In Her Own Words: The Life and Poetry of Aelia Eudocia

  Sowers, Brian P. 2020. In Her Own Words: The Life and Poetry of Aelia Eudocia. Hellenic Studies Series 80. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


When Judy Chicago’s installation piece, The Dinner Party, debuted in 1979, it was rightly hailed as a tour de force of feminist art. Choosing which women to represent at the thirty-nine settings around the table must have been so difficult that the names of another 999 women were written on porcelain tiles and displayed on the ground under the table. For someone to be considered for the Heritage Floor, Chicago stated that she must have made a significant contribution to society, must have attempted to improve conditions for other women, and could serve as a role model for future generations. Found among these 999 exceptional women is the name of Aelia Eudocia.
It is not entirely clear what information about Eudocia had been made available to Chicago and her research team. In fact, one wonders if Eudocia might have been considered for one of the thirty-nine table settings, had more scholarly research been produced about her and her poetry when Chicago was creating The Dinner Party. The first major wave of critical studies on Eudocia and her late antique milieu emerged shortly after the art world read her name on the Heritage Floor. These critical studies only underscore what Chicago and her team already recognized: Eudocia’s significant contributions to fifth-century society, her attempts to improve conditions for other women, and her service as a role model for future generations. Housed now in the Brooklyn Museum just down the street from my Brooklyn apartment and the CUNY campus where I teach, The Dinner Party has served as an inspiration for this project. Each time I visit the installation, I am drawn back to Eudocia’s name, where I can reflect on her life and poetry in the context of 1037 other exceptional women.
It is my hope that this book has contributed in some small way to our understanding about Eudocia and her impact on late antique society. As I stated at the outset, my aim here has been intentionally selective, to focus on Eudocia’s surviving works and to allow her words to guide the organization and content of each chapter. In this final section, I would like to highlight a few salient features of Eudocia’s poetry that have emerged over the course of this book.
Eudocia’s Antiochene speech and her verse panegyric at Hammat Gader reveal her active role and creative agency in urban and rural euergetism. She took the opportunity during her brief visit to Antioch to praise the city. This was no empty gesture on her way to Jerusalem. She communicated through this speech her interest to serve as a local euergete, a financier of building projects and a sponsor of alimentary programs. That Eudocia inaugurated her social activity in Antioch with a complex Homeric allusion underscores both how deeply she had internalized her classical education and the central place that the Homeric epics still held in the public life of the late antique East. Her allusion to Iliad 6.211 and the wider conversation between Glaucus and Diomedes imply the creative blending of an euergesiaxenia relationship. Eudocia’s audience was equally familiar with Homer and responded by commissioning two honorific statues for her, one gold, the other bronze, a veiled reference to the exchange of armor that inaugurates Glaucus and Diomedes’ xenia. For her part in this reciprocal relationship, Eudocia helped support the physical needs of the city.
Eudocia’s seventeen-line epigraphic panegyric at Hammat Gader is equally informative and provides a complementary picture of her Antioch speech. In my reading, this poem reveals Eudocia’s religious sensitivities when interacting within religiously diverse spaces. By structuring her panegyric as an ekphrastic tour of the bath, she highlights its multiple pools and furnaces and, in so doing, commemorates its traditional patrons, healing divinities, or associated religious figures, Antoninus Pius, an unnamed patriarch, a nun, Elijah, Galatea, and Hygieia, among others. Each of these figures represents some part of the late antique world, unified by their role at Hammat Gader, where they support or provide rest, relaxation, and physical healing. Eudocia opens this list with an allusion to the Catalogue of Ships in Iliad 2, which gives her entire poem an epic quality and the figures in her list epic significance. At the same time, when honoring the bath’s furnace, Eudocia compares it to an ocean, language that, by late antiquity, was commonly used to honor local euergetes.
After praising the furnace’s euergetistic aptitude and commemorating key social, spiritual, and political figures associated with the space, Eudocia directs her attention to a euergetistic god who, as benefactor par excellence, addresses human cares and needs. The language used for this unnamed deity is explicitly monotheistic yet without Judeo-Christian theological or Christological terminology. In fact, her words evoke classical and social origins by simultaneously gesturing to the Homeric Hymn to Hephaestus and honorific speeches for late antique euergetes. This inherent ambiguity allows each reader to see her own ideology represented or valued in Eudocia’s words, even if the god she refers to is a Christian one. Although therapeutic springs, along with countless other sacred spaces, were heavily contested during late antiquity, especially as Christianity grew in power and influence, this poem represents a subtle, less heavy-handed moment in that process. Eudocia’s approach here at Hammat Gader stands in contrast to her language in the Confession, where she advances an explicitly competitive rhetoric against traditional Greco-Roman religions, especially mystery cults and magic.
If Eudocia’s pilgrim poetry evinces her socio-political milieu, her Homeric cento typifies her literary agenda. As one of approximately two dozen centos or biblical paraphrases written during late antiquity, Eudocia’s cento straddles these two poetic modes. Although most ancient centos survive with little historical context or information about their authors, the prefatory material accompanying the centos of Ausonius, Proba, and Eudocia—introductions written by each poet—allows us to situate Eudocia’s cento more precisely within this established tradition. Following Proba and the Christian Latin cento she had available to her, Eudocia describes her poem as a holy product, a sacred text comparable to the Bible. Proba positions her cento against its Vergilian source-text and legitimizes the Holy Spirit as voice of poetic inspiration, a late antique vestige of the prophetic tradition from the Hebrew Bible. Eudocia, in contrast, defends her credentials as cento poet, with a particular focus on her meticulous adherence to the Bible. That both Eudocia and Proba prioritize Christian over classical content, despite overtly borrowing from this classical material to paraphrase the Bible, underscores the complementary nature of both their poetic agenda and poetic mode.
Eudocia’s explicit reflections on cento aesthetics make it particularly instructive to compare her preface with Ausonius’ preface to the Cento Nuptialis (PCN). Although the PCN is widely viewed as outlining a guide for cento poetics, in my view, Ausonius uses his prefatory epistles, first and foremost, to advance a carefully curated literary etiquette. By reading the PCN as another paratextual reflection by Ausonius about the process of writing and circulating ludic poetry, the ludic language he uses about cento poetry complements his wider literary program and does not characterize centos per se. Additionally, when the performative background that Ausonius attributes to the cento, a poetic competition between the emperor Valentinian and himself, is interpreted against his poetic etiquette, it becomes little more than another self-deprecation, common in Ausonius’ prefaces, not a straightforward, historically reliable account.
That said, Ausonius does elaborate on the “rules” for composing an acceptable cento, rules that he himself violates multiple times. For that reason, these didactic metaliterary reflections may better fit within his light-hearted manner of communicating with friends. According to Ausonius, centos should avoid using two whole sequential Vergilian lines; three whole sequential lines were considered ridiculous (nugae), language found whenever Ausonius describes his poetry. He compares the process of composing a cento to the stomachion, a game played by configuring fourteen bones into various images. Taking Ausonius’ analogy to its inevitable conclusion, the accomplished cento poet so successfully positions lines or hemistichs of Homer or Vergil that her readers are unable to see the original context of each piece. This model for reading centos explicitly differs from that advanced by Proba and her community.
Despite having radically divergent ideas about the literary value of centos, Ausonius and Eudocia do share a few assumptions about what constitutes a good cento. First, like Ausonius, Eudocia knows that she should avoid using sequential Homeric lines, and she goes to great lengths to explain why she violated this rule. Concerned that readers familiar with Tatian’s cento would fault hers because it contains double lines (while Tatian avoided them), Eudocia defends herself by pointing out that, unlike Tatian, who simply continued narrating the Trojan War, she relates a biblical story and biblical characters not found in the Homeric epics. In so doing, she subtly positions her epic as superior to that of Homer, a rhetorical strategy precisely different from that of Proba, who claims to recover latent Christian content hidden within Vergil’s words.
Second, Eudocia and Ausonius take an active, critical approach to centos and assume that one can identify and remove inferior pieces of the whole. Ausonius explicitly encourages Paulus to assess his cento so thoroughly that, if needed, he should remove Vergilian lines and return them to their original context. Claiming to have done something similar, Eudocia’s preface can be read as a detailed account of her critique and redaction of Patricius’ cento, which, she claims, contained untruthful or unharmonious elements. By removing these deficiencies and adding harmony to the poem, Eudocia salvages the poem and becomes co-author of the cento, although she repeatedly emphasizes Patricius’ authorial hand. Finally, Eudocia describes centos with a blend of visual and oral/aural imagery, which suggests that she and her imagined audience engage centos as physical, readable objects and performed, heard songs. This aural and textual imagery complements Proba and Ausonius’ paratextual comments and informs us about the various ways centos were experienced in late antiquity.
Eudocia’s verse paraphrase of the Samaritan woman at the well story from the Gospel of John underscores her active hand when rewriting the Bible. In order to update the story for her fifth-century audience, who likely would not have been aware of the socio-cultural conflicts between first-century Jews and Samaritans or the immediate impact resulting from Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans, Eudocia omits these first-century details. She also removes secondary characters from the story, including Jesus’ disciples, to focus more directly on the unnamed woman, no longer marked as Samaritan, and on her sexuality, a topic still relevant to late antique Christians. Following late antique sexual norms, Eudocia’s woman at the well is given two options: celibacy or marriage. Having chosen neither, she finds herself in a liminal and sexually ambiguous position that thereby elicits Jesus’ criticism. This focus on the woman’s marital status and sexuality is further complicated by Jesus’ “gift of God” metaphor, retained by Eudocia from the Gospel of John but transposed in this episode as a suitable replacement for the living water and food metaphors found in the prose original. This gift imagery becomes increasingly conflated with a marriage gift or dowry, which, from a narrative perspective, symbolically transforms the unnamed woman into Jesus’ bride, a common image used for Christian virgins. From the perspective of late antique Christian sexual ethics, this symbolic transformation resolves the woman’s sexual ambiguity by providing her with an appropriate sexual status.
The Homeric passages from which Eudocia borrows most heavily when creating the Samaritan woman episode further complicate this reading of the unnamed woman and her sexuality. Specifically, those line clusters originally about Nausicaa and Penelope—two female characters defined by their sexual relationship with Odysseus and other men—underscore the sexual tension found within the prose original and its retelling by Eudocia. A comparison between the unnamed woman and Penelope/Nausicaa potentially undermines any criticism leveled against this woman, since she is intertexually built from lines originally about exceptionally chaste female characters. According to this reading, Jesus’ criticism is misplaced. On the other hand, this intertexual play can also be read proleptically as anticipating the woman’s redemption after her interaction with Jesus at the well. Since each cento contains nearly unlimited intertextual potential, each reader ultimately must identify and reconcile those complications that inevitably emerge when one retells the Bible with Homeric/Vergilian lines.
Eudocia’s second longest extant poem, her three-book epic on the fictional magician Cyprian of Antioch, recounts his conversion to Christianity and his martyrdom during the Diocletianic persecutions. The first book, or Conversion, recounts how Cyprian is hired by Aglaidas, an Antiochene aristocrat, to seduce the newly converted Justa, who had already rejected Aglaidas’ multiple marriage proposals and had fought off his rape attempts. Cyprian invokes three increasingly powerful demons, culminating in Satan himself, to seduce Justa, but they prove powerless against her prayers and the sign of the cross. As a result of these defeats, Cyprian recognizes God’s superior power and decides to convert. As a newly converted Christian, Cyprian redirects his spiritual power toward preaching, healing the sick, and converting Antioch’s remaining pagan population. Quickly advancing through the ranks, Cyprian is eventually appointed bishop of Antioch. The second book, or Confession, shifts back to Cyprian’s conversion moment and takes the form of a speech, in which Cyprian outlines where he learned magic. This journey begins in Athens and Greece, where Cyprian was raised. As a young man, however, he leaves Greece and travels to Scythia, Egypt, and Babylon, where he rises through the demonic ranks and is eventually appointed Satan’s lieutenant. His education complete, Cyprian settles in Antioch, where he provides various services, including erotic magic, for the local community. Cyprian summarizes his assault against Justa, at this point renamed Justina, and his realization of God’s authority. This is where our manuscript ends, cutting short Cyprian’s inclusion into the Church and the story of his death, alongside Justina, the content of the now lost third book of Eudocia’s epic, the Martyrdom.
Despite the Conversion’s ostensible focus on the Cyprian legend, my reading concentrates on Eudocia’s creation of Justa as the story’s protagonist and most intertextually rich character. Unlike her literary predecessors, Thecla and Perpetua, Eudocia’s Justa experiences little social drama and remains safety ensconced in third-century Antioch. In this regard, Justa’s story is one in which “nothing really happens,” despite her survival of multiple sexual assaults and demonic attacks. Whereas Thecla and Perpetua undergo gender transformations or bodily modifications, a common late antique literary motif about exceptional women, Justa experiences no gender-bending or gender-blending. In other words, Eudocia creates a Justa who, while explicitly emulating Thecla, is nothing like her. That said, Justa is no two-dimensional character. Rather, her agency is doubly exceptional. Rather than undergoing gender transformations or bodily modifications, Justa imposes these same changes on her male relatives (father) and opponents (Aglaidas and Satan). In so doing, she transforms her father’s oikos and the liminal space between her house and church into a feminine one, where an explicitly feminine Justa imposes her femininity on those around her. Instead of experiencing social displacement and reintegration like Thecla and Perpetua, Justa displaces others and, in comparison to her intertextual models, emerges as an even more exceptional model, a new feminine ideal.
This reading of Justa complements the treatment of the Samaritan woman at the well episode discussed in the second chapter. Taken together, Justa and the Samaritan woman reveal two ways Eudocia actively retold women’s stories. In both cases, she gives her female characters an agency subtly removed from male ones. This is particularly the case with Justa, who manifests autonomous power when she openly defies her family, when she fights off Aglaidas, and when she defeats Satan and his demonic horde. Such exceptional female agency also appears in the woman at the well, who, as a remixed biblical Penelope-Nausicaa hybrid, advances the narrative trajectory by preaching the gospel to her fellow citizens. Her evangelistic speech anticipates, albeit anachronistically, exceptional female characters from the gospel tradition, such as Mary Magdalene, and from early Christian literature, including Thecla, Perpetua, and Justa.
In structure and aim, the Confession differs greatly from the Conversion. Throughout his Mediterranean tour, Cyprian catalogues his religious and magical education, but his account more directly reflects late antique religious competition and early Christian attempts to discredit rival traditions. As internal narrator, Cyprian repeatedly reminds his audience that each part of his education was empty, powerless, and demonic. This is no reliable picture of late antique paganism or guide for learning magic. Even if Cyprian’s account contains some verifiable information about actual rituals of power or historical religious practices, the narrative’s underlying competitive rhetoric undermines these details. Rather than mine the text for historically reliable information, my approach examines how Eudocia advances this pro-Christian ideology to her fifth-century audience interested in imagining how the Mediterranean world became “Christianized.” Her literary interests with the Cyprian story, to the extent they are recoverable, must be set alongside her politic language at Hammat Gader, as discussed in the first chapter. If Eudocia chose to advance a more nuanced religious identity when it served her purpose, she could just as easily write an epic full of pro-Christian rhetoric and anti-pagan invective.
One way the Confession advances its competitive rhetoric is by constructing Cyprian from multiple, well-known itinerant wonder workers, including Pythagoras, Apollonius, and Lucian’s Eucrates and Chaldean sorcerer. More than literary models for Cyprian’s journey across the Mediterranean, these figures also serve as negative types who remain fully entrenched in their “pagan” ways. By gesturing to these itinerant wonder workers, Cyprian deviates from them through his decision to convert. Here Eudocia’s Justa has a different ideological function than her Cyprian. Neither are original characters; in fact, they are both built on well-established literary types. Comparing Justa with her literary predecessors allows her to emerge as an even more exceptional figure, whereas Cyprian’s exceptionalism is limited to a specific deviation from his models. Thus, Justa’s exceptionalism is made manifest by her entire Christian life, while Cyprian’s exceptionalism comes through the single act of conversion. Leading up to their deaths, however, both Cyprian and Justa dedicate their lives to serving Antioch’s citizens and meeting their physical and spiritual needs. In this regard, Eudocia’s personal investment in euergetistic projects in Antioch dovetails with her literary characters.
It has been nearly forty years since Judy Chicago debuted The Dinner Party and the art world was introduced, some for the very first time, to the name Aelia Eudocia. Since then, so much more of Eudocia’s poetry has been made available to interested readers through the discovery of new poems and the publication of critical editions and translations. Hardly a household name, Eudocia remains one of antiquity’s best surviving yet least studied female poets, and much hard work still remains. Countless avenues of research about her poetry remain open for future generations of scholars. Through this book, I hope to have contributed to our understanding of Eudocia by focusing on her actual words and allowing them to guide my analysis. As a woman who made significant contributions to fifth-century society and helped improved conditions for other women, Eudocia has much to teach twenty-first-century readers, especially those courageous enough to challenge contemporary social, religious, and literary boundaries.