Perpetua's Journey—a volume in Oxford University Press's Graphic History series—is publicized as a graphic depiction of the Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, yet it also includes a new translation of the text, 75 pages of historical and social context, and a number of ancillary features (timeline, glossary, discussion questions, bibliography, and suggestions for further reading). The book, authored and translated by Jennifer A. Rea (Classics, University of Florida) and illustrated by Liz A. Clarke, is unique with respect to the genres it straddles: it is a translation, graphic novel, and a textbook rolled into one.
I picked up the book skeptical of whether it would be worth assigning. I wondered why an instructor might choose to assign a graphic novel instead of a traditional, scholarly edition. Although it might be an appealing in cases where students need to be incentivized to complete reading assignments, was that sufficient reason to ask students to purchase the book in addition to the sourcebooks I ordinarily assign? In her preface, Rea convinced me of the wider range of pedagogical benefits afforded by this format. First and foremost, the graphic novel genre—a genre that reflects a society's characterization of superheroes and villains, that reflects a society's idealized virtues and vices (as well as the complicated boundaries between and subversions of each), and that narrates stories of conflict, drama, and justice—is an ideal mode through which to highlight these same elements in late ancient martyrdom accounts. Perpetua's Journey amplifies the martyr's bravery, honor, and resolve—virtues that would have been salient to ancient readers—thus helping students understand why Perpetua and her companions were valorized despite being criminals convicted of treason and punished to death. Additionally, this format enables students to visualize the ancient story in historically accurate ways and, in the process, teaches them a great deal about the late ancient Roman context. Students are disabused of misguided images they tend to import (about, for instance, skin pigmentation, images of gladiators, etc.) and they learn about topics as varied as clothing as a differentiator of status, spaces and places in Roman cities (from the Forum to prison to idealized images of heaven), cultural customs of fighting naked and baptism rituals, writing utensils and “paper,” etc. Clarke's visualizations would open up a number of discussions with students about Roman North Africa in Late Antiquity.
The “commentary” section of the volume (pages 91–165) provides historical and social context that enables students to better understand the meaning and impact of the martyr account. Subsections include discussions of the Roman imperial context, Roman religion and early Christianity, education, status, slavery, prison life, gender, the amphitheater, gladiatorial combat, and death. (I wanted more coverage on the wider range of points of conflict between Christians and their non-Christian neighbors, on apologetic literature, and on the martyrdom narrative genre more broadly.) Some subsections are stand-alone context, while others explain how the discussion relates directly to the Passio. Scattered throughout the commentary section are maps and photographs that further paint a picture of the Roman world. Overall, this section is pitched perfectly to undergraduate-level students with little familiarity with Roman history. After the commentary, we find Rea's new translation of the full Passio. Taken together, I can imagine instructors easily designing a unit or a full course around this volume. We could use the Perpetua story to open up a kaleidoscopic study of its context and ancillary issues, assigning supplementary readings to broaden and deepen the commentary provided in this volume.
Some readers may disagree with some of the author's (and illustrator's) choices. Regarding the illustrations, for instance, some may find the depiction of the animal attacks to be overly circumscribed, downplaying the violence of the amphitheater. Similarly, some readers may not like the depiction of Perpetua and Felicity stripped naked, but seen only from behind, obscuring the scandal of their nakedness and of the milk dripping from Felicity's breasts. Of course, these choices may be informed by concerns about depicting violence and nudity, but given that the seeming rhetorical intent of these scenes—and the shock and marvel they would have elicited in an ancient audience—it is too bad they could not be visualized in such a way that evoked a comparable response in modern readers. Some readers also may quibble about more minor illustration choices, such as the wings of angels (whether the angels ought to have no wings or more than two wings) or the ring worn by the martyr Saturus (which is wider and thicker than extant jewelry).
Regarding the supplementary features, “martyr” is curiously omitted from the glossary and the meaning of the term is not discussed in the preface or the commentary sections. Some readers will disagree with the author's tendency to take ancient sources at their word, without much reference to the rhetorical intent and conventions they may have been employing. For instance, the Passio is consistently described as a diary written by Perpetua herself, as the text claims, rather than a narrative written in her voice for rhetorical effect (the scholarly debate is quickly referenced on page xvii). Similarly, the author assumes that Christians were “mistaken” when they depicted pagan sacrifices inaccurately instead of seeing their misrepresentations as part of their argumentative strategy to vilify their opponents (page 108). All of these quibbles, however, do not detract from the overall value of the volume; in fact, the author and illustrator's choices could open up classroom discussions about such scholarly disagreements and debates.
The volume is beautifully produced. Clarke's images are stunning, and draw readers into the drama of the story. Fonts and colors are appealing and the press used high-quality paper. In short, the graphic illustration of the martyr narrative does more than add visual flourish. Rather the graphic depictions open up new ways to engage with the Passio and, together with the translation, commentary, and ancillary materials, this volume is sure to be a hit with students.