Persecution and Patronage

Today, the stories of two women, from the 3d and early 4th centuries of the Common Era, illustrate the extremes of the relationship between the Roman Empire and the Christian Church: from imperial proscription of Christianity and official persecution of Christians, to Constantinian patronage, protection and promotion.


Perpetua (Vibia Perpetua) (d. 203) was a young married woman with an infant son, and a catechumen, at the time of her arrest in Carthage. Her crime was having converted to Christianity, an act prohibited by a decree of the Emperor Septimus Severus in 202 (which made conversion to Judaism equally criminal). Perpetua died a martyr in the arena in Carthage along with others of her group. The primary source for her story is Tertullian’s The Passion of the Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas, which scholars believe contains a portion of Perpetua’s own prison account. (A translation of Perpetua’s account, as well as a set of related links, at Other Women’s Voices – Perpetua)

St. Helena with the True Cross

Helena (Flavia Julia Helena Augusta) (ca. 246 – 330) has become a prominent figure in church history both as the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who inaugurated the world-historic alliance of the Roman Empire with Christianity, and as an industrious pilgrim, church planter and recoverer of relics — most impressively, the True Cross, with which her iconography is inextricably linked. A duly reverent account of her life is given by the Catholic Encyclopedia, which also provides excerpts from Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, ch. 41-47 of which concern Helena’s exemplary practice of pilgrimage (which was supported by her pious son and the imperial treasury), and her founding of the churches of the Nativity and the Mt. of Olives. Helena is also credited by legend with founding a chapel at the site of Moses’ vision of the burning bush, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, which is now surrounded by the larger St. Catherine’s Monastery. (Helena’s well-publicized pilgrimage sets the precedent for subsequent pilgrims — for an in-depth account, see Julia Bolton Holloway at

Both women are officially venerated by many Christians, and inspire various forms of devotion. The feast day of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity is currently March 7 (though for many centuries it was March 6); St. Helena’s feast is observed on the anniversary of her death, August 18. (“St. Helena and the True Cross – A Musical Tribute by David Hart” indicates something of the scope of this veneration.)

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