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  • Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman
  • Michael Heintz
Joyce E. Salisbury. Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp. 228. $19.95 (paper).

Salisbury examines martyrdom as a paradigm for understanding the conflict of cultures and ideas. She accomplishes this through a close reading of the Passio of Perpetua and her companions. The book is structured in “ever-narrowing” concentric circles of context: “Rome,” “Carthage,” and “The Christian Community” [End Page 304] make up the three chapters which form the first half of the book. Salisbury discusses Roman religion in the late second-century, with particular reference to the imperial cult of Septimius Severus. She treats the history and religious culture particular to Carthage, notably the recurring phenomena of human sacrifice and sacrificial suicide. She then describes how the unique claims of the nascent Christian communities would have attracted the attention of a young woman like Perpetua. In so doing, Salisbury paints a vivid picture of the young Roman matron from Carthage who embraces Christian faith.

Chapters four and five are largely an interpretive essay on the text of the Passio in light of the context established in chapters 1–3. Salisbury offers her own reading of the text. She seems quite aware of the inherent ambiguities of historical reconstruction, and her insights are both tentative and reasonable. Salisbury draws on the recent work of Brent Shaw, J.B. Rives, and Patricia Cox Miller (among others), and while departing at times from their interpretation, she is never doctrinaire.

It is, however, in her last chapter, “Aftermath,” in which she examines the nachleben of the Passio, that she is perhaps most open to criticism; this is necessarily the case, as it is here that she is most speculative. She relies largely on Augustine’s sermons on Perpetua, collected and edited earlier this century by W.H. Shewring, to demonstrate how the account was reinterpreted by Augustine (and others), due to their differing (and later) presuppositions.

A number of names are misspelled: Antoninus Pius (16,39,40), Ederatus (42), Quintus (136), and Quodvultdeus (172 and passim); Lucian of Samosata is called “Lucius” on p. 32 (he is also given two distinct entries in the index). “Imminence” and “immanence” are used incorrectly (31 and 116, respectively). “Paschal” (72) and “pharaoh” (94 and 95) are also misspelled, and there is an obvious printing error involving the plural possessive of “martyrs” (168 and 170). Ignatius of Antioch wrote to a number of churches but not to the Corinthians (69), and Jacob of Voragine was a Dominican, not a Franciscan (91). Students of Augustine might find it curious to claim that he “was raised in the Roman religion” (9), and the suggestion that “he saw no incompatibility between Neoplatonism and Christian wisdom” (27) is too facile.

Her bibliography is good, though apparently the book was already completed before she could take advantage of Jacqueline Amat’s critical edition of the Passio (Sources Chretiennes, 1996); she might also have benefitted from Christine Trevett’s careful sifting of the data regarding the New Prophecy (1996) and David Rankin’s nuanced discussion of Tertullian’s ecclesiology (1995).

This relatively inexpensive book is attractively produced, and contains a number of illustrations (photographs, maps, drawings) which enrich the text; it also has both a bibliography and an index.

Michael Heintz
St. Matthew Cathedral, South Bend

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pp. 304-305
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