We live in a culture that is both overtly sexualized and violent. When those two trends collide, collectively society is rightly appalled as we have seen with the ever growing #MeToo movement. Yet, when we ask ourselves why such things happen and how to fix these problems in society, most, if not all, solutions are developed within the framework of the aforementioned overtly sexualized and violent society. Our society has been so saturated with these two toxins that the only solution that will have any lasting effect is one that is outside the current societal framework and actively repudiates it.
Ancient Roman society was patriarchal to a degree that seems almost incredible to those of us who have grown up in a modern society. At the same time, that society was even more violent and sexualized than our own culture. In many ways, the sexuality and violence went hand in hand with the patriarchy. (For example, a Roman husband was allowed, under law, to kill his wife if he found her committing adultery.) In Christendom, patriarchy was reoriented for protection from violence, sexual or otherwise. In contrast, our society has utterly repudiated the patriarchy, allowing the violence and sexuality of pagan Rome to return and run rampant, at times hand in hand, with nothing to check it’s spread.
In ancient Rome, a woman was either a wife or a whore. Women were invariably viewed in terms of how they could legitimately be used as a sexual object and by whom. This is seen in the accounts of the martyrdoms of Agnes, Agatha and Lucy. Each are pursued by suitor for the purpose, whom they reject in favor of maintaining their virginity for Christ, their true Bridegroom. The reject the pagan societal system that seems as nothing but sexual objects and in turn accept Christ (and eventual martyrdom for Him).
In the case of Agnes, in her Actae, the Prefect (who is the father of the suitor whom she has spurned) recognizes he dedication to virginity and gives the option of sacrificing to Vesta, the virgin goddess of Rome, and dedicating herself to the goddess as a Vestal Virgin. Even here, however, she would eventually be someone’s wife. The vow of celibacy for a Vestal was only as long as her term of service, which was generally about thirty years. Vestal Virgins were often sought after as wives after their term was completed.
In the accounts of Sts. Agnes, Lucy and Agatha they are always taken to a brothel when they refuse to offer sacrifice and marry their suitor. They have refused to be the wife of a pagan Roman and thus will be treated as a whore. Many people cynically say that the reason this occurs in every account is because they are all really different versions of the same legend. However, as the priest in this talk points out, in ancient Rome it was considered “bad luck” to execute a virgin. An example of this was the young daughter of Sejanus, who, according to Suetonius, was raped prior to her execution. The priest made the argument that each of these virgin martyrs was condemned to a brothel for the same reason but due to divine intervention died with their virginity intact
Sts. Vibia Perpetua and Felicitas
Of the seven women named in the Roman Canon besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, five were virgins: Sts. Agnes, Agatha, Lucy, Cecilia and Anastasia. Cecilia was married but lived in continence with her husband Valerian after his conversion and died a virgin. In this way, she subverts the sexualized patriarchal Roman order. The other two, Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, differ from their sisters in the Canon in two important ways. They suffered martyrdom during the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus, during games in honor of the birthday of the emperor’s son Geta. More importantly, both are mothers (and therefore obviously not virgins) whose children play key roles in their Passion.
Nevertheless, the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas subverts the established patriarchal order of Rome in favor of the Christian order in a powerful way. Their husbands make no appearance in their Passion. It is entirely possibly that, being a slave, Felicitas had no legal husband. Her master may have forced himself upon her. More likely, since she was a catechumen, she may have been a recent convert and her pregnancy was a result of a relationship prior to her conversion. She is arrested while in the eighth month of her pregnancy and is fearful that she will lose the crown of martyrdom because Roman law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman. (How ironic, that a society, rightly castigated for its bloodthirstiness, was more respectful of the life of a child in the womb then our supposedly more civilized society!) Her companions pray and she gives birth to a daughter in prison. (The fact that her daughter is given to her sister to raise seems to indicate that Felicitas had no legal husband.)
The husband of Perpetua is mentioned in her Passion but he is never seen, either to pressure Perpetua from her martyrdom or to encourage her. (It is unknown if he was a Christian, but this is unlikely.) Instead, her father comes to her three times to entreat her to sacrifice to the Roman gods and thus save her life. Each time, he employs a different tactic. During his first attempt he becomes angry and even resorts to physical force.
“While we were still under arrest and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love…Then my father, angry with this word, came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil.” (Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 3)
In her father’s second attempt, he appeals to her sympathy for him and the rest of the her family.
“Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: ‘Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be, called father by you…I have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon you son, who will not endure to live after you.’” (Ibid, 5)
Finally, in his third and final attempt, on the day of Perpetua’s trial, her father actually brings her son with him to try to use him as a prop to convince Perpetua to renounce her faith.
“And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying, ‘Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” (Ibid. 6)
Rejection of the Pater Familias
Perpetua certainly has pity on her father, especially when he continues his attempt to “cast down” her faith and ends up being beaten with a rod for his troubles. But Perpetua follows the words of Our Lord that “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37 RSV) We are commanded to honor and obey our parents by the Fourth Commandment only insofar that our honor and obedience do not entail disobedience or dishonor of God.
However, in Roman society, filial piety and obedience was even more dramatic. The authority of the pater familias was absolute. He even had the power of life and death over his children. As matron, Perpetua was under the authority of her (conspicuously absent) husband, but no Roman matron would deny the request of her father, especially after he willingly debased him by kneeling before her and kissing her hands. Yet, Perpetua does so. Even more so, she rejects her place in Roman society as a wife and mother while continuing to refuse to sacrifice despite knowing that she would leave her son without a mother.
Ultimately, the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas is one of masculine failure. The respective fathers of their respective children are nowhere to be found. The father of Perpetua, unwilling to see her die painfully tries various methods to “cast down” her faith. Even at their deaths, both Perpetua and Felicitas survived being exposed to wild beasts in the arena, so gladiators were sent into the arena to finish them off. The gladiator assigned to Perpetua was either new or hesitant to kill a woman so Perpetua guided the sword to her neck with her own hand, thus ensuring she gained the crown of martyrdom. Here too, a woman is glorified by doing what a man is unable to.
What is the appropriate response to all this? Are we to completely reject even the idea of patriarchy? By no means! Instead, it must be reordered. Patriarchy was instituted by God but almost from the beginning it has been twisted. Adam failed in his own job of protecting his wife and Eve was changed from being in state of subordination to him to one of subjugation to him. Patriarchy was twisted. After the fall of Rome, Christendom attempted to reorient and reorder it to something more in line with what God had originally intended, keeping in mind the words of the Apostle Paul, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave up his life as a ransom for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)
We must return to this order that existed before Modernism broke our society at a fundamental level. Have we ever fought or rebelled against the will of God because following it would demand suffering, not for us but for our loved ones, especially our children? We must teach our children and show our wives, by our example, that nothing is more important than God. Perpetua succeeded in following the will of God and bringing Him glory by winning a martyr’s crown despite her father. How truly glorious would it be, if our children should do the same, if they are so called, because of our paternal examples.
Our society is a mess because men refused to be men. Although this is nothing new, enough is enough. It’s time to #ManUp, take up our crosses, and if necessary our swords, and fight for the lives and souls of our wives and children. “Be strong, and show yourself a man” (I Kings 2:2)