Skip to main content

This paper examines a poem authored by Fabia Aconia Paulina in defense of traditional Roman religion just a decade before the temples were permanently closed. In late 384 A.D., Paulina delivered a laudatio at the funeral of her husband Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, one of a very few occasions on which a Roman woman is known to have performed such a public function. This circumstance is made even more remarkable by the fact that a version of the elogium has been preserved epigraphically in poetic form (CIL 6.1779). There is general agreement that Paulina authored both the elogium and the laudatio on which it was based (see, for example, Dronke 1984; Kahlos 1994; Stevenson 2005). She therefore belongs to the small group of women writers whose words have survived from antiquity. Even more importantly, however, her poetry provides a unique perspective on a period otherwise dominated by maleauthored religious polemic. Paulina's poem is an essential text for the comparison of Christian and pagan ideas about the afterlife and immortality in late antiquity. In line 9, she claims that the gate of heaven (porta caeli) lies open to Praetextatus because of his philosophical studies, while in lines 22-3, she praises her husband for initiating her into the mysteries and thus freeing her from the fate of death (sorte mortis eximens). Paulina, at least, seems convinced of her personal immortality and mounts a strong defense of the pagan way of life. The laudatio evidently attracted the attention of the eminent church father Jerome, who was in Rome in 384 working on his Latin translation of the Bible. In a brief note to his friend Marcella concerning the death of a Christian woman (Hier. Ep. 23.3), Jerome contrasts her eternal fate to that of the recently deceased consul designate. Praetextatus, Jerome scornfully insists, had not reached the heavenly palace, as his unhappy wife disingenuously claimed (conmentitur), but was instead dwelling in foul darkness. Paulina's laudatio provides a unique counterpoint to Christian polemics of this kind and reminds us that pagan women also had a stake in the debate over the legitimacy of their religious system. While the poem is addressed to Praetextatus and lavishes praise on him, it is also strikingly autobiographical. Paulina offers a full account of her public commitment to traditional polytheism, providing her own counterpart to Praetextatus' elaborate cursus inscribed above. Her impressive list of initiations includes the Eleusinian rites, the most prestigious mystery cult in the entire Mediterranean. Paulina was also a recipient of the taurobolium at Rome, a hierophantria of Hecate, and an antistes of the Magna Mater. In lines 36-7 of the poem, Paulina boasts that men and women alike commend and desire the honors (insignia) that Praetextatus has bestowed upon her. Paulina here vocalizes the otherwise unspoken personal and social fulfillment that women could find in religious practice. For this reason, her elogium of Praetextatus not only illuminates the religious dynamics of the late fourth century, but also compliments the otherwise impersonal and indirect evidence for women's religious activities in ancient Rome.