Aelia Eudocia – 401 – 460 – Constantinople

Constantinople, Greece, Jerusalem

Aelia Eudocia

Aelia Eudocia was an influential Byzantine empress and Christian poet.

She was born in Athens, Greece, to pagan parents who named her Athenaïs. Her father, Leontius was a philosopher who likely gave Athenaïs a robust classical education in Greek, Latin, poetry, philosophy and oration.

Both of her parents had died by the time she reached adulthood. She arrived in Constantinople, (Istanbul, Turkey) at the time the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire, in 420, where at some point she converted to Christianity and was baptised.

It was here that she would come to the attention of Emperor Theodosius. Later historians have reworked the story of their betrothal into a romantic fairy-tale, with Theodosius asking his sister Pulcheria to find him the fairest maiden in the land and rescuing Athenaïs from a life of poverty. This Cinderella story is highly unlikely and not supported by contemporary historical sources.

Either way, Athenaïs and Theodosius married in 421 and she changed her name to Aelia Eudocia (perhaps in homage to Theodosius’ mother Aelia Eudoxia). Following the marriage, Eudocia’s family began to gain substantial influence at court; both her brothers and her uncle received prestigious titles and political roles, and she herself had certain persuasive powers over her husband.

As well as being politically active, Eudocia expressed herself through poetry, penning a number of works, some of which are still extant. No doubt using her education in Greek literature, Eudocia’s poems are written in hexameter verse and generally have Christian themes.

In 423 Eudocia was made Augusta (empress) following the birth of her first child, a daughter called Licinia Eudoxia. Coins were issued with Eudocia’s image – as they had been previously for Theodosius indomitable sister Pulcheria.

Eudocia’s influence spread and following her ascension to Augusta construction began on the University of Constantinople – education being a cause dear to her heart. She also sponsored the building of a number of churches in the city.

In almost direct opposition to her sister-in-law, Eudocia and her family attempted to lessen the persecution of the Jewish population of Constantinople, who had faced hugely restrictive laws placed upon their worship by the fanatically Christian Pulcheria.

Whether it was due to her building projects, her religious views or simply down to jealously, at some point Pulcheria (who had held influence over the emperor since she was fifteen years old) had had enough of Eudocia. In the late 430s, after she had given birth to a second daughter (Flaccilla), Eudocia requested permission from her husband to leave Constantinople and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia – St Eudoxia (source)

Theodosius consented and Eudocia set off with her friend Melania in 438. Together the women visited all of the holy sites on their way through the Middle East. The tour was excellent PR for Eudocia, raising her profile as a pious and devout empress. In Antioch she made a public address which was so well received that the locals built a bronze statue to honour her.

However, it was not to last. Once she had returned to Constantinople life only became more difficult for her. In 443 she was accused of adultery with Paulinus, the emperor’s friend. Paulinus was banished and executed, causing Eudocia to leave the city again for Jerusalem.

Her life was no easier away from the imperial capital – two of her closest confidants, a priest called Severus and the deacon John were executed on her husband’s orders. This was the last straw and Eudocia finally struck back, hiring an assassin to kill the executioner of her friends. Theodosius retaliated by recalling her imperial household staff, though she was able to retain her title and personal wealth.

For the remainder of her life Eudocia dedicated herself to writing poetry and intervening in church politics. She died in Jerusalem in 460.

For those in pain your powerful might is always everlasting.
But I will sing of a god, renowned for wisdom
For the benefit of speaking mortals.


References:

Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire – Matthew Bunson

http://www.roman-emperors.org/eudocia.htm 

On Wikipedia:

 

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

Ancient Rome

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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.

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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.

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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:

 

Cai Wenji 蔡琰 – fl. 207 – Han Dynasty China

Ancient China, China

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Cai Wenji’s life could almost be straight from a fairy tale. She was the intelligent, accomplished only daughter of Cai Yong, a scholar from Yu County (modern day Qi County, Kaifeng, Henan).

畫麗珠萃秀_Gathering_Gems_of_Beauty_(漢蔡文姬)_2She married her first husband at a young age and was widowed before the marriage produced any children.

At some time between 194 and 195, Cai was kidnapped by Xiongnu nomads who had invaded Han territory. She was taken to the north as a prisoner and married to Liu Bao, the nomads’ chieftain.

Cai Wenji lived as a captive wife in the northern lands for twelve years, and gave birth to two sons. As well as being a scholar and an articulate speaker, Cai Wenji was a highly thought of calligrapher, as her father had been. She wrote two famous poems about her years as a captive, both named Poem of Sorrow and Anger:

My dwelling is often covered by frost and snow,
The foreign winds bring again spring and summer;

They gently blow into my robes,
And chillingly shrill into my ear;

Emotions stirred, I think of my parents,
Whilst I draw a long sigh of endless sorrows.

Whenever guests visit from afar,
I would often make joy of their tidings;

I lost no time in throwing eager questions,
Only to find that the guests were not from my home town.

Finally, Cao Cao, the Han Chancellor paid a large ransom for her return. By this time her father had died, and she was the last surviving member of her family due to Cao Cao’s struggles for power. He ransomed her purely to placate her ancestors, in case they became vengeful and haunted Cao Cao himself.

Cai Wenji left her children behind in enemy territory and made the journey back to her homeland. There she was re-married to a government official named Dong Si.

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‘Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland’, painting dating from the Southern Song dynasty depicting Cai Wenji and her Xiongnu husband. They are riding their horses along, each holding one of their sons.

Upon her return she also found that the 4000 volumes of ancient texts she had inherited from her father had been destroyed in the same war that had wiped out her family. Amazingly, Cai wenji was able to recite 400 of the books from memory, and wrote them down at Cao Cao’s request.

When her new husband later committed a capital crime, Cai Wenji was so distressed at losing someone else close to her that she interrupted a banquet being held by Cao Cao to plead for her husband’s life. She asked if he would procure her yet another husband after she lost this one – Cao Cao took pity and pardoned Dong Si.


In fiction:

  • Guo Moruo wrote a play on her life in 1959.
  • Cai Wenji appears as a playable character in Koei’s Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce 2 and Dynasty Warriors 7 (her debut as a playable character in North American and European ports).
  • She also appears in Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game series and in Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires as a non-playable character.
  • She is also a playable character in Warriors Orochi 3.

In science:

  • In 1976, a crater on Mercury was named Ts’ai Wen-chi after Cai Wenji.
  • In 1994, a crater on Venus was named Caiwenji after Cai Wenji.

 

References:

Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and CriticismKang-i Sun Chang, Haun Saussy, Charles Yim-tze Kwong

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

By Identified as He Dazi (赫達資) – Selections. The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Selections from the History of Chinese Painting (exhibit). Taipei: National Palace Museum., Public Domain

Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland By Unknown – CHINA Art Pic Stock (China Artistic Publisher, Beijing Panoramic Visual Pic LTD) Cat:p127, CD41:img0158, (purchased and donated by Kosi Gramatikoff User:kosigrim., Public Domain

 

 

Consort Ban (班婕妤) – c. 48 BCE – 6 BCE – Chang’an, China

Ancient China, China

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Consort Ban (also known as Ban Jieyu 婕妤 or Lady Ban) was the title of a woman who was a third-ranking wife to Emperor Chengdi in Han Dynasty China. We do not know her personal name.

She began palace life as a junior maid (similar to the later European position of lady-in-waiting), and became a concubine to the emperor, a more prominent position.

Consort Ban was admired as a great scholar who was able to recite beautifully from the Shi Jing (the Chinese classic poetry). She was also very demure, and famously refused to ride in a palanquin (a covered litter) with Chengdi as she did not want to distract him from matters of state.

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Consort Ban declining to ride with Emperor Cheng on his palanquin. The painting is from the bottom panel of a Northern Wei screen.

However, her poetry and modesty were not enough to secure her position with the emperor. Though she bore him two sons, both of them died shortly after birth. As the Empress Xu, Chendi’s first wife, had not produced an heir either, his mother the Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun asked him to take more concubines.

In around 19 BCE, the Emperor was visiting Princess Yang’a when he first saw her dancing girls, sisters Zhao Feiyan and Zhao Hede. He at once became infatuated with them and had the sisters brought back to his palace where he made them concubines.

Feiyan and Hede soon became Chengdi’s favourites, and he became less and less interested in Empress Xu and Consort Ban.

In 18 BCE the Zhou sisters accused both the empress and Consort Ban of witchcraft.

The empress was deposed from court and placed under house arrest, but Consort Ban took a stand. She made a speech before the emperor to plead her case, using citations from her studies of Confucius. The speech so impressed Chengdi that he permitted her to stay at court.

Not happy to remain in the palace which had now been taken over by the sisters who persecuted her, Consort Ban chose to become lady in waiting to the Empress Dowager instead. Another story tells of Consort Ban saving her brother Ban Zhi, father of the Chinese historian Ban Biao, from a charge of treason.

Two well-known Chinese poems are credited to Consort Ban and she was included in Liu Xiang’s Biography of Exemplary Women.


References:

Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism – Kang-i Sun Chang, Haun Saussy, Charles Yim-tze Kwong

Autumn in the Han PalaceMa Zhiyuan

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Consort Ban and Emperor Cheng, Northern Wei painted screen” by Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China (1999).

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

 

 

Cornificia – c.85 – 40 BCE – Roman Republic

Ancient Rome

“Not satisfied with excelling in such a splendid art, inspired by the sacred Muses, she rejected the distaff and turned her hands, skilled in the use of the quill, to writing Heliconian verses… With her genius and labor she rose above her sex, and with her splendid work she acquired a perpetual fame.”

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Cornificia was born into a family of wealth, status and talent.

Her brother, Cornificius was both a praetor and an augur for the Roman Republic, as well as a poet. This upbringing likely afforded Cornificia a good education which inspired her own love of poetry.

Unfortunately, as happens too often, Cornificia’s work has all been lost. Her work is described as ‘distinguished’ by St Jerome in the 4th Century CE, inferring that the poet’s work did survive and was read for four hundred years after her death.

Cornificia and her brother were immortalised by a monument in Rome which still stands today. She was also praised by early feminist renaissance writer Laura Cereta who passionately wrote:

“Add also Cornificia, the sister of the poet Cornificius, whose devotion to literature bore such a fruit that she was said to have been nurtured on the milk of the Castalian Muses and who wrote epigrams in which every phrase was graced with Heliconian flowers.”


Notes:

The opening quote of this post is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (De mulieribus claris)

praetor was a magistrate and/or military commander, while an augur was a priest whose task was to ‘take the auspices’, interpreting the will of the gods by studying the activities of birds.


References:

Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth CenturyJane Stevenson

Famous Women Giovanni Boccaccio, Virginia Brown

On Wikipedia:

Anyte – fl. 3Rd Century BCE – Tegea, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Anyte was a famous writer in her own time, well known for her epitaphs and epigrams. She was one of the first to describe nature and landscapes in her work.

She is considered unusual as rather than writing of masculine triumphs and achievements, Anyte’s work expresses sorrow for the deaths of young women. She is the first poet to write epitaphs for animals.

Fellow poet Antipater of Thessalonica named Anyte as one of the nine ‘earthly muses’ and we have more complete poems by Anyte than by any other Greek woman.

Anyte’s striking descriptions of nature are clear in the following epigram, which speaks of a statue of Aphrodite (often known as the “Cyprian”):

This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her

to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea

that she may make the voyage good for sailors.

Around her the sea trembles looking upon her polished image.”

"Aphrodites Rock". Licensed via Commons

“Aphrodites Rock”. Licensed via Commons

According to some sources, Anyte led a school of poetry and literature on Peloponnesus, which also included the poet Leonidas of Tarentum.


References:

Translation and notes by Marilyn B. Skinner

On Wikipedia:

Nossis – c.300 BCE – Locri, Italy

Italy

How tenderly she stands! See how greatly her charm blooms!
May she fare well: her way of life is blameless.

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Nossis made her living writing epigrams (memorable statements) to be inscribed on votive offerings at the temple in Locri, southern Italy. Her patrons were almost exclusively women from various walks of life including wealthy matrons, new brides and sex workers.

The poem below commemorates the donation of a robe to the goddess Hera on the occasion of a woman’s wedding:

Most reverend Hera, you who often descending from heaven

behold your Lacinian shrine fragrant with incense

receive the linen wrap that with her noble child Nossis

Theophilis daughter of Cleocha wove for you.

 

Roman statue of Aphrodite, circa 4th Century BCE

Roman statue of Aphrodite, circa 4th Century BCE

Twelve of Nossis’ epigrams (one of which may not have been written by her) survive in the Greek Anthology. Meleager of Gadara, in his Garland, includes her among the most distinguished Greek poets and Antipater of Thessalonica ranked her among the nine poets who deserved the honor to compete with the Muses.

Not only were Nossis’ poems dedicated to female goddesses and paid for by women, they were also intended for a female audience, unlike most Greek poetry. In the following poem, she invites other women to go and see a gilded statue commissioned by the hetaera (courtesan) Polyarchis in the temple of Aphrodite:

Let us go to Aphrodite’s temple to see her statue,
how finely it is embellished with gold.
Polyarchis dedicated it, having made a great fortune
out of the splendor of her own body.

The fact that she is giving other women – particularly historically marginalized women – a voice makes Nossis very special. She writes with warmth and honesty, refusing to hide the pride many of these women feel in their professional successes.


References:

12 Epigrams of Nossis – Locri Epizephrii’s Historical Figures

Nossis and Women’s Cult at LocriMarilyn B. Skinner

Epigrams by Women from the Greek AnthologyMarilyn B. Skinner

On Wikipedia:

 

Moero – 3rd Century BCE – Byzantium, Greek Empire

Ancient Greece

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Moero (sometimes Myro) was a poet from the city of Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul). Antipater of Thessalonica included her in his list of famous women poets. Little remains of Moero’s work, but we know she wrote epic and lyric poetry as well as eulogies.

She is mentioned a number of times in the Suda (an ancient encyclopaedia), which states that she married a man named Andromachus and had a son who also wrote poetry.

Moero was also mentioned in The Deipnosophists by Anthenaeus, where her poetry is praised and quoted:

“Myro the Byzantian admirably caught the feeling of Homeric poems saying in her poem titled ‘Memory’ that the Pleiades convey ambrosia to Jupiter.”

(Pleiades – Seven Sisters consellation)


References:

The Suda entry on Moero

The Deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus
volume II Book XI – Athenaeus of Naucratis

On Wikipedia:

Cleobulina – fl.550 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Cleobulina is most well known for her poetry, which took the form of witty riddles. Her reputation for playfulness and wisdom was held in high regard by three learned men of the time; Aristotle, Plutarch and Diogenes.

As with the majority of ancient Greek women, we know hardly anything at all about Cleobulina’s life. She was born in Rhodes and her father was Cleobulus, one of the seven sages (or wise men) of Greece. He may have educated his daughter, as she became skilled in writing poetry in hexameter and writing riddles.

The philosopher Thales described Cleobulina as having ‘a stateman’s mind’ and nicknamed her Eumetis – ‘wise counsel’. This indicates that beyond her poetry and enigmas, Cleobulina must have been an intelligent political thinker, and possibly advised her father, the ruler of Rhodes.

A thousand years after her death, Bathusa Markin used Cleobulina as an example of the triumphs of learned women to advocate the education of noble women in his own time.


 

References

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers – Diogenes Laertius

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An AnthologyIan Michael Plant

An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen by Bathusa Makin

Sappho – c.630/12 – 570 BCE – Lesbos, Greece

Ancient Greece

“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!

Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”

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Plato called her ‘wise Sappho’. Solon of Athens once said that he would be happy to die having learned one of her songs; Horace described her work as sacred. Sappho was as celebrated and respected for her art as any man or woman in the ancient world.

800px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2She was included as the only woman among the nine Greek lyric poets who were studied by the Alexandrians (Greeks) and later the Romans. Sappho is still well known today, despite much of her work being lost. There are about 200 remnants of Sappho’s poetry still in existence, all of varying lengths. As well as manuscripts copied by scholars over time, her poetry survives on papyrus fragments and pieces of pottery.

She wrote about heroic deeds and praise for the Gods – but is most remembered for her passionate love poetry and razor sharp wit:

“She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.”

“Vain woman, foolish thing!
Do you base your worth on a ring?”

Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos to a noble family and had three older brothers. She may have had a daughter who she named Cleïs after her mother.

What we know of Sappho’s life is based on her own poetry, and the writings of a few contemporary and later Greek historians. She spent most of her life on Lesbos, though she lived during a politically turbulent era and at one point was exiled for a short time. Her fellow poet and friend Alcaeus described her as ‘Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho’ and most physical descriptions agree that she was small and dark haired.

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho’s immense reputation surpasses many other poets of antiquity – she was called the tenth muse, was studied by Greeks, Romans and later the Victorians, odes were written to her, paintings and statues were created in her image. She is often praised for the clarity of language in her love poetry and her sharp descriptions – she is the first writer known to describe the moon as ‘silvery’.

“You have returned!
You did well to not depart
because I pined for you.
Now you have re-lit the torch
I bear for you in my heart,
this flare of Love.
I bless you and bless you and bless you
because we’re no longer apart.”

It would be difficult to discuss Sappho without stumbling upon a number of references to her sexuality. Her poetry focused on love and passion for people of both sexes. The word lesbian comes from Lesbos, the island she lived on, and she is also the origin of the word Sapphic. These words did not come to be applied to gay women until the 19th Century, and the poet’s reputation for same-sex relationships did not come about until 300 years after her death, nevertheless the rumor has become legend.

“Once more I dive into this fathomless sea,
intoxicated by lust.”

It was not uncommon for male poets such as Alcaeus and Pindar to form romantic relationships with both men and women in their social circle, so it might be assumed that Sappho adopted a similar attitude. Later philosopher Maximus of Tyre compared her relationships with women to Socrates relationships with men, claiming that they were simply ‘captivated by all things beautiful’.


References:

New Poems by Sappho – Dirk Obbink

English Translations of Sappho’s Works

In Our Time: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

Great Lives: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong is a fiction novel based on the life of the poet.