Martyrdom involves a public sacrifice of one’s own life in favor of a higher or transcendental cause. Acts of martyrs can change the world. The martyrdom of Vibia Perpetua in 203 can be seen as an act of Christian faith that overrode concerns for family, material security and individual survival. Perpetua was put to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith and her diaries written in the days leading up to her execution are the oldest surviving texts by a Christian woman. Perpetua’s story reflects the leadership role some women played in the early Christian church and gives insight into why Christianity came to take hold in the Roman Empire. Her story can also be interpreted as the effects of evolutionary psychology and memetics on human behaviour, effects so powerful that they can overcome even the interests of “the selfish gene.” Perpetua’s martyrdom may tell us as much or more about the power of memes as about the power of religious faith.
Among Perpetua’s last words was an invocation to fellow Christians to love one another. Her sacrifice and those of other martyrs rejected the world they were in to favor a world unfolding in the future, a world wider than themselves that they had some influence over.