Season’s Greetings

There is no denying it: the festive season is upon us.

Could I give my readership a more appropriate present than the text and my translation of two Latin verse inscriptions from the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem – a city that, like very few others, is of the highest symbolic relevance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike?

I think not!

So here they are – two poems from Bethlehem, dedicated to a noble Roman lady called Paula (CLEOr 34 = Hier. ep. 108.33):

A. Funerary Epigram for Paula (at her grotto)

Respicis angustum praecisa rupe sepulc{h}rum:
hospitium Paulae est caelestia regna tenentis,
fratrem cognatos Romam patriamque relinquens
divitias subolem Bethlemiti conditur antro:
hic praesepe tuum, Christe, atque hic mystica magi
munera portantes homini regique deoque.

Behold the narrow tomb, cut into the rock:
It harbours Paula, who now possesses the heavenly realms,
Leaving behind her brother, relatives, and Rome, her fatherland,
Riches, offspring: she is buried in a Bethlehemian grotto.
Here is your cradle, Christ, and here are the Wise Men,
Offering mystical gifts to the man, the king, and god.

B. Funerary Epigram for Paula (at her tomb)

Scipio quam genuit, Pauli fudere parentes
Gracchorum suboles, Agamemnonis inclita proles,
hoc iacet in tumulo. Paulam dixere priores
Eustochiae genetrix Romani prima senatus
pauperiem Christi et Bethlemitica rura secuta est.

Who was sired by Scipio, fathered by the Pauli,
The Gracchi’s offspring, Agamemnon’s famous descendant,
Lies in this tomb. Once upon a time called Paula,
Mother of Eustochium, first of the Roman senatorial class,
She followed Christ’s penury and rural Bethlehem.

These poems were (arguably) originally inscribed at the tomb of Paula in the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. They were composed by Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, more commonly known as (Saint) Jerome, and they survive, not on stone, but as mentions in a long epitaph to commemorate Jerome’s long-time companion.

Paula, also known as Saint Paula of Rome (the patron saint of widows, according to Roman Catholic belief), had settled at Bethlehem after extended pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land.

A member of Rome’s senatorial elite, Paula was widowed in her early thirties and (according to Jerome’s letter, anyway) decided to forgo her status and her significant riches in order to lead a spiritual, religious life.

Paula, having found new purpose in her life, is said to have founded a convent at Bethlehem, and among many other things, she is also famously reported as having helped Jerome in his translation of the Christian Bible from Hebrew into Greek and Latin.

In fact, according to PalladiusLausiac History, Paula out-smarted the Christian father by a significant margin (ch. 41.1):

Paula, mother of Toxotius, a woman of great distinction in the spiritual life. She was hindered by a certain Jerome from Dalmatia. For though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan.

Jerome’s funerary epigrams are testimony to his respectful appreciation for this Roman noble lady who abandoned her riches in order to find spiritual fulfilment.

His words have ensured a lasting legacy for Paula.

Yet (and, with Palladius’s statement in mind, unsurprisingly), they do not mention her intellectual abilities, contributions, or achievements, reducing her life to inherited status, a smattering of piety, and … motherhood.

May I make a Christmas wish, academic and generally?

Let us overcome such patronising attitudes towards women.

And while I am at it, let us hope that Paula, as the patron saint of widows, regardless of creed, will have a relatively easy year – a year, in which narrow-mindedness, misguided fanaticism, and manifest greed will not add significantly to her significant natural chores.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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