induxit me in media arena et dixit mihi: Noli pauere.

Hic sum tecum et conlaboro tecum. Et abiit

With difficulty, we finally arrived panting to an amphitheater, and he led me into the middle of the area and said to me: “I do not wish to frighten [you].

I am here with you, and I will labor with you.” And he departed.



et aspicio populum ingentem adtonitum; et quia sciebam me ad bestias damnatam esse, mirabar quod non mitterentur mihi bestiae.

And I gazed at the immense, stunned crowd; and because I understood that I had been condemned to the beasts, I was amazed that such beasts were not being released upon me.



et exiuit quidam contra me Aegyptius foedus specie cum adiutoribus suis pugnaturus mecum.

And a certain Egyptian, foul in appearance, emerged opposite to me with his supporters, prepared to fight with me.



ueniunt et ad me adolescentes decori, adiutores et fautores mei.

et expoliata sum et facta sum masculus; et coeperunt me fauisores mei oleo defricare, quomodo solent in agone.

et illum contra Aegyptium uideo in afa uolutantem.

And beautiful young men came to me, as supporters and protectors for me.

And I was stripped and made masculine; and my protectors began to rub me down with oil, just as is the custom for a competition.

And on the opposite side, I saw that Egyptian rolling in the dust.



et exiuit uir quidam mirae magnitudinis ut etiam excederet fastigium amphitheatri, discinctatus, purpuram inter duos clauos per medium pectus habens, et galliculas multiformes ex auro et argento factas, et ferens uirgam quasi lanista, et ramum uiridem in quo erant mala aurea.

And a certain man of a remarkable magnitude, so that he was taller than even the top of the amphitheater, came out wearing loose clothes with purple in between two stripes going through the middle of his chest, and fancy sandals made from gold and silver, and carrying a stick, as if he were a trainer, and a green branch on which there were golden apples.



et petiit silentium et dixit: Hic Aegyptius, si hanc uicerit, occidet illam gladio; haec, si hunc uicerit, accipiet ramum istum.

And he asked for silence and said: This Egyptian, if he defeats her, he will kill her with a sword; this woman, if she defeats him, she will receive that branch.”



Et recessit. Et accessimus ad inuicem et coepimus mittere pugnos. Ille mihi pedes adprehendere uolebat; ego autem illi calcibus faciem caedebam.

And he withdrew. And we approached each other and we began to hurl our fists. He was hoping to grab my feet; but I kept striking his face with my heels.



Et sublata sum in aere et coepi eum sic caedere quasi terram non calcans. At ubi uidi moram fieri, iunxi manus ut digitos in digitos mitterem et apprehendi illi caput; et cecidit in faciem et calcaui illi caput.

And I was raised in the air and began to strike him in this way, as if I was not trampling the dirt. But when I saw that he happened to hesitate, I joined my hands so that I weaved my fingers into my own fingers and I grabbed his head; and he fell on his face and I trampled his head.



et coepit populus clamare et fauisores mei psallere.

et accessi ad lanistam et accepi ramum.

And the crowd began to cry out and my protectors began to sing psalms.

And I approached the trainer, and I received the branch.  



et osculatus est me et dixit mihi: Filia, pax tecum.

et coepi ire cum gloria ad portam Sanauiuariam.

et experrecta sum.

And He kissed me and said to me: “Daughter, peace be with you.”

And I began to go with glory to the Sanavivarian gate.

And I awakened.



et intellexi me non ad bestias, sed contra diabolum esse pugnaturam; sed sciebam mihi esse uictoriam.

And I understood that I was not going to face those beasts, but I was about to fight against the devil; yet I knew that victory was mine.



Hoc usque in pridie muneris egi; ipsius autem muneris actum, si quis uoluerit, scribat.

I did this all the way until the day before the spectacle; but let him, if anyone should wish it, write down the deed of the spectacle itself.


A Literary Analysis of Perpetua’s Morality and Allusions in Her Final Vision


From a prison diary in Carthage, Perpetua gives a captivating account of martyrdom in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis (Passio Perpetuae). Amidst the foul conditions of the prison, her father’s pleas for her to reject Christianity, and her separation from her infant, Perpetua wondrously describes the visions that come to her in dreams. For example, on the day before the spectacle where she would be martyred, she has her fourth and final vision, in which Perpetua describes deacon Pomponius leading her to an amphitheater where she is set to fight against an Egyptian. In preparation, Perpetua is rubbed in oil by a group of beautiful youths and masculinized. She fights, kicking and stepping on the Egyptian man’s head, eventually leading her to victory, where she grabs a branch with golden apples held up by a large figure symbolizing God. This certifies her victory and the same God-figure kisses her. Upon awakening, Perpetua realizes the meaning of this vision: she will be fighting the devil in the arena. In her account of the dream, Perpetua raises many fascinating questions about her gender transformation and her fight against an Egyptian. This essay argues that in section ten of the Passio Perpetuae, Perpetua utilizes physical appearances to reveal the moral qualities of individuals and, despite favoring Christian values, makes both pagan and Christian allusions to align her account of martyrdom with Christian values.


Section I: Equating Appearance to Morality

Arguably one of the most interesting components of this episode is the Egyptian man, whom Perpetua uses as a symbol of immoral and un-Christian values by equating physical appearance with moral attributes. For starters, Perpetua comments that the fight against the Egyptian represents her fight against the devil (10.14). Perpetua’s depiction of the Egyptian aligns with other depictions of Egyptians and Ethiopians in Christian texts, where these peoples are appropriated as symbols of godlessness and evil (Gold 27). Nevertheless, Perpetua may also mention the Egyptian man because Egyptians were associated with polytheistic pagan cults, in opposition to Christians’ one true God (Gold 27). Extending these interpretations, it is important to consider the foulness of the Egyptian (Aegyptius foedus [10.6]) in contrast to the beautiful young men (adolescentes decori [10.7]). This falls in line with previous depictions of physical appearance in Perpetua’s narrative. For example, in an earlier vision, Dinocrates[2] is described as having dirtied clothes and a pale complexion (sordido cultu et colore pallido [7.4]) while he suffers in the afterlife, but after he is redeemed by Perpetua’s prayer, he appears clean and well-dressed (mundo corpore bene vestitum [8.1]). In this way, Perpetua uses physical appearances in her visions to describe the moral conditions of an individual, thereby equating the foedus quality to an Egyptian pagan and decori to the psalm-singing youths that come to her aid. Thus cleanliness (and good looks) is close to godliness, while foulness is not.

As another example, Pomponius is described positively when he takes the role of a helpful Christian. Previously, Perpetua mentioned Pomponius when he bribed the guards to get better conditions for the imprisoned Christians (3.7) and tried to return Perpetua’s infant to her (6.7). Thus Pomponius is consistently characterized as a helpful, Christian figure. After he summons her to martyrdom, Pomponius again takes the role of a helper, offering support before her fight in the arena: Hic sum tecum et conlaboro tecum [I am here with you, and I labor with you] (10.4). He demonstrates Christian values by supporting a fellow Christian in her metaphysical struggle against the devil. His white clothing (uestitus…candida [10.2]) implies he was rewarded for being a good Christian because his good physical state in Perpetua’s vision reflects the good qualities of his soul.


Section II: Allusions to Pagan and Christian Traditions

Later in her narrative, Perpetua’s account becomes more complex as we consider both the pagan and Christian allusions she utilizes. Although most of her allusions are to Christian concepts, she also references pagan traditions. As she attempts to align her narrative with Christian values, we can reconcile these opposing ideals. Perpetua appropriates pagan traditions to align herself with Christian values. For example, God holds out branches with golden apples (mala aurea [10.8]); and these fruits are common motifs in pagan myths (e.g., the golden apples of the Hesperides and of Atalanta’s race). Golden apples evoke a heroic context, appropriate for the athletic contest in which Perpetua participates. This imagery is interesting to evoke in a Christian context as the golden apples highlight her heroic triumph over the devil. Perhaps it indicates pagan and Christian traditions were not strictly separate and compels us to place Perpetua’s narrative back in the pagan society in which early Christianity was developing.

Turning back to her preparation for the fight, the beautiful young men rub Perpetua in oil and she is made masculine (facta sum masculus [10.7]), highlighting how Perpetua strives to align herself with the Christian ideal of the athletic martyr. We can view Perpetua’s transformation and the aspects of athleticism in her account from numerous perspectives. For example, martyrs are described as athletes in other early Christian texts, and athletes had to be male as they were associated with good qualities like self-discipline, while women were not. In this way, Perpetua had to make herself masculine to conform to the manly ideals associated with martyrdom (Gold 27-28; 36). However, there are other angles to consider. For instance, it was common to be rubbed in oil and then sprinkled with dust in preparation for fights. The opposition of these two stages of preparation is apparent as Perpetua is only rubbed in oil, while the Egyptian rolls in the dust (10.7). For Christians, the oil rubbing may resemble the holy practice of anointing in oil, thus showing Perpetua in a consecrated form, while the dust portrays the Egyptian in the filth of dust. Moreover, because Perpetua was stripped naked for oiling, she enters the arena without pagan dress; later, Perpetua argues for the Christians’ right to enter the arena without pagan attire (18.4–18.6). Nonetheless, women are stripped naked in the arena to humiliate them in a culture that traditionally values modesty. However, in her vision, Perpetua’s nakedness does not make her feel shame (in contrast to 20.4). By being masculinized, she further contests societal norms. Her transformation into a masculine form also means that Perpetua rejects her earthly ties to wifehood and motherhood (all societal titles expected of her), like other early Christian female martyrs. Consequently, the only title she accepts is the title of daughter (filia) because it comes from God (10.13), not earthly relations.

Finally, during the contest, Perpetua strikes her heel into the face of the Egyptian man (illi calcibus faciem caedebam [10.10]), making a biblical reference which puts her in a powerful position. This action alludes to Genesis, where God foresees that the head of the serpent will be crushed by the offspring of a woman as a punishment for the serpent’s role in the story of Adam and Eve: “and between your offspring and her offspring/ he shall bruise your head,/ and you shall bruise his heel” (English Standard Version, Gen. 3.15). It is important to recognize that this is not Perpetua’s first reference to Genesis. In fact, when Perpetua was climbing a ladder in a previous vision, she trampled on the head of a serpent (4.7). By equating her martyrdom with crushing the head of the serpent, Perpetua heightens the religious significance of her visions, contextualizing herself within the founding traditions of Christian texts.



To conclude, in the Passio Perpetuae, Perpetua utilizes physical exteriors to reveal the ethical qualities of individuals and alludes to pagan and Christian traditions in order to align her account of martyrdom with Christian values. This analysis is important because it explains the rhetorical devices Perpetua uses. As readers of Latin works, we can acknowledge the intrinsic value of Perpetua’s account as one of the few surviving sources written by a woman, which simultaneously highlights the widespread use of Latin across the empire. From Perpetua’s account, perhaps most importantly, we can see the formation of her own Christian identity and how she portrays this with rhetorical devices in her diary. Finally, it is important to consider her narrative within the context of it being her fourth and final vision. To illustrate, in the last few lines of this episode, God kisses her and tells her to go through the Sanavivarian gates, which are the winner’s gates in a gladiatorial fight. Perpetua accepts when God takes on a fatherly role, in contrast to how she behaves toward her biological father, whose cries she ignores when he tries to call her away from her Christian life. Readers are therefore left with a triumphant image of Perpetua, a Christian and daughter of God. This episode records the last words of Perpetua before her martyrdom is narrated by someone else because she is headed not only to her death, but to an eternal Christian victory.


Dara Sanchez (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies with a concentration in Languages and Literature.


Works Cited

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Good News Publishers, 2016.

Gold, Barbara K. Perpetua: Athlete of God. Oxford University Press, 2018,

Heffernan, Thomas J. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[1] As Gold explains Perpetua’s repeated use of the verb video (“I see” in the present tense”), she explains that the “use of the present tense here is strikingly vivid and represents for her audiences her experiences [… in which the visions] are continuing to pass before Perpetua’s eyes and are performative and interactive” (23-24). While the present tense in English would sound awkward, I thought the past tense would be too dull and not capture the ongoing experience that Perpetua wants to capture, so I used the imperfect tense to try to capture the unfinished, habitual action of seeing these visions vividly.

[2] Dinocrates is mentioned in section seven, where Perpetua sees him suffering in a vision. Perpetua tells us that he is her brother by blood (as opposed to a fellow-Christian brother) who died young due to cancer. When she first sees Dinocrates in her vision, he is suffering and reaching for water, which he can never attain. However, after Perpetua prays for him, she sees him in another vision clean and fulfilled with water.