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).

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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.

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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

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.

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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:

Leoparda – 4th Century – Constantinople

Constantinople

Leoparda

Leoparda lived and worked at the court of Emperor Gratian as a gynaecologist, serving the medical needs of the women at the Byzantine court.

She was a respected doctor who we know about from a book by her colleague, the emperor’s physician, Theodorus Priscianus. Priscianus wrote a book on women’s medicine which was intended to teach women in medical professions.

Ad Timotheum fratrem. Book III: Gynaecea ad Slavinam was dedicated to Leoparda, as well as two other women, Salvina and Victoria. It also contains quotes from Aspasia, an earlier physician who specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology.


References:

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: L-ZMarilyn Bailey Ogilvie, Joy Dorothy Harvey

On Wikipedia:

 

Hypatia – c.351/370 – 415 – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Hypatia

In the centuries since her death, Hypatia has become an icon for women in education and scientific thought. Her story has been told and retold, casting her as a pagan seductress, a prim school ma’am, an enlightened philosopher and a tragic heroine. Her brutal and untimely death is often told in gory detail without recounting the facts of her life.

This is largely because (as with so many women in this era) little is known about the life of Hypatia which can be confirmed. We know that she was a highly intelligent woman with a first class classical Greek education. She lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and headed the Neoplatonic School there, teaching philosophy and astronomy. Most remarkably of all, Hypatia was a woman in charge of her own life and who made her own choices.

A gifted mathematician, she inherited her passion for the subject from her father, Theon Alexandricus. Following her education in Athens, she relocated to Alexandria, at the time the home of the world’s largest and most comprehensive library. She taught Greek philosophy, including the works of Plato and Aristotle to students from all walks of life.

Hypatia occupied a respected position in Alexandrian society. Most sources report that she was well respected and admired for her wisdom and dignity. She refused to marry, though there are stories in which she turns down proposals from her enamoured students. Hypatia’s single status and dedication to her career enabled her to move more freely through male dominated environments than other women at the time.

Socrates Scholasticus, a contemporary of Hypatia’s, describes her self-assured nature and how her advice was well regarded and sought after by the leading minds of Alexandria:

“On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”

Though no surviving work is attributed to Hypatia, classical scholars make mentions of a number of texts and commentaries which she may have collaborated on with her father.

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“Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria” (Source)

Hypatia’s murder took place in 415 in Alexandria. At the time there was an ongoing feud between the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril. Cyril had demanded that all of the Jewish citizens of Alexandria be banished. Alexandria was a city of multiple faiths at the time – Hypatia’s students included pagans, Jews and Christians – and Orestes was outraged by Cyril’s violent actions.

As previously mentioned, Hypatia was often asked for advice by prominent citizens of the city, and in this case Orestes asked for her input. Unfortunately, by this point the feud would not be solved with reason or debate, and Cyril’s followers felt that Hypatia was siding against them. A mob attacked her and dragged her through the streets to their church, where they brutally killed and mutilated her.


In Fiction:

Literature and theatre:

  • Hypatie et Cyril is a French poem by Charles Marie Rene Leconte de Lisle

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    An actress, possibly Mary Anderson, in the title role of the play Hypatia, circa 1900. (Source)

  • Hypatia – or New Foes with an Old Face – Charles Kingsley (novel)
  • In the 1893 performance of the play Hypatia by Stuart Ogilvie (based on Kingsley’s book) Hypatia was played by Julia Neilson, then by Mary Anderson in 1900.
  • The Heirs of Alexandria series by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer portrays am alternate history in which Hypatia is converted to Christianity, saving her life.
  • Fable of Venice by Corto Maltese has Hypatia as an intellectual in pre-fascist Italy.
  • Ipazia, scienziata alessandrina(Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria) by Adriano Petta
  • Hypatia y la eternidad(Hypatia and Eternity) by Ramon Galí is also set in an alternate history.
  • Azazil by Dr Youssel Ziedan
  • Francis Itty Cora by D. Ramakrishnan
  • Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egyptby Brian Trent
  • Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandriaby Ki Longfellow
  • In The Plot to Save Socratesby Paul Levinson and the sequel Unburning Alexandria, Hypatia turns out to have been a time-traveller from 21st century America.
  • Heresy: the Life of Pelagiusby David Lovejoy includes Hypatia’s death.

Film and Television:

  • 1987 Doctor Who serial Time and the Rani features a brief appearance from Hypatia.
  • Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980 and 2014).
  • Agora (2009) stars Rachel Weiss as Hypatia in a fictionalised version of her last years.

Art:

  • Hypatia has a place setting at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Science:

  • 238 Hypatia is a main belt asteroid named after the philosopher.
  • Lunar crater Hypatia.
  • A genus of moth.

References:

Rejected Princesses: Hypatia

Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle – Kathleen Wider

Medieval Sourcebook: The Murder of Hypatia (late 4th Cent.) from Ecclesiastical History,Bk VI: Chap. 15 – Socrates Scholasticus

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.

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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:

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:

 

Aemilia Hilaria – c.300 – c.363 – Moselle, Gaul

France

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Aemilia Hilaria (Aemilia the cheerful) was so nicknamed because she was such a happy baby. She was born and educated as a Roman citizen in Roman Gaul, in an area which is now Moselle, France.

We know about her thanks to a poem written by her nephew, Ausonius, who remembered his aunt with great affection in a poem:

VI Aemilia Hilaria, my mother’s sister, an avowed virgin

You too who, though in kinship’s degree an aunt, were to me a mother,

must now be recalled with a son’s affection.

Aemilia, who in the cradle gained the second name of Hilarius, because,

Bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy,

You made without pretence the very picture of a lad.

…[text missing] busied in the art of healing like a man.

You ever hated your female sex

And so there grew up in you the love of consecrated maidenhood.

Through three and sixty years you maintained it, and your life’s end was also a maiden’s end.

The poem describes an affectionate relationship between aunt and nephew.

Ausonius describes how Hilaria chose a life as a ‘dedicated virgin’ – that is to say she would never marry – in order to pursue a career as a physician. Based on the information from her nephew, it seems that Hilaria was successful in her work and lived a long life.


References:

Parentalia (VI)Ausonius

This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, 350 450 – Gillian Cloke

Women in Roman Law and Society – Jane F. Gardner

 

Zenobia – 240 – c.274 – Palmyrene Empire

Ancient Syria

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Syrian warrior queen Zenobia was another in a long line of women to cause trouble for the Roman Empire.

Born in Palmyra, her origins are mysterious – the Greeks called her Zenobia, her Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia and in Arabic she is called al-Zabba (الزباء‎). Some historians describe her as having Jewish heritage, others that she was the daughter of a sheikh, or that her father was the Roman Governor of Palmyra.

Wherever she came from, Zenobia had no problem coming up with her own family history. She claimed to be a descendant of the Ptolemies – related to queen Cleopatra herself, as well as Dido, the legendary goddess-queen of Carthage.

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Coin featuring Zenobia (Source)

Her lineage is uncertain, but Zenobia definitely did speak the ancient Egyptian language, and may have learnt from her mother who is thought to have been part-Egyptian. Zenobia was also described as very beautiful and highly intelligent, just like Cleopatra. She was well educated and spoke Latin, Greek and Aramaic fluently. In addition, Zenobia was physically strong, being an accomplished horsewoman and huntress.

She was married to the king of Palmyra, Septimus Odaenathus when she was about eighteen. He already had a son from a previous marriage, and in 266 Zenobia gave birth to her own son, Vaballathus.

When Varballathus was only a year old, the king and his eldest son were assassinated. Zenobia became the sole ruler of Palmyra until her son came of age.

She lost no time in securing her power, and immediately began planning conquests to expand the limits of her empire. At this time, Zenobia had the full backing of Rome as a client queen. She was expected to protect her borders and the eastern empire from the neighbouring Sassanid Empire – so it was within her remit to attack on these fronts.

In 269, she went too far.

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and her General Zabdas marched their army into Egypt, violently defeating the Roman forces. They captured the Roman Prefect in charge of the region and beheaded him, proclaiming Zenobia queen of Egypt.

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Zenobia’s empire shown in yellow (Source)

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Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz (Source)

From there, she pressed on into Anatolia, then Palestine and Lebanon. These were all hugely important trade routes in the classical world, which the Roman Empire depended upon. Zenobia claimed them for herself and for her son.

Emperor Aurelian had finally had enough in 272. His forces clashed with Zenobia’s army in Antioch and defeated the Palmyrenes, who retreated to Emesa, where Zenobia had a treasury. Aurelian was hot on her heals and besieged the city, forcing Zenobia to escape with Varballathus on the back of a camel.

This last desperate attempt at escape failed, and Aurelian’s cavalry captured the Queen before she could get home to Palmyra. Zenobia’s Empire came to an end. She was taken back to Rome in chains and eight year old Varballathus is presumed to have died on the voyage.

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The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717 (Source)

It’s not clear what happened next for this fierce ruler. One version of her story claims that she either committed suicide or was excecuted in Rome. Another that she happily married a Roman senator and became a prominent philosopher and socialite.


In fiction:

Geoffrey Chaucer gives a short version of the story of Zenobia in The Monk’s Tale.

A number of operas have been written about the life and exploits of queen Zenobia by various authors including: Tomaso Albinoni (1694), Leonardo Leo (1725), Johann Adolph Hasse (1761), Pasquale Anfossi (1789), Giovanni Paisiello (1790), Gioachino Rossini (1819) and Mansour Rahbani (2007).

Lebanese singer Fairuz performed a song called Zenobia in 1977.

Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker is a historical romance novel fictionalising the life of Zenobia.


 

References:

BBC’s In Our Time featuring a discussion on Zenobia.

Zenobia, Queen of the East, Or, Letters from Palmyra, Volume 2 – William Ware

Empress Zenobia: Palmyra s Rebel Queen – Pat Southern

On Wikipedia:

 

Lady Triệu – 225 – 248 – Vietnam

Vietnam

Lady Trieu

Almost two centuries after the rise and fall of the warrior sisters Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, Vietman was still under Chinese rule. The native people continued to resist foreign domination, and uprisings were a regular occurrence.

It was time for another heroine.

Lady Triệu (also known as Triệu Thị Trinh) was a young woman who refused to go down without a fight. She ran away from her village into the forest, where she gathered an army to take on the Chinese.

Her brother tried to stop her and convince her to settle down, but she shook him off, assuring him that she was meant for better things:

“I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.”

《欽定越史通鑑綱目》卷首This was a difficult argument to ignore, and her brother chose to join her.

Lady Triệu is described by Vietnamese sources as literally larger than life at 9 feet tall, with a voice like a ‘temple bell’. Like all good heroes she had stamina, and could walk 500 leagues in one day.

Historians describe Lady Triệu as riding war-elephants into battle and wearing yellow tunics, gaining the title ‘Nhụy Kiều Tướng quân’ – the Lady General clad in Golden Robes. Her gaze was supposedly so fierce that the Chinese soldiers were afraid to meet her eyes.

Sadly, like her predecessors the Tru’ng sisters, Lady Triệu’s rebellion did not last. Unable to gain enough support to grow her army, Lady Triệu was eventually defeated in 248. According to legend she was so brokenhearted at the loss that she killed herself.

However, a small thing like being dead would not stop her from being a nuisance to the Chinese, and legend says that her spirit haunted the Chinese general who had beaten her. Her memory continued to offer hope and support to the subjugated Vietnamese for centuries and today she is a celebrated national hero.

Den-tho-ba-trieu

Bà Triệu Temple

 


 

References:

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set  Bonnie G. Smith

The Birth of Vietnam Keith Weller Taylor

On Wikipedia:


 

Image credits:

By 阮朝國史館(Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn) – National Library of Vietnam, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6446560

View from outside of the gate of Bà Triệu Temple in Hậu Lộc District, Thanh Hóa Province By Mai Trung Dung – Own work, Public Domain

Metrodora – c.200 – 400 – Greece

Ancient Greece

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Among a huge number of historical women who leave behind no information on their lives, Metrodora has at least left us with her work. In two volumes and 63 chapters, On the Diseases and Cures of Women survives today and is the earliest surviving medical text known to be written by a woman.

A Greek physician, like Aspasia before her, Metrodora’s work covers a variety of medicine, including gynaecology. However, while the majority of women in medicine during the classical age tend to be midwives, Metrodora’s text does not touch upon obstetrics (pregnancy and childbirth), making her even more unusual.

It seems that rather than focus on the area of medicine traditionally considered ‘feminine’ – that is midwifery – Metrodora’s interests were in pathology; diagnosing diseases based on examination of organs, tissues and bodily fluids. There is little doubt that she was an experienced physician, and took a very ‘hands on’ approach to her work, in which she discusses performing examinations with her hands and fingers as well as tools such as the speculum.

Metrodora also differs from Aspasia in that she does not write about surgery – though this may be for two reasons; first that surgery was not widely practiced in Greece or Rome at this time; secondly we are possibly missing part of the work.

On the Diseases and Cures of Women is also the first text known to be written in the form of an alphabetical medical encyclopaedia, with lettered headings for quick reference. It was clearly considered very useful and was copied, translated and republished well into the medieval period.

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The Hippocratic Oath – Metrodora studied the medical writings of Hippocrates and explored them in her own work. Source.

Like other medical writers of the time, Metrodora had studied the work of Hippocrates and drew heavily from his theories. She was thorough in her studies, referring directly to Hippocrates writings rather than drawing from secondary sources written after his death.

The book also contains many of Metrodora’s own observations and contributions to medicine; she formed a classification system for vaginal discharges and theorised that some discharges were caused by rectal parasitic infection.

Though she left behind her life’s work, Metrodora very nearly lost her name altogether in the 16th Century. She cited a bibliographic reference within her text to a woman called Cleopatra, who late medieval translators confused with Cleopatra VII. This led to On the Diseases and Cures of Women being attributed to the famous queen in some versions.


References:

Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long HillLilian R. Furst

A Companion to Women in the Ancient World Sharon L. James, Sheila Dillon

On Wikipedia: