You are here

Paula, the elder


Paula was born into a rich patrician family. A Christian, she was married to a pagan, Toxotius, with whom she had five children. After his death in 379 she lived an ascetic life and spent her wealth on charity, though she was able to host important visitors like Epiphanius of Salamis while he was in Rome. She was educated in Latin and Greek, and learned Hebrew to study the Old Testament. A disciple of Marcella and of Jerome, whom she followed to Jerusalem in 385 after he left Rome, she worked closely with him and inspired much of his writing, though she died before he finished some of it. He says that he wrote to her and her daughter Eustochium every day,(1) but those letters were not collected, so even he does not know how many there were and they are not extant. There are only three separate letters from Jerome to Paula in his collected letters, all written before they left Rome, but the prologues of many of his works of translation and exegesis which she had requested are addressed to her and they include important expositions of his scholarly positions on the bible and on different translations as well as defenses against his attackers.
Even in those books which are addressed to others, Jerome emphasizes Paula's role in his work. He lists his commentaries on the twelve prophets in his third book on Amos addressed to his friend and Paula's son-in-law Pammachius (CCSL76, 300), and reminds him that he had done the first four prophets, not in the order in which they are found in the old testament but in the order in which Paula and her daughter Eustochium had requested them. In the prologue to Joel, also addressed to Pammachius, Jerome remembers Paula's role, offering Pammachius "what we promised your holy and venerable relative, Paula, take it as her pious heir" (CCSL 76, 160). And in the prologue to his commentary on Hosea, Jerome tells Pammachius that "about twenty-two years ago at the request of Paula, your holy and venerable mother-in-law, or rather your mother — that name is of the flesh, this of the spirit — who always burned with love of monasteries and scriptures," he had asked Didymus to complete what Origen had left undone, commentaries on Hosea, but together Didymus and Origen had only covered a third of Hosea, so in this commentary too Jerome is completing work originally undertaken for Paula. In the preface to his translation of Joshua, Jerome mentions that he completed the work "after the death of holy Paula, whose life is an example of virtue" for Eustochium whom he could not deny and at the urging of Pammachius (PL28 c.506). The commentaries on Isaiah and Ezekiel, both completed for Eustochium, mention that he had promised her holy mother while she was alive to do them (CCSL73, 1 and CCSL 75, 3).
There had been rumors about Paula and Jerome when they were still in Rome, which Jerome denied in a letter he wrote to Asella, a virgin in Marcella's household, ep.45. He admits to a fascination with Paula, the only woman who could "tame my mind," whom he describes as mourning and fasting, squalid with dirt, almost blinded by tears (ep.45.3); when he began to revere her for her sanctity, envy attacked them. Jerome describes the development of his relationship with Paula as coming out of their constant association in study, which brought familiarity, and that led to full confidence. Paula followed Jerome to the East with her daughter Eustochium, leaving two younger children behind. They visited the holy places together and then settled in Bethlehem in 386. Paula established houses for herself and other religious women and for Jerome and his monks, spending her wealth to keep them all going, and she finally died there, early in 404.
Paula's children were Blesilla, Paulina who married Pammachius, Eustochium, Rufina, and Toxotius who married Laeta. Several of them followed her into the religious life. Only Paulina, wife of Jerome's friend and Marcella's cousin Pammachius, did not become religious, though her husband took up an ascetic life after she died.
Jerome wrote to Pammachius after Paulina's early death, praising the women of the family joined by blood and virtue: Eustochium, he said, harvests the flowers of virginity, Paula rubs the laborious threshing-floor of widowhood, Paulina preserves the chaste bed of matrimony (ep.66.2), and Pammachius joins them, making a “quadriga,” a team of four horses from one house. Jerome connects each of them with a cardinal virtue, Pammachius with prudence, Paula with justice, the virgin with fortitude and the wife with temperance (66.3). At the end of the letter, Jerome says they can not forget Blesilla, who preceded them to the lord, so he divides the family group of five into the two who have died, Paulina and Blesilla, and the three who will fly together to Christ, Paula, and Eustochium, with Pammachius between them (66.15). It is clear that putting Pammachius in the company of such women is a compliment; indeed Jerome tells his old friend even if you did all I said, you would be surpassed by Paula and Eustochium, if not in deed then in sex (66.13).
After Paula's death, Jerome wrote to Eustochium about her, in a long (thirty-four chapter) letter, a "little book" (“libellum”) which is virtually a saint's life. It begins with the rhetorical flourish, "If all the members of my body were turned into tongues and all my joints sounded with human voice, I could say nothing worthy of the virtues of holy and venerable Paula," and ends with the poems on her tomb and the cave outside. Jerome cites her biblical allusions and comments about life on earth (108.1), and the vision she had in Bethlehem (108.10), describes her illustrious genealogy to praise her scorn of it, her five children, her grief at the death of her husband, and her decision to leave her family and live among the hermits of the East. He speaks of her enthusiastic travels through the Holy Land, building cells and monasteries for the religious and hostels for pilgrims along the travel routes; and she built one monastery for men, three communities for women, for which she established the order of living.(!2) He praises her extraordinary charity to the poor to whom she gave all she had, borrowing money at interest to give more and dying in debt, and her rigorous asceticism. She would not drink wine even when sick and pressed by the bishop to do so, at Jerome's suggestion, as she had guessed; indeed, she almost convinced the bishop to give up wine (108.21). She stood up to Origenists as enemies of God and could not be tricked by them (108.23,25). She was slow to speak, quick to listen, knew the scriptures by heart, loved the literal sense as the basis of truth and followed the mystical as the crown of the soul's edifice; she knew Hebrew which Jerome says he had struggled over from adolescence, while she could sing the psalms and speak it without a Latin accent (108.26). With her daughter Eustochium (though this letter is addressed to her it is certainly meant for a larger audience) she read the Old and New Testaments with Jerome and compelled him to explain to them what he had not yet learned for himself, and when he hesitated among the teachings of illustrious men of the church, she pressed him with questions, forcing him to give an opinion. Jerome sat with her for hours while she was sick, was with her when she died,(!3) and composed two verses for her tomb, the only surviving verses we have of his:
Born from the Scipios, sprung from pauline parents,
scion of the Gracchi, child of the famed Agamemnon.
Here in this tomb lies Paula, foremost in fame;
mother of Eustochium, first in the Senate of Rome, she was.
She made herself a pauper following Christ to rural Bethlehem.

Do you see this tomb, hollowed from the rock? It is Paula's resting place as she takes up her celestial kingdom.
She left brother, family, her home in Rome, wealth and progeny for a cave in Bethlehem.
Here was the manger and here the magi
bore mystical gifts to Christ, both man and God.(!4)

Biographical notes: 

(1) In a catalogue of his works, De viris illustribus, ch.135: Epistolarum autem ad Paulam et Eustochium, quia quotidie scribuntur, incertus est numerus, PL23, c.759.

(!2) One for nobles, one for women of the middle-class, one for those of the lower-class; they worked and ate separately, but sang and prayed together, and all dressed alike. She encouraged them to give no care to their bodies or clothes: "a clean body and dress bespeak a soiled soul" (108.20). All had to know the psalms, and learn something from the scriptures each day. She allowed them no personal possessions, and was rigid in her requirements, but kind to them when they were sick, and stimulated them by her example (ep.108.20).

(!3) There were several bishops present at Paula's death, and they carried her body to the church of the nativity which she was buried beneath, a passage linking her burial site to Christ's birthplace, see J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome, His Life, Writings, and Controversies (New York: Harper and Row, 1975) 277-78.

(!4) This translation is by Jo Ann McNamara, who cites and translates the verses as the epigraph of her article, "Cornelia's daughters: Paula and Eustochium," Women's Studies, 11 (1984), 1-27. The verses are included by Jerome at the end of his life of Paula, ep.108, addressed to her daughter Eustochium.