Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Suspect 3rd Century Women Put to Death in Arena: Ancient Hate Crime?

Carthage, North Africa Province – Roman authorities ordered the public execution of a young Roman noblewoman and a female slave in the arena of Carthage on this date, March 7, 203 CE (Common Era). Vibia Perpetua, 22, a young mother, and Felicitas, a slave of like age who was also a young mother, both North African Christians, joined their male counterparts as victims in what legitimately might be called a state-sanctioned hate crime for refusing to swear allegiance to the Emperor, Septimius Severus.  Suspicion about the sexual orientation of the women has swirled around the story for centuries. Was the tie that bound these young women together faith alone, or was it something more?  Perpetua, one of the first Christian women in history to author an account of her own life, wrote a “Prison Diary” that was edited after her execution by an anonymous narrator who opens with an short introduction and closes with what appears to be an eye-witness account of the life-and-death drama that took place in the amphitheater of Carthage. Nothing explicit is written concerning the possible desire of the two young women for each other in the account, entitled “The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity.” But the lasting impression among gays and lesbians for the last two hundred years is that these North African Christian women were bound to each other with a mutuality that seems particularly “woman-centered” even for the outlawed early Christian communities of the late second and early third centuries, not to mention the strictly hierarchical and socially stratified world of the Roman provinces. Perpetua had given birth to a baby shortly before her condemnation, and Felicity who joined her in prison gave birth right on the eve of the execution. The motherhood of the women has been used to counter the suspicion of lesbianism or bisexuality, but as Yale gay historian John Boswell writes, “A young woman’s marriage in second- or third-century Rome did not necessarily indicate anything about the direction of her affections.” Others have argued that the Christian mission of the women made them comrades in martyrdom as they died for their faith, in refutation of any suggestion of lesbian affection between them. Mary Rose D’Angelo refuses this objection in her famous essay on women partners in the New Testament: “In the early Christian pairs, it is the women’s participation in the Christian mission that takes the foreground.  But that should not obscure the recognition that their commitment to the mission can also be seen as the commitment to each other.” The witness-narrator of the execution watched as a crazed, wild heifer, especially chosen for its gender to shame the young women, was unleashed to gore them. The mad cow tossed Perpetua, ripping her dress.  The cow then crushed Felicity to the ground before losing interest in the victims. There was nothing un-Roman about a young noblewoman reaching out her hand to help a slave up, as the narrator reports Perpetua does.  But then something most un-Roman takes place.  The Latin text (20.7) reads: Et ambae pariter steterunt, “And they both stood there together.” It is not only that these young women stood together, but that they did so when they were not expected to do so. Carolyn Osiek, the New Testament scholar from Brite Divinity School, writes of this dramatic moment: “But perhaps the author knew more than we suspect and was telling of a solidarity that had grown between the two women of unequal social status, who stood together as equals facing death.” In this moment of surprise, the curtain of nearly two thousand years is parted for an instant. Elizabeth Castelli writes that there are “moments of slippage, spaces where the self-evidency of gender conventions and relationships for which they were foundational might have been thought otherwise.” This surprising moment is one of them, when a coating of eroticism thinly glosses over two standing together, social unequals, equally facing death side-by-side. Perpetua and Felicity stand at the head of a long line of transgressive women who suffered gender hatred, suspect because of sexual outlaw status. At the very heart of Christian witness, two young women whose affection for each other was forged in a Roman prison hold onto love in the face of state-sanctioned hate crime.  For this, we honor them.

March 7, 2011 Posted by | Africa, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Bisexual persons, Carthage, Execution, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Lesbian women, Martyrdom as State-Sanctioned Hate Crime, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Perpetua and Felicity, Public Theology, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Roman North Africa, Special Comments, women | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Suspect 3rd Century Women Put to Death in Arena: Ancient Hate Crime?

   

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