Iulia Eustochium

The Proto-Nun of Roman High Society

Mosaic over the altar in the Chapel in St Jerome’s Cave, located beneath the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem.

In this mosaic from Bethlehem, we see Iulia Eustochium, standing on the left hand side of her mother of St. Paula. The mosaic shows how posterity has seen Eustochium throughout the ages: a humble and quiet virgin, a faithful companion to her holy mother, modestly looking downwards as she prays. Much like in this mosaic, Eustochium appears to posterity only in a supporting role or on the sidelines of the tumultuous story of her mother and the great church father St. Jerome. The words of Jerome are reflected in this portrayal of Eustochium as the modest sidekick of her saintly mother:

“The same accomplishment can be seen to this day in her daughter Eustochium, who always kept close to her mother’s side, obeyed all her commands, never slept apart from her, never walked abroad or took a meal without her, never had a penny that she could call her own, rejoiced when her mother gave to the poor her little patrimony, and fully believed that in filial affection she had the best heritage and the truest riches.”[1]

Even though they lived next to each other in the same community for almost thirty years, for some reason Jerome never seemed interested in an in depth description of what Eustochium was truly like – a stark contrast to the very personal (albeit a highly biased and rhetorical) image of Paula he gave us. It almost seems as if Eustochium’s purpose in life was, for Jerome’s rhetoric at least, to act as a virginal symbol of holiness, the ultimate product of her mother’s saintly character. She never speaks in the sources, unlike Paula, and is never described as actually doing something specific. We do not even know when exactly she was born, only that by 419 she had died.[2]

She is, however, an important woman to look at in the context of this blog, because she has had a lasting impact on European Medieval culture as the inspiration of a key text read extensively in medieval nunneries in Europe, Jerome’s Letter 22 (also known as Libellus de virginitate servanda). Jerome frames the text as a set of instructions for a proper ascetic life for young women, a lifestyle that is being pioneered by Eustochium, “the first virgin of noble blood in Rome.”[3] According to Jerome this lifestyle, while so difficult for many,[4] has been mastered by the young Eustochium. He opened the text by writing “I write to you thus, Lady Eustochium (I am bound to call my Lord’s bride “lady”), to show you by my opening words that my object is not to praise the virginity which you follow, and of which you have proved the value“.[5] I will first introduce the main points of this letter from the point of view of Eustochium as a ‘proto-nun’ and the lifestyle a young Christian ascetic woman from Roman high society should live according to the text. After this, I will look at the two aspects of Eustochium’s character we might confidently deduct from the narrow sources: her pride as a patrician Roman and her ascetic devotion.


Eustochium the Proto-Nun

Eustochium is the recipient and inspiration of Jerome’s famous Letter 22.[6] This letter, probably familiar to many students of late antique church history, lays out Eustochium’s lifestyle as a holy virgin, a rigorous and mentally demanding ascetic regime that Jerome claimed Eustochium had already mastered as a young woman in early 380s Rome. This is one of Jerome’s longest and one of his most brilliant rhetorically, and it has been the subject of much scholarly discussion.[7] Since much of this discussion, rightfully, skips analyzing the recipient herself thoroughly as it is practically impossible to dig the truth behind Jerome’s rhetoric, I will not reiterate this discussion here, as this blog is meant to focus on the actual women and not the men writing about them.

To summarize the 41-paragraph long treatise, Jerome is giving advice on how Eustochium could maintain her holy vows and excel in her ascetic lifestyle. While this lifestyle would be difficult and test a “young girl reared in luxury and ease”[8], the price was worth it – a Heavenly marriage with Christ Himself[9] and the glory that she would receive in the next life. Jerome encouraged Eustochium to persevere in her lifestyle: “To be as the martyrs, or as the apostles, or as Christ, involves a hard struggle, but brings with it a great reward.”[10] Nothing worth having comes easy, as Jerome reminds Eustochium: “What saint has ever won his crown without first contending for it?”[11] The contest was life and temptations, “a race-course” where “we are hemmed in by hosts of foes.”[12]

Jerome’s cure for temptation in Letter 22 was asceticism and celibacy. Eustochium is told to “avoid wine as you would avoid poison, since it drunkenness easily led to temptation.”[13] Jerome recommended that also concerning food Eustochium should “be as the prophets of Old Testament, whom he claimed only ate herbs, small portions of bread and drank water.”[14] Further on Jerome tells Eustochium to “fast daily, not just at specific times.”[15] Moderation in eating and drinking was essential for a bride of Christ since indulging these senses led to inflating desire in the body. Jerome explained: “Not that the Creator and Lord of all takes pleasure in a rumbling and empty stomach, or in fevered lungs; but that these are indispensable as means to the preservation of chastity.”[16] He also instructed Eustochium to choose her company wisely, and “only associate with other women pale and thin with fasting”, who could encourage her in her asceticism.[17] She was told to focus on study instead of feasts and social gatherings. Jerome wrote: “Read often, learn all that you can. Let sleep overcome you, the roll still in your hands; when your head falls, let it be on the sacred page.”[18] Along with study, her nights should be filled with prayer and repenting for the slightest sin she might have done (in actions or in thoughts), and to “nightly wash your bed and water your couch with your tears.”[19] To reduce the chance of any temptation, Jerome also told Eustochium that it is safest to stay in her own room, isolating herself from the influences of the world. As a bride of Christ, the only thing that Eustochium should be concerned with was seeking a connection with her future divine husband. This was done best from her own room, since “the Bridegroom cannot be found in the streets.”[20] Jerome reminded Eustochium that despite her superior status as a bride of Christ, she should not seek the admiration of mortals by calling attention to herself and to her superior piety: her lifestyle should be aimed at pleasing God, not at impressing people.[21]


Aristocratic Pride and Ascetic Devotion

Since we have no way of knowing whether she actually followed the instructions laid down by Jerome in Letter 22 and have no quotes from her or anecdotes of anything she did personally, Eustochium has remained an elusive character as a person. Some conclusions could, however, be made regarding what little we might be able to deduce of her personality. First, she appears to have been very proud to be an aristocrat and a patrician. After her mother died, Jerome published Paula’s hagiography, dedicated to Eustochium, in which Jerome is clearly pampering to aristocratic rather than religious ideals. This hagiography of an ascetic woman opens with an overly long paragraph dedicated to purely earthly lineage. I argue that this addition by Jerome served Eustochium’s own pride, showing all those who might read the text the especially impressive pedigree she had inherited from her parents. Eustochium, according to Jerome, was the descendant of two Roman legends, Scipio Africanus (on her mother’s side) and Iulius Caesar (on her father’s side). After this lofty duo of Roman war heroes, Paula’s hagiography continues with Eustochium’s remarkable (and naturally invented) mythological pedigree. On her mother’s side, she was the descendant of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, and on her father’s side, the descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, the same hero who Virgil claimed in his Aeneid was the ancestor of Romulus and Remus.[22] This naturally might have reminded readers of another Roman ancestry legend: Aeneas was said to have descended from the goddess Aphrodite, and as we know, at least Iulius Caesar was told to have therefore had Aphrodite’s (or in Roman context, Venus’) blood running through their veins. The fact that an ascetic monk like Jerome agreed to add such an opening praise for the pious Christian ascetic Paula, shows in my opinion that it was in fact Eustochium, who likely paid for its distribution, who appreciated having her own lofty Roman and even pagan mythological pedigree emphasized as well.

Secondly, she seemed to share her mother’s interest in asceticism. As a teenager, Jerome tells us, Eustochium’s pagan uncle and aunt tried to encourage her to give up the ascetic lifestyle, renounce her virgin vows (which had taken place sometime between the death of her father and the publication of Jerome’s Letter 22 in the spring of 383)[23] and resume the normal life of a privileged aristocratic teenager in Rome.[24] Eustochium clearly refused, as within three years we find her accompanying Paula to the Holy Land, still a virgin and still an ascetic. Her siblings (apart from Eustochium’s big sister Blaesilla who had a short try at asceticism) lived normal, married lives. She had not been consecrated as a baby or as a young child, but likely close to the legal marriage age and thus with the ability to choose her own future. Especially with the help of her uncle and aunt, she should have been able to arrange a marriage for herself even if her mother would have been reluctant to do so. After living twenty years as a virginal companion to her mother, she inherited Paula’s monastic complex and began to run it herself.[25]

To cite this article:

Sahivirta, Ella, “Eustochium” in Women of Power and Influence in Late Antiquity (blog). May 17th 2023.

Article Image:

Copyright by Jarvis Dennis. 2016. “Mosaic over the altar in the Chapel in St Jerome’s Cave.”



Primary Sources

Jerome, Letters 22, 107, 108 (in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum- series, sections 54 & 55)

Palladius of Galatia, Historia Lausiaca

A. H. M. Jones, J. R. Martindale, J. Morris (1971). The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Secondary Sources

Rebenich, Stefan (2002). Jerome. London: Routledge.

Cain, Andrew (2009). The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patricia Cox Miller (1993). The Blazing Body:Ascetic Desire in Jerome’s Letter to Eustochium. Journal of Early Christian Studies.



[1] Jerome, Ep. 108.27. Henceforth I shall use the abbreviation Ep. to refer to Jerome’s letters.

[2] For concise biographical data, see A. H. M. Jones, J. R. Martindale, J. Morris, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. I (Cambridge 1971), Iulia Eustochium.

[3] Jerome, Ep. 22.15.

[4] Jerome lists the numerous examples of fallen virgins in the city in Ep. 22.8. This list that is clearly exaggerated, and I argue is designed to lift Eustochium to a special and unique place of virginal holiness in an era when the concept of holy virginity was still evolving. For a in depth look at the concept of holy virginity in the city of Rome in the 380s and 390s, and the opposition to it, see for example the works of prof. David Hunter regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary and Jerome’s literary battles with the opposition, namely the monks Helvidius and Jovinian.

[5] Jerome, Ep. 22.2.

[6] Jerome, Ep. 22.1.

[7] Possibly because Jerome is so vague when it comes to Eustochium’s personality, scholarship has often focused on the author rather than the inspiration of this text. For example, Stefan Rebenich was of the opinion that the letter was Jerome’s launching piece for his own ascetic agenda in Rome and promotion of himself as a potential ascetic teacher. Cain also claimed that the letter was Jerome’s attempt to present himself as an ascetic authority in Rome for potential patrons interested in ascetic mentorship. Stefan Rebenich, Jerome (London 2002), 33. ; Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority (Oxford 2009). 101.

[8] Jerome, Ep. 22.8.

[9] Jerome, Ep. 22.1-2, 16.

[10] Jerome, Ep. 22.38.

[11] Jerome, Ep. 22.39.

[12] Jerome, Ep. 22.3.

[13] Jerome, Ep. 22.8

[14] Jerome, Ep. 22.9

[15] Jerome, Ep. 22.17

[16] Jerome, Ep. 22.11

[17] Jerome, Ep.22.17

[18] Jerome, Ep.22.17

[19] Jerome, Ep .22.18

[20] Jerome, Ep. 22.25

[21] Jerome, Ep. 22.27-29

[22] Jerome, Ep. 108.3-4.

[23] On the dating of Ep. 22, see Patricia Cox Miller, ‘The Blazing Body:Ascetic Desire in Jerome’s Letter to Eustochium’ in Journal of Early Christian Studies (1993), 43 ; Cain, Letters of Jerome (2009), 101-102.

[24] Jerome describes what appears to have been a make-over session designed to appeal to a teenager’s vanity. He wrote: “They altered the virgin’s dress and appearance and arranged her neglected hair after the manner of the world, desiring to overcome the resolution of the virgin.” Jerome, Ep. 107.5.

[25] Another contemporary who had close contacts in Palestine, Palladius of Galatia, tells us that Eustochium was running Paula’s monastery in the early 5th century. Jerome also mentions in Paula’s hagiography that Eustochium continued her mother’s work. Palladius of Galatia, Historia Lausiaca 46 ; Jerome, Ep. 108.31.

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