One of the most fascinating exchanges during last week’s empathy workshop at the Manchester Museum was about Vibius, the father of the martyr Perpetua of Carthage. Perpetua is perhaps the most endearing and disturbing of all the early Christian saints, a young mother who kept a prison diary while being held before her execution in the Roman arena in AD 203. (The charge against her seems to have been her refusal to sacrifice to the gods of Rome, which was a form of treason.)
Perpetua’s prison diary has always fascinated me, especially a number of scenes in which she describes her father’s attempt to persuade her to give up her religion. Perpetua wants you to feel how hard it is to leave her family, but at the same time to understand that she simply feels that she has no choice. Even worse, she knows that her execution will leave her family in an exposed position – her infant son motherless, and her parents subject to harassment by unsympathetic neighbours and to bullying by government officials.
There is a curious feeling reading Perpetua’s story – since she is a saint of the early Church, one feels instinctively that one ought to be on her side, and yet it feels much more natural to sympathize with her family. We don’t know if they were pagans or simply ‘reasonable’ Christians who did not think martyrdom was the right choice – Perpetua doesn’t tell us.
Below, I have pasted in two attempts made during the workshop to see the story from the point of view of Perpetua’s father – I was fascinated by the different but equally interesting emotional insights of both writers. (For my own attempts to understand Vibius, see ‘A Father, a Daughter, and a Procurator’ and ‘Closely Watched Households‘.)
Megan Howarth (Thomas Whitham Sixth Form, Burnley)
‘I can’t understand what has happened to my daughter. How has she become so fixated on this religion? I valued her above all my children, gave her everything I could provide. Given her every opportunity in life. She had endless opportunity; she could have been a priestess or wife. She is not thinking about the consequences of the choices she has made, what will happen to her son, herself, our family. I will not be able to trade freely, everyone will know my family as the one that lacks control. I cannot control my own daughter. Who will respect me now? I can’t be an army general as I won’t be seen as a worthy leader. She does not know that this ‘soul’ she believes she has will be tainted and her death will not lead to martyrdom but punishment. She is killing her own child. Doesn’t she love him? She sees him as a sacrifice to a greater goal? She was meant to be one of my heirs. I just want her to live. She thinks I am against her faith. How do I save my child?’
Matt Bartlett (Merchant Taylor’s School, Liverpool)
‘How dare my daughter disobey me like this, can she not see that I am acting in her interests? Perpetua has brought shame upon my household and our home. Not only that but now, for her disobedience, she will lose her own life and that of her infant daughter! I am inconsolable, I feel like I have failed in my duty as a father. My own failures as a father will lead to the shame of my family. Through all of her life I have done my utmost to train her in the right way and to shelter her from the cruel, real world – perhaps that is where I have failed. My failures are ruining me, I feel as if I have failed my daughter and my family.’