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And I stripped naked and became a man
Fernanda Eberstadt
04 March 2024

The remarkable diary of third-century martyr Perpetua — a young mother sentenced to death — shows a soft, milky mother-body resisting a military-industrial empire.

Texting with Fernanda Eberstadt

The following is an excerpt from Fernanda Eberstadt’s new book Bite Your Friends — a history of the body as a site of resistance to power. Eberstadt, a regular ERB contributor, explores the lives of a handful of historical men and women — saints, philosophers, artists — who have used their own wounded or stigmatized bodies to challenge society. Her heroes include the ancient Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes (who lived « a dog’s life », sleeping, teaching, having sex in the public square), filmmaker-poet Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot. Eberstadt takes her reader to the Roman amphitheatre where fourth-century martyrs are fed to wild beasts, to the S&M leather bars of New York in the 1970s, and to the waiting zone of Europe’s largest prison. Her central question: what drives certain individuals to risk pain, disgrace, even death, in the name of freedom — and how can we use their example to become braver? 

Running through the narrative is a sneaky subterranean kind of memoir of the author and her mother — a glamorous New York society figure of the 1960s, whose scarred body first led Eberstadt to seek the connections between beauty, belief and the truths taught by bodily and psychic pain. 

The chapter excerpted below is Eberstadt’s account of the third-century martyr Perpetua, a 21-year-old Carthaginian woman who got thrown to the beasts because she refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Perpetua left an astonishingly vivid diary of her final months in prison — which includes her dreams of turning into a male gladiator.

Fernanda Eberstadt’s mother Isabel, with Mario Montez and Frances Francine, photographed by Jack Smith, c. 1966.

In the Iliad, they are funeral rites, games to honor a dead warrior. By Roman times, it is no longer the dead person’s comrades who compete, but professional gladiators who are hired by the family to perform hand-to-hand combat, often to the death.

These are people who’ve been labelled infames — a category that also includes actors and prostitutes people whose bodies can be exhibited, humiliated or harmed for public sport. Gladiators take vows to be « burnt, bound, beaten, and slain by the sword. »

For those condemned to die, the code demands that you keep your bared face utterly impassive. That was what Romans ostensibly come to see: the example of someone dying bravely. Even fans, though, admit the erotic thrill of sadism — Seneca writes that he returns from the games « more greedy, power-hungry, decadent, cruel and inhuman. »

As Rome’s theater of cruelty develops and voluntary manpower becomes scarcer, fights between condemned criminals and wild beasts — bears, lions, hippos, whatever exotic animals had been gobbled up by the Empire’s global expansion — are added to the program. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk maintains that by the late Empire, when Christian dissidents join the mix, the Roman games have reached a climax of « bestiality-consumerism » only to be equalled by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre movies of the 1970s.

We are in Carthage. The year is 203 AD. The girl’s name is Vibia Perpetua. She is 21 years old, from a North African family that has been granted Roman citizenship. She belongs to the assimilated indigenous elite — a bureaucratic-military-administrative class that Rome promotes throughout its empire.

Perpetua is « respectably » married — although the husband goes unmentioned — with a baby son she’s still breastfeeding. Unusually for a woman, she has been educated in both Latin and Greek.

Perpetua is one of five young Christian converts, « catechumens » who are being prepared for baptism. Perpetua is the only one with Roman citizenship; the others are enslaved or freedmen (formerly enslaved).

Christianity is an illegal sect whose message of radical reversal attracts the underclasses; Christians’ non-conformism — in particular, their refusal to sacrifice to the Roman gods — makes them especially irritating to an imperial power keen on enforcing civic cohesion. Their neighbors, too, find Christians a total pain. As Elizabeth Castelli writes in Martyrdom and Memory, refusal to sacrifice: « would have been viewed by the vast majority of the empire’s population as a rejection of all manner of socially ordering elements — kinship, gender identity, and so on, and therefore as utterly nonsensical, irrational, foolhardy, impudent, sacrilegious, and anti-social. »

While they are awaiting baptism, Perpetua and her fellows are arrested.

Perpetua keeps a prison diary. Miraculously, her diary survives, in both Latin and Greek versions. You can read it online, in an English translation. Supplemented with accounts of two of Perpetua’s fellow martyrs and an eyewitness report on their final ordeal, the narrative — known as The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas — is a classic of early Christian martyrology.

When the story begins, Perpetua and her four fellow catechumens are being held under house arrest. They are soon joined by their instructor Saturus, who turns himself in so he can share their fate.

There are different ways this case could go. Declaring yourself a Christian is a capital offense, but not everyone suffers the same death, there are caste distinctions, differing degrees of humiliation in the deaths allotted Roman citizens and non-citizens. The citizens might get quietly beheaded, the non-citizens thrown to the beasts in the arena. Citizens who publicly renounce their faith and swear allegiance to the Roman gods might even be released.

Perpetua is a well-born « matron ». The Roman state doesn’t like to put women to death, especially not its own citizens. She might get off, if she recants. She’s under intense pressure, from family and from state, to recant.

Perpetua’s memoir begins mid-flow, without background or preamble. There are two actors on stage, and instantly they reverse everything we think we know about the Roman family, about a paterfamilias’ authority over a female child, or a woman’s place being in the home: Perpetua is in jail, and her father — a respectable old man — has come to beg her to relent, lest she disgrace him before his peers.

What he seems to be asking is, Can’t you just fake it? Can’t you just do lip service to the state deities, and worship your own god behind closed doors?

Immediately the daughter seizes the upper hand, places the patriarch in the role of a rather dim schoolchild.

« You see this little jug, Father? »

Father sees.

« Could it be called anything but a jug? »

« No, of course not. »

« Well, I can’t be called anything but a Christian. It’s what I am. »

What would it feel like to have your faith so steeped into the very marrow of your bones that you’d become its vessel, its utensil?

Perpetua’s father isn’t in the mood for a lesson in semantics. Flying into a rage, he tries to gouge out his daughter’s eyes.

After her father has gone and she’s alone in jail with her friends, Perpetua feels « refreshed » by his absence, she admits. She and her fellows are baptized in prison by a visiting deacon, and the Holy Spirit speaks to Perpetua — she has this gift of direct communication with God, it’s one of her superpowers, the others are always getting her to ask Him what He has in mind for them. The Holy Ghost tells her she’s good to go, she has the power to endure what’s coming.

Time goes a little woozy behind bars.

« Some days later, » she often writes. Or else, touchingly domestic, « Another day, while we were in the middle of lunch... » Locations shift, as Perpetua and her fellows get shunted deeper into the carceral state. They are moved from house-arrest to a prison dungeon, and finally to another prison near the amphitheatre where they will be put to death. Both prisons include a wider holding pen that’s visible to the public, a human zoo where Carthaginians come to gape at the incarcerated, but also where people who’ve bribed the guards can visit their loved ones, bring them necessities.

« I was terrified, because I’d never known such darkness, » she admits. « The crowding of the mob made the heat stifling; and there was the extortion of the soldiers. Moreover, I was consumed with worry for my infant… »

With bribery, things can be arranged. The guards let Perpetua and her friends into « a better part of the prison » for fresh air; they each of them go into a quiet corner to be alone with their visitors. Perpetua’s mother and brother bring her child to her. « I nursed my baby who was weak from hunger. »

She tries to comfort her family, but they are worried sick about her, and she about them, and her baby. She « arranges » things again so that the baby can stay in prison with her, and: « immediately I grew stronger, and I was relieved of the anxiety and worry I had for my baby. Suddenly the prison became my palace, and I wanted to be there more than anywhere in the world. »

For centuries, scholars haven’t quite been willing to believe that these are Perpetua’s own words. Because she is a woman, and African women in Roman times were rarely literate. Because there is nothing else like it surviving. A prison-diary written by a woman in 203 AD?

Eventually everyone comes around. Maybe it’s her voice, easy and natural. Perpetua is writing about her daily life in jail — pastoral visits from the deacon, courtroom hearings, conversations with her comrades, in which they speculate about which wild beasts they’ll be fed to, if they’re sentenced to death — Saturus has a phobia about bears, he is praying he’ll be devoured by a leopard; Saturninus wants the chance to run the big-game gamut — bears, bulls, wild boars, lions, rhinos — the more trophy beasts he faces, the greater glory, they are discussing their deaths the way kids might talk about becoming fighter pilots.

Above all, Perpetua writes about her inner world. And this inner world is unlike anything else we’ve encountered in late antiquity — a world that encompasses the life of her body, a soft milky mother-body, which is still fused with her suckling baby’s, and also her dream-world, her relationship with God, who speaks to her through visions that are sometimes outright transgressive.

She writes with the blithe imperviousness of youth and class, of a girl who is used to being favoured by her father over her brothers, favoured by God over her male coreligionists — God’s darling, they call her, Dei delicata a girl who has already won renown among her peers as a prophet and spiritual leader, who assumes that even on Death Row, the military guards, magistrate, procurator are going to be hanging on her words, doing her bidding. And they are!

She is intensely aware of her own charisma — both her « brothers » in prison and even her own father, she notes, take to calling her Domina — she exudes the willed invincibility of someone who is going for the ultimate prize. But she is also frank about her fears. How can she concentrate on preparing herself for her final ordeal, steel herself for victory, when everybody, everything is conspiring to make her lose her nerve?

On the day of judgement, the forum is packed. The Carthage Six, up on a scaffold-style platform, are interrogated, and refuse to renounce their faith. When it’s Perpetua’s turn, her father appears like an abandoned wife, carrying his grandson in his arms, and tries to drag her down from the platform, ordering her, « Offer the sacrifice! »

« Offer the sacrifice to the health of the emperors! » the procurator repeats.

« I will not. »

« Are you a Christian? »

« I am a Christian. »

A jug is a jug, and Perpetua is a Christian.

The procurator, disgusted by Perpetua’s father’s unmanly snivelling, has him beaten before the crowd. Perpetua grieves for her father: he is the lone pagan in a family of Christians, the only one in the family who won’t « rejoice » that she has been chosen for martyrdom.

The Carthage Six receive their sentence — damnatio ad bestias.

They will be put to death in games celebrating the birthday of Geta Caesar, the younger son of the Emperor Septimius Severus.

They return to prison « cheerfully ». Defiant cheer is part of the Christian martyr’s jujitsu — turning a death that Romans view as ultimate degradation into a sign of God’s favor. But Perpetua isn’t really so carefree. Her father is now refusing to give her back the baby, and she’s anguished about her nurseling, who has become used to being with her in prison, who won’t accept anything but his mother’s milk and is liable to starve himself without her.

There are four dreams in Perpetua’s diary.

The dreams are the juiciest part of the story. They are symbol-laden allegories of dragons and knife-edged ladders, foretelling what God has in mind for this young crew. But they are also surprisingly « real » — I mean, they are the kind of dreams we all have: dreams as a form of problem-solving, working through with surreal night-logic the day’s concerns.

Her anguish about her son is transformed into two dreams about her little brother, Dinocrates, whom she hasn’t thought about for years, a child who died horribly, aged seven, of a cancerous facial tumor. In the first dream, the little boy is filthy, pale, famished and unable to drink from a pool whose rim is too high to reach. His face-wound is hideous.

All week, Perpetua prays incessantly for her dead brother, and when she next dreams about Dinocrates, the child’s cancerous tumor is gone. Instead, there is a scar on his cheek, and the pool’s rim is now so low that he can drink and splash in the water, a happy little boy.

Perpetua’s prayer heals her little-brother-cum-son’s malignant wound, which is also the wound of her son’s motherlessness, the wound of her own engorged breasts.

In waking life, Perpetua must find a solution to the breast-milk problem. The solution comes from God. Suddenly, miraculously, her nursing babe « no longer desired my breasts, nor did they ache and become inflamed, so that I might not be tormented by worry for my child or by the pain in my breasts. » It’s a miracle of anti-nourishment, the opposite of manna-in-the-desert, of Romulus and Remus suckled by the mother wolf.

Her tone is so matter-of-fact that you almost don’t register how unheard-of it is, for a third century Carthaginian matron-saint to be writing a public record about her engorged — or disengorged — breasts. Now, having unmothered her body, she can focus on the upcoming ordeal. To come through victorious, Perpetua’s dream-logic tells her, she will have to take her self-metamorphosis one step farther, transforming her female body into a man’s.

Perpetua’s Last Dream

She is being led along rough winding paths to the amphitheatre, which is jammed with spectators. She was expecting to be fed to the wild beasts, but instead she’s told that she’s supposed to fight a gladiator in hand-to-hand combat — « a foul Egyptian », who is surrounded by his retinue.

The referee, dressed in a purple tunic and gold-and-silver sandals, is a giant — taller than the amphitheatre. He explains the rules. If the Egyptian wins the fight, Perpetua will be put to death, but if Perpetua wins, she will be given a green bough with golden apples.

« And I was stripped naked and became a man, » Perpetua recounts.

Eighteen hundred years later, her words are still electric with transgression.

Handsome young attendants anoint her with oil, while her Egyptian opponent rolls in the dirt. The match that ensues is part pro-wrestling, part ninja: the Egyptian tries to grab the dream-hero’s heels, the male Perpetua flies up into the air, repeatedly kicking the Egyptian in the face, grabs his head between his/her laced fingers and stomps on it.

Total Knock Out, Game Over.

The crowd is roaring, man-Perpetua’s supporters are singing hymns, the giant kisses him and calls him daughter (man-daughter?), the dream-hero takes the prize, and processes in triumph through the Gate of Life.

Perpetua wakes up, knowing the next day she will be victorious.

Perpetua’s diary ends with her gladiator dream. An anonymous eyewitness from Carthage’s Christian community takes over the account of her Passion where she leaves off. It’s not so easy, though, to match Perpetua’s freedom, that entwining of sensual delight, sexual empowerment, martial arts prowess. Her female body may be chained in a cage, but her naked dream-man body, oiled and massaged by gorgeous male attendants, flies through the air, trampling on gladiators’ heads.

Maybe, for Perpetua, her dream about the foul Egyptian isn’t just a way around male misogyny, or of overcoming fear. Maybe being stuck in a body so hyperbolically female, a nursing mother’s body, it’s fun to be both.

Maybe this open vulnerable Perpetua, who tells us she is afraid of the dark and is worried sick about her son and feels sorry for her father, is also a playful genderfuck Perpetua.

Augustine, Perpetua’s fellow-Carthaginian, born a hundred and fifty years after her death, was disturbed by the girl’s slipping across gender borders, even in a dream. Did she really become a man? Her gladiator-body had no trace of a vagina, he writes in a treatise on the reality of dreams. And « in her real body, no male genitalia could be found. »

Is Augustine seriously wondering whether Perpetua might have been intersex? Is that the readiest explanation of why she was so brave?

Felicitas is another of the Carthage Six. (They are down to five now, since their « brother » Secundulus has died in prison while awaiting execution.)

Felicitas is an enslaved woman. Felicitas is eight months’ pregnant, and she’s crawling out of her skin. It’s against Roman law for a pregnant woman to be publicly executed. If she doesn’t give birth in the next 36 hours, her friends will have to go ahead and be martyred without her. The others too are frantic at the thought of Felicitas’ being left behind, of her having to give birth and then face public execution on her own, with a bunch of common criminals.

They pray together to God, and Felicitas goes into premature labor, a childbirth made even more difficult by taking place in a death-row prison cell. She gives birth to a little girl, whom we are told is raised by another « sister ».

They are being starved and abused in prison.

Perpetua complains to the tribune: We are being given as a present to the Emperor’s son Geta on his birthday. Surely it looks a little mingy, if his birthday present is all haggard and beat-up looking. Wouldn’t it be more to his honor to make Geta an offering of nice plump healthy Christians? The tribune « blushes ». From then on, the prisoners are well-treated, their friends allowed to bring them food and eat with them.

The Christians turn their last supper — the so-called « free meal » — into a feast of agape, or loving-kindness. They sit laughing, celebrating, making merry before the crowd of spectators. Their instructor Saturus addresses the gawkers: « So you take pleasure in watching what you hate, eh? Friends today, enemies tomorrow. Look at us carefully, memorize our faces, so you will recognize us on Judgment Day. »

The spectators slink away. Many of them will later become Christian, we are told.

They step into the arena joyful, radiant. Perpetua, « darling of God », stares back at the crowd, till the spectators look away, embarrassed. A classical historian points out the transgressiveness of this young woman’s outstaring the male gaze, of her breaking the time-immemorial code that modest females keep their eyes lowered, it’s only loose women (think Manet’s Olympia) who look back at you.

The government tries to trick the Christians at the last minute: at the gate, in a kind of macabre burlesque of state religion, they are made to dress up, the men as priests of Saturn, the women as priestesses of Ceres. As if their execution were a costume-party. Perpetua’s « no » is thunderous.

The five Christians have chosen to die rather than acknowledge the Roman state gods, and they’re not going to be suckered into a show of polytheism now. Perpetua and her fellow prisoners are allowed to return in ordinary clothes, and passing the governor, express their contempt for him in « nods and gestures » that say, « Us now, but you later. »

Some of the animals are frightened and won’t come out of their cages. The boar kills his handler instead of Saturus. It takes the handler three days to die of his wounds.

Perpetua and Felicitas have a bizarre punishment awaiting them: they are to be savaged by a wild cow, a gender-shaming that is normally reserved for adulteresses. They are stripped naked and brought out in a diaphanous net.

« The crowd shuddered, seeing that one was a delicate young girl and that the other had recently given birth, that her breasts were still dripping with milk. »

Perpetua and Felicitas are taken away and brought back again, this time neither naked nor visibly leaking milk. As Anne Carson tells us, this is why the Greeks and Romans didn’t think women should be allowed out of the house: because « by projections and leakages of all kinds — somatic, vocal, emotional, sexual — females expose or expend what should be kept in. »

Felicitas is attacked by the heifer. Perpetua helps her to her feet. It’s barely twelve hours since Felicitas has given birth. All the child-birth steroids and endorphins that power a woman through labor have drained away, leaving her doubly emptied, doubly fragile. And Felicitas’ ripped-sore, hormone-ravaged, milk-laden body, this new mother’s body that wants only to sleep and to heal and be suckled by its baby, is now being charged by a mad cow before an arena of fifty thousand strangers screaming for blood?

At another gate, Saturus is talking with Pudens, a prison guard whom they’ve managed to convert to Christianity. So far, no animal will touch Saturus. « And now you must believe this with all your heart: See, I will go in there and be killed by one bite from a leopard. »

The leopard rushes out and bites him. Saturus is pouring blood, he’s so sopping wet with his own blood that the crowd starts shouting a chant from the public baths — « Salve lotum! Salve lotum! » Had a good wash! Had a good wash!

Don’t be disheartened by what you see here today, Saturus tells the guard. He takes Pudens’ ring, dips it in his own blood and gives it back to his new convert as a memento, to give him courage.

It’s the end. It’s time for the prisoners to have their throats cut.

Leopard-bitten Saturus can’t yet die: « he was waiting for Perpetua », the eye-witness writes.

They all five give each other the kiss of peace.

Perpetua has the bad luck of getting a newbie gladiator who botches the job. The blade goes between her collarbones; she screams, and now the gladiator is too nervous to kill her off. She takes the sword and guides his trembling hand to her throat — the gesture of a Roman warrior.

A woman like Perpetua could only die of her own choosing, the reporter concludes.

Reading The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, I am reminded of the ecstatic communion, the bodily trust you find among political revolutionaries, elite military units.

When Perpetua’s diary opens, with her and her fellow catuchumens’ arrest, they have already been living in an illegal cell for maybe three years. They can read each other’s minds, they pour out their dreams and phobias, they make each other laugh. They want to be together all the time, they admire each other hugely. You can feel the adrenalin rush from their prayer sessions, from the immensity of the ordeal they are facing, the heat, thrust, violence of the mob opposing them, their apocalyptic sense of rightness.

Would you rather be eaten by a leopard or a bear, Saturus?

Above all, they are very, very young, still wet behind the ears.

Christianity too was very young, a faith practiced in garages and back-alleys, so free and open that women still thought they stood a chance of becoming church leaders.

Perpetua, Felicitas, Saturninus, Secondulus, Revocatus and Saturus are like mountaineers hanging from a single rope. All eyes are on them. Their enemy — the imperial Roman state — is goading them to fall. Christians around the world are watching them as well. Just as Perpetua and her friends have been inspired by reading the Passions of earlier martyrs, so too if they are victorious, those who come after will read their accounts of their martyrdom and be strengthened in their own faith.

A few years after Geta Caesar’s birthday games in Carthage — a celebratory slaughter that includes the execution of five Christians — his father, the Emperor Septimius Severus, dies.

The 22-year-old Geta and his older brother Caracalla are named co-rulers of the Roman Empire. It’s a bad move — the brothers famously loathe each other’s guts. Several months later, after one failed attempt at assassinating his younger brother, Caracalla succeeds in murdering Geta.

Caracalla then has his brother’s name excised from the public record, his statues destroyed, his face gouged out of official family portraits in a Stalinist-style purge. It’s said that twenty thousand of Geta’s followers are put to death in Caracalla’s mass-executions. Geta is erased from history, and his birthday will become the saint’s-day of Perpetua and Felicitas, the two young women who were tortured to death to celebrate it.

In the few surviving images of him, Geta is a pudgy young thug.

Six years after killing his brother, Caracalla is stabbed to death by a soldier.

In their native North Africa, Perpetua and Felicitas rouse a passionate folk following. Every year on their death-day, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, devotes a sermon to the twinned girl-saints.

Here’s a curious thing I’ve noticed. A lot of Christian martyrs were women. Really a lot.

In the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox, and in some Protestant denominations too, women are still banned from performing the sacraments, but they have never had any trouble having their breasts sliced off, or their eyeballs gouged out, or being burnt at the stake for their faith. Women are always being mutilated and murdered by men, but Christianity instrumentalizes and ennobles a fate that would otherwise go unrecorded.

What Perpetua and Felicitas’ example shows us is that the tenderest bodies — the milk-laden body of a woman raw from childbirth, the body of a 21-year-old who’s only just weaned her baby — the most devalued bodies, the bodies of the indigenous, the colonized, the bought-and-sold — are stronger than a military-industrial empire.

On one side, the language of imperial bureaucracy, the judicio-carceral state — prosecutors, tribune, procurator, forum, dungeon, stocks. On the other, milk, dream, breast, jug, sorrow, joy, loving-kindness, a kiss.

If you’re willing to go all the way for your freedom, nobody can stop you.

Sander Pleij
Texting with Fernanda Eberstadt
While on tour in the US and the UK, Fernanda Eberstadt answers a few questions about her new book Bite My Friends, via text.

Portrait by Maud Bruton

Sander Pleij: « Bite Your Friends contains such exciting and cheerful texts about terrible and beautiful things! Why this book? And why is all beauty complicated? »

Fernanda Eberstadt: « I spent six months — longer, actually — writing a piece for the New York Times about this Russian artist Piotr Pavlensky whose work consists of nailing his scrotum to the paving stones of Red Square, or wrapping himself up naked in barbed wire on the steps of Russian Parliament as a protest against tyranny, and I wondered, why do these images of self-inflicted torture seem so beautiful to me? Is it just me? If I'm the only sicko here, why does Christianity obsess about Jesus' last gory hours, his gruesome death, rather than his lifetime of very uplifting teachings? Why does pain's lessons seem truer to us than optimism's? So it's a book about pain but also courage — those freaks who fight power, sometimes in particularly outrageous and savage ways. »

SP: « And throughout the book, beauty is present — you write: « Today, I am able (just about) to see the poignance beneath the armature of my mother’s beauty », while discussing how instead of writing a new novel she became a muse for Andy Warhol a.o. »

FE: « Yeah my own sense is that to be an artist — i.e., a watcher — you have to make yourself invisible. Unless of course you’re Andy Warhol and the armor or mask become part of the art, and the flagrant insincerity is part of the message. »

SP: « I do not want to believe that, the difference of the one that ‘just’ experiences and the less ‘natural’ one that is complex and artistic (That Tonio Kröger: arrogant jealous prick). Perpetua in this (great!) story here, isn’t she both muse and artist? »

FE: « She’s a super hero! »

SP: « A woman that chooses a painful, horrific, death because of her faith, is a hero — ok… but I had to read the whole book to understand this. Maybe this is why Olivia Lang calls your book « Ravishing and provocative ». Something else: the balance of memoir, profiling, interviewing and daydreaming came across as highly original to me. Free. Did you have models, or did you just follow instincts? »

FE: « I was winging it! Originally I thought the book might be an academic thesis: Describe the connection between early Christian saints and conceptual artists — St. Simon Stylites sitting on a pillar for 13 years seemed like a good progenitor for the durational artist Chris Burden enclosing himself in a locker for a week. That part — historical lives — was easy, and it even seemed pretty straight-forward to write about Foucault or the Christian martyrs in a more slangy punk sort of way. Then I realized I had to come clean about my own relation to these stories, why I was attracted to these freaks. That structural challenge — how to talk about my mother, who was a society lady and not a saint or philosopher, how to talk about my own bodily history, and to make it serve as a through line to the saints and philosophers — was a nightmare. I think I conceived of the autobiographical stuff as candy, a bribe, because the personal is easier to read: I'll give you the family gossip, if you will then let me tell you about what really interests me, which is 4th century gladiators and the anti-Putin resistance. »

SP: « To me the book was also very much about exploring why there’s beauty in sacrificing oneself. Do you feel you have sacrificed your intimate, personal story in order to tell the stories of these freaks/hero’s? And here the question comes back: Are you now muse or artist? Or both? »

FE: « Hey there I’m just getting on a plane down to Richmond, will think and answer when I get there. »

« Oh no actually I can do it now. »

« Yes, very much so, although it’s also a liberation to come clean about who I am and what moves me. The troublesome thing is readers who are saying: enough about Foucault and saints, I wanted to hear more about your mother’s fancy dresses. The two go together! »

« A muse is a source of inspiration to others? I’m an artist who is throwing out these messages, hoping for connection and fellow feeling, for people to read my book and say, oh you feel that way too? »


Seneca Ep. 7.3, quoted in Flavian Rome, ed. A.J. Boyle and William J. Dominick

Peter Sloterdijk, « Rules for the Human Zoo » (1999)

There’s an economic element to Roman sacrifice too—a supply chain of butchers, votive-offering-makers, wine-merchants, oil-and-incense-manufacturers who would have resented a Christian boycott, which may be why local tradesmen are recorded as sometimes being the snitches who denounced Christians to the authorities.

Although there are Greek words in the Latin text, most scholars now think that the original was written in Latin.

De Natura et originae animae 4.18.26, quoted in Mary Sirridge’s « Dream Bodies and Dream Pain in Augustine’s De Natura et originae animae », Vivarium, Volume 43, No. 2 (2005)

Brent D. Shaw, « The Passion of Perpetua », Studies in Ancient Greek and Roman Society, ed. Robin Osborne, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Anne Carson, Glass, Irony and God, New Directions (1995)