Egeria – fl. 380s – Hispania or Gaul – Jerusalem

Constantinople, France

Egeria

Egeria, also known as Etheria or Aetheria made an incredible journey during the fourth century which she later wrote about in detail – making her one of the earliest authors of a travel book.

Far from being a leisure guide, Egeria’s work describes a pilgrimage taken over a number of years from the western reaches of the Roman empire to the heart of the Christian holy land. Scholars believe she may have been a nun.

As the beginning and the end of the Itinerarium Egeriae (‘Travels of Egeria’) are missing, there is no consensus on where she began her journey, though the most likely suggestions are Hispania (modern day Spain) or Gaul (France).

800px-MtSinaiJune2006

Mount Sinai (source)

It is likely that Egeria took notes as she travelled before compiling the final text at the end of her pilgrimage. The Iterarium Egeriae is written in the form of a letter to the women in her home town – she refers to them as ‘dear ladies’ and ‘sisters’ – it is not clear whether this means Egeria was a nun writing to the other women in her convent, or whether ‘sister’ is simply meant as a term of endearment.

The surviving text begins with her approach to Mount Sinai in Egypt, then her journey to Constantinople (in Turkey). Egeria spent three years in Jerusalem making various trips outwards to see a number of biblical and religious sites, including the tomb of Job (in Syria), the burial place of Haran (the brother of Abraham) and Saint Thecla’s shrine.

Bizansist_touchup

Constantinople (source)

As well as documenting her travels, Egeria took the time to detail religious services and practices during her time in Jerusalem. Her work remains helpful to liturgical scholars as she noted various celebrations and observances first hand, such as the date and celebration of Palm Sunday, Lent and even Christmas prior to its modern date of 25th December.

Egeria’s text also provides useful grammatical context for the development of Vulgar Latin during the 4th century, revealing the origin of the definite article used in modern Latin languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian).

Egeria’s letter home has become a fascinating snapshot of history as she managed to document so much of the changing world around her.


Note:

Later publishers of Egeria’s book mistakenly attributed her work to Sylvia of Aquitaine and the empress Galla Placidia.


References:

The Egeria Project

The Pilgimage of EgeriaThe Pilgimage of Egeria – Translation by M.L. McClure and C.L. Feltoe

On Wikipedia:

Egeria

Advertisements

Olympias – c.361/368 – 408 – Constantinople

Ancient Turkey, Constantinople

Olympias

Olympias (also known as Olympias the Younger and Olympias the Deaconess) dedicated so much of her time and money towards good works and charity that John Chrysostom told her that she had done ‘almost too much’.

As with Marcella, Paula and Fabiola before her, Olympias began life as a wealthy noblewoman of lofty lineage. She grew up in Constantinople, at the time the capital of the Roman Empire, and was ethnically Greek.

Like every good Roman woman she was married to a man of equal status once she reached adulthood. Her husband Nebridius was Prefect of Constantinople, making her social position even more public. When Nebridius died and left Olympias widowed, she chose not to remarry, but instead focussed her efforts on supporting the church as a deaconess.

Olympias was not the first woman to be ordained as a deacon in the church. The Didascalia (a Christian treatise from the third century) encourages bishops to appoint women to these positions in the church hierarchy because women were often capable of ministering to other women while male deacons might not be appropriate:

“Appoint a woman for the ministry of women. For there are homes to which you cannot send a male deacon to their women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess … Also in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required.”

Olympias herself personally financed and oversaw the construction of a hospital and an orphanage and dedicated much of her time to caring for monks exiled from Nitria (Egypt).

She attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, with her good works and the two became lifelong friends. The friendship got her into trouble when Chrysostom was banished after his feud with the Roman Empress, Aelia Eudoxia. Olympias herself was exiled in 404 to Nicomedia (Turkey), where she remained for the last four years of her life.

Olympias is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic (feast day 17th December) and Eastern Orthodox Church (feast day 25th July).


In the arts:

Olympias is one of the 140 Colonnade saints which adorn Saint Peter’s Square.

Rome_basilica_st_peter_002

Saints on the colonnade, St Peter’s Square, The Vatican (Source)


References:

Catholic onlineSt. Olympias

This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age – Gillian Cloke

On Wikipedia:

Fabiola – d. 399 – Rome

Ancient Rome

Fabiola

In a similar fashion to contemporaries Marcella and Paula, Fabiola was a high ranking Roman noblewoman who chose a life of poverty and charitable work under the influence of Saint Jerome.

She was married twice before her conversion to Christianity – first to a cruel man who she divorced, the second time to a man who left her widowed.

With two husbands behind her and enough money to live comfortably, like so many other women of her generation Fabiola turned to the church. There was only one problem – Fabiola had divorced her first husband and remarried, something forbidden by the Roman church. She would have to prove herself worthy before being accepted.

At Easter, Fabiola dressed in a plain paupers smock and went to do penance at the gates of the Lateran basilica. Impressed, the pope welcomed her.

Lateran_basilica

The Lateran Basilica in Rome where Fabiola did her penance. (Source)

Fabiola got to work at once. She built a hospital and personally tended to the sick herself. Not afraid to get her hands dirty in the service of the poor, Jerome writes of Fabiola’s good works:

“She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at.”

She also donated money to support churches and monasteries across Italy and travelled the empire sharing her wealth and caring for the sick. By 395 Fabiola felt she had not yet done enough – she decided to follow Paula’s example and travel to Jerusalem.

In Bethlehem Fabiola lived for a time with Paula and studied with Jerome. Here she threw herself into a life of penitence and contemplation of the scriptures.

“And yet this eagerness to hear did not bring with it any feeling of satiety: increasing her knowledge she also increased her sorrow, and by casting oil upon the flame she did but supply fuel for a still more burning zeal.”

Fabiola had still not found what she was seeking. The political climate in Jerusalem changed for Jerome after the Huns invaded. Between that and Jerome’s quarrel with the bishop of Jerusalem, Fabiola decided to go home.

She kept in touch with Jerome, and eventually went on to found a hospital at Portus for pilgrims travelling into Rome. She spent the rest of her life working in her hospitals caring for others, and is an example of Christian women’s early involvement in medicine and nursing.


References:

St. Jerome wrote a eulogistic memoir of Fabiola in a letter to her relative Oceanus.

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century : a Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:

Paula – 347 – 404 – Rome/Bethlehem

Ancient Rome

“If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.” – Saint Jerome

Paula

One of the early ‘desert mothers’ – women who relocated to the holy land to work for the church – Paula of Rome was a key figure in the formation of Christianity.

She came from one of the most prestigious Roman families and inherited immense wealth. Married in her teens to a nobleman of equal standing, Paula had five children. As a young matron of Rome she enjoyed her privilege; Saint Jerome writes that she wore silk dresses and was carried about the city by eunuch slaves.

Paula’s husband died when she was only thirty-two, plunging her into grief.  Her mourning drove her desire to learn more about religion and eventually led her to the brown dress society, led by Marcella. Inspired by this monastic style of living, Paula became devoted to the church, giving away much of her material wealth.

When her family and friends complained that she was giving away her children’s inheritance, she simply dismissed them, claiming that she was exchanging their earthly inheritance for a heavenly one.

It was after she met Saint Jerome in 382 that Paula decided to make a pilgrimage to the holy land. Though she was doing good work in Rome, she was unhappy with the life she had because of her familial ties and social status and felt she would be free from these burdens in the desert.

Paula’s journey was an epic one by the standards of the time. Her children accompanied

800px-Francisco_de_Zurbarán_043

Saint Jerome with Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium by Francisco de Zurbaran (Source)

her as far as the Roman port of Portus at Ostia, and once she was on board the ship she refused to look back at them on the shore in case seeing them there drew her back.

Only her daughter Eustochium chose to make the journey with her. They stopped at the island of Pontia to visit the exiled martyr Flavia Domitilla, who further strengthened Paula’s resolve to reach Jerusalem.

Later she stopped at Cyprus to visit the bishop Epiphanius. Here she travelled to at every monastery on the island to leave behind a donation of money. Paula continued on her journey through to Seleucia, then Antioch, stopping at a number of holy places in modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel to see the sights and worship, before eventually arriving in Bethlehem.

After seeing a number of important places from the bible, including the cave in which Jesus was said to have been born, Paula decided that she would stay in Bethlehem. Immediately she set to work building a monastery for monks and a convent for the women who joined her.

Bethlehem_Geburtskirche_3

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Source)

For the rest of her life, Paula dedicated herself tirelessly to working for the poor, the sick and pilgrims who passed through Bethlehem. She may have had some basic medical knowledge as she is described as tending to the sick personally.

She also assisted Jerome academically, helping his Bible translation into Latin and later (with her daughter Eustochium) making copies to circulate the gospel.

After Paula’s death, Eustochium continued running the convent she had left behind. Her final resting place is beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the spot thought to be Jesus’ birthplace.

Paula is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church and her feast day is celebrated on 26th January.


In fiction:

Geoffrey Chaucer played upon the relationship between Jerome and Paula in the Wife of Bath‘s Prologue.


References:

Jerome’s Letter 108

On Wikipedia:

Marcella – 325 – 410 – Rome

Ancient Rome

Marcella

Marcella was a Roman noblewoman who was active in the early Christian church as one of the founders of monasticism (renouncing a worldly life to dedicate oneself to spiritual service).

The majority of information we have on Marcella comes from a letter written by Saint Jerome, a theologian and doctor of the church, in which he gives a biography of her life and praises her intelligence and good works.

“I will not set forth her illustrious family and lofty lineage… I will praise her for nothing but the virtue which is her own and which is the more noble, because forsaking both wealth and rank she has sought the true nobility of poverty and lowliness.”

– Saint Jerome on Marcella

Like Faltonia Betitia Proba, who lived around the same time, Marcella was born into a wealthy and influential Roman family. She was widowed young, after only seven months of marriage, and while it was Roman custom to remarry quickly, Marcella chose instead to dedicate the rest of her life to serving the poor, rather than a husband.

This was shocking to her contemporaries, including her mother, Albina, who had already found her a suiter, the elderly consular Cerealis. After hearing that Marcella planned to remain unmarried, Cerealis attempted to win her over by promising her his fortune, claiming that she would be more of a daughter to him than a wife, due to their age difference. Marcella’s cutting response was:

“Had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not an inheritance.”

Being uninterested in material wealth was an unusual trait at the time, particularly in a Roman Matron, for whom wealth and status was everything. Still, Marcella’s life of quiet prayer, chastity and charity struck a chord, and soon other young women were following her example.

Known as ‘the brown dress society’, Marcella and her community of Roman women dressed in coarse plain garments and stopped dressing their hair or wearing makeup. Marcella opened up her luxurious mansion as a refuge for the poor and a house of hospitality for pilgrims travelling to Rome.

Tiber_with_the_Ponte_Rotto_and_the_Aventine_Hill_1690

Painting of the Tiber with the Aventine Hill where Marcella’s house once stood. 1690 (Source)

It was through her hospital that Marcella met Jerome in 382 as he stayed with her while visiting Pope Damasus I. An intelligent and learned woman, Marcella thrived on the opportunity to debate with Jerome, a leading mind in theological matters. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew as well as her native Latin, she was invaluable to the scholar as he spent three years translating the Bible from her home.

Not content to simply listen and learn, Marcella was active in her pursuit of knowledge, openly challenging Jerome a number of times, impressing him immensely:

“..she never came to see me without asking me some questions about [the scriptures]… nor would she rest content at once, but on the contrary would dispute them; this, however, was not for the sake of argument, but to learn by questioning the answers to such objections might, as she saw, be raised. How much virtue and intellect, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say, both lest I may exceed the bounds of men’s belief… This only will I say, that whatever I had gathered together by long study, and by constant meditation made part of my nature, she tasted, she learned and made her own.”

Marcella’s influence spread throughout Rome, reaching another future collaborator of Jerome’s – Paula. Eventually Jerome and Paula chose to travel to the holy land to set up churches and monasteries there, but Marcella opted to stay in Rome and oversee her brown dress society.

The virgins in her society called Marcella ‘Mother’, and their lives can be compared to convent nuns in later Christianity. She was in her late seventies when the Goths attacked and ravaged Rome. Marcella’s house was invaded by soldiers seeking the treasure which was by then long gone on various charitable causes.

Marcella fled to the church of St Paul, where she died soon after. She is honoured today in the Roman Orthodox and Easter Orthodox churches as a saint. Her feast day is 31st January.


References:

Letter from Saint Jerome ‘To Principia’ detailing the life of Marcella – 412 AD

Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church – Ruth A. Tucker

On Wikipedia:

 

Faltonia Betitia Proba – c. 306/c. 315 – c. 353/c. 366 – Rome

Ancient Rome

20160110_172637-1

Faltonia Betitia Proba was an early Christian Roman woman who was inspired by her faith to create one of the most influential poems of late antiquity (4th – 6th Centuries).

Born into a wealthy and noble family, Proba was the daughter of a Roman consul. She was clearly highly educated and made a politically useful marriage to the Prefect Clodius Celsinus Adelphus in 351.

Boccaccio_-_Faltonia_Proba_-_De_mulieribus_claris,_XV_secolo_illuminated_manuscript

Faltonia Betitia Proba teaching the history of the world since the creation through her Cento Vergilanius de laudibus Christi. From a 15th Century manuscipt of the De muliberibus claris by Giovanni Boccaccio. (Source)

Though she had been raised in the Roman pagan religion, at some point during adulthood Proba converted to Christianity, a relatively new cult which was increasing in popularity in Rome at this time. Devout in her beliefs, Proba influenced her husband and two sons to convert as well.

There are two poems attributed to Proba, the first of which is believed to have been written before her conversion. Known as Constantini bellum adversus Magnentium, it told the story of the war between emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius. This poem no longer exists, and some scholars think that Proba may have personally had it destroyed due to its pagan themes.

Following her conversion, Proba completed her master work; the  Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi.

CentoProbae

An image of Faltonia Betitia Proba holding a scroll. Underneath is the beginning of her Cento. (Source)

A cento is a poem which is entirely composed of verses or passages taken from other authors, reworked to tell a different story. Proba used verses by the ancient poet Virgil combined with biblical passages to create an epic style poem about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In 694 lines, Proba tells the story of the bible, from the Old Testament stories of creation, the fall of man, the great flood and the story of Moses, to the New Testament and teachings of Jesus.

De Laudibus Christi was hugely popular upon publication. It was written in a style which was accessible and entertaining, which led to the work being shared and taught in schools. Faltonia Betitia Proba was praised well into the medieval period for her work.


References:

Early Christian Women Writers: The Interesting Lives and Works of Faltonia Betitia Proba and Athenais-Eudocia – Cătălina Mărmureanu, Gianina Cernescu, Laura Lixandru 

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. By various writers. Edited by Sir William Smith

On Wikipedia: