Jerome and His Women

Jerome and His Women

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The events in this book take place in Ancient Rome at the end of the fourth century, between the years 382 and 385 AD – a short, but critical, timespan in the history of Western civilisation. It was crunch time for the Roman Empire, long racked by internal riots and external threats, particularly from the Germanic tribes to the north. Christianity had developed from a splinter group of Judaism in Roman-occupied Jerusalem into a widespread movement with its own beliefs and rituals which brought it into direct confrontation with the existing social order. The old gods, with their power to unify their subjects, were being replaced by a new and very different God – one available to all, independent of status. While many of the older generation remained faithful to the pagan gods, others were drawn to Christianity and, in worhipping a new God, weakened their allegiance to the Empire. In short, if you worshipped Christ, you could not also worship the Emperor. For the Roman Empire, therefore, the political ramifications of the spread of Christianity were dire. Persecution – that time-honoured recipe of governments the world over to opposition – hadn’t worked either, as the conversion of the Emperor Constantine himself to Christianity in 312 AD had demonstrated.

Was the spread of Christianity the straw that broke the back of the Roman Empire? Many – most famously, the historian Edward Gibbon – argue that it was; at the very least, most agree that it played a critical role in its eventual collapse. But without recourse to a single authoritative text, would Christian leaders have secured their religion’s supremacy in the West? Probably not. It was Damasus I who, in commissioning Jerome to translate the Bible into a single definitive Latin version, accessible to all bequeathed to Christianity the perfect means by which to spread its influence and consolidate its authority. In so doing, he firmly established Rome as the centre of Christianity. It was a political masterstroke, the inspiration of which might elude us in our modern era of digital communication.

This book is, therefore, amongst other things, a tribute to that master statesman Damasus I, as well as one of history’s greatest, albeit most controversial, scholars, Saint Jerome. It is also a tribute to certain women of Late Antiquity who were often scholars in their own right and risked everything they had to adopt the ascetic life – an ideal almost unimaginable in today’s age of celebrated secularity, individuality and hedonism. First and foremost among these women is, of course, Paula.

The main characters are all historical figures – from Damasus, Jerome and Paula down to Toxotius, Hymetius and Praetextata. Those people who figure significantly are expanded upon in the glossary of names at the end of the book. Some lesser characters are my creations, primarily Aetius and Bassus, who I felt could well have existed. In an effort to recreate the spirit of this distant age, I have tried to bring them all to life imaginatively, drawing on knowledge of the times where possible, and reasonable inference where it was not.

I have tried to convey a sense of the heady excitement attached to the theological debates of the day, and the rigorous scholarship underpinning them. As in Ancient Greece, the skills of rhetoric and argument were highly regarded, and matters such as the freedom of the soul and the nature of free will were debated and length and could divide men as easily as bringing them together.

Central to the whole story is the relationship between Jerome and Paula, a much-speculated subject even in their day. Intimacy there undoubtedly was, but whether it was intellectual and spiritual, or something more, I leave it to the reader to make up his or her own mind.

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