ecause I constantly found references to Paula and Eustochium in manuscripts concerned with Birgitta of Sweden and Julian of Norwich and because Mary Agnes Edsall and I remembered this excellent article published in 1984 by Jo Ann McNamara we asked if we could republish it on the Julian Website for scholars working in this area. The essay examines the circle of women about Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome, not taking into account the Empress Helena as their model, nor does it trace their influence into later times. We can briefly say that Boniface and his circle of Anglo-Saxon nuns refer to the Epistolae of Paula (for Paula also wrote these), likewise, Abelard and Heloise, then Cardinal Jacques de Vitry concerning Marie d'Oignies, then Magister Mathias, Alfonso of Jaén and Birgitta of Sweden. Women in the Church, and their menfolk, for centuries were aware that were it not for Paula and Eustochium, with their labours as well as their dowries, the Latin Vulgate would not have come into being in Roman Catholicism.
    {Scipio quam genuit, Pauli fudere parentes,
    Graccorum soboles, Agamemnonis inclyta proles.
    Hoc jacet in tumulo: Paulam dixere priores,
    Eustochii genetric, Romani Prima Senatus:
    Pauperiem Christi, et Bethlemitcia rura secuta.

    Aspicis angustum, praecisa in rupe sepulcrum?
    Hospitium Paulae est, coelestis regna tenentis.
    Fratres, cognatos, Romam, patriamque relinquens,
    Divitias, sobolem, Bethlemiti conditur antro.
    Hic praesepe tuum, Christe, atque hic mystica magi
    Munera portantes, hominique, Deoque dedere. /1

[ Born of the Scipios, sprung from Pauline parents, scion of the Gracchi, child of the famed
Agamemnon. Here in this tomb lies Paula, foremost in fame; mother of Eustochium, first in the Senate in Rome, she was. She made herself a pauper following Christ to rural Bethlehem.

Do you see this tomb, hollowed from the rock? It is Paula's resting place as she takes up her celestial kingdom. She left brother, family, her home in rome, wealth and progeny for a cave in Bethlehem. Here was the manger and here the magi bore mystical gifts to Christ, both man and God.]

In 404 A.D., the aged Jerome inscribed this epitaph on the tomb of his friend and collaborator of many years, Paula. Long before her death, she had forsaken her family and her Roman heritage for life in an ascetic community in Bethlehem. Three of her daughters died before her; the fate of her only son Toxotius, whom she had left with her father's family in Rome, is unknown to us. His only recorded descendant was a daughter who, with her aunt Eustochium, represented the final flowering of one of Rome's most illustrious family trees. /2 Both women consecrated themselves to virginity.

Jerome's praise of Paula's ancestry, and his implication that her greatness sprang from the greatness of a noble line, conformed to the established tradition of Roman biography. Continuity of the old bloodlines was central to the civic and religious life of ancient Rome. Through the process of adoption, noble families had customarily corrected nature's efforts and maintained unbroken and stable lines over many centuries. Passage of property and status, the cult of ancestral altars, hereditary commitments to public service had been maintained through civil wars, proscriptions and the hostility of time itself. At the high point of their republican glory, when their blood line had been reduced to a daughter, Cornelia, the Scipios had adopted a son of Aemilius Paulus to continue their family. Jerome's friend derived her name from this adoptive brother of the mother of the Gracchi. In reminding his readers of her lineage, Jerome knew that they would remember the legendary matron who was said to have shamed her luxury-loving contemporaries by claiming that her sons were the only jewels she needed. /3 Her example was often held up by critics who thought the women of the Empire too frivolous and independent.

Jerome was, however, also working within the newer tradition of Christian biography which praised an illustrious ancestry only to heighten the effect of a saint's humility. With the Life of Cyprian in the third century, hagiographers had begun to praise the act of forsaking a secular family for the sake of the familia Christi . For them, immortality lay in the salvation they could gain through their own endeavours, not in the worldly links of ancestors and posterity. /4 Thus Jerome praised Paula's ancestry only to reject it in favour of those qualities of intellect and soul which belonged to her alone./5 In the same spirit, his younger contemporary Augustine wrote to the aristocratic Proba and Juliana congratulating them on the decisions of their descendant, Demetrias, to consecrate her virginity to God:

Who can express in words, who can describe with adequate praise, how incomparably more glorious and rewarding it is for Christ to have a virgin spouse of your blood than for the world to have manly consuls. If it is a great and splendid thing to inscribe your famous name on the scrolls of time, how much greater and more splendid is it to rise above earthly fame by purity of heart and body! . . . Undoubtedly, the daughter of the Anicii made a higher choice when she elected to magnify so illustrious a family by refusing to marry rather than to enlarge it by having children, and to imitate here in the flesh the life of angels rather than of the cody to increase still more the number of mortals. /6
Paula and Demetrias were but two of a company of ascetic Roman women who were engaged in a complex spiritual enterprise which would have far-reaching social consequences. Though their aspirations are filtered to us through the writings of their male contemporaries, we cannot forget that women performed the deeds they chronicled, not their reporters. Consciously and persistently, they took the initiative in rejecting antique values of family continuity. Conceivably, they had little enthusiasm for an inherited tradition of public service from which women were systematically excluded. In any case, they refused the restricted but essential maternal role upon which the whole system rested, and many an old family came to an end. Vast fortunes, accumulated for generations, were dispersed or used to support communities of women and their clerical companions. The last had come first with a vengeance: children guided their parents and wives tutored their husbands in the principles of the emerging familia Christi.


By the fourth century, Christians had developed the concept of a fictive family, headed by God the Father joined allegorically with Mother Church, devoted to the precepts of God the Son, who commanded that his disciples put his claims ahead of those of their terrestrial families and, rejecting father, mother, son and daughter, follow after him. /7 The Gospel even urged that the sacred obligation of a father's burial no longer had first priority. /8 Jerome's contemporaries took literally Jesus' denial of the claims of his mother and brothers in favour of 'those who hear the word of God and keep it'./9 This bond of faith, which Paul said was stronger than nationality, social status and gender distinctions, formed the basis of the early Christian community. /10 Through the centuries, they had secured their spiritual lineage by this device, and patristic writers had developed the custom of using the terminology of kinship to express purely allegorical relationships.

By Jerome's time, one aspect of this new attitude was exemplified in the spread of the cult of Mary. The great theological controversies centering on the question of whether or not she was the mother of God (or only of Jesus the man) were undeniably important to all Christians. But it was Mary's virginity, not her maternity, which drew the attention of the ascetic community. Jerome, for example, contended that Mary was not only a virgin when Jesus was conceived but remained so after he had been born./11 Augustine went so far as to maintain that Mary, in marrying Joseph and living in perpetual continence with him, had become the spiritual mother of God and his sister as well. He argued that, even though all virtuous women would do well to model themselves upon Mary, matrons should not mistake her for a model of earthly motherhood. The women who bore the children of Adam were not the true imitators of Mary but those who bore spiritual children through sexual abstinence./12 Like his contemporaries, Augustine claimed that the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply had lost its old literal force. He urged that people who adopted slaves and nurtured them into freedom were more worthy of the respect that God awards to parents than those who simply produced mortal children. /13

In antiquity, the cycle of birth and death, and the need of children to carry on the established lines of existence, were never questioned. Christians, however, saw the life of an individual as an experience which did not end with death, and the ascetics among them tended to scorn the parenthood that continued their earthly bondage. Jerome saw every birth as a perpetuation of the doom that overtook Adam and Eve, claiming that Eve's virginity was lost only after she and Adam perceived that they were naked and knew shame./14 In a sense, birth was a tragedy which led only to death. Moreover, just as they denied the importance of continuing mortal lineages, Christians began to urge the abandonment of the good old custom of celebrating birthdays. They reasoned that the only genuinely joyous event was the victorious death of a saint and urged commemoration of those feasts which encouraged the living to achieve immortality. It was because they saw death as the beginning of a true life that ascetics sought to achieve the life of the spirit by becoming dead to the world. Jerome argued that 'Thou shalt surely die' had not been said to those who made themselves independent of sex. The curse of Eve applied only to married women who must bear children in pain and sorrow. /15

Where life is death, parenthood could be nothing but pain. Gregory of Nyssa, echoing the laments of so many of his contemporaries on the fragility of mortal children, reminded his readers that the virgin who lacked carnal children could be certain of spiritual offspring. /16 In this context, he maintained that his sister Macrina was the true mother of their family: with wise counsel, she led her widowed mother Aemilia to the ascetic life, when her elder brother Basil came home from school puffed up with learning and self-importance, the virgin sister corrected him and put him on the right path. /17 Jerome accorded Eustochium the highest praise because 'by resolving to be a virgin, she breached the gates of the nobility and broke the pride of a consular house. First of Roman ladies, she brought the first of Roman families under the yoke'. /18 Her brother-in-law Pammachius, who gave his dead wife's property and jewels to the poor when she died in unsuccessful childbirth, was celebrated as the true, posthumous child of Paulina. /19 'Death came through Eve, but life through Mary. And thus the gift of virginity has been most richly given to women, for it had its beginning from a woman'. /20 In this world turned upside down, Jerome could write in defense of motherhood that it was excusable only for the production of virgins. Thus Paula had given Eustochium to the world. Moreover, as Eustochium had become the bride of Christ, he congratulated Paula on becoming the mother-in-law of God. /21

These reversals of normal family relationships and sentiments might be seen simply as the conceits of a man who had lost his own family and had never married or fathered a child himself. Jerome certainly enjoyed presenting himself as the mentor and teacher of the women with whom he corresponded. Yet many of them had already been engaged in a learned and ascetic life before he met them, and had they found his attitude offensive, they need not have continued the relationship. But, though they found him sympathetic, they were not dependent on his guidance. The new view he expressed of the Christian family must have mirrored their own sentiments as it did their activities; it gave a form of intellectual coherence to their ascetical practices./22 Paula and Eustochium and their female contemporaries took the initiative in rejecting marriage and motherhood, fleeing the confines of the old family system and pursuing a life that offered them more autonomy and self-expression than their ancestresses had ever known. They were creative leaders in establishing a new community centred on the relationship women to one another.


The patriarchal family structure of ancient Rome was dependent on male lineage alone. Christians still demanded that their women perform the task of bearing children to preserve those lineages. Despite the desire of Melania the Younger to retain her virginity, her family forced her to marry and her husband insisted that they provide each of their families with an heir before he would grant her wish. /23 Paula had four daughters before she finally ended her child-bearing with a son. Jerome believed that her husband had agreed that their sexual relationship would end once the male lineage was secure. /24 Clearly, she regarded Toxotius as her husband's heir, hardly her own son at all. Eventually, she left him with her in-laws when she moved to her new community in the Holy Land with her daughter. Subsequently, she persuaded Toxotius and his wife to send her her granddaughter, Paula the Younger, to her in Bethlehem, but there is no indication in Jerome's correspondence that she mourned for her absent son. Like many of the otehr ascetic women of this period, Paula and Eustochium forsook the old male lineages of Rome in favour of a new sense of female lineage and female autonomy.

The breakdown in the old Roman patriarchy which resulted in the fissures which these aspirations filled was widespread and had been developing over many centuries. Excessive individualistic ambition had certainly contributed much to the failure of the Republic. A general breakdown in the framework of the social structure created the climate in which Christianity throve and ultimately succeeded. Symbolic of the growth of the individualism of the imperial period was the dissolution of the old system of Roman nomenclature which resulted in the appearance of aristocratic women whose names expressed their own attachments as well as those of their paternal family.

In Cornelia's day, and for many centuries thereafter, Roman girls were given only the nomen of their father and the cognomen of their gens. They were not given the praenomen which distinguished individual boys. Thus, they had to go through life with a feminized version of their father's name. Cornelia shared her name with her sister; later, she was distinguished from her simply by the descriptive title 'Mother of the Gracchi'. Nor did she display all her children as jewels: her daughter, Sempronia, was never included in her boasts. In contrast, Christian writers of Paula's age emphasized the sentimental attachment of female traditions in various families. /25 In eulogizing his sister Gorgonia, Gregory of Nazianzus called her the true child of their saintly mother Nonna. /26 Similarly, Ambrose of Milan bade his sister Marcellina to take pride in being the true descendant of their martyred ancestress Sotheris, who urged her executioners to disfigure her face to make it less attractive to rapists./27 More directly, Melania the Younger took pride in being named for her grandmother, who shared the ascetic life with Rufinus in the Holy Land as Paula did with Jerome. Gregory of Nyssa tells us that Macrina sought to emulate their martyred ancestress Macrina, and that her secret name was Thecla. /28 Through this reference to the legendary virgin martyr who was widely believed to have been converted to asceticism by Saint Paul himself, Gregory appears to have been constructing an eschatological lineage for his sister that reached back to the beginning of the Christian religion.

Paula's use of nomenclature to express the relationships of her children was more modest and more straightforward. She named her eldest daughter Blaesilla, after her own mother, and the next Paulina, after herself. Rufina's name cannot be securely attached to any of Paula's known relatives, but it was a name common enough among her immediate circle to suggest that she commemorated some family connection that has been lost to us. The other possibility is that it was related to her early friendship with Rufinus, who set up an ascetic community in the Holy Land with Melania the Elder. The quarrel which late broke out between Rufinus and Jerome, however, has obscured the quality of his relationship with Paula. Her fourth daughter was named Julia in honour of the alleged connection of her husband with the Julian family but in the end she abandoned it for the Greek name Eustochium. It is not clear from Jerome's comments whether the name was given to her at birth (possibly to reflect Paula's paternal, Greek, lineage) or whether it was a new name taken up with her virginal vows. Of all her children, only Paula's son Toxotius was unequivocally attached to his father's lineage.

The strong impression that this nomenclature conveys of a linkage in a family of women seems to be strengthened by the relationships of many of these women with their daughters. Aemilia backed her daughter Macrina's claim that her fiancé's death made her a widow./29 Paula nurtured the virginity of Eustochium, and her daughter-in-law Laeta did the same for Paula the Younger. Proba and Juliana are said to have rejoiced when it was discovered that Demetrias wished to break off the marriage arrangements that had been made for her. /30 When Melania the Younger was under attack from her family because she refused to bear any more children after her first two had died, her grandmother abandoned her retreat of many years to hasten to her support. Only her granddaughter could cause her to turn back after she had abandoned her only living son to the care of relatives, in order to pursue an ascetic life in the Holy Land.

Ultimately, Aemilia set up housekeeping with Macrina at the centre of a female community. Similarly, Paula determined after the death of Blaesilla to take her virgin daughter Eustochium with her to Bethlehem. She left behind her married daughter, Paulina, and Rufina, who was about to be married. The latter begged her mother to wait until she was settled and, in fact, died before the marriage was completed. Paula, however, did not return. She refused to look back despite the tears of her youngest child, Toxotius, who 'stretched forth his hands in entreaty' as she sailed away./31 The boy grew up and married Laeta, who entered into active correspondence with the ascetics on her own account. Ultimately, she urged her husband to forego his conjugal rights, and he may have consented to do so after the birth of their only child, Paula the Younger, who was consecrated to virginity from infancy. Unlike her mother-in-law, Laeta did not persevere until the venerable male line of the Scipios was secure. Nor did she and Toxotius adopt a son. Presumably, the remains of the fortune went with young Paula to the ascetic community. Only Jerome's letters survive, of course, and they tell us nothing of the feelings or fate of Toxotius. Paula may have kept in closer touch with her son, but she never returned to Rome either to visit him or to bury him. In contrast, she encouraged Jerome's plan to transport his only child, the young Paula, to their retreat in the Holy Land where the lineage of female ascetics would be continued into the third generation. The heritage of property and status represented by a chain from father to son no longer interested her, if it ever had. With her daughter Eustochium, her granddaughter Paula, and her friend Jerome, Paula had substituted a family circle which she expected to enjoy intact throughout eternity.


Just as Romans had customarily depended on the device of adoption to continue failing family lines, the Christians' ideal of a fictive family of sisters and brothers united by baptism modified arbitrary blood relationships. Women who rejected marriage and childbearing looked to the developing ascetic community to provide them with the services of a family. When Jerome met Paula, she was already a widow, one of a circle of noble women in Rome who met to study religious books and discuss the possibilities of the ascetic life slowly becoming popular in Italy. These circles shared their material goods, often turning their homes into 'domestics churches' in which a company of consecrated women could live together. /32 The women whose names we know possessed fortunes ranging from the comfortable to the vast. Melania the Younger spent years divesting herself of her wealth. Paula was said to have stripped herself for the benefit of Paulina, Rufina and Toxotius. But she still had enough to build and support Jerome's monastery as well as her own community of about fifty women./33

Widows tended to be the first women in any family to devote themselves to the ascetic life. Like the men whose theological works they read and admired, they were apparently convinced that second marriages were closely akin to adultery. Though the church frowned upon the Roman custom of divorce, it never accepted the extreme ascetic position that opposed remarriage after widowhood. Among the ascetics, however, a second marriage was viewed as a return to fleshly self-indulgence that could hardly be condoned. They noted that even among pagans true chastity in women was connected with fidelity to a second husband. The univira was a figure to whom honour had always been paid./34 Cornelia herself was much praised for her refusal to remarry. It was even said that she had refused the crown of Egypt to devote herself to the memory of her husband and the care of her twelve children.

The prestige of the ascetic writers in later centuries tends to encourage us to believe that they were equally influential in their own day. But their ideal of sexual continence and withdrawal from the world was often derided by their contemporaries. Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and others wrote so much, so passionately, on the subject because they were missionaries and because their readers were seldom inclined to agree with what they preached. Thus Jerome's friend Fabiola was something of an embarrassment to his small circle because, having separated from a pagan husband who was notoriously abusive and vicious, she subsequently married a Christian./35 Their own belief was often repeated that widowhood gave a person a second chance to achieve a genuinely holy life.

Of Paula's widowhood, Jerome said a little nervously that she controlled her grief so successfully and absorbed herself so completely in the service of God that it might almost have appeared that she desired her husband's death. /36 Macrina greeted the death of her fiancé with the claim that it meant widowhood and therefore a life of virginity for her./37 Melania the Elder is said to have turned tearless eyes on the corpses of her husband and two of her sons, smiling with the reflection that God had relieved her of so great a burden so that he could monopolize her for himself. /38 The single possible exception to this reaction may have been Paula's young daughter Blaesilla. For her, according to Jerome, widowhood came as a genuine bereavement, cutting short a life of pleasure and frivolity. She fell into a sharp illness, however, which resulted in conversion to an asceticism so extreme that she died in her twenties. /39 Severe deprivations did not prevent other ascetic women from living active lives into advanced age. Paula was nearly sixty when she died. Indeed, Crysostom maintained that it was common knowledge that the sexually continent, particularly virgins, retained their health and freshness long past the age allotted to their married sisters. /40

Many women did not wait for widowhood to set them free from their marital and maternal obligations. On their wedding nights, or at some later point, they might seek to redefine their relationship with their husbands - to become sister and brother in place of wife and husband. 'A woman leadeth in the high emprise', Jerome cribbed from Virgil, reminding a man who was reluctant to join his wife in a vow of continence that 'souls have no sex; therefore, I may fairly call your soul the daughter of hers. For as a mother coaxes her unweaned child, which is as yet unable to take solid food, so does she call you to the milk suitable for babies and offers to you the sustenance that a nursing mother gives'. /41

Melania the Younger and her husband became brother and sister after the deaths of their children, finally separating to join respective religious communities. Therasia and Paulinus of Nola were likewise moved to a chaste marriage after the death of their child, as Jerome thought Paula had been after the birth of Toxotius. Other couples came together with marriage to form a working partnership. After the death of Paulina, Pammachius joined the repentant Fabiola, who had been widowed, in a life of good works centred on a hostel for poor travellers in Ostia. Sulpicius Severus passed his widowhood in a household partnered with his mother-in-law. /42 Melania the Elder and Rufinus in Jerusalem, like Jerome and Paula in Bethlehem, formed a partnership that included the sharing of the burdens of material life and the stimulation of genuine intellectual collaboration. They moved beyond the ordinary conditions of social life and, in so doing, almost destroyed the barriers of sexual distinctions and gender roles between them. Their intimacy and mutuality of endeavour echoes in Jerome's letters as in the letters that bound the members of this far-flung circle together.


Paula and her contemporaries appear to have regarded widowhood as the real beginning of their lives. It set them free from the functions of womanhood, particularly in those cases where they abandoned their younger children to the care of others. They could then embark on a life of study, travel, charity, religious devotion and community administration that was closely akin to that enjoyed by male ascetics. Thus they may be seen to have actively worked out the theories of patristic writers that tied gender distinctions to the conjugal and reproductive functions of women. When women abandoned those definitive funtions, Jerome, like many of his predecessors, felt that they should be classified for all practical purposes as men./43 Clearly, the symbolism of his train of thought is unwieldy and ambivalent, retaining the old notion of the superiority of men, their equation with adulthood, while women are regarded as children. /44 Thus, Ambrose suggested that the symbolic distinction between the sexes be retained but that the classification of individuals to one or the other gender be based on their progress in the faith: 'One who does not believe is a woman and should be designated by the name of that sex, whereas one who believes progresses to perfect manhood, to the measure of adulthood in Christ, with the name of the sex dispensing with the seductiveness of youth and the garrulousness of old age'. /45

Paula and her sisters cannot tell us how they felt about being classified as male or how they reacted to the implicit denigration of the rest of their sex. But their continuing friendships with these men suggest strongly that they did not blame them for a prejudice that did not begin with Christian theology, and that in their personal lives they did not perceive themselves to be the targets of misogynists. Still, when we read the writings of male ascetics, we find it difficult to separate their hatred of the flesh from a fear of women, and we are forced to wonder why women were attracted to a way of life and a theology which seems so anti-feminine to a modern reader.

This problem is dissipated to some degree when we remember that ascetic women were not dependent on the words of ascetic men as we are in trying to understand them. They could talk to one another and possibly even read writings that presented the matter in a far different light. They were not likely to have associated their own sex with the flesh and the temptations of the devil as so many of their male contemporaries did. Thus, though the influence of male rhetoric upon the minds of women cannot be overlooked, neither should the influence of female opinions on male rhetoricians. The men most closely associated with ascetic women - Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome - do try to come to grips with the problem and to deny the tendency to associate women with flesh and men with spirit. The clumsy device of describing ascetic women as 'virile', or as men, does express some sort of search for equality on the spiritual plane.

Secondly, the surviving literature on virginity is primarily addressed to women and it relies heavily on the experiences of women for its force. The examples and descriptions of the miseries of the flesh are drawn almost exclusively from the experiences of women in the household, the marriage bed and childbed. Their own actions demosntrate that, for Paula and her friends, these experiences were indeed so painful and repulsive that any mortification of the flesh was to be preferred to the common lot of womanhood. Should we be surprised that these women expressed such revulsion from the functions of their own bodies? Or that they sought to carve out a new role in the Christian life that would trranscend these functions? Why should they not? The principal attraction of asceticism for men was the promise of gaining control of a too solid, too demanding flesh. Men were conscious of their bodies, not only as prisons of the spirit but often as tyrannical masters, dragging their reluctant captives to degradation. If men felt this, why should not women feel even more resentful? They were subjected not only to their own physical desires but to those of others. Their own aspirations were subordinated to the demands of husbands, and the tyranny of the flesh over them included the long captivity of pregnancies that were often unwanted, culminating in the agony of childbirth.

It is this spirit that permeates fourth-century writing in praise of the ascetic life as an alternative for women. It is not a spirit that could readily have originated with the most imaginative and sensitive men. Now should we confuse condemnation of sexual desire and its physical and social environment with misogyny. The women's own actions reinforce what their male friends said about the spirit that drove them. They were not the captives or the unwilling dupes of charismatic men, though their critics were prone to say so. Quite the contrary, once gender assignment was divorced from the accidents of physical attributes, men also found it desirable to abandon some of the masculine stereotypes. They were urged to perfect themselves in the virtues of humility, modesty, temperance, and chastity more commonly associated with women. Such admonitions go beyond the effort to impose a single standard of sexual morality on both men and women. The desire to prevent men from taking the virile roles of warriors and conquerors reflects an appreciation of 'womanly' values which the critics of Christianity were quick to seize in mockery.

One measure of the new standards of behaviour is the Christian attitude toward grief. Cornelia had been praised by Stoics as a model of antique virtue because in her old age she could speak of the violent deaths of her sons without a tear. We have already noted that this virile attitude was much praised in fourth-century ascetic women. At the same time, Christians made a virtue of tears and displays of woe among men which would have been considered quite unseemly in Romans of an earlier day. Paulinus of Nola, Basil, Augustine and others among the ascetic writers of the fourth century, all expatiated on the importance of the gifts of tears. It was seen as a necessary sign of a loving heart without which heavenly consolation could hardly be expected. Thus, Jerome, writing on the death of Blaesilla, claimed that he could hardly see the page for the tears that blinded him. /46

An awareness of pain and suffering was deeply engrained in the ascetics' perception of life. Their efforts to subdue and mortify the flesh grew out of a powerful desire to escape the sorrow imposed by its dominance. We have already noted that the link between children and death forms one of their favourite themes. But the more informal letters and biographies written by these men describe an intense sympathy, an active participation in the pain and losses that are so often inflicted on women. Melania the Younger obliged her husband to attend her second harrowing childbed so he would know the cost of the children he insisted she bear for the sake of their families./47 When he saw her, nearly dead from an exceptionally painful labour, he was moved at last to accede to her demands for a chaste marriage. Paula's daughter Paulina died of her repeated attempts to gratify her husband's desire for children. In turn, he renounced a second marriage and spent his life as a penitent devoted to charity.

The loss of loved ones seems, in fact, to have affected the men in our group even more than it affected the women. Jerome deeply mourned the loss of the love and support of his own family. His mother seems to have died when he was still young and his aunt could not be reconciled to his rejection of a promising secular career. /48 In Paula, Marcella and others of that devout circle, he was perhaps seeking to replace the mother he had lost and the sister with whom his aunt had forbidden him further contact. This may explain his tendency to address unrelated women habitually as 'mother' or 'sister' whenever the opportunity offered and may also account for his anxiety to dissuade the women he loved from the perils of childbirth.

Once we have considered the personal motives of the participants, we see that the ascetic experiment of the fourth century cannot be dismissed as the outgrowth of virulent misogynism or of a masochistic pathology on the part of women. It was a genuine attempt to redefine the relationships and roles of women and men that sought to transcend the accidents of birth. The movement succeeded, at least temporarily, in that it enabled its proponents to break out of the old family structure of the antique world. It particularly enabled the women to engage in activities greatly beyond their accepted traditional sphere. The lives they shaped represented the aspirations of all the partners equally. These ascetic women were not the gullible victims of male standards. Indeed, more often than not they took the initiative in the enterprise. Their erudition, their intelligence, their strength of character is repeatedly witnessed by their male correspondents and biographers. Letters and eulogies attest that they often served as models and leaders to their male friends and admirers. We can no longer hear their own voices because the prejudices and tricks of time have preserved only the works of the men. But we know that the voices of women in their own times were neither faint nor lacking in decisiveness. Paula and Eustochium brought the old line of the Scipios and the Gracchi to an end. Jerome saw this as the symbolic victory of Christianity which sought to reorder the priorities of human society in the light of a new vision which incorporated heaven and a heavenly father into the old scheme of generational procession that the Romans had so greatly prized.

To achieve this new life, ascetic women often placed themselves in firm opposition to the men of their families: Macrina opposed her father's wish that she marry; Melania opposed her husband's wish for children. Many, however, had to wait until widowed to achieve their ends. We are told that Demetrias ' rejection of her bethrothal mirrored the secret desires of her mother and grandmother. But it is unlikely that she would have succeeded in her design has she not apparently been left exclusively under their authority when the women of the family fled to Africa to escape the Visigothic invasions of Italy. Paula fainted away at the funeral of her daughter Blaesilla because she was so shocked by the violence of the Roman demonstrators who accused her of having killed her daughter with her ascetic principles. Had her husband lived, it is unlikely that either she or her daughters would ever have been free to engage in the experiment which finally brought Paula and Eustochium to their convent in Bethlehem. Even there, though she narrowed her life to the two convents and to the life-long labour of assisting Jerome in his great biblical translations and exegesis, Paula was constantly assaulted by critics who gossiped about her. Jerome does not tell us who they were or what they said. He says only that friends warned her that everyone thought her mad and that some of them were planning to try to do something about 'repairing her head'./49 Similarly the scandalous proceedings recorded by Ambrose against the virgin Indicia, /50 and the constant gossip mentioned by Chrysostom against the virgins of Constantinople, /51 both reflect the uneasiness and hostility with which the ascetic women were continually assaulted.

The power of the world that Paula and Eustochium rejected was very strong. Cornelia's daughters, the heirs of vast fortunes and high social status, were able to transcend the roles and expectations imposed on them by force of their own strong characters. Neither they nor their male counterparts came near to imposing their radical social vision on the larger society. But for the determined few, they provided models of a new definition of gender roles and left behind them a new vision of a family of women.

CSEL Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna, 1866-)
PL     Patrologia cursus completus: series latina, ed. J.-P. Migne, 221 vols (Paris, 1841-1864)

1 Jerome, Epistola CVIII, Ad Eustochium, 34, PL 22:906.
2 A.H.M. Jones, J.R. Martindale, and J. Morris, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, I.260-395 A.D . (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), indicate their scepticism by listing Gracchus and Agamemnon with quotation marks in the reconstruction of Paula's stemma. The family claim, however, appears to have been accepted by Roman contemporaries and there was a further link to a Decurion of 376 named Sempronius Gracchus. The family is known to have survived at least into Trajan's time, Tacitus, Annales 1.53.3. Despite the belief of Matthias Gelzer, The Roman Nobility (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969) that the old families disappeared in the late 2nd century, it is not impossible that some of their representatives, particularly in the female line, might have survived. The breakdown in the traditional system of Roman nomenclature traced by John Morris, 'The Changing Fashions in Roman Nomenclature in the Early Empire', Lysty Filologiké 86 (1963), 34-46, makes secure tracings of genealogies almost impossible after the second century.
3 Sylvia Barnard's paper, 'Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi', was presented with this paper, 'Cornelia's Daughters: Paula and Eustochium', at the Fifth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Vassar College, June 1981.
4 For a fuller discussion of the growing tradition of Christian biography, see Peter Hinchcliff, Cyprian of Carthage and the Unity of the Church (London: Chapman, 1974).
5 Jerome, Epistola CVIII, PL 22:878.
6 Augustine, Epistola CL, PL 33:645.
7 Matthew 3.31-38; Luke 14.26-27.
8 Matthew 8.21-22
9 Mark 3.31-35; Matthew 12.46-50; Luke 8.19-21.
10 Galatians 3.28.
11Adversus Helvidium: Liber de perpetua virginitate b. Mariae, PL 23:214.
12 Augustine, De sancto virginitate , 5-6, ed. J. Zycha, CSEL 34.
13Ibid. 9.
14 Jerome, Epistola XXII, 19, PL 22:893.
15Ibid. 18.
16 Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Saint Macrina, in Ascetical Works, trans. V.W. Callahan (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1966), pp. 47-48.
17Ibid. 170. When another brother, Naucratius, was killed hunting, Macrina trained 'her mother's soul to be courageous. Consequently, her mother was not carried away by his misfortunes, nor did she react in an ignoble and womanish fashion so as to cry against the evil or tear her clothes or lament over her suffering'.
18 Jerome, Epistola LXVI, Ad Pammachium, 1, PL 22:483.
19Ibid. 22:491.
20Epistola XXII, 21, PL 22:407.
21Ibid. 22:406.
22 See Jo Ann McNamara, A New Song: Celibate Women in the First Three Christian Centuries (New York: Haworth Press, 1983).
23Vie de Sainte Melanie , ed. Denys Gorce (Parise: Les Editions Cerf, 1962).
24Epistola CVIII, 6, PL 22:881.
25 For the change in nomenclature, see Morris, supra and M.I. Finley, 'The Silent Women of Rome', Aspects of Antiquity (New York: Viking Press, 1968), pp. 129-142.
26 Gregory of Nazianzus, Eulogy , in R.R. Ruether, ed., Gregory of Nazianzus (Oxford: Clarendon Prss, 1969), p. 115.
27 Ambrose, Liber de exhortatione virginitatis, 12.82, PL 16:376.
28Life of Macrina, 163.
29Life of Macrina, 170.
30 Augustine, Epistola CL, PL 33:645.
31Epistola CVIII, 6, PL 22:881.
32Epistola XXX, 4, PL 22:443. For further discussion, see Jo Ann McNamara, 'Wives and Widows in Early Christian Thought', International Journal of Women's Studies , 2.6 (1979), 575-92.
33Epistola CVIII, 6, PL 22:881.
34 Marjorie Lightman and William Zeisel, 'Univira', Church History, 46.1 (1977), 19-32.
35Epistola LXXVII, Ad Oceanum, 3-4, PL 22:691-692.
36Epistola CVIII, 5, PL 22:880.
37Life of Macrina, 166.
38Epistola XXXIX, 5, PL 22:471.
39Epistola XXXIX, 1, PL 22:465.
40 Crysostom, Les cohabitations suspects, ed. J. Dumortier, Nouvelle collection de textes de documents (Paris: Société de Guillaume Budé, 1955).
41 Jerome, Epistola CXXII, Ad Rusticum, 4, PL 22:1045.
42 Paulinus of Nola, Epistola XXIX and XXX, ed. Hartel CSEL 29.
43Commentarius in epistolam ad Ephesios, 3.5, PL 26:567.
44 For more extended discussion, see Jo Ann McNamara, 'Sexual Equality and the Cult of Virginity in Early Christian Thought', Feminist Studies, 3.4 (1976), 145-59.
45 Ambrose, Espositionis in evangelium secundum Lucam X, 161, PL 15:1844.
46Epistola XLVI, 2, PL 22:466.
47Vie de Melanie, 6.
48Epistolae VIII and XIII, PL 22:341 and 346.
49 Jerome, Epistola CXXX, 5, PL 22:1109 [There appears to be an error here].
50Epistola CVIII,17, PL 22:1109.
51 Ambrose, Epistola V.
52 Crysostom, Les cohabitations suspects.

See also Jerome's Letter to Laeta; Claudio Moreschini, Jerome and his Learned Lady Disciples


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