Marcella & Paula of Rome: Aristocrats turned Ascetics
Marcella and Paula were women of the elite social class in Rome in the fourth century and both became early desert mothers who paved the way for the monastic life for women. Marcella and Paula have been referred to as "monastic entrepreneurs", individuals who used their resources to fund monasteries and scholarship that supported the ascetic life. Their contributions in Rome marked a clear shift in Christianity that offered up a new way to express faith outside of the Christian establishment led by the bishops in Rome.1 This created some controversy, however the trend of the monastic life took hold and the ecclesiastical authorities were forced to recognize and accept the unique and influential theologies coming from these Christian groups.
Monastic Life in Roman Culture
Marcella and Paula both had a drive to imitate Christ and the martyrs that had come before them. This motivation combined with their aristocratic values and political connectedness created a movement that gained speed quickly.2 It was recorded by the ancient historian Palladius that by the end of the monastic movement, there were over twenty thousand women who had joined in the ascetic lifestyle in and around Egypt.3
Wealth in late antiquity came with it the expectation and responsibility to secure the rule of the empire. However, the Roman empire was viewed as corrupt, indulgent and violent to Roman Christians. Association with wealth and political powers was seen as bondage to evil and a slippery slope back into old ways of life that was counter to Christian values for women like Paula and Marcella.4 Their decision to undertake a monastic life and deny themselves comforts and financial stability was a direct result of their rejection of the culture which was seen as a temptation away from Christ.
Friends of Jerome
The majority of letters and writings of Marcella and Paula are lost to us, however we know a great deal about both of these women from their teacher and mentor, Jerome. Jerome wrote many letters to these women and to other leaders in the church about Paula and Marcella which have fortunately been well preserved. The lifestyle of scholarship which Jerome led required the support of willing patrons and Marcella, Paula and other aristocratic women supported and studied under his teachings. Jerome was known as a "monastic guru", and his authority was backed by the Bishop of Rome, Damasus. However, after Damasus' death Jerome found himself in a controversy among church leadership and was charged with clerical misconduct for "taking advantage of his influence" and supporting women's decision to take on an ascetic life, (which was frowned upon by the Roman empire).5 Although he was absolved of any accusations, his reputation as a scandalous teacher of women remained.
Marcella (325 CE-410 CE) was widowed after just seven months of marriage and her father had previously died. She was as independent as possible for a woman in her time. She dedicated herself to the unique life widowhood offered and refused to marry again. This left her with the freedom to step away from the expectations of the aristocratic establishment with the officially recognized title of "widow" and allowed her complete control of her own finances.6 Marcella's independence and wealth afforded her the ability to travel and gain further education, as well as support scholars she believed in like Jerome.
Aristocratic status in Rome at the time was the equivalent to celebrity status today. Marcella rejected the expectations of her "fame" and refused to wear her jewelry or fine clothing which marked her as elite and important. She turned her estate into a monastery and as a result ended up becoming a trend-setter of a different kind. Her influential status as someone who forged a new path for
Christian women inspired countless others around her. Many Roman women joined in with her to embrace the ascetic life, joining her monastery to learn under her spiritual care and guidance.7
Marcella: Ascetic Trend-setter
From Marcella's example, many Roman women formed monasteries of their own. It was quoted by Jerome that Marcella "Turned Rome into Jerusalem", with how many people took up the monastic life seriously as a result of her influence.8 She was a dedicated student of scripture and was not satisfied with herself until she could hold her own in any theological debate that could be thrown her way. She was so effective at apologetics and the interpretation of scripture as a theologian that when Jerome later left Rome on pilgrimage with Paula, Marcella became the point person for the bishops and the established church in Rome to settle disputes and provide clarity in debates.9
Marcella: Paula's Teacher
Marcella had a particularly profound impact on Paula and Paula's daughter Eustochium. A letter entitled "Letter 46" or "On Visiting Jerusalem by Paula the Elder and Eustochium to Marcella", documents their close relationship. In the letter, Paula and Eustochium attempted to convince Marcella to visit them in Palestine. Their letter goes into great detail about their observations and thoughts on the Holy Land and the sacred experiences they were having. Their words praise Marcella's impact on their lives: "You were the first to put a spark in our little piece of kindling, you were the first to encourage us, by your words and by your example, to adopt this way of life and like a mother hen you gathered your chicks under your wings. Will you now allow us to fly free without our mother?". The letter goes into detail about theology on Christ, redemption, and the sacredness of space. Marcella never did join them in Jerusalem but instead opted to remain in Rome at her monastery and continue to teach theology and monasticism.
Marcella tried her best to remain on the outside of politics in Rome as it related to the church, however when a scholar equal in impact to Jerome by the name of Rufinus of Aquileia published his own translation of Origen's "On First Principals", she fiercely disagreed with his theology and saw it as a dangerous interpretation that would deceive Christian's away from the "true faith".9 Her involvement with the bishops in condemning this work caused Origenism to be declared a heresy, and according to Jerome, her involvement was solely responsible for the success of the church's direction thereafter.
Marcella's monastery was raided in 410 when Rome came under siege and all of the women were captured. However, Marcella attributed it to their faithful prayers and devotion that all of the women in her care remained safe and no one died or was raped. The women were re-located by their captors to the Basilica of St. Paul. Marcella died just few months later.10
Paula (347 CE-404 CE) and Marcella were related through a man named Pammachius, another student of Jerome who was Marcella's cousin and Paula's eldest daughter's husband. Like Marcella, Paula was also from Rome and was widowed not long after marriage. Paula had four daughters and one son and had recently committed to the ascetic life and teaching under Marcella when she met Jerome. Jerome became Paula's spiritual director and tutor in scripture. Jerome also became a mentor to Paula's daughter, Eustochium. Paula and Eustochium were among the group of women that Jerome had surrounded himself with that provided him means for his research and writing and in return they studied under him, learning scripture, Greek, Hebrew and the ways of monasatacism.11
Paula as a Controversial Mother
From the perspective of our modern sensibilities, Paula presents as a controversial, if not neglectful mother to her own children. Her daughter, Blaesilla, died from extreme fasting that she undertook as a pupil of Jerome and at the encouragement of Paula. Paula infamously joined Jerome along with her daughter, Eustochium, to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where they would eventually relocate. She is said to have sailed away from her remaining children who were pleading for her to stay, never to return to them and determined not to shed any tears as she looked away. Jerome narrates Paula's experience of leaving her children behind saying "She disregarded the mother in herself and as a result showed she was fit to be a maidservant of Christ. She was in emotional agony, and she wrestled with her grief as though she was being torn from her very limbs, providing that she was more worthy of admiration than all others because she was conquering a great love".12 Jerome compares Paula to Abraham in her willingness to leave her homeland and obey God to follow him wherever she discerned she was being led by the Holy Spirit13
Founder of Monasteries
After traveling through Egypt and Palestine, Paula established three monasteries, one for women (which she oversaw), one for tourists, and one for men which Jerome oversaw.14 Paula valued learning scripture, languages and theology, but also encouraged the copying of ancient manuscripts, a practice which took place in all of her monestaries.15 Paula was also passionately committed to the poor to the point that she impoverished herself and drained her wealth intentionally, leaving her children and herself with nothing before death.16
Scholar and Author of the Latin Vulgate
Jerome was commissioned by the bishop of Rome to create a new Latin Bible to correct what previously had been a very poor and inaccurate translation. However it was only with Paula and Eustochium's encouragement that Jerome took on the project. Both women worked alongside Jerome and ensured it was completed. Jerome’s introduction to each book of the Vulgate was used by leaders of the Reformation and Roman Catholics to determine which scriptures would form their respective canons of scripture later on.17 The team used Paula’s funds to procure the original books and manuscripts needed for the work to be completed accurately, many of which were rare, difficult to find, and very expensive.18
Proficient in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, it was Paula and Eustochium who proof-read Jerome’s work and ensured it was edited for accuracy. These women are responsible for correcting the translations in the entire book of Psalms, leaving a profound and lasting imprint on Latin worship to this day.19,20 The Latin Vulgate was the sole western scripture for nearly 1,000 years and its influence on Christianity today can not be overstated. For much of history, Jerome alone has received full credit for the creation of the Latin Vulgate Bible. However, without the urging, refining and support of Paula, Eustochium and Marcella, Jerome would not have had the ability to succeed as a theologian and scholar. Impressive feats of scholarship such as the Latin Vulgate are not typically accomplished alone but are executed well through a team of specialists. The women who studied, read and translated alongside Jerome deserve our recognition and appreciation too.
Choice, Controversy & Marcella & Paula Today
Late antiquity offered very few choices for women beyond marrying and reproducing, or re-marrying once widowed. Marcella and Paula made strategic choices to opt into a life of independence and meaning following Jesus outside of what the Roman Empire expected or desired of them. Their defiance of cultural norms caused both women to be viewed with suspicion as they were often at the center of controversy in Rome for their radical life choices. Paula was particularly controversial for her decision to abandon her children and impoverish herself. However, she also chose to dedicate her life to the study of the scriptures and became fluent in Greek and Hebrew, providing us with the preservation of countless ancient manuscripts that continue to be invaluable in the church and the field of theology today.21
1.Cohick, Lynn H, and Amy Brown Hughes. Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017, 190.
2. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 191
3. Barbara MacHaffie J. Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2006), 53.
4. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 190
5. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 192.
6. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 193.
7. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 194.
8. Jerome, Life of Marcella (Ep. 127) 2, in Lives of Roman Christian Women, ed. Carolinne White, (London, Penguin 2010), 60-61.
9. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 196.
10. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 197.
11. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 198.
12. Jerome, "Epitaph on Paula", 108.6.3-
13. Cohick and Hughes, Christian Women, 200.
14. Kimberly Dickson, “Paula of Rome: A Woman of Influence, Intellect, and Concern for the Poor”, Know Your Mothers. Accessed May 29 2021. https://knowyourmothers.com/paula-of-rome/
15. A.H. Johns, “Woman’s Work in Bible Study and Translation: The Study of St. Jerome, St. Marcella, St. Paula, and St. Eustochium and the Latin Vulgate,” in The Catholic World, (July 1912), 463-477. Accessed April 24, 2019.https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=2945.
16. Kimberly Dickson, “Paula of Rome”.
17. Kimberly Dickson, “Paula of Rome”.
18. A.H. Johns, “Woman’s Work". 463-477
19. A.H. Johns, “Women’s Work,” 463-477.
20. Kimberly Dickson, “Paula of Rome”.
21. Kimberly Dickson, “Paula of Rome”.