Perpetua's Diary


"The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system… if a system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.”- Georges Bataille 1


           Perpetua’s diary, and her account of her martyrdom, provide an insight to the larger world of Christian martyrdom and self-sacrifice. Her conversion and transformation, from a Roman woman to an imprisoned mother to a newly baptized Christian, and ultimately to a warrior walking proudly to her end in a futile battle for Christ, provides a glimpse into the close interrelation of the Christian phenomena of Martyrdom and the violent spectacle of the Roman games. Though it may seem obvious, -Perpetua is sentenced to die in one of these spectacles, as so many martyrs were- the deep seated interrelationship between the Roman social need for opulent displays of wealth and cruelty, and the selfless Christian transformation of their own torment in these displays, is only a part of a deep interrelationship between the two communities. This interrelationship defies the dualistic boundaries of ‘Roman’ and ‘Christian’, the separation between Roman religion and the ritualistic violence of the games.

In employing the author and philosopher Georges Bataille, I want to confront this dichotomy and examine the dimensions of this relationship. I will attempt to use his theories of economy and sacrifice to frame the two seemingly distinct traditions, and attempt to identify relationships also detectable through historical analysis.  I was initially motivated by what I saw as the potential applicability of his economic theories to both Martyrological and Roman ritual and self-sacrifice. And while his theories of the Accursed Share seem to fit Rome very well, he has developed a separate, more internal and mystical theory regarding self-sacrifice as I will apply it to martyrdom2. Sacrifice for Bataille is to transcend a limiting dualism or selfhood innate to the human condition. The Crucifixion to him represents this ideal utterly3, however, Bataille has also developed a confrontational stance regarding Christianity, making application of his mystical concept of sacrifice to Christian acts and rituals seemingly difficult.

Martyrdom, I feel, represents a viable exception to Bataille’s anti-Christian ruling, and by placing Perpetua in opposition to the Roman Economic system, I hope to also prove this. Ultimately, I am employing Bataille to try to get a better understanding of the development and interrelationship of Martyrdom and the Roman Games, as embodied in the martyrdom of Perpetua. Using related but distinct concepts from Bataille’s extensive philosophy of religion I hope to distinguish them in a way that would be more difficult or superficial in an historical analysis.  Bataille’s philosophy builds on surrealism, and is ultimately an analysis of second level processes, our thinking about religion, our working in society. This concern with both the ‘outside’ of thought and normalcy and the ultimate interconnectivity of all aspects of human life- The religious, social, political, sexual and economic all function together- positions his work in a speculative posture, evaluating the study of religion more than it attempts to directly assess ritual.

The story of Perpetua is one of transformation and ultimately subversion. Throughout the brief text she gradually sheds the trappings of her Roman womanhood, her family and her son, slowly losing her emotional uncertainty and strengthening her resolve. As she approaches the day of her execution she has a vision in which, transforming into a man, she competes in a series of events, competing bravely and triumphing. This inverse vision her martyrdom is representative of just how different Christian morality is from Roman, while the Romans look on in horror, shame and anger at the selfless Perpetua, in Christian eyes, she is preforming, in her own religious spectacle, as honorably as any Gladiator.

While the early church fathers wasted little time in condemning those who ‘seek out’ martyrdom for 'selfish' suicidal or vainglorious motivations it is evident, (from Perpetua’s own writings) that death by martyrdom was celebrated and sought out by many martyrs. “The Martyrs proclaim their happiness aloud at the cena libera, the banquet preceding their exposure to the beasts. (Perpetua and Felicitas 17.1)”4 Thus, the pursuit of martyrdom was judged by one’s intention, not to improve one’s social standing, but to follow Christ’s example and die for one’s faith. To overcome one’s limitations and find some way to break out of human weakness. Martyrdom is overtly connected with sacrifice.5And there is a transgressive aspect to Martyrdom, as such it is judged by intention, for Bataille, this will become its source of power. It transgresses both Christian codes of conduct, and, as we will see, directly subverts Roman social norms. It is this element of interrelation Bataille will ultimately aid in identifying. To understand the full relationship of Perpetua’s account to the Games, the Roman conception of Spectacle and the resultant Christian conception of self-sacrifice and personal imitation of Christ needs to be analyzed.

 Part II. Christian, Romans, and 'Honorable' Death.

1 Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. Vol. 1-3. New York: Zone, 1991. Print. 21

2 ibid, 25

3  “The divine world has to descend among the world of things…crucifixion Continuity is reaches when boundaries are crossed.transgression” (Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights, 1996. Print. 188



4 . Barton, Carlin A. "Savage Miracles: The Redemption of Lost Honor in Roman Society and the Sacrament of the Gladiator and the Martyr." Representations 45 (1994): 41-71. Web 57

5 Castelli, Elizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. Print 52