The Matron behind the Church Father
The phrase ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ holds especially true when it comes to late antique church history. Many of the famous church fathers of 4th century owe their fame to the patronage of a powerful and influential Roman woman. I chose as my first entry to this platform one such aristocrat, Paula, who was the woman behind one of the most celebrated church fathers of the period, Jerome. One might argue we would never have heard of Jerome without Paula.
While Jerome has been widely examined and analyzed as a major church father of the era, the woman who essentially ‘created’ him has remained somewhat of a mystery. The reason for this might be Jerome’s talented rhetoric: Paula was made to look like the meek, humble and reclusive ideal ascetic, and the promotion of her at the time controversial ideology of holy virginity and severe asceticism was done under her client Jerome’s name. It was far more fitting to have Jerome promote Paula’s virtues and ideology than having the supposedly humble matron do it herself. As is evident in this mosaic decorating Jerome’s monastic cell in Bethlehem, Paula is often depicted only as a pious companion of the famous Church Father (in this mosaic from Jerome’s cave in Bethlehem, she is standing on the left side of the altar, accompanied by Jerome, who is holding the communion cup). One reason Paula has been showed to the role of a side character in the story of Jerome is that he is our only source on her,  and did an excellent job in keeping the supposedly transcendent, non-political and non-ambitious saint-to-be away from the scandals and controversies of their life. Everything he published about her needed to fit the mode of the perfect ascetic saint-to-be. Jerome hid anything that might be considered non-pious in depicting Paula in her hagiography, Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae (or, more commonly, Letter 108). The other sources on her written by Jerome try to do the same but at times reveal details he purposely left out of the hagiography. In these details and in other contemporary sources lies the real story. The Paula that comes across from between the lines was a shrewd strategist, a theological innovator and a ruthless businesswoman. Most importantly for the purposes of this blog, Paula was a woman who left a lasting mark in European culture and the Catholic Church in the field of asceticism, monasticism, and women’s role in Christianity.
The Heir of Scipio becomes the Disciple of Christ
Paula was born in 347 C.E. to one of the most prestigious senatorial families of Rome, the patrician clan of Furius Camillus. The family’s most famous ancestor was Scipio Africanus, the war hero of the Second Punic war who defeated the armies of Hannibal in Zarma. Paula was widowed around 380. According to Jerome, Paula became immediately immersed in the ascetic lifestyle, now free to do so as a wealthy widow who had “done her duty to her husband and her family”. Jerome would have us believe she went from zero to a hundred in generosity as soon as she was financially independent. He wrote: “So splendid was her charity that she robbed her children; and, when relatives objected with this, she declared that she was leaving her children a better inheritance in the mercy of Christ.” This excessive generosity (like many of the ascetic virtues Jerome ascribed to Paula) was a clear overstatement. She likely did do charity, as did practically all aristocratic women in the city (since Christian charity and funding congregations was considered proper behavior from rich parishioners). However, she definitely did not give ‘all’: she was eventually able to support herself and a whole community of monastics for nearly twenty years, so she must have left a substantial amount of wealth for herself.
Paula’s close friend Marcella might have been an inspiration for Paula’s ascetic awakening. To their circle of friends, celibacy, asceticism and especially the concept of holy virginity was a visible sign of spiritual superiority – a controversial idea that had much opposition between the church and laity of Rome in the early 380s. Paula made a public point about supporting this ideology by having one of her daughters Iulia (to be discussed in more detail in my next blog entry) consecrated to virginity, and commissioned a treatise in her honor.
The Scandalous Relationship between the Matron and her Monk
Paula’s choice of publicist for her daughter’s virgin vows was Jerome, a talented monk who had arrived to Rome in the summer of 382. This unknown monk from Stridon entered the scene of Roman theology with a bang with Letter 22, commissioned by Paula to honor her daughter Iulia’s consecration to virginity, and Adversus Helvidium, where he wrote a more general piece of propaganda for the concept of holy virginity. Paula and Jerome immediately hit it off. She took him on as a client and developed a fast friendship with him. Jerome appears to have visited her home often; they exchanged little gifts and learned Hebrew together. Their relationship likely caused some concern for Paula’s relatives, or at least the might have been nasty gossip spreading about Jerome’s real intentions: there was a phenomenon in late antique Rome of lower-class clerics arriving in Rome to advance their career by obtaining a rich widow (conveniently free from a husband’s critical input) as a patron. The aristocracy was so concerned about these so-called “legacy-hunters” (to quote Andrew Cain), that a law was passed by Emperor Valentinian I that forbid clerics from visiting the houses of aristocratic women unaccompanied, or from receiving inheritances from them. Perhaps Jerome was seen as one such example of a typical conman of the era, flattering his way into the good graces of a rich woman. Jerome complained that this close friendship was entirely misconstrued, defending himself to a mutual friend against what appears to have been rumors of his impure motives in courting the company of a rich widow like Paula:
Our studies brought about constant intercourse, this soon ripened into intimacy, and this, in turn, produced mutual confidence. If they have ever seen anything in my conduct unbecoming a Christian let them say so. Have I taken money? Have I not refused all gifts big and small? Has the sound of someone’s coin been heard in my hand? Has my language been dubious, or has my eye wandered? No, my sex is my one crime.
Harmless gossip about the matron-monk duo’s relationship grew to open outrage when one of Paula’s daughters, Blaesilla, died from starvation under Jerome’s ascetic training. Jerome tells us that when Blaesilla was being carried to her grave, the funeral guests murmured angrily that Paula was “an unhappy lady” who had been misled by the instructions of Jerome, the “detestable monk”. Talk must have also turned to Paula’s parenting: how could she have allowed such a charismatic fanatic to enter her home and drive her child to death like a notorious cult leader? I argue that Jerome purposely took the blame for Blaesilla’s death because of the outrage. He admitted to being Blaesilla’s “spiritual father”, and claimed Paula objected to Blaesilla’s ascetic interests.  Paula could thus remain a subject of pity as a gullible woman, but Jerome was to blame. And blamed he was – within a few months Jerome was ordered him to leave the diocese, never to return.
Paula Reinvents Herself: from Disgraced Matron to Monastic Amma
Paula did not stay long in Rome after Jerome was driven out. In 385 or 386 she packed up her things, her servants and slaves, and her virgin daughter Iulia (her “companion in her vocation”, i.e. asceticism), and headed for the Holy Land. It is hard to say which came first, a desire to go on pilgrimage or a desire to flee grief and shame after Blaesilla’s death. As her relatives and children cried on the shores of Portus, waving her goodbye, she set sail for the East (via a stop at her friend Epiphanius’ diocese in Cyprus), and caught up with Jerome at some point. Jerome is silent on how and when he joined Paula on her travels, but by 386, they had settled together in Bethlehem, where Paula began building a monastic community for men and women right next to the site Jesus was believed to have been born in.
Paula’s community was very much what we today consider a monastery to be, with members living in the complex their lives and following a strict set of rules imposed by their leader Paula. As has been suggested, the members were, however, likely her own slaves and servants. The rules in Paula’s community also signal to the members being mostly servants or other people from the lower classes: the women at least were separated according to rank, and there were punishments for theft among the women, which would probably not have been needed if the women were aristocratic peers. In fact, Jerome mentions no aristocratic members of the community at all. In our modern understanding of a monastery, this does not seem like a problem, but for the late antique aristocratic pilgrimage market, it was. Prestigious guests and members would have brought fame and legitimacy for the community, as it would have been seen as pious and admirable enough to attract the educated Christian aristocrat.
Paula the Business Woman: Competition for Pilgrims
One reason why aristocrats did not appear to have favored Paula’s community might have been that there was a more popular option in less than a day’s walk from Bethlehem, the community of Melania (later known as St. Melania the Elder) in Jerusalem. Melania’s community was a hub of aristocratic pilgrims, and her personal network and the location of her community in the holiest city in Christendom guaranteed a steady flow of lofty visitors (coming with their heavy donations). Whereas Bethlehem was likely a day-trip for the pilgrims travelling along the newly established route, Jerusalem was the main target for them. Paula’s community with its more remote location and stricter rules, not to mention the questionable reputation of its founder simply could not compete.
Paula did not accept defeat to her more popular rival in the area. Paula initiated what is now known was the Origenist controversy of 394, in which she had Jerome and an old friend, Epiphanius, launch an attack against the theological integrity of Melania’s community. Epiphanius sailed over to Jerusalem and began a smear campaign against the city’s bishop, John, who was a close friend of Melania’s, and named members of her community as heretics. What began as more of a business rivalry turned into one of the most famous heresy disputes of the era, eventually involving the bishops of all major sees (Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome), and led to the exile of another famous church father, John Chrysostom. Again, this dispute would merit a post of its own, but in light of Paula’s influence, it should be underlined that Paula stands at the epicenter of the dispute from the start. Historians tend to credit the event solely to Epiphanius’ known hatred of anything not purely Nicaean in theology, or to Jerome’s famously vitriolic pen which led to one of the most entertaining and personal smear campaigns between him and his former friend, Melania’s clerical companion Rufinus of Aquileia. Paula, however, seems to escape notice entirely. This is, in my opinion, a testament to the cleverness of her PR-management: as far as the public (and especially posterity) was concerned, she was a mere by-stander in what again was made out to look like Jerome’s fault. Her dutiful client again took the blame, and continues to do so to this day.
The Death of a Matron and the Birth of a Saint
She did not live long enough to see the outcome of her business rivalry, as she died on January 26th 404 before any official decision was made about Origen. Jerome quickly set to work on writing one of his longest publication, Paula’s hagiography. In it Jerome, after describing an ideal ascetic heroine, he described and exaggerated account of how beloved Paula was. He wrote that after she died,
The bishop of Jerusalem and some from other cities were there, and a great number of inferior clergy, priests and Levites. The entire monastery was filled with virgins and monks. — The bishops lifted up the dead woman with their own hands, placed her upon a bier, carried her on their shoulders to the church of Nativity and laid her down in the center. Other bishops carried torches and candles in the procession; others led the singing of the choirs. The whole population of the cities of Palestine came to her funeral. — To all it would have seemed sacrilege to have withheld the last tokens of respect from a woman so holy.
Jerome placed an inscription on her tomb, saying, “Wherever my story may go, the reader may learn that you are buried at Bethlehem and not forgotten there”. He also gave an exact date of her death, which has been interpreted, as an attempt to give what Jerome hoped would develop into a cult of St.Paula a formal celebration day. The entire hagiography is, as Andrew Cain has argued, an attempt at forming a cult. Where Paula’s reputation might have stood in the way of glory from her peers, with this last service to his most beloved patron Jerome hoped posterity would see her in a more saintly light. And he succeeded: Paula is now venerated by the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, her feast day being the date of her death Jerome gave us, January 26th.
To cite this article:
Sahivirta, Ella, “Paula” in Women of Power and Influence in Late Antiquity (blog). 20 February 2023. https://blogs.helsinki.fi/power-influence-women-late-antiquity/paula-2/
Copyright by Jarvis Dennis. 2016. “Mosaic over the altar in the Chapel in St Jerome’s Cave.” Flickr.com https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Jerome, Letters 22, 30-31, 33, 44-46, 108 (in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum– series, sections 54 & 55)
Palladius of Galatia, Historia Lausiaca
H. M. Jones, J. R. Martindale, J. Morris, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. I (Cambridge 1971)
Kelly, J.N.D. Jerome: His life, writings and controversies. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, USA. 1975.
Hunter, David. ‘Resistance to the Virginal Ideal in Late-Fourth-Century Rome: The Case of Jovinian’ in Theological Studies, vol. 48, 1987. 45-64.
Clark, Elizabeth. The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate. Princeton University Press, Princeton USA, 1992.
Hunter, David. ‘Helvidius, Jovinian, and the Virginity of Mary’ in Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol. 1, 1993. 47-71.
Curran, John. ‘Jerome and the Sham Christians of Rome’ in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 48, 1997. 213-229.
Hunter, David. ‘The Virgin, the Bride, and the Church: Reading Psalm 45 in Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine’ in Church History, vol 69, 2000. 281-303.
Rebenich, Jerome. Routledge, London, Great Britain, 2002.
Cain, Andrew. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press, Oxford, Great Britain. 2009.
Hunter, David. Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy. Oxford University Press, Oxford, Great Britain. 2009.
Cain, Andrew. ‘Jerome’s Epitaphium Paulae: Hagiography, Pilgrimage, and the Cult of Saint Paula’ in Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol. 18, 2010. 105-139.
Solovieva, Olga. ‘Epiphanius of Salamis and his invention of iconoclasm in the fourth century A.D.’ in Fides et Historia vol 42, 2010. 21-46.
Brown, Peter. Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA, 2012.
Whiting, Marlena. ‘Asceticism and Hospitality as Patronage in the Late Antique Holy Land: The Examples of Paula and Melania the Elder’ in Female Founders of the Byzantium and Beyond (eds. L.Theis, M.Mullet, M.Grünbart, G.Fingarova & M.Savage) Böhlau, Poland, 2012. 73-86.
Cain, Andrew. Jerome’s Epitaph on Paula: A Commentary on the Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae with an Introduction, Text, and Translation. Oxford University Press, Oxford, Great Britain, 2013.
Jacobs, Andrew. Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity. University of California Press, Berkeley, USA, 2019.
Machado, Carlos. Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome: AD 270-535. Oxford University Press, Oxford, Great Britain, 2019.
Pålsson, Katarina. Negotiating Heresy: The Reception of Origen in Jerome’s Eschatalogical Thought. PhD dissertation from Lund University Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, 2019.
Heyden, ‘Western Christians in Palestine: Motivation, Integration, and Repercussions of Migration in Late Antiquity’ in Migration and Diaspora Formation: New Perspectives on a Global History of Christianity (ed. Ciprian Burlăcioiu). De Gruyter, Berlin, Germany, 2022. 67-90.
 Jerome’s career took off only after obtaining Paula and her circle of aristocratic friends as patrons. Before meeting this circle to which Paula introduced him, he was just one of the many theologians in the city trying to make a name for himself. Before meeting Paula Jerome’s theological imput was quite modest. Paula was the one who introduced him to the themes that would make him famous: advocating for severe, physical asceticism and promoting the concept of holy virginity as a Christian superior virtue, something that was still highly controversial and promoted mostly by Paula’s circle of friends. Paula was also the only patron who stood by Jerome throughout the many scandals and controversies of his life. When his other patrons distanced themselves from him due to social condemnation, Paula did the opposite. She invited him to stay and work in her monastic community in Bethlehem. Paula was quite fair in staying by Jerome’s side – after all, she was involved or even caused many of these controversies that her clerical companion happily took the fall for. These observations are based on my PhD research, which I hope to complete by the end of 2024. I invite any comments, questions or corrections on my conclusions, and am happy to explain them further (the length of a blog text limits how deeply I was able to go into these observations here).
 For excellent and comprehensive studies on Jerome, see for example the works of Andrew Cain and Stefan Rebenich. The groundbreaking study on Jerome, his personality and motives behind his texts was J.N.D. Kelly’s book Jerome: His life, writings and controversies (New York 1975).
 I base this on the premise that in Roman patron-client society, clients wrote what their patrons wanted them to write (or at the least approved them writing). Jerome was Paula’s client for twenty years, and were he to have written something against her will, she surely would have stopped funding his work. In my PhD project in general I maintain the premise that the financially dependent clients promoted only what their patrons wanted them to promote. This premise is strengthened especially in the case of Jerome, who only took a strong interest in the themes of virginity and severe asceticism after meeting Paula.
 All but one source mentioning Paula come from Jerome. These can be found in his letter collection and in the prefaces of several commentaries dedicated to Paula. The one outside source, Palladius of Galatia’s Historia Lausiaca, involved simply a short mention that she led a monastic community in Bethlehem, and was very talented in theology. Palladius of Galatia, Historia Lausiaca 46.
 We know the date of Paula’s birth because Jerome gave us the date of her death and the exact duration of her life in his hagipgraphy of her. Jerome stated: The holy and blessed Paula fell asleep on the seventh day before the Kalends of February, on the third day of the week, after the sun had set. She was buried on the fifth day before the same Kalends, in the sixth consulship of the Emperor Honorius and the first of Aristænetus. She lived in the vows of religion five years at Rome and twenty years at Bethlehem. The whole duration of her life was fifty-six years eight months and twenty-one days. Jerome, Letter 108.35.
 A. H. M. Jones, J. R. Martindale, J. Morris, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. I (Cambridge 1971), Paula 1. Henceforth I shall refer to this sourcebook as PLRE I.
 Jerome mentions that Paula lived in Rome for five years as a widow before leaving for the Holy Land (Jerome, Letter 108.35). Since her departure must have happened around 386 (by which time she is writing from Bethlehem, see Jerome, Letter 46), Toxotius died approximately between 380-381.
 For a concise look at the financial independence of late antique widows, see Matthew Kueffler’s ‘The Merry Widows of Late Roman Antiquity: The Evidence of the Theodosian Code’ in Gender & History, vol.27, no.1 (2015), 28-52.
 Jerome, Letter 108.5.
 Jerome, Letter 108.5.
 Peter Brown, Through the Eye of the Needle: wealth, the fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton 2012). 41 ; John Curran, ‘Jerome and the Sham Christians of Rome’ in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 48 (1997). 213-229. 216. ; Carlos Machado, Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome: AD 270-535 (Oxford 2019). 182, 225.
 Paula settled in Bethlehem around 386 and began construction on her monastic community right away. She died in 404. Jerome, Letter 108.14, 35.
 I shall return to this discussion in my up-coming blog entry on Marcella.
 PLRE I Iulia Eustochium.
 This treatise, Jerome’s Libellus de virginitate servanda (or more commonly Letter 22) later became a central text in medieval European nunneries. I shall examine this text in more detail in my next blog entry on Iulia Eustochium.
 Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome: asceticism, biblical exegesis, and the construction of Christian authority in late antiquity (Oxford 2009). 101.
 For a throrough look on Jerome’s rhetoric concerning holy virginity, as well as the opposition this ideology faced in Rome from the early 380s to early 390s, see David Hunter’s articles ‘Resistance to the Virginal Ideal in Late Fourt-Century Rome: The Case of Jovinian’ in Theological Studies, vol.48 (1987), pp.45-64 ; ‘Helvidius, Jovinian, and the Virginity of Mary in Late Fourth-Century Rome’ in Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol.1 (1993) (pp.47-71) ; ‘The Virgin, the Bride and the Church: Reading Psalm 45 in Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine’ in Church History, vol. 69 (2000), 281-303. Hunter has compiled much of this discussion in his excellent book Marriage, celibacy and heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovianist controversy (Oxford 2009).
 Jerome’s wrote letters to Paula and Iulia when both were living in Rome. These are Jerome’s Letters 22, 30, 31 and 33. He also appears to have been staying at Paula’s home, since he sends greetings from them to Marcella in Letter 44.
 Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome (2009), 108-110, 114.
 This law is in Codex Theodosianus 16.2.20. The law reads as follows in Latin: Ecclesiastici aut ex ecclesiastici vel qui continentium se volunt nomine nuncupari, viduarum ac pupillarum domos non adeant, sed publicis exterminentur iudiciis, si posthac eos adfines earum cel propinqui putaverint deferendos. Censemus etiam, ut memorati nihil de eius mulieris, cui se privatim sub praetextu religionis adiunxerint, liberalitate quacumque vel extremo iudicio possint adipisci.
 As Cain pointed out, Jerome’s defensive stance in Letter 45 and especially his defensiveness about associating primarily with aristocratic women in partcular is telling: he clearly had come across insinuations of improper relationships with his female patrons in general at this time. Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome (2009), 107-108.
 Jerome, Letter 45.2.
 Jerome recounts Blaesilla’s ascetic regime, the fever that followed and her death in Letter 38.
 Jerome, Letter 39.6.
 Jerome, Letter 39.2, 6-7.
 Andrew Cain, Letters of Jerome (2009), 122-123. Rebenich suspected that there might even have been a formal council to excommunicate Jerome from the Roman diocese. Stefan Rebenich, Jerome (2002), 39.
 As mentioned in an earlier footnote, by 386 Paula was already in Bethlehem. Jerome, Letter 46.
 Jerome, Letter 108.6.
 Jerome, Letter 108.6.
 Jerome, Letter 46 ; Jerome, Letter 108.14.
 The rules and order of Paula’s monastery is in Jerome’s Letter 108.20-21.
 Katharina Heyden, ’Western Christians in Palestine: Motivation, Integration, and Repercussions of Migration in Late Antiquity’ in Migration and Diaspora Formation: New Perspectives on a Global History of Christianity (2022), 67-90. 74-75 ; Stefan Rebenich, Jerome (London 2002), 41.
 Jerome, Letter 108.20-21.
 PLRE I Melania 1.
 For an excellent analysis of the rivalry between the two communities, see Marlena Whiting’s ‘Asceticism and Hospitality as Patronage in the Late Antique Holy Land: The Examples of Paula and Melania the Elder’ in Female Founders of the Byzantium and Beyond (eds. L.Theis, M.Mullet, M.Grünbart, G.Fingarova & M.Savage: Poland 2012) 73-86 and Heyden’s ‘Western Christians in Palestine’ (2022), 67-90.
 A groundbreaking book in research regarding this scholarship is Elizabeth Clark’s The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton 1992). An excellent summary can also be found in Rebenich’s Jerome (2002) chapter 5 (pages 41-51).
 For a discussion on Epiphanius’ theological opposition to Origen in these matters, see for example Andrew Jacobs, Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of a Late Antique Bishop (Berkeley 2019), 2-3, 52-53 ; Katharina Pålsson, Negotiating Heresy: The Reception of Origen in Jerome’s Eschatological Thought (Lund 2019), 126-138 ; Olga Solovieva, ‘Epiphanius and his Invention of Iconoclasm in the Fourth century’ in Fides et Historia vol 42 (2010), 21-46. 24-25, 37 ; Elizabeth Clark, The Origenist Controversy (1992), 86-100.
 This was what is sometimes referred to as the pamphlet war between Jerome and Rufinus. It began with Jerome translating into Latin the Greek letter sent by Epiphanius of Salamis bashing John of Jerusalem in 394 (now under the title of Letter 51 in Jerome’s letter collection). He continued his attacks by writing Contra Iohannem Hierosolymitanum in 399, an especially fiery polemic against Melania’s and Rufinus’ episcopal ally John of Jerusalem. Rufinus attacked Jerome back, pointing to him as an admirer of Origen in his preface of his Latin translation of Origen’s Peri Archon (On first principles). Jerome quickly responded back in his Letter 84. Rufinus followed with his Adversus Hieronymum, to which Jerome answered with his Apologia contra Rufinumi in 406. The two continued insulting each other up until Rufinus’ death in 411. Rebenich, Jerome (2002), 45, 47, 49-50.
 Jerome, Letter 108.29-30.
 Jerome, Letter 108.34.
 For Cain’s analysis, see his article ‘Jerome’s Epitaphium Paulae: Hagiography, Pilgrimage, and the Cult of Saint Paula’ in Journal of Early Christian Studies (2010), 105-139 and his book Jerome’s Epitaph on Paula: A Commentary on the Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae (Oxford 2013).