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Praising the rich: Jerome’s consolation for the widow Salvina in Ep. 79

Philip Polcar

University of Vienna

Around the year 400 Jerome wrote a letter to the young noblewoman Salvina, the wife of Nebridius. the nephew of Aelia Flaccilla. Although Salvina was a hostage, she secured her position at the court of Arcadius by giving birth to two imperial children, successors of the gens. When her husband Nebridius died, Jerome used this opportunity to write her a letter. To address a lady of the imperial family was quite daring – even for someone who regularly corresponded with noblewomen. Ep. 79 is Jerome’s second libellus about chaste widowhood, aimed at a wider audience. It begins, however, with a personal dedication to Salvina, in the form of a consolation on the death of her husband. This consolation – which is more like a eulogy – will be the focus of my paper.

Consolational literature had a long ancient tradition, but in Christian circles it gained a new quality. Both Ambrose and Jerome played a role in this evolution. One basic change they initiated was to cross the genos of consolation with the genos of the laudatio funebris. They incorporated the glorification of the departed by praising his/her holy lifestyle. By this they could first emphasize eternal life in heaven, which had a direct consolatory function and was perhaps the strongest solace a consoler–especially a pagan one – would have to offer. Secondly, a reminder of the departed’s eternal glory admonished the reader to avoid sin and live a holy life. According to these rules, the late Nebridius is stylized as an exemplum of Christian piety. But Jerome chooses to speak almost exclusively about the man’s riches and his almsgiving.

In a Biblical context, being rich is problematic. The dangers wealth poses to the soul of the rich are illustrated by metaphors (Mt 19.24). In Jerome’s depiction, the wealthy Nebridius did not stand a chance to enter heaven unless he dealt with the “problem” of his riches. The Pauline epistles give counsel about this problem: in order to achieve eternal life, rich people have to share (1 Tim 6.16ff). Nebridius’ salvation thus hinges upon his many donations to the poor. This leads to the conclusion that one can – to some extent – buy salvation for one’s soul, a conclusion corroborated by certain Biblical passages (Lk 16.9). According to Jerome, Nebridius made friends (amici) by sharing his wealth and mitigating the poverty of others. These friends made it possible for him to enter heaven, because they were powerful in the life after death. This logic is nothing more than the ancient relationship between patronus and cliens. Nebridius started a friendship with the poor by caring for them. In exchange for his generosity, he could expect them to care for him when his strength became weakness – that is, in the life after death. His former clients became his patrons.

I will analyze how Jerome’s rhetoric amplifies concerns about wealth and spiritual salvation in its praise of Nebridius. Ultimately, I will show that Jerome stood to gain from his exegetical treatment of selected Biblical passages in praise of Nebridius and his pressure upon the widow Salvina. Jerome, a monk, was in need of huge amounts of money to maintain his cenobitic settlement in Bethlehem, not to mention his gigantic library. The letter to Salvina can thus be understood as a sample of his abilities as a possible mentor who could guide her spiritually in her life as a chaste widow. In return he could expect donations. That Jerome requested money from Salvina is a view stated briefly in secondary literature before (Rebenich 194f), and Jerome’s attitudes towards wealth have been described (Brown 259ff.), but scholarship lacks an in-depth analysis of his rhetoric in combination with his theology. My paper will use Ep. 79 as a case study for analyzing the intersection of rhetoric and theology in Jerome’s corpus.

Session/Panel Title:

The Art of Praise: Panegyric and Encomium in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number

35.5

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