This article considers the legacy of early Christian martyrs through a comparison of St. Perpetua, whose feast day is on March 7, and the fictional character Daenerys Targaryen.
***Warning! If you haven’t seen all seasons of the TV series Game of Thrones and care about spoilers, avoid this article.***
Carthage. One of Rome’s most populated cities. Located at the northern tip of modern Tunisia, Carthage, in all its ancient splendour, stood proudly overlooking the blue of the Mediterranean Sea. This was a bustling trading hub. One of the wealthiest cities of the classical world.
In the early third century, it was also a place of brutal persecution.
Indeed, in the year 203 A.D., a 22-year-old woman named Vibia Perpetua was under arrest for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus. That’s because she was a Christian. And Christians could recognize only one God, Jesus Christ.
She was taken to prison. She brought her newborn baby boy with her, whom she held and tended to while incarcerated. Caring for an infant during this time must have been tremendously difficult.
More difficult still was the future that awaited her. Perpetua knew full well what her fate would be, should she remain unwilling to give up her Christianity: Damnatio ad bestias. She would be given over to be mauled by wild beasts in the middle of the Carthaginian amphitheatre, while hundreds, if not thousands of onlookers watched in entertainment. That was a common way of executing Christians. The thought must have struck fear in her like no other.
Remarkably, during her time in prison, Perpetua decided to write a diary, detailing her thoughts and experiences. It survives to this day and is reproduced in part below.
What can we learn from the tragic story of Vibia Perpetua, Christian martyr from 1,800 years ago? Namely, how is faith, which is generally thought of as a virtue, one small step away from dogma, which can be dangerous? It is an important question in the year 2021.
Not much is known of the woman Vibia Perpetua. And much of what we do know comes directly from her diary. We know, for example, that she belonged to an important aristocratic family, that she was educated, and that she had recently married, at the time of her arrest in 203 A.D.
This background obviously places Perpetua in the elite class of Roman society. Unlike most people of her time, Vibia did not depend on manual labour for survival. Further, her literacy provided privileged access to the realm of literature (and writing), and thus, Christian culture.
So this was no ‘average’ Christian woman. Her religion, as represented in her diary, must be viewed in light of this fact.
Vibia’s extant diary begins with an argument. In a scene all too familiar to North Americans today, it appears that the young woman was in a heated confrontation with her father about politics. Specifically, they fought over Vibia’s Christianity, which her father bitterly disapproved of.
Why do I classify a religious debate as political, you might ask? The separation of Church and State is a relatively modern development—one famously institutionalized in the late 18th century with the United States Constitution.
It did not really exist 1,800 years ago in the Roman Empire, where religion and politics overlapped considerably. That’s because the well-being of the state was thought to be dependent on the gods’ good graces, which could only be obtained through proper ritual. Christians, by refusing to sacrifice, were therefore compromising the Empire. And that could be treasonous, especially if they denied a sacrifice to the Emperor himself.
So Perpetua and her father fought over her decision to commit treason. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Failure to recant would result in her execution, followed by the family’s dishonour. One can imagine the sheer tension in the room. That is indeed the picture that Vibia paints:
“Father,” said I, “Do you see this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?”
And he said, “I see it.”
And I said to him, “Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?”
And he answered, “No.” “
“So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian?”
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.
We weren’t around 1,800 years ago, to witness this argument. Still, we know for a fact that Vibia and her father weren’t listening to each other. They were unable to have constructive dialogue, due to being so firmly entrenched in their beliefs.
That’s why, rather than respond sympathetically to his daughter’s insistence on her Christianity, Perpetua’s father responded emotionally, moving to harm her. For her part, everything her father said could be reduced to ‘the arguments of the devil,’ and therefore dismissed. Neither side was willing to truly hear the other. And that led to the breakdown of their relationship.
One is equally struck by the perennial resonance of the symbology at play. Here we have an older, conservative, ‘status quo’ father, in a clash about values with his ‘rebelliously progressive’ daughter (Christianity was an important social leveller). It is, as such, a microcosm of ‘culture war.’ Both the generational conflict of the 1960s and current political tensions come to mind.
Yet, it is a phenomenon as old as time. It stands for the eternal push and pull of Order and Chaos, which fight for dominance within the individual psyche and society at large. It is a struggle between Left and Right. New and Old. The story of Perpetua demonstrates what happens when the two viciously repel, to the tragic detriment of both.
Christianity as martyrdom
Then because I was without my father for a few days I gave thanks unto the Lord, and I was comforted because of his absence. In this same space of a few days we were baptized, and the Spirit declared to me, I must pray for nothing else after that water save only endurance of the flesh.
Through her baptism, Perpetua confirmed her Christianity, symbolically and spiritually. What now? What would the Christian life entail? For Vibia, this was very clear. Christianity was a call to endurance. As with Saint Francis, it was about imitating Christ. Namely, suffering willingly for the sake of the greater Good.
Unlike Francis, Perpetua’s idea of ‘good’ was less about making the world a better place and more about the ‘glory of martyrdom.’ That will become abundantly clear. And that was due to her peculiar historical circumstance.
As stated, Vibia lived at a time when Christians could be executed for their beliefs. Any little thing, at any time, could be used as an excuse to do so. The precariousness of life must have been terrifying.
In order to bear the weight of this psychological stress, Roman Christians like Perpetua were forced to glorify their own persecution. Hence, they focused on Christ’s triumph after an unjust death at the hands of an ‘evil’ government.
That allowed them to sleep well, knowing that, should the day come that they themselves would be killed for their beliefs (which was not particularly unlikely), they too would be vindicated. Their martyrdom would be rewarded with eternal life. And their persecutors would face the wrath of a God, whose promise of an eschatological reckoning guaranteed that justice would be dealt.
And maybe that was a good thing. The alternative, after all—believing oneself to be doomed eternally to the grave—would have been utterly crippling, psychologically. The concept of ‘glorious martyrdom’ was necessary at a time when Christians, as a group, faced religious persecution. It was, arguably, a necessary response to the dogmatic behaviour of the Roman government.
Religion as dogma
But Christianity, at this time, was also dogmatic. That’s why it tore apart families, as in the case of Perpetua.
When you are being dogmatic, you believe yourself to be incontrovertibly right. When you believe yourself to be right, no matter what, you have entered the realm of absolutist ideology. There, you might feel justified to do whatever it takes to defend your worldview. This can be extremely problematic, even deadly.
This is seen in the fictional story of Daenerys Targaryen, a character from the TV series Game of Thrones (GOT). In the GOT universe, Daenerys is a young, blonde-haired woman who is one of the last members of House Targaryen, a recently-ousted royal family that previously had ruled the land of Westeros for centuries.
Early in the series, her politically-minded brother dies, and she soon becomes intent on retaking her family’s throne, by installing herself as Queen. Then, something miraculous happens. She walks into a fire with three dragon eggs and remains unburned. To top it off, the eggs hatch, giving birth to three baby dragons, creatures thought to be extinct for generations.
From that point forward, Daenerys knew she was special. She was the Mother of Dragons. And it was her destiny to rule.
There was only one problem (or two). She had no army. No ships. And these were crucial for her plan. Much of the rest of the series follows Daenerys on her quest to acquire them. Her first stop is the city of Qarth. There, she meets with the “Spice King,” a top local merchant, whose ships she asks to borrow. Her petition is declined. The Spice King predicts that Daenerys will fail in her attempt to become Queen, and thus, will be unable to repay him for the lost capital.
Unconvinced, an impassioned Daenerys delivers a monologue that nicely reflects her state of mind at the time:
For my wedding, (I received) three petrified dragon eggs … the world believed that the ages had turned them to stone. How many centuries has it been since dragons roamed the skies? But I dreamed that if I carried those eggs into a great fire, they would hatch.
When I stepped into the fire, my own people thought I was mad. But when the fire burned out, I was unhurt—the Mother of Dragons! Do you understand? I’m no ordinary woman. My dreams come true.
Ultimately, it didn’t work. But for our purposes, it speaks volumes. Like Vibia and her father, Daenerys was completely convinced of her rightness. Further, her plan to restore the Targaryen dynasty had the assent ‘of the gods.’ And one messed with divine will at their peril.
Let my people go!
But supernatural justification was one thing. Moral superiority was another. And, in the long run, that proved to be the most seductive of the two.
For Daenerys, it grew over time. She became utterly convinced of her messianic identity, in light of the way her mission panned out after leaving Qarth.
From there, she travels to Astapor, hoping to purchase an army of ‘unsullied’ slave-soldiers, renowned for their fighting abilities. She does. Then, something unexpected happens. From the back of her horse, Daenerys calls out fiercely to her newly acquired slave-army:
You have been slaves all your life.
Today you are free!
Any man who wishes to leave may leave, and no one will harm him. I give you my word.
Will you fight for me? As free men?
They agree to. Thenceforth, Daenerys viewed herself as the Breaker of Chains, in addition to the Mother of Dragons. Not only would she restore the Targaryen dynasty, but she would also be a Good Queen. One who truly cared about people and worked to make the world better. To that end, ending slavery would be central.
Accordingly, she began going from city to city, freeing the enslaved. ‘Liberating’ them. Saving them. One of those cities was Yunkai. After its surrender, Yunkai’s newly-freed inhabitants processed by the thousands out the city gates, to stand before their liberator—who, along with the ‘unsullied’ army, stood overlooking them.
Jubilantly, they began repeatedly shouting the word “Mhysa!” which means ‘Mother.’ The Breaker of Chains walked lovingly into their midst. The crowd filled with men, women and children unanimously adored her. Worshipped her.
Suddenly, Daenerys disappears into the crowd. She’s no longer visible. Her protector, Ser Jorah Mormont, watching from afar, fears that something bad has happened.
Then, all of a sudden, she rises to the surface, crowd-surfing. Beaming. Practically laughing. The people of Yunkai couldn’t have been more grateful for their saviour. It is a touching moment. Viewers are swept up, tearfully, in its triumphant gravitas.
At this point, only a cynic would doubt the basic Goodness of the Mother of Dragons, the Breaker of Chains. In a world filled to the brim with suffering and malice, the divinely-appointed Daenerys Targaryen seemed unambiguously poised to save it.
The prison vision
Vibia Perpetua was equally as certain of herself. She may not have wanted to save the world, but her religion certainly did. And it provided her both with a sense of divine sanction and moral superiority.
A few days after her baptism, Perpetua was arrested and incarcerated for her beliefs. While in her cell, she received a vision that encapsulates her mindset:
I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were swords there, spears, hooks and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron.
And there was right at the ladder’s foot a dragon lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up … And I said: it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ. And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head.
And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd’s clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: “Welcome, child.”
The vision is not difficult to decode. The bronze ladder stands for the Christian life, which is difficult to maintain and full of temptation. Crucially, it necessitates the defeat of Evil (represented by the dragon) before being allowed into Heaven, which is the abode of Christ (depicted as a shepherd).
This is the message of the Gospel, which has been told over and over for 2,000 years in the West. Clearly, Vibia believed wholeheartedly that she was following its precepts—in the vision, she steps on Evil’s head, before ascending to Christ.
It is important to note that, in this case, Perpetua’s conception of ‘Evil’ is something quite specific. And this she owed to her own cultural milieu, which, as mentioned, glorified martyrdom. Thus, rather than symbolize Evil in some abstract sense, Perpetua’s dragon stood squarely for her persecutors, the Roman government, against whom she would ultimately triumph.
This differs considerably from the interpretation of modern Christianity, which views Evil either as a cosmic force to be destroyed by God at the end of time, or as something to be conquered today, within the heart of each individual.
Like any Christian imprisoned for their beliefs in the third century, Perpetua undoubtedly expected to die. She knew she would be thrown into the middle of the Carthaginian amphitheatre to be eaten by wild animals. But she would not be defeated. No. The opposite would be true. She would, by dying, in actuality, stomp forthrightly on the head of the dragon itself before ascending to Heaven, where she would be rewarded eternally.
At the end of time, her mauled flesh would be reintegrated and then resurrected in sparkling glory. Her murderers, whom in life had wielded the sword of death, would themselves experience a death like no other: The True Death of eternal torment. What vindication!
Absolutist ideology gone wrong
It is interesting that in Perpetua’s story, the dragon is the embodiment of Evil, while in Game of Thrones, it appears to be the opposite. There, it is the symbol of Good.
The ‘Mother of Dragons’ is not, as a Christian might expect, the infinitely malevolent wife (or mother) of Satan. Rather, she is sent by God Himself to destroy evil on Earth. Indeed, one day, when Daenerys’ dragons reached full maturity, they would help her liberate the world from the usurper’s tyranny. At least, that was the plan.
In fact, it turns out that Christian viewers should have taken Daenerys’ ‘Mother of Dragons’ moniker seriously. As time goes on, it becomes clear to Daenerys that more and more bloodshed is needed in order to realize her goals.
For one thing, she needed to execute anyone who betrayed her. Anything less would set a dangerous precedent. Secondly, she would need to kill anyone who opposed her plans to ‘liberate’ the world. Doing so was necessary if she was to be successful at all. Apparently, the paradox of such a statement did not occur to her.
After decimating one of the ‘usurper’s’ armies with her dragons, Daenerys delivers a speech to the survivors:
I know what Cersei (the “usurper”) has told you. That I’ve come to destroy your cities, burn down your homes, murder you and orphan your children. That’s Cersei Lannister. Not me. I’m not here to murder. And all I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor, to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world. I offer you a choice. Bend the knee and join me. Together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it. Or refuse. And die.
True to her word, those who refused were promptly burned to death. What seemed to be a benevolent movement, intent on improving the lives of everyone, was becoming increasingly violent with time.
Eventually, Daenerys reached the point where she was ready to capture the capital. Her dragons were now massive beasts. Seeing the utter futility of trying to defend against such creatures, the city surrendered instantly. To signal their defeat, they rang the city bells.
This next part is iconic. It cuts to Daenerys. She’s on the back of her dragon, overlooking the city from a high point. She stares intently, menacingly, at it. Something serious is happening to her. Something deep within her being. Her breathing starts to intensify. Her lips quiver. Her eyes narrow. Her teeth clench. Her dragon begins to flap its wings. Off they go. Scorching everyone and everything in the city below. Thousands of innocent men, women and children are brutally murdered. Buildings burnt to a crisp. The Saviour of the world had become its evil tyrant.
No one can say for sure why she did it. The show alludes to the fact that there is a history of ‘madness’ in the Targaryen family. Her father, after all, was known as the ‘Mad King,’ on account of his cruelty, before he was deposed. Maybe that explains the end result.
But it does not explain what caused her to snap. That was the consequence of years of being hypnotized by her own absolutist ideology. Daenerys’ unwavering belief in her own messianic Goodness led to her viewing anyone who didn’t support her as an evil enemy. Over time, this hatred festered, until it turned into true ‘Evil’—the desire to inflict suffering for its own sake. And that’s exactly what she did.
Interestingly, Daenerys’ messianic identity gets her killed in the end. Her level-headed lover, Jon Snow, sees the danger in letting such a person rule. So he stabs her with a dagger. The Mother of Dragons, now dead, would no longer pose a threat to the world.
The apotheosis of St. Perpetua
But back to real life. March 7, 203 A.D. Carthage. The day of Perpetua’s execution. Obviously, she didn’t live to tell the tale. But we know what happened because, after her death, someone added the details to the end of her diary. It is a vivid account:
Perpetua (entered the amphitheatre), glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes … (she) began to sing, as already treading on … (Satan’s) … head … And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful rather of modesty than of pain. Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her dishevelled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair dishevelled…
And then it all ended. Afterwards, a basilica was built over her remains in honour of her life. She became the patron of mothers and pregnant women, as well as the city of Carthage. She is venerated as a saint to this day.
So what do St. Perpetua and Daenerys Targaryen have in common? Both are fierce figures who believed wholeheartedly in themselves and their mission.
There is nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Is it not noble to have faith in ourselves and our ideals? To be principled? To have a moral backbone? It can be. Depending on the case, it can even be heroic. ‘Saving’—as it was for Vibia and her fellow persecuted Christians.
But let us not become arrogant. We are not always right or morally superior. Further, no proposition of ours is so absolute as to be above scrutiny.
So, on this feast day of St. Perpetua, let us honour and remember her and the countless victims of religious persecution throughout history and today. Let us also remember the drawbacks and the dangers of universalist ideologies. Of black and white thinking. And accordingly, interrogate ourselves constantly on how we can improve in that regard.
Maybe then we will find it easier to work together towards building a better future.
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image 1 Unknown Venetian artist., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 2 Henryk Siemiradzki, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 3 Миниатюра Минология Василия II. Константинополь., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 4 Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay 5 Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay 5 Photo from PxHere 6 By Pyotr Yevgenyevich Myasoyedov (1867-1913)  – culture.ru, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 7 AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons