Dr. Jennifer Rea, Associate Professor in the Department of Classics, used her 2016 Rothman Faculty Fellowship to revise and finish the manuscript for her current book project, a graphic history entitled Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire. Perpetua’s Journey combines sequential art and historical commentary to tell the story of Vibia Perpetua, a Christian woman and martyr, executed in Carthage during the birthday celebrations of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus’s son in 203 CE. Unlike previous scholarship that sometimes portrayed Perpetua as a willful and impulsive young woman who rebelled against the Roman authorities, Perpetua’s Journey presents Perpetua as a thoughtful, well-educated leader of her fellow prisoners and as their legal (and spiritual) intercessor – a role normally reserved for men in Roman society.
Perpetua’s confrontations with male authorities throughout the story, from her father to the Roman tribune, reveal a woman who is literate, highly articulate and willing to commit acts of civil disobedience. When Perpetua stood to defend herself in the Roman law court, Roman officials expected to hear the ramblings of an “unstable” female mind. Instead, Perpetua appears rational and calm while the men appear ridiculous and unworthy of authority. When Perpetua prepared for her death in the amphitheater, she refused a headband traditionally worn by sacrificial animals to mark them for the pagan gods. Her refusal encapsulates her story: a woman who chooses the inclusive potential of Christianity over adherence to the Roman authorities and their ancestral customs, or mos maiorum, as proof of her personal agency.
Perpetua’s legacy in modern popular culture and scholarship often presents a woman who swaps one form of patriarchy for another. As a graphic history, Perpetua’s Journey fights image with image: a depiction of how Perpetua’s convictions caused her to rebel against the mos maiorum gives way to alternative portrayals of her strength, leadership, courage, and competence. Overall, Professor Rea’s project highlights the potential of graphic histories to reshape historical perspectives and the promise of future collaborations between humanities scholars and artists. In the end, Perpetua’s story is not about a fanatical convert, but about a woman who challenged an empire.
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