A review of Jennifer A. Rea’s and Liz Clarke’s graphic novel
The image of early Christians bravely withstanding evil emperors and manfully facing death has been an important one throughout history. It has given people the strength to endure great tortures and difficulties and also to commit them.
Christ himself was killed and his followers too bore witness through their own destruction. In the first generations of believers, important figures like St Peter and St Ignatius were executed for their beliefs. Iganatius writing to the Christians at Rome begged them not to intervene in his own martyrdom:
I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.The Epistle to the Romans
This line still shocks. The image of being condemned to the wild beasts is the one that resonates even if the methods of murder were more varied and in some cases even grimmer.
Many accounts of martyrdom survive from the first few centuries of the common era. This has created an overarching narrative of an early church beset by enemies. As Jesus said “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
However, the evidence shows that for most of the time persecution was sporadic across time and location. It was only during the reigns of Decius (250-51 CE) and Diocletian (reigned 284-305 CE, persecution 305-311/13 CE) that we see centrally directed persecutions, although even these may not have been enacted to the same degree across the Empire. The Roman Empire was not a ‘tolerant’ society but it was not the prosecutor it is often taken for.
There were martyrs and their deaths clearly had an important impact initially on the people in their communities and later more widely as their stories were retold and they became heroes of the new religion.
Perpetua and Felicity
There were several women amongst the early martyrs. St Perpetua and St Felicity were martyred in Carthage during the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus. Their story has been evocatively retold in Perpetua’s Journey a graphic novel by the historian Jennifer A. Rea and artist Liz Clarke.
It is a visual interpretation of the ancient text The Passion of the Saints Perpetua and Felicity which tells how the 22 year old Perpetua was ordered to death for confessing to be a Christian. She was first held in prison, where she was able to meet other Christians, before being sent to the amphitheater to be murdered.
It sounds like a strange book to make a comic out of. Yet the authors nimbly avoid the extremes of either being too pious or too gratuitous. It is instead focused on the psychology of its characters. Perpetua is a strong determined woman who faces the male authority figures of the time and even death itself.
If the comic is didactic, its aims are to teach people about ancient Christianity, its context in the Roman world of North Africa and the complexities of that history rather than ‘Christian teaching’. In this it is different to several other comics such as Tullus, which was published in the second half of the Twentieth century for a Sunday School paper and told the story of Tullus, a Christian in the Roman Empire.
Ancient Christianity has been a popular theme in Historical Romance and Hollywood films such as The Robe or Quo Vadis. The Roman believers stand for the aspirational muscular Christians of the contemporary audience. It is hard not to map the narratives of these films onto the geopolitical concerns of the day.
Perpetua’s Journey firmly contextualises the narrative in the ancient world. A good half of the physical book is taken up by a lucid overview of the themes of the graphic novel, which could itself stand as an introductory text to Roman religion. This both deepens readers’ understanding of the comic but also complicates the very process of creating a modern work of art reinterpreting the ancient world.
The Roman world is depicted at the level of individual experience. The city is depicted in four settings: the house controlled by Perpetua’s father, the Forum controlled by the Procurator Hilarianus, the prison and the amphitheatre. Each a site of authority and violence.
This is replicated in the artwork. The rich colours are blanched as if left in the sun, evocative of the grime and dirt of the circus floors and the heavenly visions which the prisoners tell. The historical details are both ‘accurate’ and light, almost circumstantial to the plot of the story, reduced to clothing and architecture. This allows the reader to focus on the historical nature of the beliefs and inward drives of the characters.
It is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling.
Standing up to authority
Throughout the novel is the question why? Why is Perpetua condemned to death and why does she willingly die.
As the authors show, the question is complicated by two factors. As we have seen persecution was sporadic. Septimus Severus is not noted for his persecutionary zeal. Indeed, he is said to have released some Christian prisoners. In the history section, Rea argues that the persecution may have been led by a local governor.
A more pertinent question perhaps is why was Perpetua sentenced to death but other Christians were free and even able to visit the Christians in prison? Many scholars argue that some Christians would have been willing to sacrifice to the emperors to avoid death or other difficulties. Later on there were many disputes between different groups of Christians who claimed to have been loyal to the faith during the persecution.
I would argue that perhaps Perpetua was not just a Christian, but in fact a leader of a Christian community linked to Monatism.
‘Monatism’ was a form of Christianity which focused on the revelatory power of its leaders. The ‘founder’ Monatus preached with two female leaders Priscilla and Maximilla who had ecstatic visions which they said were given to them by the Holy Spirit. In some regions of the Empire, like Carthage, Monastism may have been the predominant or only form of Christianity. Monatism also valued martyrdom. At the point of time, in which Perpetua was killed the movement was not distinct from other types of Christianity but increasingly Christian writers began to condemn it. As Rea argues “we cannot know for certain whether or not Perpetua was a Monatist”, but if she was we might read her story as a defiance against the male authorities of the Home, the Empire and (after her death) against the Church.
Perhaps in time we might see contemporary themes in Perpetua’s Journey and be able to map onto it the world views and anxieties of our own moment in time. We are drawn to tales of martyrdom perhaps to understand how people respond to extreme circumstances, but also in recognition that we all stand on the antechamber of immortality. This is a story which will last for centuries for this reason.
Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire by Jennifer A. Rea and Illustrated by Liz Clarke ISBN: 9780190238711