The Silent Voice of the Husband : Hospitality and Gender in the City of Jerusalem

Konstantin Klein (Otto Friedrich Universität Bamberg)

Francisco de Zurbarán, Hl. Hieronymus mit der Hl. Paula Romana und ihrer Tochter, Hl. Eustochium, 1638-1640, National Gallery of Art (c) domaine public

In the last months of 385, the Roman noblewoman Paula boarded a ship at Ostia and sailed first to Cyprus and then to Antioch, from where she continued her journey on to the Holy Land. She would not see her home city of Rome ever again. Her daughter Julia Eustochium was on board with her. Her other children, Paulina, Rufina, and Julius Toxotius stayed behind at the quay. Neither Rufina’s tears nor Toxotius’ little hand reaching out for his mother could move Paula to reconsider her departure : Her love towards God, as her spiritual advisor Jerome wrote, was greater than that towards her children (pietatem in filios pietate in Deum superans)1. It seems that the cooling of Paula’s motherly affections, as described by Jerome, was nothing untypical for aristocratic female ascetics in Late Antiquity : The negligence of parental duties as well as the separation from or the resolving of family bonds appear as recurring themes in the lives of those Roman noblewomen of the fourth and fifth century who left their ancestral homes in order to start a new life in the Holy Land. Paula of Rome, who together with Jerome founded monasteries and hospitals in Bethlehem is just one example. Her contemporary, Melania the Elder had demonstrated a similar self-controlled attitude when breaking off her family bonds in Rome for a higher, religious aim in Jerusalem. Her relative, Paulinus of Nola tried to justify Melania abandoning her son in the early 370s by styling this act as a blessing: “She gave her child love by abandoning him and kept him with her by sending him away2.”

Jerome’s description of Paula’s departure to new pastures and Paulinus’ justification of Melania’s lack of motherly qualities serve as a good starting point to explore the phenomenon on which I would like to touch in this short communication : Both women acted in ways that would have required an explanation for anyone living in the Roman Empire only one century earlier. For a Roman noblewoman of High-Imperial times, both Paula and Melania were not fulfilling gender roles that had been valid for centuries, and it therefore seems worth asking what role gender played in the larger topic of hospitality in the late antique Holy Land. In order to shed light on this question, it is paramount to engage not only with the literary sources praising the Christian deeds of these women, but also to contrast these rather extraordinary examples with what we can only assume to have been the ‘normal’ case: For this, the epigraphic evidence from Jerusalem and its surroundings is highly important. While I will conclude this communication with a short outlook on this material, I have to apologise in advance that the final considerations are very much work in progress. Before we cast a look at the role of gender (and, as we shall see, modesty), it is necessary to give a brief outline of the phenomenon of pilgrimage hospitality in the Holy Land in general.

Pilgrimage hospitality in the Holy Land

Even before Melanias arrival in Jerusalem c. 372, there had been other western pilgrims who founded monastic and hospitable institutions. The first one seems to have been be a certain Innocentius, who set up a monastery on the Mount of Olives in c. 370. Innocentiusholy deeds were of a somewhat questionable kind : while still living in Constantinople, he took offense to his own sons love affairs and cursed him, so that the son became impotent. After he had retired to Jerusalem, Innocentius became infamous for stealing from his fellow-monks to give to the needy, a rather creative source for hospitable evergetism3. Despite of this tendency of stealing, one of our main sources on monasticism in Jerusalem in the late fourth century, the afore-mentioned Palladius of Helenopolis, chose to live in Innocentiusmonastery for about three years towards the close of the century – a hint that already the first foreign monasteries in Jerusalem served a double function, firstly, to house monks or nuns who permanently stayed in or nearby the holy city, and secondly, to host pious (and, as a rule, noble) visitors for shorter or longer periods of time, who participated in the monastic life temporarily until they continued their journeys or travelled back to their homes. Palladius eventually left Jerusalem for extensive travels in Palestine and Egypt, and later wrote down his memories, a compendium of saintslives, anecdotes, and sayings, the Historia Lausiaca4.

Innocentius, Palladius, and their companions seem to have constituted the very first international Christian community in Jerusalem. The fact that their monastery, as well as those of Melania and other late fourth-century foundations, were all located on the Mount of Olives or beyond it, may point to the perception that these outsiders were not fully integrated in the holy city and that they therefore chose to live on its outskirts. The Latin-speaking community was never very large in the city, where Aramaic was still more common than Greek, however, the cultural contribution of this community was considerable. These pioneers of western monasticism in Jerusalem were confronted with a variety of ethnic and religious groups, which provided them with a new sense of collective identity, especially as all of them kept close ties to friends in Rome, Constantinople, and elsewhere and thus enjoyed a very large international audience. This fact reflected in the literary sources of the late fourth-century would not change much in subsequent centuries : Jerusalem and the monasteries surrounding it always attracted a very international crowd – and both Paula and Jerome as well as Melania the Elder and her spiritual advisor, Rufinus of Aquileia, became an integral part of this first generation of noble expats who sustained a considerable network that spanned the entire late Roman world.

In Late Antiquity just as in earlier times, the preferred way of aristocratic travel was to rely on the hospitality of friends, not least because of the bad reputation of commercial places. Within the pilgrimage hospitality demonstrated by Paula and Melania, however, we discover some new parameters and rules: Despite the large amount of sources describing how they invited and hosted friends, we learn nothing about those of their relations who had not yet converted to Christianity5, even though in both cases certain close relatives were at least nominally still pagan. At the same time and at a first glance, the new emphasis on female hosts and female guests appears understandable, since a segregation of the sexes was fundamental in the first place to guarantee equal access for women to travel and visit the holy places : Both Melania and Paula constructed monasteries and hostels for female and male pilgrims: in a Christian world of travel it had become mandatory that even married couples would lodge in separate places once they had reached the goal of their pilgrimage, the holy city6. However, we shall return to the question of gender and gender roles in the second part of this communication.

Paula indulged in ascetic practice to an extent that her body became very frail, that she was often bedridden, and that she eventually died at a much younger age than that of her spiritual advisor Jerome. It is not difficult to imagine her “a less likely hostess7 than Melania. However, according to the letters of Jerome and Rufinus as well as other sources, the two monastic complexes engaged in a veritable battle over hospitality. The reason for this was, of course, the differing theological convictions of Paula and Jerome on the one side as well as Melania and Rufinus on the other, the so-called Origenist controversy which, however, shall not concern us here. By the mid 390s Bethlehem and Jerusalem resembled two armed camps8.

The true capacity of the monasteriesinfluence revealed itself by the irritation placed on the western guests in these last years of the fourth century. Whoever arrived in Jerusalem from Rome or elsewhere from Melanias or Jeromes circles, had to choose sides. One of these travellers, a certain Vigilantius, was a vital contact for Jerome, since he could refresh his contact with Paulinus of Nola, a very rich acquaintance of Jerome, who could provide the necessary funds to keep Jerome’s and Paula’s monasteries running in times of dire straits. However, Vigilantius presented himself first to Melania and tried to limit his stay with Jerome to a polite minimum. This was enough to raise Jeromes furious anger. When Vigilantius, as he alleged, spread false rumours about Jerome everywhere during his homeward journey, Jerome was prompted to devote one of his most ferocious letters on this man. Among those who took the side of Jerome and Paula were only few Roman friends, such as Fabiola and Oceanus, who followed the invitation to the Holy Land, but soon thought it wiser to pursue their charitable works at home in Rome and hastily left under the pretext that they were unable to match Jeromes and Paulas attachment to the holy places. However, Jerome himself alluded that the internal controversies might have had a vital part in their departure : 

Erat illo tempore quaedam apud nos dissensio, et barbarorum pugnam domestica bella superabant.

« There was at that time disagreement among ourselves and local conflicts counted for more than battles with the barbarians. » (Hier., ep., 77,89 )

Despite his brief stay in Bethlehem, Vigilantius carried a letter from Jerome to Paulinus of Nola. In it, Jerome dissuaded Paulinus from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land seemingly contradicting previous letters which Jerome had sent to his circle of learned women in Rome urging them to travel to Bethlehem. Given Paulinuskinship with Melania and his existing literary friendship with Rufinus, Jerome could foresee that if Paulinus were to come to Jerusalem, he would have probably ignored him and so he thought it better if he did not come at all.10

Quickly, pilgrimage hospitality in the Holy Land had become a contested field.

Evergetism, gender, and epigraphic modesty

While evergetism was a common practice in the Greek and Roman world11, Melania’s and Paula’s ways to spend their personal wealth were to a certain extent different. In general, the methods and tools of Christian patronage in Late Antiquity clearly resembled older models: They consisted firstly of the construction of buildings for the common good, i.e. monasteries and hospitable institutions, secondly of charity to the poor and needy, and thirdly of hospitality to both friends and strangers12. However, the new Christian hospitality and charity was not only (as in previous times) completely sponsored by individual members of the Christian elites, the novelty was that their generosity only ceased, when their personal funds had been completely exhausted. At least this is what the literary sources tell us, for example Palladius of Helenopolis in his remarks concerning Melania:

Car cétait la trente-septième année que donnant lhospitalité, elle a subvenu de ses propres frais à des églises, à des monastères, à des étrangers et à des prisons, ceux de sa famille, son fils lui-même et ses propres intendants lui fournissant de largent.” (Pall., hist. laus. 54, 2: TEXT S. 76)

Apart from this unconditional level that distinguishes this new form of evergetism from older models, the main difference to previous times is the preeminent role that women played as founders of monasteries and as hosts for pilgrims. Of course, there have been female philanthropists in previous eras too : Aspasia Annia Regilla, the wife of Herodes Atticus, or Plancia Magna in Perge in Pamphylia, who held several public offices in her hometown where she built, among other buildings, a large city gate adorned with splendid statues13. What makes late antique Palestine a special case, however, is the sheer number of female donors hosting an even more impressive number of female pilgrims – many of them the guests of either Paula or Melania the Elder. The latter’s deeds of hospitality were continued, almost half a century later, by her eponymous granddaughter, Melania the Younger : This unimaginably rich heiress left Rome together with her husband Pinien and her mother Albina right before the Visigoth sack of Rome in 410. She showered donations on her tour around the Mediterranean, and eventually settled on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where she too founded monasteries and engaged in charitable work, just like her grandmother had done before her. The granddaughter had not just inherited a substantial part of the family’s fortune, but also her famous ancestor’s piety and devotion to God. With no time wasted with sumptuous dinners, idle laziness, or any kind of leisure (Melania was particularly reluctant of bathing), there was more time available for work14 : The sources tell us that apart from political missions and the hosting of particularly important pilgrims (among them a Roman empress), Melania still found time to spin wool, while Pinien wandered the hinterland of Jerusalem in order to collect firewood (somehow a fitting continuation of his former hobby of gardening in Rome, before he had succumbed to his wife’s extreme ascetic tendencies)15.

In the case of Paula, the focus of Jerome’s letters describing her hospitality can relatively easily be explained : Just like Melania the Elder, Paula was a widow. It was this status that provided late antique women with a certain degree of independence and control over their wealth which they then could distribute as charity – a late antique innovation which has been labelled as ascetic freedom16. The case is different for several other woman who left their mark on the Holy Land : Silvia, the sister-in-law of Rufinus, the leading supporter of Theodosius I, and (after the emperor, who was in the west during the time of Silvia’s journey to Palestine in 394) the most important man in the eastern provinces17. Poemenia, a rich noblewoman, who built a church in Jerusalem and, continuing her journey to Egypt, caused a small-scale riot because of her luxurious style of travel18.

While with both Silvia and Poemenia we do not know with certainty whether they were widowed or not, Melania the Younger was travelling together with her husband, who, in all literary sources describing the deeds of his wife, is presented as a mere supporting character. In the case of both Melanias, male family members even appear as antagonists to the saintly lifestyle of the Christian heroines. The image of evergetism in Jerusalem as belonging to the realm of women is even furthered when we look up at the level of imperial donations : After the death of Constantine I until the time of Anastasius (who had a very troubled relationship with the holy city), there is no evidence for any large-scale imperial donation made by an emperor and hardly any for minor acts of evergetism such as the donation of liturgical garments or plates. There are, however, vast examples for evergetism by the wives and sisters of Roman emperors with a strong focus on donations that instituted or supported pilgrimage hospitality by founding not only monasteries, but a large number of hospitals, poorhouses, homes for the elderly, as well as resting points for pilgrims.

If, from the perspective of Paula or Melania, we cast a look down the social ladder on a level of society below theirs, there is expectedly less evidence for substantial donations, but the number of women that appear in the epigraphic evidence as abbesses of monasteries (and therefore potentially responsible for pilgrimage hospitality) is still almost equalling the number of (male) abbots. This result that does not at all reflect the epigraphic evidence in the rest of the later Roman Empire, where inscriptions mentioning women are, as a rule, much less common than those mentioning men. The epigraphic evidence is, of course, always subject to the very random and fickle laws of tradition of primary sources. However, the epigraphic evidence from Jerusalem substantially differs from the inscriptions of, e.g. Rome, as in the holy city, most of the c. 450 late antique inscriptions we have preserved were discovered in situ. Moreover, statistically the surviving number of inscriptions bearing names might still be representative enough to allow the suggestion that indeed in this city women were epigraphically attested more often than elsewhere. If we accept this, the logical consequence would be to assume that indeed female founders, patrons and donors where more active in Jerusalem than in other cities of the late Roman world. So far, there has not been a completely convincing explanation of this (assumed) phenomenon. I will discuss this in more detail in December, here it must suffice that ascetic freedom, as mentioned above, still serves as the best model of explanation to account for the large number of women in the literary and epigraphic sources. However, I have argued elsewhere, that this ascetic freedom did not necessarily pertain to imperial female philanthropists who rather acted as proxies of their husbands and in accordance with their wishes.

It may be useful, in order to assess the role of women acting as patrons of pilgrimage hospitality, to briefly consider some general peculiarities of late antique evergetism : While it has been often assumed that evergetism was continued in Late Antiquity just as in previous eras, it has recently been suggested, first and foremost by the epigraphic research carried out by Rudolf Haensch, that this picture has to be redefined : One major difference compared to earlier times is that late antique donors never stated in their building inscriptions the amount of money which they had donated for a particular building19. This is true for the inscriptions of Jerusalem and its hinterland. It is, however, not true for the literary sources – all hagiographical sources abound with seemingly precise amounts of money that the likes of Paula or the two Melanias allegedly donated. In contrast, the epigraphic evidence points to an increase of modesty (or, as I would call it, ‘epigraphic modesty’) that was accelerated by fewer and fewer extraordinary acts of evergetism carried out by individuals : Only few clergymen donated amounts that could present them as the sole donors of a certain church, monastery, or hospitable institution20. They would rather urge their communities to collectively contribute to fund and construct the required buildings. The late antique inscriptions from Palestine also point towards communities of donors who demonstrate this certain modesty by not commemorating their individual names (which also might have been a necessary restriction, since both stone as well as mosaic inscription were expensive and would not have offered enough space to list every single donor). We witness the generation of new formulae in inscriptions : The texts would state that a certain church or charitable institution “a été construite pour le salut de ceux qui ont contribué (οἰ καρποφορήσαντες)21 or that they were set up, as in the case of the famous Mamilla inscription from Jerusalem, “for the salvation and succour of those whose name the Lord knows, amen22.”

If then, in conclusion, we reexamine those inscriptions from Jerusalem which mention donors, the holy city appears much less an extraordinary case from an epigraphic perspective. While we have a handful of inscriptions mentioning male donors, there is only one explicitly stating that a hospitable institution was founded by a woman (as well as some others mentioning women as directing already existing institutions – however, compared to similar male cases, the overall ratio of 5:1 remains roughly the same). Why then, do we arrive at so very different assumptions when we look at the literary sources that celebrate the evergetism of Paula, Silvia, Poemenia, and the two Melanias? Right now, but again, this is work in progress, it seems likely that the different media, i.e. saints lives as well as published letters in contrast to inscriptions, were simply aimed at a very different audience: At the actual places where they worked these pious deeds, in Jerusalem, people aimed at demonstrating what I have called ‘epigraphic modesty’ above. In contrast, the texts about the heroines (in one way or another all of them hagiographic) should proclaim loud their acts of charity and hospitality in order to incite others, in particular women, to follow in their footsteps. However, not a single inscription has survived today which pertains to these aristocratic ladies who have been in the centre of this communication, nor any that speaks about their obscure husbands’ activities. We therefore might only speculate whether the image this group of people and their biographers wanted to convey in literary texts was a different and much prouder one when compared how their lost building inscriptions might have read. Perhaps they would even have followed a much more traditional formula like some of the surviving inscriptions from Jerusalem in which the wives are named right behind their husbands – in the case of a figure like Pinien, however, in lack of any further evidence, his voice has indeed to remain silent for now.


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Antin 1968

P. Baumann (1999), Spätantike Stifter im Heiligen Land, Wiesbaden.

Butler 1898

E. Clark (1986), “Ascetic Renunciation and Feminine Advancement : A Paradox of Late Antique Christianity” in Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith : Essays on Late Ancient Christianity, ed. by E. Clark, Lewston (Studies in women and religion. 20), pp. 175–208.

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Y. Duval/L Pietri (1997), “Évergétisme et épigraphie dans l’Occident chrétien (IVe–VIe)” in Actes du Xe congrès international d’épigraphie grecque et latine, Nîmes 4–9 octobre 1992, ed. by M. Christol and O. Masson, Paris, pp. 371–396.

W. Eck (), “Plancia Magna” in DNP

A. Giardina (2001), “Melania the Saint” in Roman Women, ed. by A. Fraschetti and L. Lappin, Chicago, pp. 190–208.

G. Gordini (1961), “Il monachesimo romano in Palestina nel IV secolo” in Saint Martin et son temps : mémorial du XVIe centenaire des débuts du monachisme en Gaule (361–1961) = Studia Anselmiana 46, pp. 85–107.

R. Haensch (2006), “Le financement de la construction des églises pendant l’Antiquité tardive et l’évergétisme antique” in AnTard 14, pp. 47–58.

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——— (2011), “Christlicher Euergetismus ob honorem ? Die Einsetzung von Klerikern in ihre Ämter und die von diesen vorangetriebenen Bauprojekte” in Episcopal Elections in Late Antiquity, ed. by J. Leemans, P. Van Nuffelen and S. Keough (et al.), Berlin 2011 (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte. 119), pp. 167181.

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  1. Hier., ep. 108,6, cf. Gordini 1961:90–92, and, on the literary motif of holy women renouncing their children and being ‘bad mothers,’ Giardina 2001:193–194. []
  2. Paul. Nol., ep. 29,9. []
  3. Cf. Palladius, hist. Laus. 44,1–3. Innocentius is mentioned in several letters by Basil the Great and Athanasius of Alexandria, cf. Hunt 1973:460 nn. 4–8. []
  4. Cf. Pall., hist. Laus. prolog. and Socr. 4,23,7880 with Butler 1898:8 and Hunt 1973:458. []
  5. Cf. Whiting 2011–2012:73 and 78–79. []
  6. Cf. Whiting 2011–2012:82 pointing to Yizhar Hirschfeld’s identification of a campsite for women outside the monastery of Théoctiste in the Judean Desert, for the female visitors who were not allowed to enter the monasterys precincts, cf. Hirschfeld 1992:196. []
  7. Whiting 2011–2012:77 and 81. []
  8. Sivan 1990:54–55. []
  9. Cf. Hunt 1982:177 and 191 as well as Stroumsa 1988:118 and Whiting 2011–2012:78. []
  10. Cf. Hier. ep. 58 with Hunt 1982:192–193 and, on Jerome and Paulinus, Antin 1968:375. The consequences are best summarised by Hunt 1973:480: “Perhaps Jerome’s most singular lack of success was his inability to secure the ‘loyalty’ of Paulinus of Nola, who, despite his initial appeal to Jerome as a master of the spiritual life, drifted into the camp of Melania (whose kinsman he was), and proudly welcomed her to Nola on her return to Italy.” []
  11. Cf. esp. Veyne 1976:20–21, as well as Baumann 1999:333, Duval/Pietri 1997:352, and Haensch 2006:48–49. []
  12. Cf. Whiting 2011–2012:76. []
  13. Cf. Tobin 1997 on Regilla as well as, on Plancia Magna, Şahin 1999, nos 89–99 with Eck DNP. []
  14. On the daily life of Christian female ascetics in general, and on a contemporary case to that of Paula or Melania the Elder regarding hospitality and sick-nursing in Rome in particular, cf. Petersen-Szemerédy 1993:191–192 with Hier., ep. 77,6. []
  15. Cf. Ioh. Ruf., Vit. Petr. Hib. 39. []
  16. Cf. Clark 1986:184. []
  17. On Silvia’s pilgrimage, cf. Pall., hist. Laus. 55 and Paulinus, ep. 31, 1 with Hunt 1972:351–352, 1982:159–160 and 190 as well as Devos 1973:105106. On her brother-in-law, cf. PLRE I, s.v. Rufinus 18”, pp. 778–781. []
  18. On Poemenia and the ultimate failure of her travels, cf. Pall., hist. Laus. 35, 14–15 with Devos 1969:204–206. []
  19. Cf. Haensch 2007:696. []
  20. It should also be noted that evergetism ob honorem, i.e. philanthropy in order to enhance one’s career did not exist within the late antique clergy, cf. Haensch 2006:52–53 and 2011:173–175 against Lepelley 1979:I,384 and 1997:352. []
  21. Cf. Haensch 2006:53, esp. n. 41 for more than twenty examples of this formula from the areas of the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem. []
  22. CIIP I,869: [Ὑπὲρ σω]τηρίας καὶ | ἀν[τιλήμψε]ως ὧν | Κ(ύριο)ς γι<γ>ν[ώσκει τὰ ὀ]νόμ[ατα. Ἀμήν]. Those, whose name the Lord knows, were, of course, the donors – and not the people buried in the mass grave that was discovered next to this inscription. []

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