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.


The date was June 7th, 421 CE, and Theodosius II had just married. His choice of bride would have scandalized the Constantinopolitan court and church, had she not been hand-picked by his sister and chief advisor, Pulcheria. Theodosius’ bride neither came from the local aristocracy, nor did she secure a marriage alliance between the eastern and western halves of the empire. In fact, she was hardly well-born at all—she was from Athens, a city long past its prime, where her father had served as rhetor. Thanks to her father’s background, Theodosius’ bride had a superior education—for a woman. After her father’s death, his sons, enticed by the opportunity to fleece their sister of her inheritance, had forced her to seek imperial support in Constantinople. During that trip, she had impressed Pulcheria, who quickly arranged a marriage between her brother and this exceptional young woman.
So begins one version about the life and times of Aelia Eudocia, née Athenais. [1]

Accounts, both ancient and modern, that begin this way usually focus on Eudocia/Athenais’ family, the implicit political interests behind her engagement to Theodosius, the influential bureaucratic positions that she orchestrated, her role in the intrigue and gossip of the imperial court, her fall from favor, her exile from Constantinople, her life in Jerusalem, her building programs, or her involvement in the Nestorian controversy. [2]

Such approaches, by necessity, rely on multiple ancient sources to reconstruct Eudocia’s involvement in the fifth-century East, from Athens and Constantinople to Antioch and Jerusalem. That nearly all these sources were written by men, usually aristocratic men, and reflect their aristocratic male interests, is a product of the ancient world, which disproportionately silences or elides over female voices and female perspectives. Based on this surviving evidence, Eudocia played a key role in fifth-century society and was a central figure, albeit briefly, in the Constantinopolitan court. After leaving the imperial capital, she remained a generous imperial patron and funded building projects throughout the Greek East, especially in Jerusalem and its environs.

In addition to these exceptional accomplishments, Eudocia was also one of the most prolific female poets of antiquity. Although most of her poems no longer survive, nearly 3,500 lines do, about three times as many as Sappho, antiquity’s most celebrated female poet. This remarkable survival rate sets Eudocia apart from most other ancient female poets, whose works typically survive piecemeal as citations in later, male readers and critics. [3]

Because so much of her poetry survives, we are afforded a unique opportunity to hear her in her own words, not mediated by redactors and epitomizers.

This book examines Eudocia’s life and times by focusing on her poetry and her choice of self-presentation. Surprisingly, such a study about Eudocia’s stories—the one she lived and those she wrote—currently does not exist. Most studies about Eudocia focus either on her historical life, at the expense of her literary works, or on individual poems or poetic types, at the expense of a wider understanding of her literary agenda. My approach is intentionally the opposite of these other studies, in that I attempt, first and foremost, to recover the literary Eudocia. For that reason, I do not provide a complete biographic account of her life, although readers interested in this can find the relevant sources in the notes and bibliography. When discussing historical events, I attempt to limit myself only to details that directly contextualize and elucidate Eudocia’s poetry. For that reason, my discussion of her travels in and around Jerusalem are rather brief. Despite this selectivity, this book fills a glaring gap in the scholarship on ancient women and female poets. It is my hope that it will be of interest to scholars in multiple fields, particularly my fellow classicists, experts in late antique poetry, and colleagues in women and gender studies.
Moreover, my approach situates Eudocia’s poetry within the context of her late antique milieu. Those centuries collectively referred to as late antiquity, roughly 200–600 CE, were a period of significant and long-lasting political, social, and cultural change. Just a few decades ago, scholars working on this period had to justify their academic interests and the legitimacy of the literature written during these centuries. Over the past few decades, however, research on late antiquity has flourished, and scholars increasingly view late antiquity as a pivotal moment in history that anticipates the medieval world in the Roman West and the Byzantine world in the Roman East. Moreover, because late antiquity is, in part, defined by its continuity with the “classical” past, it encapsulates the development of classical literary and cultural practices, even as this literature and culture underwent continued development and innovation. It is this unique blend of continuity with the classical past and innovation foreshadowing a medieval/Byzantine future that makes late antiquity, particularly late antique literature, a valuable field of study in its own right.
Eudocia’s words provide modern readers a glimpse into the innovative world of late antique poetry, one in which authors, including female authors, wrote creative and dynamic stories, even when those stories had already been written before. As a product of this late antique literary culture, Eudocia evidences a literary style representative of her time. First, her poetry fits within late antiquity’s paraphrastic habit, whereby popular literary works or stories were rewritten, revised, and updated to speak to new audiences and to conform to new aesthetic and ideological interests. The most obvious examples of this paraphrastic tendency are the multiple retellings of Christian scriptures, including verse paraphrases that transform the Bible, particularly the Gospels, into classical epics. In his catalogue of Eudocia’s corpus, the Byzantine bibliophile Photius informs us that Eudocia wrote numerous verse paraphrases: a Homeric cento (a retelling of Genesis and the Gospels using lines from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), verse paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible books of Daniel and Zechariah, an extended poetic paraphrase of the first eight books of Hebrew Bible, and an epic retelling of the Martyrdom of Cyprian. In addition to these paraphrastic poems, Photius also mentions two verse panegyrics, one in honor of Antioch and one commemorating Theodosius’ victory against the Persians. Other than Eudocia’s Homeric cento and Cyprian epic, these poems are lost and survive only as lines in Photius’ catalogue. As a result, it remains unclear how Eudocia’s Hebrew Bible paraphrases interpreted and revised these canonical texts to make them accessible to her late antique audience.
Second, like other late antique authors, Eudocia’s poetry reconciles and conflates the classical past with early Christian literature, especially biblical texts that had, by the fifth-century, been canonized and codified. Moreover, Eudocia uses equally classicizing language when describing her imperial projects, which gives them an explicitly Homeric quality. Her interpretations of Christian scriptures and her paraphrases about the lives of Christian holy men and women equally blend sacred texts and values with Homeric and classicizing forms and content. By reading Eudocia’s poetry against her Homeric models, this project elucidates her literary and political programs.
The first chapter, “Homeric Euergetism,” focuses on Eudocia’s two chronologically and geographically fixed works: her 438 CE speech given in Antioch and her panegyric poem from the bath complex at Hammat Gader. Unlike her other poems that survive in the manuscript tradition, these works require wider context about Eudocia’s life. Toward that end, this chapter opens with a brief introduction to Eudocia’s childhood and education, her marriage to Theodosius, and her two pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the first as part of a vow associated with their daughter’s marriage to Valentinian III in 437 CE and the second associated with a fallout between Eudocia and Theodosius in the early 440s. Although she never returned to Constantinople after this second trip, Eudocia maintained her imperial retinue and funded many euergetistic programs, including the bath complex at Hammat Gader.
While a good deal of information about Eudocia’s eastern travels survives in later accounts written by male authors, her speech in Antioch and her seventeen-line panegyric from Hammat Gader allow Eudocia’s own euergetistic agenda and self-presentation to emerge without male mediation and interpretation. Taken as a whole, this material underscores how she adapted classical models, particularly the Homeric epics, to express her imperial benefactions, especially when her audience had diverse identities and interests. By structuring Eudocia’s travels around specific moments when her own words survive, this chapter advances a more nuanced model of her euergetistic and alimentary programs and complicates how Eudocia expressed her religious identity to diverse, non-Christian/Orthodox audiences.
Chapter Two, “The Homeric Cento: Paraphrasing the Bible,” examines Eudocia’s most popular poem—her Homeric cento, a biblical paraphrase that appropriates Homeric lines to retell the beginning of Genesis and selections from the Gospels. Building on the recent proliferation of critical editions and commentaries on Homeric and Vergilian centos, the first half of this chapter places Eudocia within the wider cento tradition, a tradition that culminated during late antiquity. I begin by introducing the Vergilian centos written by Proba and Ausonius and their paratextual prefaces, after which I situate Eudocia’s literary aims and poetic aesthetics, articulated by Eudocia herself in her own paratextual preface, within and against this wider tradition. In my reading, Eudocia describes her cento as a sacred text, rhetorically equal to the Bible, and consequently follows a path first blazed by Proba. Despite Eudocia treating her cento as a holy book, her critical aesthetics, on the other hand, more closely adhere to those expressed by Ausonius in his preface to the Cento Nuptialis. Eudocia’s complex balance between sacred texts and critical evaluation, redaction, and emendation reflects an equally complex understanding of the relationship between an author and her product.
In the second half of this chapter, I provide a close reading of Eudocia’s retelling of the Samaritan woman at the well episode from the Gospel of John. My main interest in this section is to demonstrate how Eudocia adapts this canonical story into one more ethically relevant to a fifth-century audience. She accomplishes this process by expanding on the Samaritan woman’s role in the passage and, in the process, gives her a more public voice, while also highlighting her sexuality. By reading this biblical story against the lines Eudocia uses to tell it, the Samaritan woman and her concomitant sexuality become increasingly complicated, as she is intertextually transformed into a remixed Penelope-Nausicaa hybrid—two exceptional Homeric women equally defined, albeit in different ways and toward different ends, by their sexuality and chastity. This reading nuances Eudocia’s engagement with her biblical characters, especially female characters, and their Homeric models, all of which underscore Eudocia’s exegetical agency implicit in her paraphrastic versification of the Bible.
Chapter Three, “The Conversion: Constructing the Feminine Ideal,” examines the first book of Eudocia’s epic, the Martyrdom of Cyprian. The Conversion tells the story of a fictional Antiochene magician who converts to Christianity after his erotic magic fails to seduce a young Christian woman, Justa. Although following a fourth-century prose version of the Cyprian legend, Eudocia’s Conversion also intertextually engages earlier Christian narratives, particularly the second-century Christian novel, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the third-century Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. After situating the Cyprian legend within the context of early Christian prose fictions and providing a close reading of Eudocia’s verse paraphrase of the Conversion, this chapter uses Victor Turner’s theory of social drama to elucidate the differences between Eudocia’s epic and these earlier stories. By modeling Justa and the physical/sexual assaults against her on Thecla and Perpetua, Eudocia contrasts Justa with exceptional women from previous generations, which sets the recurring themes of sexual ambiguity and reversal found within those texts against her Conversion. Through this intertextual juxtaposition, Eudocia subtly comments on the early Christian feminine ideal and the depiction of that feminine ideal in early Christian literature.
Compared to Thecla and Perpetua, who reject the patriarchal trappings of marriage and family by increasingly adopting masculine physical characteristics, Eudocia’s Justa is a simple protagonist: she never breaks from the authority of her father’s house, and she never adopts masculine characteristics. In terms of social drama theory, Eudocia tells a story in which “nothing happens,” despite reasonable expectations for such drama based on the story’s intertextual allusions and the many demonic attacks that Justa overcomes. Not only does Eudocia characterize Justa in ways that disrupt Turner’s theory, she also creates a female character with exceptional agency and spiritual power. In the final section of this chapter, I argue that Eudocia’s Justa emerges as a new type of feminine ideal, intertextually distinct from and superior to those of previous generations. Along with my reading of the Samaritan woman at the well episode in the second chapter, this section advances the view that Eudocia actively influenced literary depictions of late antique Christian women.
In the fourth chapter, “The Confession: Competing with Magic,” I focus on the second book of Eudocia’s Martyrdom of Cyprian, which takes the form of an apologetic speech given by the newly converted Cyprian to the Antiochene Christians to demonstrate the legitimacy of his conversion. During this speech, Cyprian traces how and where he learned magic—a journey that begins in Athens and spans the eastern half of the Mediterranean. After brief stops at the major religious centers of Greece and Asia Minor, Cyprian travels to Egypt and Babylon, where he advances to the position of Satan’s lieutenant, before settling in Antioch, where he is hired to seduce Justa. While the details Eudocia provides about these cult centers and their associated rituals may not reflect historical reality, they do clarify the competitive rhetoric that late antique Christians used to discredit their ideological rivals.
The first section of this chapter traces the obscure ritual and cultic details of Cyprian’s Mediterranean journey and situates them within the context of this late antique religious competition. In the second section, I compare the vastly different accounts of Justa between the Confession and the Conversion and argue that Eudocia gives her epic a thematic unity around her revisionist reading of Justa by adding to her Confession further allusions to the Acts of Paul and Thecla. In the final section of this chapter, I examine the literary origins of Cyprian’s character and compare him to Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana, among others. Like Justa, Cyprian emerges as a type of literary bricolage who intertextually surpasses previous generations of itinerant wonderworkers. By employing this type of allusive competition, Eudocia anticipates Cyprian and Justa’s martyrdom (in the third book of her epic, now lost) and gives her story more ideological force. Included after these chapters is my translation of Eudocia’s Cyprian epic, its first complete English translation.
What follows is a long overdue study on Aelia Eudocia’s life and poetry. Despite my attempts to allow Eudocia’s own words to guide the organization and structure of each chapter, I am acutely aware that my own active hand as (male) reader and interpreter is present throughout. I ask for my reader’s patience, with an understanding about the challenges associated with recovering the voices of ancient women, many of whom were silenced by oppressive and unjust forces. It is my hope this book on Eudocia’s poetry does her justice and presents her as an exceptional late antique woman, courageous enough to challenge countless social, religious, and literary boundaries.


[ back ]

Compare Mazzarino 1946; Beck 1966; Haffner 1996; Leppin 1998; Haffner 1999.

[ back ]

Cameron 1965; Cameron 1982; Holum 1982; Hunt 1982; Biers 1989–1990; Burman 1994; Cameron 2000.

[ back ]

For Eudocia’s place in recent works on women poets of antiquity, see Homeyer 1979; Wilson-Kaster 1981; Snyder 1989; Balmer 1996; Plant 2004; Greene 2005; Stevenson 2005.