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  • Lucy Grig


This article considers the writings of Saint Jerome as a source for writing a cultural history of the city of Rome in late antiquity. Jerome is of course, in many respects, an unreliable witness but his lively and often conflicted accounts of the city do none the less provide significant insights into the city during an age of transition. He provides a few snippets for the scholar of topography, but these do not constitute the main attraction. Jerome's city of Rome appears above all as a textual palimpsest: variously painted in Vergilian colours as Troy and frequently compared with the biblical cities of Babylon, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In the final analysis, it is argued, Jerome's Rome is surprisingly unstable, indeed a ‘soft city’.

Questo articolo considera gli scritti di San Girolamo come fonte per scrivere una storia culturale della città di Roma nella tarda antichità. Girolamo è ovviamente, per molti aspetti, un testimone irreale ma i suoi animati e spesso conflittuali resoconti della città senza dubbio forniscono significativi sguardi sulla città durante un periodo di transizione. Egli fornisce una manciata di spigolature per lo studioso di topografia, ma questo non costituisce la maggiore attrattiva. La Roma di Girolamo appare soprattutto come un palinsesto testuale: variamente dipinta nei colori virgiliani come Troia e frequentemente paragonata con le città bibliche di Babilonia, Betlemme e Gerusalemme. Nell'analisi finale si arguisce che la Roma di Girolamo è sorprendentemente instabile, certamente una ‘soft city’.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Dr Lucy Grig, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Teviot Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9AG, United Kingdom.


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This article stems from a project funded by a Small Research Grant from the British Academy and another grant from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, a few years ago now. It has been delivered in different forms to audiences at Cardiff and Edinburgh. It has benefited greatly from the comments of Gavin Kelly and the anonymous readers and Editor of the Papers of the British School at Rome, but its shortcomings remain, as always, my own.



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1 See, out of many, W.V. Harris (ed.), The Transformations of Vrbs Roma in Late Antiquity (Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series 33) (Portsmouth (RI), 1999); Arena, M.S., Paroli, L. and Venditelli, L. (eds), Roma dall'antichità al medioevo: archeologia e storia nel Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi (Milan, 2001); Meneghini, R. and Santangeli Valenzani, R., I Fori Imperiali: gli scavi del Comune di Roma (1991–2007) (Rome, 2007); Dey, H., The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome ad 271–855 (Cambridge, 2011).

2 See, again out of many, focusing specifically on Rome: Jacobs, A.S., ‘‘What has Rome to do with Bethlehem?’ Cultural capital(s) and religious imperialism in late ancient Christianity’, Classical Receptions 3 (2011), 2945 (on Jerome); Roberts, M., ‘Rome personified, Rome epitomized: representations of Rome in the poetry of the early fifth century’, American Journal of Philology 122 (2001), 533–65. Cameron, A., The Last Pagans of Rome (New York, 2011), considers a wide range of sources and is likely to influence study of late antique Rome for the foreseeable future.

3 See now Grig, L. and Kelly, G. (eds), Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity (New York, 2012).

4 For the Latin texts: Hilberg, I. (ed.), Sancti Eusebi Hieronymi Epistulae (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 54–6, pars I–III) (Vienna, 1996); Glorie, F. (ed.), Commentariorum in Hielem (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 75) (Turnhout, 1964). For English translations, see Schaff, P. and Wace, H. (eds), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers second series, vol. 6 (Oxford, 1893), now also available online at various locations.

5 He was guilty of ‘breathtaking self-delusion’ and wrote ‘propaganda, not objective analysis’: Matthews, J., ‘Four funerals and a wedding: this world and the next in fourth-century Rome’, in Rousseau, P. and Papoutsakis, M. (eds), Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown (Ashgate, 2009), 129–46, esp. pp. 140, 146.

6 Wiesen, D.S., St Jerome as a Satirist: a Study in Christian Latin Thought and Letters (Ithaca, 1964).

7 Curran, J., ‘Jerome and the sham-Christians of Rome’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 48 (1997), 213–29; Rebenich, S., Hieronymus und sein Kreis: Prosopographische und Sozialgeschichtliche Untersuchungen (Stuttgart, 1992), 179, commented that Jerome's writings give us ‘zwar einen interessanten, aber keineswegs repräsentativen Einblick in die zeitgnössische römische Gesellschaft’.

8 See here Sugano, K., Das Rombild des Hieronymus (Frankfurt/Bern/New York, 1983), and Paschoud, F., Roma aeterna: études sur le patriotisme romain dans l'occident latin à l'époque des grands invasions (Rome, 1967).

9 I have been influenced here, and beyond, by Raban, J., Soft City (Glasgow, 1974).

10 J. Boswell, Life of Johnson, cited in Raban, Soft City (above, n. 9), 92.

11 Raban, Soft City (above, n. 9), 31.

12 Generally on Jerome, see Kelly, J.N.D., Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (New York, 1975); Rebenich, S., Jerome (London, 2002); Cain, A. and Lössl, J. (eds), Jerome of Stridon: His Life, Writing and Legacy (Cardiff, 2009); and Cain, A., The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2009).

13 See here Booth, A.D., ‘The date of Jerome's birth’, Phoenix 33 (1979), 346–52, and Booth, A.D., ‘The chronology of Jerome's early years’, Phoenix 25 (1981), 237–59.

14 See Epistulae 15.1, 16.1.

15 The nature and dating of Jerome's ‘conversion’ is far from clear; Jerome gives his own dramatic account at Epistulae 22.30.

16 Rebenich, Hieronymus und sein Kreis (above, n. 7), 85–98, cast a skeptical eye over Jerome's claims to have lived a life of extreme desert privations: it is most likely that he resided on an estate owned by his friend Evagrius, only 30 miles from Antioch; see also Rebenich, Jerome (above, n. 12), 16–20.

17 Rebenich stressed Jerome's success in Constantinople, as an ecclesiastical mover, a Christian scholar and writer, and as a man who knew people: Rebenich, Jerome (above, n. 12), 21–30.

18 Scholarship here is of course numerous, but see in particular Brown, P., ‘Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman aristocracy’, Journal of Roman Studies 51 (1961), 111; Barnes, T.D., ‘Statistics and the conversion of the Roman aristocracy’, Journal of Roman Studies 85 (1995), 135–47; Salzman, M., The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire (London, 2002); and Cameron, The Last Pagans (above, n. 2).

19 Cain, The Letters of Jerome (above n. 12), 33–4, stresses Jerome's relative obscurity at this point, especially compared with the more prominent ‘Ambrosiaster’, and argues that he published his first letter collection, the Epistularum ad Diversos Liber, at this point, to serve as his literary calling card in a competitive market.

20 It could, perhaps, be read differently: ‘Damasus had me always on his lips’. In any case, Jerome also claimed (though this is generally viewed with considerable scepticism) that he was considered as Damasus's likely successor: ‘Omnium paene iudicio dignus summo sacerdotio decernebar’, Epistulae 45.3.

21 See here in particular Rebenich, Hieronymus und sein Kreis (above, n. 7). Cameron, Last Pagans (above, n. 2), 3, memorably refers to Jerome's ‘aristocratic groupies’.

22 See, for instance, Rufinus, Apologia contra Hieronymum 2.5.5.

23 See Cooper, K., The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (London, 1996), 80–3; Cain, The Letters of Jerome (above, n. 12), 102–5.

24 Jerome gives an angry but opaque account of the affair in his ‘farewell’ letter/apologia to his friend Asella: Epistulae 45. In it he tell us ‘Infamiam falsi criminis inportarunt’ (Epistulae 45.6); the probable relation to Paula: ‘Nihil mihi aliud obicitur nisi sexus meus, et hoc numquam obicitur, nisi cum Hierosolyma Paula proficiscitur’ (45.2). Cain, The Letters of Jerome (above, n. 12), 99–128, gives an interesting account, suggesting that Paula's family instigated the charges against Jerome, although ultimately this can only be speculation.

25 The closest he comes to an admission that he was found guilty comes in his Epistula adversus Rufinum 22: ‘quid autem de me Romae iudicatum sit et quid postea scriptum, nolo taceas, praesertim cum habeas testimonium scripturarum’.

26 See Laurence, P., ‘Rome et Jérôme: des amours contrariées’, Revue Bénédictine 107 (1997), 227–49.

27 See Cain, The Letters of Jerome (above, n. 12), 171–8.

28 He referred to his ‘fraternitas de Urbe’: Epistulae 85.3.

29 Epistulae 15.3.

30 For example, Commentarii in Epistulam ad Galatas pr. 331C; 1.19, 354D; Commentarii in Ecclesiasten pr. 249.

31 His Chronicle records for the year ad 330: ‘Dedicatur Constantinopolis omnium paene urbium nuditate’. The Chronicle does, however, suggest an interest in goings on in the city, including not only events such as the deposition of relics but the bizarre hailstorm of 367 and work on the water supply: see here Kelly, Jerome (above, n. 12), 71–2.

32 It is worth noting that this is in stark contrast to another one-time Rome dweller, Augustine; see, for example, De Excidio Urbis Romae.

33 See Pelikan, J., The Excellent Empire: the Fall of Rome and the Triumph of the Church (New York, 1987), 4452.

34 See here Bréguet, E., ‘Vrbi et orbi, un cliché et un thème’, in Bibauw, J. (ed.), Hommages à Marcel Renard (Brussels, 1969), 140–52. Puns on the two words were common from Cicero onwards, mostly in prose texts. Cf. Jerome, Epistulae 127.4: ‘… in urbe, in qua orbis quondam populis fuit …’.

35 Bréguet, ‘Vrbi et orbi’ (above, n. 34), noted a reminiscence of Cicero, In Catilinam 1.4.9, on the effects of the despoliation caused by Catiline: ‘qui de huius urbis atque adeo de orbis terrarum exitio cogitent’. Cf. Epistulae 130.5: ‘urbs tua, quondam orbis caput, Romani populi sepulchrum est’.

36 See also Epistulae 123.17, written in 409, despairing over Stilicho's treaty with Alaric, and citing Lucan and Vergil; Epistulae 126.6, expressing shock at the news of the sack; Epistulae 130, written in 414, looking back to the time of the sack.

37 Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 15: ‘obiit tertio Trajano anno, et nominis ejus memoriam usque hodie Romae extructa ecclesia custodit’.

38 Jerome, Epistulae 77.4: ‘basilica quondam Laterani, qui Cesariano truncatus est gladio’. This assertion was traditionally accepted by scholars of Roman topography, but has been shown to be false by the careful work of Liverani, P., ‘Dalle Aedes Laterani al patriarchio lateranense’, Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 75 (1999), 521–49.

39 Epistulae 127.13: ‘Cumque et illam et te [Principia] ad beati apostolic Pauli basilicam barbari deduxissent, ut vel salutem vobis ostenderent, vel sepulchrum …’.

40 Epistulae 22.32. See the account of a banquet for the poor given at Saint Peter's by the Roman senator Pammachius, a correspondent of Jerome: Paulinus of Nola, Epistulae 13.11–16; Grig, L., ‘Throwing parties for the poor: poverty and splendour in the late antique church’, in Atkins, M. and Osborne, R. (eds), Poverty in the Roman World (Cambridge, 2006), 145–61.

41 See here Curran, ‘Jerome and the sham-Christians’ (above, n. 7).

42 Jerome was well aware of his satirical reputation (or, indeed, persona), and played upon it at times: see Epistulae 50.5, quoting Persius, Juvenal and Horace, and Epistulae 117.1, quoting Horace's description of Lucilius. In invoking Lucilius, Jerome is clearly laying out his satirical genealogy. See here, generally, Wiesen, St Jerome as a Satirist (above, n. 6).

43 Cameron, Last Pagans (above, n. 2), 186.

44 As noted above (n. 16), recent scholarship has cast doubt upon these, further strengthening the picture of Jerome as an unreliable witness of his own biography.

45 For example, Hagendahl, H., Latin Fathers and the Classics: a Study on the Apologists, Jerome and Other Christian Writers (Gothenburg, 1958).

46 First made in Epistulae 22.30 (that is, in 384), later strengthened with the assertion that he had picked up neither Cicero nor Vergil for fifteen years, claiming that any seeming citations were merely ‘misty recollections’: Commentarii in Epistulam Pauli Apostoli ad Galatas pr. 3. We might note here again the play on time and memory in his autobiographical reflections.

47 He was censured for this by the Roman orator Magnus (Epistulae 70) and, most seriously, by Rufinus: Apologia contra Hieronymum II.7. Jerome was, of course, not alone in his Vergilian enthusiasms; recent scholarship has picked up on renewed interest in Vergil during this period; see Geymonat, M., ‘The transmission of Virgil's works in antiquity and the Middle Ages’, in Horsfall, N. (ed.), A Companion to the Study of Virgil (Leiden, 1995), 292312, esp. pp. 303–10; Rees, R., Romane Memento: Vergil in the Fourth Century (London, 2004); and J. Curran, ‘Virgilizing Christianity in late antique Rome’, in Grig and Kelly (eds), Two Romes (above, n. 3), 325–44.

48 This pairing of Vergilian and biblical passages was a common practice for Jerome: see here Hagendahl, Latin Fathers (above, n. 45), 302–3.

49 Replacing the original labores.

50 Replacing sternuntur.

51 This is a composite line, from ‘corpora perque domos et religiosa deorum limina’ (355–6) and ‘… et plurima mortis imago’ (369). Clearly this change is made in order to avoid the ‘pagan’ connotations of the original line.

52 Although of course Augustine famously recounted how, as a schoolboy, he wept for Dido: Confessiones 1.13.20.

53 Jerome, Epistulae 107.2: ‘ante paucos annos proinquus vester Gracchus, nobilitatem patriciam nomine sonans, cum praefecturam regeret urbanam, nonne specu Mithrae. et omnia portentuosa simulacra, quibus corax, nymphius, miles, leo, Perses, heliodromus, pater initiantur subvertit, fregit, exussit et his quasi obsidibus ante praemissis inpetravit baptimsmum Christi?’. Cf. Prudentius, Contra Symmachem 1.561–3.

54 That the mithraeum was on private property is generally agreed; for example, Matthews, J., Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court ad 364–425 (Oxford, 1975), 23. J. Bjørnebye ‘Hic Locus Est Felix, Sanctus, Piusque Benignus’: the Cult of Mithras in Fourth Century Rome (University of Bergen, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 2007), 88, has pointed out that Jerome would have gloated, had the mithraeum belonged to a prominent aristocratic family. Cameron assumes that it would no longer have been active as by this time ‘Mithraism was in terminal decline’: Last Pagans (above n. 2), 144.

55 Ammianus Marcellinus 22.16: ‘post Capitolium, quo se venerabilis Roma in aeternum attollit, nihil orbis terrarum ambitiosius cernat’.

56 See here Kaas, C., Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict (Baltimore, 1997), 159–68.

57 An imperial edict demanding its closure had been served in 398, although it would take a second edict before the temple's actual destruction in 402; see Van Dam, R., ‘From paganism to Christianity at late antique Gaza’, Viator 16 (1985), 120.

58 See Grig, L., ‘Imagining the Capitolium in Late Antiquity’, in Cain, A. and Lenski, N. (eds), The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2009), 279–91.

59 See, for a particularly clear statement of the idea, Vergil, Aeneid 9.448–9, and, for modern discussion, Edwards, C., Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City (Cambridge, 1996), 6995.

60 For example, Ovid, Fasti 6.73–4.

61 Seneca, Controversiae 1.64; Silius Italicus, Punica 3.622–4.

62 For example, ‘Prima urbes inter, divum domus, aurea Roma’, Ausonius, Ordo Urbium Nobilium 1.

63 See L. Grig, ‘Competing capitals, competing representations: late antique cityscapes in words and pictures’, in Grig and Kelly, Two Romes (above, n. 3), 31–52; and Kelly, G., ‘The new Rome and the old: Ammianus’ silences on Constantinople', Classical Quarterly 53 (2003), 588607.

64 See Ando, C., ‘The Palladium and the Pentateuch: towards a sacred topography of the later Roman empire’, Phoenix 55 (2001), 369410.

65 Cf. Jerome, Commentarii in Epistulam Pauli Apostoli ad Galatas pr. 2, as well as a similarly polemic approach in Paulinus of Nola, Carmina 19.67–70, a passage interestingly dependent on Aeneid 2.338 and 2.629. Claudian, meanwhile, holds to a more traditional picture of the Capitoline: Claudian, De VI Consulatu Honorii Augusti 41–55. See further Roberts, ‘Rome personified’ (above, n. 2), 555–65.

66 See De Angeli, S., ‘Iuppiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus, Aedes (fasi tardo repubblicane e di età imperiale’, in Steinby, E.M. (ed.), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae III (H–O) (Rome, 1997), 152–3. There is archaeological and epigraphic evidence for the reconstruction and dedication of two traditional religious sites fronting the Clivus Capitolinus in the late fourth century: the Temple of Saturn and the Porticus of the Consenting Gods. Textual references include Jerome's own account of the full processional ascent of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, to the Capitoline, presumably in order to sacrifice, in 384: Jerome, Epistulae 23.3. See further Cameron, Last Pagans (above, n. 2), 285–7, on Praetextatus's visit to the temples of Rome in that same year.

67 Ammianus Marcellinus 16.10.14; Ausonius, Ordo Urbium Nobilium 19.15–18; Cassiodorus, Variae 7.6.1.

68 Just as Nero's Colossus had its features repeatedly removed by successive emperors, the Capitoline's gilding was removed by both Stilicho (Zosimus 5.38.5) and Geiseric (Procopius, Wars 1.5.4).

69 As Cameron notes of contradictory Christian accounts: ‘Statements tend to fit either one or the other of two categories according to the point the writer is making: either paganism is now on the run, or the temptations of paganism are all around us. The same writer may even take both approaches in the same poem or sermon’, Last Pagans (above, n. 2), 184.

70 Wiesen, St Jerome as a Satirist (above, n. 6), 42–3, is particularly critical of this passage, referring to its ‘artificiality’ and ‘turgid rhetoric’.

71 See Braund, S.H., ‘City and country in Roman satire’, in Braund, S.H. (ed.), Satire and Society in Ancient Rome (Exeter, 1989), 2347. Ammianus's ‘Roman digressions’ provide a closely contemporary parallel: Ammianus Marcellinus 14.6, 28.4.

72 For example, Pliny, Epistulae 1.9, 9.6.

73 See Wiesen, St Jerome as a Satirist (above, n. 6), 21, on comparisons between this letter and Horace, Satirae 2.6.17–58 and Juvenal, Satirae 3 and 11.183–208.

74 deliciae rusticanae; cf. Epistulae 43.3.

75 Sugano, Das Rombild (above, n. 8), 33.

76 As at Epistulae 45.6. His opinon of the earthly Jerusalem was far more ambivalent — see, for instance, Epistulae 58.4.

77 As at Prologus in Didymi Libro de Spiritu Sancto pr., p. 107 (Revelation 17.1–4).

78 Laurence, ‘Rome et Jérôme’ (above, n. 26), 238, noted how in several letters Bethlehem is presented as an ‘anti-Rome’.

79 Lege Apocalypsin Iohannis … et Babylonis Cantetur Exitu (Revelation 18.2); Epistulae 46.12

80 Ad Hieremiam quoque Regrediens Scriptum Pariter Adtende: Fugite de Medio Babylonis … (Jeremiah 51.6); Epistulae 46.12.

81 Epistulae 108.1.

82 ‘Nam quae unius urbis contempsit gloriam, totius orbis opinione celebratur; quam Romae habitantem nullus extra Romam noverat, latentem in Bethlem et Barbara et Romana terra miratur’: Epistulae 108.3.

83 ‘… Romani prima Senatus / Pauperiem Christi, et Bethlemitica rura secuta est; Fratrem, cognatos, Romam patriamque relinquens, / Divitias, subolem, Betlemitico conditur antro’: Epistulae 108.33.

84 It is worth noting, however, that we are not talking of the urbs proper: in accordance with the practices of traditional aristocratic otium, Marcella founded her ‘monastery’ on her suburban farm, in order that its occupants could benefit from rural solitude: ‘Suburbanus ager vobis pro monasterio fuit et rus electum propter solitudinem’.

85 Calvino, I., Invisible Cities (London, 1974); the original Italian title was Le città invisibili.

86 Raban, Soft City (above, n. 9), 10.

* This article stems from a project funded by a Small Research Grant from the British Academy and another grant from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, a few years ago now. It has been delivered in different forms to audiences at Cardiff and Edinburgh. It has benefited greatly from the comments of Gavin Kelly and the anonymous readers and Editor of the Papers of the British School at Rome, but its shortcomings remain, as always, my own.


  • Lucy Grig


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