Perpetua and Felicity were martyred not in Rome but in 203 at Carthage. We have good reason to take the account of Perpetua’s imprisonment and death given in The Acts of the Martyrs as pretty much an accurate account of what happened. Whereas many of the stories in the Acts are plainly hagiographical – white horses are seen galloping across the sky or voices speak from the heavens – this one is sober and factual. We also have Perpetua’s own account of her time in prison, which she recorded in the journal that she kept right up to the moment of her death. This is one of the most interesting documents that have come down to us from the classical world. It is as if with the advent of Christianity a new phase of individual self-consciousness and personal self-possession came into being, forged, we might surmise, in the sufferings of the martyrs. Augustine’s Confessions is the first autobiography, and this journal of Perpetua’s, as far as I know, the first personal diary. Of particular interest are the dreams that Perpetua records. These dreams are not mythopeic and stylized as are most accounts of dreams in the ancient world, but nocturnal fantasies recognizably like our own. She dreams that Christ is her father but that he is also the rich man who has paid for the staging of the munera, as the games during which she was to be martyred were called. The ambiguities would have fascinated Freud.
One feature of the story, which appears in some accounts but not others, is the episode in which Perpetua holds up her hand and stops the proceedings so that she can arrange her hair. We may reasonably doubt the truth of such a tale. But if it is not true it is one of those fictions that speak more eloquently than fact. For what we have to account for is surely one of the most amazing occurrences in the whole of history. The Roman games were not, as we might perhaps imagine, simply orgies of crude and savage barbarism, but immensely subtle and sophisticated instruments of political control. The targets of tortures of this kind are not the victims who are tortured but the bystanders who are not. Fascinating, and horrifying, insights into these processes are given to us in Anna Freud’s theory of identification with the aggressor, Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain and William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. It is essential to such philosophies of torture that, behind a façade of rationality, the choice of victim is arbitary and senseless. Anybody, whether guilty or innocent, might be snatched off the streets at any time. Consequently everybody living in such a society becomes possessed by fear. It is of central importance, too, that such literally unspeakably atrocious assaults on the human body are so appalling and dreadful it is beyond the power of words to express them. At a very deep level linguistic communication, which is perhaps the most identifying mark of what it is to be human, is interrupted. People are locked up in their terror because they cannot express their experiences and establish emotional rapport with each other. Adult personalities disintegrate and become re-possessed by the nightmare fantasies of childhood. In this situation they seek above all things parental re-assurance, weirdly from the torturer himself. This is why torture sessions are often conducted by both a nice guy and a nasty guy, and why in Chile between 1973 and 1988, for example, General Pinochet, who was the authorizer of the atrocities that occurred during that period, presented himself not as the oppressor but as the kindly father of the nation.
The Romans developed these techniques to a far greater degree than anybody else has ever done. It explains why they were able to maintain control for hundreds of years over a huge, wretchedly poor and frequently unemployed proletariat in Rome itself, formed from often penniless migrants flooding in from all over the empire, who were living only a stone’s throw away from sumptuous palaces and ostentatious displays of wealth that beggar the imagination. The spectacles in the arenas often acted out Greek myths in physical reality, and were deliberately designed not only to inflict unimagineable extremes of pain on the victims but to shatter the souls of the onlookers with terror. It was a kind of magic. It traded on the fact that terror is addictive and holds its terrorized object spellbound, as if hypnotized by the authority of the terrorizer. The power on display in the arenas was literally awesome. Astonishingly, the fearless defiance of the Christian martyrs turned all this on its head. They defeated Roman power in the very seat of its authority. Crowds who had come to feast on obscenity were moved to tears by such displays of dignity and courage. Even Galen, who was no friend of the Christians and appalled that gentlemen were courting the deaths of slaves and slaves going to their deaths with the self-possession of gentlemen, could not withhold his admiration. The authorities became terrified of the reverse effects that their own terror was having and began to go to extraordinary lengths to execute the Christians anywhere but in the arenas.
St Cyprian, who was at first a reluctant martyr, had to be hidden from the adoring crowds who followed him to his death. St Irene was condemned to be an anonymous sex slave in a brothel, but so sweet and dignified was her bearing she began to convert the clients to a pious life and made the brothel so famous that, to the dismay of its owners, it had to be closed. It is an episode Shakespeare uses to good effect in his play Pericles. St Agatha, stripped naked in the arena before she was to be tortured to death, proved to be so beautiful that even the magistrate himself wept, and had to order a less disrobed form of execution in private.
Many of the accounts record an extraordinary gallows humour on the part of the martyrs. At the martyrdom of Justin, an eighty year old bishop who was burnt alive in the arena at Smyrna, the crowd chanted ‘Away with the atheist’. Shaking his fist at them as he was led to the stake the octogenarian shouted ‘Away with the atheists’. Lawrence, roasted on a grid iron, supposedly joked ‘Turn me over, I’m done on this side’. These stories are surely apocryphal. But just as surely, since humour is so often the handmaid of resolve, we might feel that they testify to a strength and resilience of character that must have existed. Ironically, the martyrs were often almost as great an embarrassment to the church authorities as they were to the secular ones. Magistrates became so reluctant to send Christians into the arenas they often postponed punishment in the hope of recantation, and as the magistrates usually only came round to a province once a year, accused Christians could often spend years and years in prison. To the dismay of the clergy a popular belief grew up that martyrs-in –waiting could forgive sins, and as most Christians preferred to sin rather than face martyrdom themselves, they eagerly approached the martyrs for forgiveness, a service for which the martyrs- to-be often charged, as they needed to finance the riotous lifestyles that in many cases they practised even when in prison. Far from the picture we might have of prayerful saints piously and reverently awaiting their union with the Lord, the reality was often very different. Martyrs were a thorn in the side of bishops who sought to discourage them almost as much as the secular authorities did. How the backwards re-arrangements of history iron out the creases.