the death and memory of a young Roman woman by Joyce E. Salisbury, Routledge (New York and London), 1997. Pp. 228. Pb ISBN: 0 415 91837 5 £14.99
reviewed by Mary Whitby
`Yes, I am a Christian.' This assertion in March 203 by Vibia Perpetua, an upper-class North African mother in her early twenties, marked her rejection of the powerful claims of upbringing and background and acceptance of martyrdom, which for her took the particularly horrific form of facing wild beasts in a public spectacle staged in the arena at Carthage as a birthday sacrifice for the Caesar Geta, son of another North African, Septimius Severus.
This slim volume is a worthwhile addition to the current `deluge of writing on women in early Christianity' (Averil Cameron in (eds.) Ian McAuslan and Peter Walcot, Women in Antiquity, Greece and Rome Studies III, 1996, 33). Intelligently structured in six chapters, it builds to a climax in the fourth and fifth with the account of Perpetua's dream visions during her imprisonment and an evocation of her experience of death in the arena against the background of the social significance in Roman society of the bloody spectacle. Chapters one to three construct a careful picture of the main influences which shaped Perpetua's experience and outlook -- the general Roman and specifically Carthaginian context and the growth and atmosphere of Christian communities. In these early chapters -- the first half of the book indeed -- the reader may begin to ask when we shall get to Perpetua herself, but when that moment finally comes, the careful scene-setting falls into place. Factual knowledge about Perpetua herself is extremely limited -- our source is her prison diary recording her experiences and visions (together with that of her fellow-martyr Saturus), which was completed by an eye-witness account of her death. Salisbury locates this material in a convincing setting which belies the limits of our information.
S. does not balk at the gamut of material needed to Perpetua. She depicts the obligations and ties of the Roman family, and the clash between its claims and those of the Christian community which forced Perpetua into shocking rejection of the self-abasing pleas of her distraught father (who recalls the Priam of Homer and Virgil -- the question how far Perpetua's knowledge of literature shaped her position is a subtle one and S. has interesting material on the novels). She outlines the history, culture and archaeology of Carthage from Dido to Donatus, embracing Augustine and Apuleius (with his useful angle on the more exotic local cults of Isis and Septimius' own favoured Serapis), as well as the sterner Tertullian, Hamilcar Barca and Hasdrubal, whose wife committed suicide on his defeat in the third Punic War. This strand of self immolation and sacrifice in Carthaginian history is powerfully presented, from Dido's tragic funeral pyre to the gruesome remains of sacrificed children and animals excavated in the Tophet cemetery.
More abstract material is treated with equal sobriety -- ancient and modern dream psychology, the early Christian vision of heaven and the afterlife (frequently set in a garden paradise as opposed to the more architectural surroundings of St John's Revelation), where God is an aged man with youthful face and invisible feet, the psychology of violent death as public entertainment, the power of relics and martyr texts.
Much of this material affords scope for extremism or speculation, the perplexing problem of Perpetua's absentee husband, her leadership of the group condemned alongside her, the interpretation of her visions which include nudity and sex change, and so on. It is S.'s strength that she consistently maps a sane and clear-headed course. She is inclined rather to err towards the mundanely realistic in explaining the Roman numeration for the grid street-plan of Carthage, comparing the dimensions of its amphitheatre to those of an American football pitch, or retailing the difficulty of persuading its marauding beasts actually to attack those frequently only too eager for martyrdom (bears did the nastiest mauling job, unlike the clean kill of the big cats).
The notes attest an impressive range of scholarship weighed and evaluated, rendering the lucid and uncomplicated narrative the more admirable. Specialists in particular fields will doubtless notice the occasional slip (Villeius Paterculus, Antoninus Pious, some vagueness about the two Plinys), but these cause less concern than surprising omissions from the bibliography: Patricia Cox Miller's work is now most accessible in her Dreams in late antiquity (Princeton 1994), while it is hard to forgive the omission of Robin Lane Fox's classic Pagans and Christians (1986), which usefully provides a broad picture of a larger pattern to balance to S.'s own focus on a single case.
This is not a profound book, but it is a very readable one, an excellent beginning for one who, like me, is a newcomer to this inundated region. If Professor Salisbury can forgive the extravagance and tastelessness of the metaphor, I devoured it with gusto, my appetite whetted for further Christian blood.
University of London