Pixelia (2021) p/b 93pp £6.33 (ISBN 9781737033004)
‘Perpetua was a young African woman who fell in with an obscure religious sect that must have seemed to outsiders like a kind of death-cult.’ So begins the blurb of this new edition of a classic piece of Christian hagiography from the 3rd century AD. Perpetua’s stance as a Christian martyr (put to death in Carthage as part of the games to celebrate the birthday of Septimius Severus on March 7th 203) is reinterpreted here in the terminology of our post-9/11 world (she was ‘radicalised’ and ‘transgressive’) and her family circumstances are also given empathetic weight in terms of her relationship with her father, her dead brother Dinocrates and her little boy.
In the nights leading up to her death Perpetua has a series of dreams which she describes in her prison diary, culminating in a bizarre fantasy in which she dreams she has become a man (facta sum masculus) and fights victoriously against a huge Egyptian whom she interprets as the devil. The text is relatively simple Latin but the structuring of the account (with a range of voices and framed by an anonymous redactor) is sophisticated and the issues raised are both ancient and modern.
The generous introduction first discusses the authorship of the passio and then gives a summary of the text, a full account of the people mentioned in the text and an explanation of early Christianity and its rituals. A useful few pages lists the main differences between the Latin of this Christian text and ‘standard’ Latin. The text is printed with running vocabulary and commentary beneath it, making page-flipping largely unnecessary (although the most common words are relegated to a Glossary at the end of the book). There is also a useful bibliography.
So far, so standard: what makes this book highly innovative is the fact that most of it was written by students in the advanced Latin course at Stanford Online High School. Hendrickson taught the course but the other nine co-authors were members of his class who each edited one section of the text and then all (including the teacher) peer-reviewed each others’ work. The collaboration clearly worked and the result is a seamless guide to a piece of Latin which will be quite unlike anything which students will have encountered in their Latin courses to date.
Another good reason to give this book a try is that it is freely available online as an open access text (at https://pixeliapublishing.org/the-passion-of-perpetua/). The book is the first of the new ‘Experrecta’ series of books which intends to make available to students the texts of women writers from the ancient world—the name is taken from Perpetua’s recurring phrase et experrecta sum (‘and I awoke’) after each vision and reflects the fact that this new series is hoping to ‘reawaken’ texts which ‘have long been slumbering and are now waking to a new dawn and a new readership in Latin classrooms’.