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November 9, 2023

This month, we spotlight the graduate research of Dr. Sinja Küppers, who recently defended her dissertation on marginal learners in Roman higher education.

Our knowledge of Roman higher education is based on the biographies and letters written by a handful of adult men from the Roman upper class. Consequently, it is unsurprising that Roman higher education has been associated with a select group of successful, adult men. Because their access to higher education was privileged in principle, it is difficult to imagine that any member of “the” educated elite could have experienced basic needs. If a rhetoric student ran out of money, we are more likely to think of a rich kid squandering his fortune than a fatherless student being cut off from his uncle’s assets, and as a result going hungry or unable to pay his tuition fees.

However, the demographic proportion of fatherless students was in fact significantly higher in antiquity than today, and being fatherless could fundamentally change a student’s experiences. My doctoral research highlights the experiences of marginal learners in late antiquity: fatherless students, women, non-citizen students, autodidacts, disabled students, and late learners who sought nontraditional pathways of education.

Since most sources on Roman education mention marginal learners only in passing, I piece together their experiences from an array of literary sources, including letters from teachers to parents, churchmen’s comments on women, public speeches, tombstones, and legal documents. For instance, an elegiac funerary epigram from Cyzcius credits the effort of the mother Politta for the education of her deceased, fatherless son Fronto and documents her career expectations for him. By highlighting the insights into the margins of Roman educational communities that we gain from biographical documents and anecdotes, I draw attention to understudied learners and challenge our notion of who was part of “the” educated elite in the late Roman empire.

This post focuses on women in Roman higher education in the fourth and fifth century C.E. In this period, some women found opportunities studying philosophy in Alexandria and Athens or pursued the ascetic life in Rome and the “Holy Land” (Egypt and Palestine). Despite fear and criticism, women were not deterred from paving new paths of education and shaping educational communities as teachers, community designers, and philanthropes.

Women in higher education have been largely excluded from our record, partly because they were not expected to be educated beyond the marriageable age with the goal of becoming a public intellectual or pursuing a political career, nor to travel for education, nor to share space with men in general. The few educated women mentioned have been either sidelined as relatives or wives of famous intellectuals, or introduced as outstanding mystics, such as the Neoplatonist Sosipatra, whose talent seemingly belies the concept of becoming learned with effort.

Jan R. Stenger has recently explained mentions of women’s education, such as Sosipatra’s, as an inward-facing model of education and an alternative to the traditional classroom education. To put it bluntly, men framed women’s education as “different” from men’s in order to provoke male peers and challenge the status quo of men’s education.

Apart from this male-centered study of education, Classical scholars have until recently rejected even the term “philosophers” for most women associated with ancient philosophy — because women were not acknowledged by male philosophers as such and were not portrayed by men as engaging in philosophy to the same extent as men were. Instead of actively discussing and teaching, the women mentioned in the context of higher education are passive listeners, daughters of philosophers, and offered to students as wives. However, by limiting who counts as a philosopher, scholars today continue the marginalization of women in higher education.

In contrast to the narratives that present women outside of male education, I propose that some women navigated the same educational spaces and used the same social networks as men did. By expanding our definition of who counts as learned, I reinterpret our evidence of female learners. For instance, the Alexandrian Aedesia stayed together with her sons at the residence of their teacher (Proclus) in Athens, and Gemina hosted the teacher Plotinus in her home. While some upper-class women hence claimed a spot among “the” educated elite, women were overall underrepresented and navigated intellectual communities defined by men.

Using Bourdieu’s capital theory, I assess which benefits male learners had by accessing their family’s wealth, social network, and schools. I also examine how not having access to this capital impacted learners at a transition period in their life: from grammar school to advanced study, from childhood to adulthood, from being at home to moving out. I thus reevaluate students’ experiences as documented in literary and inscriptional evidence and identify sociocultural factors that impacted students’ careers. Next, I contrast the resources used in Roman higher education by young men with those used by women and find that educated women shared more with men than is commonly acknowledged. Specifically, I discuss seven different scenarios of how women gained access to a philosophy teacher and studied with him. Women navigated the male dominated education system by drawing on the same capital as men did, but in doing so, they created their own educational opportunities.

One important factor of educational success is mobility. Analogous to young upper-class men — who typically moved around the age of 16 to another city to study, ideally with a renowned teacher — I discuss women’s educational mobility. I suggest that pilgrimage should also be considered as just such mobility. Whether studying philosophy or pursuing ascetics’ lives “abroad,” traveling required money and leisure time. But even upper-class women were not expected to be educated beyond the marriageable age of 14. Although they traveled to visit friends and family, traveling for the purpose of education is rarely attested; on the contrary, traveling was actively discouraged by male authors with reach, such as Seneca. Consequently, women have not been discussed in studies of intellectual mobility in the Roman Empire.

If women were traveling and able to study philosophy, they were typically traveling because a father or a husband took his family with him on trips. But one instance of women’s educational mobility otherwise documented in men’s biographies survives: at the end of the fifth century C.E., Theodora of Emesa and her sisters first studied with the Neoplatonist Isidore in Alexandria and then traveled to Athens to study with the Neoplatonist Damascius. We only know of their educational mobility because Theodora requested from Damascius a biography about their shared teacher Isidore in which she is acknowledged.

Criticism against travel also prevailed in Christian sources. Pilgrimage was commonly criticized by desert fathers, themselves hermits, as an external exile that distracted from the aspired internal withdrawal from society. Other criticism focused on pilgrims who were on the road for extended periods (“roaming around,” περιαγομένη) or permanently settled outside the control of the Roman church (“living abroad,” ξενιτεία). In contrast to men, women were subject to more gender-specific rules reinforced by churchmen: they were supposed to avoid the “male gaze” and were in need of protection while traveling, and so they were either discouraged from travel altogether or strongly encouraged to travel in company.

Nonetheless, pilgrimage became increasingly popular among women in late antiquity, providing them with new freedom of movement and educational opportunities. For instance, the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria traveled for three years by herself. She is one of the few women whose writing has survived ­— mainly because she was portrayed as a model of holy pilgrimage and sanctity by the Spanish abbot Valerius of Bierzo, who read her diary in the early seventh century C.E. His reception of her diary illustrates how the portrayal of female travel has been distorted by male authors. Egeria in fact never mentions any commitment to a life of chastity. She was, however, interested in studying the Scripture alongside visiting historical sites. Her diary is addressed to female friends at home and likely reached women interested in learning about the Holy Land and in travel literature. Egeria’s diary therefore documents the educational significance of travel not only for women but for non-traveling readers, too.

Egeria challenged gender, religious, and social norms by traveling long distances in public alone as a woman to explore sites of interest, educate herself, and record her experiences in writing. Why is the educational aspect of women’s travel important? In contrast to men’s traveling for the sake of intellectual endeavors, ancient literature suggests that women traveled only for other purposes, such as rituals. Men even portrayed women specifically as uneducated wealthy tourists visiting ascetics and invading the Holy Land.

For example, in his life of Melania the Younger, Gerontius reports that Melania disregards a monk’s express refusal to accept her gold and unsuccessfully attempts to hide it in his cell behind his back. This episode is part of Melania’s pilgrimage to Egypt, where she is educating herself about the lives of ascetics. The biographer, however, focuses on her desire to practice charity while refusing to learn from her mistakes. He fosters the topos of the uneducated female pilgrim widely attested in the anecdotes of the desert fathers.

And yet the same biographer — who himself succeeded her as head of her monasteries — credits Melania as a leader and founder of ascetic communities. Many of the women who visited ascetics to learn from them in fact continued to live in ascetic communities in Rome or the Holy Land and consequently put to practice what they had studied. By pointing out the biased narratives of female pilgrims, I uncover new aspects of women’s engagement with learning and self-education through asceticism.

Inspired by Andrea Walton’s study of women’s impact on American university education through philanthropy, I analyze the impact of women such as Melania on education by founding and leading ascetic communities. More specifically, I shift the focus from women as patrons of men’s learning to women’s own impact on higher education. For example, Aemilia Hilaria, an “expert in the medical arts,” financially supported the education of her nephew Ausonius. Furthermore, the philanthrope Melania turned the tables on who financially supports whom by asking a man to contribute to her building project. In addition, she delegated power by installing another woman as the superior of the community she founded and purchased relics of saints, giving women access to them, an access that would be revoked in the following centuries.

While I bring new attention to women’s philanthropy and educational leadership, I also discuss how women such as Paula of Rome reinforced existing social norms in her community design, such as by separating women by class. By reproducing social distinctions, founders from the Roman upper class facilitated the transition to the ascetic life for peers who had to renounce worldly luxury but were able to distinguish themselves from sisters coming from lower means. In this manner, women partook in recreating holy community in worldly manners. Despite this comfort, choosing asceticism required from young women a willingness to disappoint their family, break social conventions, and assert themselves against guardians and religious authorities. Letters from churchmen indicate that taking the vow of celibacy was unconventional for privileged, upper-class women: they risked negative social mobility by renouncing wealth, progeny, and marriage. In my dissertation, I discuss six different scenarios of women’s navigating social expectations and choosing this alternative way of life. In either scenario, asceticism required from upper-class women habituation, the training of mind/body, and education in the Scripture. Asceticism was hence closely intertwined with education.

Those interested in reading my full dissertation will have to wait until publication, but I am happy to give sneak previews on particular aspects and discuss work in progress. Feel free to reach out!

Do you want to write a spotlight on your dissertation or thesis, or want to recommend someone to do one on theirs? Get in touch with the SCS Blog’s Editor-in-Chief, T. H. M. Gellar-Goad!


Dr. Sinja Küppers is a postdoc fellow at the Polonsky Academy for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences. She holds a PhD in Classical Studies from Duke University and is the first Classicist to have received a fellowship from the National Academy of Education. Dr. Küppers will present on Loving a Slave at the 2024 SCS meeting and on Social Inequality in Christian Philosophy at the XIX Oxford Patristics Conference. Follow her on Linkedin and her website (