This paper will examine the use of personified divine rumor (Fama) as a vehicle for praise in the letters of Jerome of Stridon. Although Jerome incorporates allusions to the classical goddess Fama in a number of his works – including his translation of the Latin Bible – the most richly textured depictions of personified Fama can be found in his epistles, where the Virgilian goddess is tasked with praising high-profile Christians.
The notion of rumor as an immortal goddess is ancient, dating back to Homer and Hesiod. In the Latin tradition, divine rumor is known as the goddess Fama. The fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid contains a famous ecphrasis describing the goddess with monstrous physical characteristics: wings, multiple eyes (as well as tongues, mouths, and ears), unfathomable speed, towering stature, and unceasing vigilance. Virgil’s depiction of divine rumor was influential, affecting subsequent descriptions of Fama and rumor from late antiquity to the Renaissance. Although Fama remains a popular topic in scholarship (Guastella 2017, Kyriakidis 2017, Syson 2013, Hardie 2012), late antique Latin sources (especially prose) have been neglected in these studies. Jerome’s corpus of epistles is still being explored by scholars. Book-length studies on his letters focus heavily on historical and prosopographical aspects (Cain 2009, Conring 2001, Rebenich 1992), aside from the stylistic treatment of Hritzu 1939. None of these treatments examine Jerome’s use of personified rumor, and little has been said about topoi imported from panegyric in the letters providing the focus for this paper.
This study will analyze allusions to the classical goddess Fama in three of Jerome’s epistles: Ep. 4 (addressed to Florentinus), Ep. 77 (eulogy of Fabiola, addressed to Oceanus), and Ep. 130 (addressed to Demetrias). A philological and rhetorical analysis of these three depictions will show that four threads of influence inform Jerome’s Fama. Virgil’s ecphrasis provides the original concept and physical characteristics (which Jerome does not completely eliminate). To this literary base, he adds both Ovidian and panegyrical topoi, including comparisons to military battles and triumphs. Finally, Fama is given Judeo-Christian overtones and duties to perform. These layers of influence allow Jerome to draw upon a Virgilian deity and refashion her into a divine force appropriate for praising the Christian elite. Yet she remains at the core a Roman classical goddess, a fact undergirded by Virgilian quotations and patriotic themes. Given that Jerome vehemently opposed invoking other abstract deities (e.g., Fortuna, Victoria), his use of Fama as a medium for praise and a symbol of communal Roman joy is significant. The conclusion to this paper discusses Jerome’s Fama within the ancient tradition of communal praise, sets her in a broader comparative religious context, and suggests another text that may have informed Jerome’s depictions.
The Art of Praise: Panegyric and Encomium in Late Antiquity