BMCR 2009.06.13

Girolamo e la Senectus: età della vita e morte nell’epistolario. Studia ephemeridis Augustinianum 109

, Girolamo e la Senectus: età della vita e morte nell'epistolario. Studia ephemeridis Augustinianum 109. Roma: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 2008. 150. ISBN 8879611186. €25.50.

With the progressive ageing of Western post-industrial societies, scholarship in recent decades has discovered a renewed interest in the related, but separate themes of old age and death and the ways in which they are culturally constructed.1 It is within that context and building upon this work that Marilena Amerise (henceforth A.) has written an intriguing book concerned with St. Jerome’s representation of old age and death as he writes of others and re-fashions his own self-representation over the years. Here, as perhaps nowhere else, we have the unique opportunity to perceive the melding of two separate cultural traditions concerning ageing — Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian — towards the close of Antiquity. Within a brief and engaging book, A. sets forth the evidence and examines the ways in which Jerome chose between and often united the contrasting cultural traditions to which he was heir. The overall inattention of Classicists to Jerome’s use of this material2 makes A.’s investigation all the more welcome and timely, and her premature death, which occurred as this review was being written, the more regrettable.

The work opens with a concise introduction that sets forth in clear and sophisticated manner the main lines of argumentation. There follow six chapters dedicated to specific subjects and building upon one another to illustrate how Jerome embodies both the Late Antique continuation of certain lines of Classical thought and the rupture with the past that was provoked by Christianity in its radical redefinition of life and death. A brief conclusion reviews A.’s findings concerning the construction of old age in Late Antiquity and Jerome’s specific contribution to that set of images and commonplaces. A. leaves readers with a clear vision of how Jerome, at least in this instance, successfully negotiated the divide separating Christ from Cicero.

In Chapter 1, A. reviews the evidence for the chronology of Jerome’s life. There are surprises lurking for those who thought that this extremely prolific and self-reflective author had dates that were well established. The traditional view, unfortunately defended by J.N.D. Kelly in his authoritative biography,3 reveals itself to be very poorly rooted in the evidence. Hence, in accordance with the modern authorities followed by A., it seems preferable to deduct nearly two decades from the saint’s life, attributing to him an age of some seventy years at the moment of death. In the course of her cursory review of the evidence and modern discussions, A. mistakenly cites the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine as the work of Sulpicius Severus (p. 16 n. 6), but that does not damage the essence of her argument. More disquieting, rather, is A.’s inability to abide by the very dates that she initially posits for Jerome’s life (AD 347-420).4

In Chapter 2, A. reviews the evidence for the correspondence of Jerome. Voluminous though this is, it represents but a fraction of what he produced over the course of a lifetime. As was typical in Classical Antiquity, Jerome’s published correspondence was chosen with an eye to style as well as subject-matter. That fact means that we must be alert to literary topoi and citations when using his letters as evidence for how Jerome and contemporaries viewed old age. Epistolography was a recognised literary genre, with its own rules and characteristics.5 Both the individual qualities of Jerome’s letters and the circumstances under which he composed them are evocatively, albeit succinctly, described by A. Consequently, the public nature of these letters is rendered more apparent, a consideration of no little import to the historian who would use them in order to understand how Christians — and Jerome in particular — conceived of old age upon the basis of their dual heritage coming from the Graeco-Roman and Jewish worlds. There emerges the view of an extraordinary mixture of pagan form with Christian content. On the other hand, A. also uses these letters to reflect upon the historical figure of Jerome, stressing how these letters’ immediacy reveals their author’s complex character. The saint paradoxically emerges as quarrelsome and yet in clear need of communicating with his contemporaries.

In Chapter 3, A. examines the various chronological sub-divisions posited by the ancient Greeks and Romans for human existence. But she opens this chapter by remarking the emphasis that Christian thinkers placed upon the irrelevance of age to spiritual development. Although the idea had already been foreshadowed by pagan thinkers, Christians significantly advanced the notion that biological age and spiritual maturity were separate from one another. Asceticism, in particular, put youth and adult upon the same level, though this revolutionary equality was subverted by the creation of monastic structures that instead attributed importance to age and experience. To enable readers to appreciate properly the revolutionary nature of aetas spiritalis, A. of necessity enters into a review of the Graeco-Roman temporal subdivisions of life. Her review of the ancient evidence and modern discussions is a veritable tour de force. Various schemata and differences between the Greek and Roman world are set forth clearly and in ample detail. This is important because Jerome had no simple, univocal tradition upon which to draw in his depiction of old age. Developing the work of E. Eyben and taking into account the “revisionist” chronology of Jerome’s life, A. uses Jerome’s talk of himself to illustrate the author’s variation between schemata. Of particular interest is Jerome’s seeming penchant for describing himself as a senex. On the basis of the saint’s biography, A. (p. 39) is able to assert that Jerome already dares to describe himself as a senex at the age of merely 39 ( Epist. 84.3). Moreover, Jerome is shown to refer regularly to himself at age 47 as a senex, thereby communicating the problems that life had visited upon him as well as implicitly laying claim to the authority that was commonly attributed to the elderly. However, with the passing of the years, the physical problems that accompany old age occupy the stage and crowd out the ideal image of old age that had been conducive to authority.

In Chapter 4, A. situates Jerome’s literary treatment of old age against the Classical backdrop of treatises dedicated to the subject. The charges levelled against old age and its contrasting virtues are reviewed. Naturally, Cicero’s treatise Cato Maior de Senectute receives extended treatment since it survives entire and happens to be mentioned more than once by Jerome. On the other hand, A. aptly points out that the Christian vision of old age as an aetas spiritalis was the reason for the lack of a corresponding Christian literature dedicated to this topic. Yet Jerome did provide extended reflection upon old age in the introduction to his letter to Nepotianus, which was a treatise on priesthood ( Epist. 52). There Vergilian verse is used to oppose youth and age and to express the theory of humours as regards ageing. Forgetfulness and physical fragility figure amongst the evils of old age. But Jerome, with his Christian perspective, shows that the benefits of this period of life outweigh its possible disadvantages. In the letter praising Paul of Concordia ( Epist. 10), Jerome praises that ascetic for his qualities as a senex-puer,6 and in the preface to a letter to Paulinus of Nola ( Epist. 58) Jerome touches upon the vigour that is the possession of youth and the wisdom that comes with age and can be seen in people’s white hair. In yet another letter ( Epist. 140), Jerome provides extensive commentary upon Psalm 89. A. well remarks that Jerome appears to distinguish between two different stages of old age. Whereas the first is marked by the culmination of wisdom, the second is noteworthy for the physical ailments that precede death. The Classical tradition of treatises περὶ γήρως is reconciled with that of the Christian notion of aetas spiritalis. In that same letter, Jerome stresses that it is the Christian awareness of death’s inevitability that ought to lead to wisdom and spiritual salvation. Classical philosophy in the end has served the purposes of Christian teaching.

In Chapter 5, A. discusses the evidence for diet and hygiene as regards the elderly and as it appears in the letters of Jerome. She opens with the far from banal observation that old age seems to have been viewed by the ancients as a disease, with a corresponding regime aimed at its cure. Wine, for example, was recommended by physicians for the elderly, to generate bodily warmth. Jerome situates himself within this tradition, but cites biblical examples against the abuse of wine. Similarly, cooked foods were believed to cause bodily heat and promote libidinous desires, but for the elderly, by definition lacking in bodily warmth, the prohibition might be cautiously lifted. Jerome advises some of his correspondents against fasting excessively, providing them with a detailed medical listing of the problems that might ensue. Lastly, as regards bathing, Jerome proposes that a person should be so ashamed of his or her own nudity as to avoid bathing, and lauds those virgins of God in Egypt who had never been to the baths. However, even here his opposition is not altogether monolithic nor intransigent. Bathing might have a salutary effect upon the body of the ill, and Jerome’s praises of Paula admit as much: she had never bathed except when her health was at risk ( Epist. 108.15).

In Chapter 6, A. focusses upon Jerome’s conception of death and the relationship that there existed for the saint between old age and life’s end. Ten letters of consolation are examined for what they show about how Jerome dealt with the conclusion of earthly life. These letters are considered in chronological order, on the assumption that Jerome’s thought would have changed over time as he himself came ever closer to his own mortal end. Eight of these ten letters deal with individuals who had died premature deaths. Consequently, Jerome is preoccupied with consoling friends and family for the untimely death of people who were struck down in their prime. Four motifs are highlighted by A.: death as the end of earthly exile; death as a law common to all humanity; premature death as a sign of divine favour; and the inscrutability of divine plans. These motifs are characteristically a mixture of the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian heritage that belonged to Jerome and his contemporaries. Jerome warns against excessive display of grief for the dead and likens death to dormitio. Indeed, his accounts of individual deaths are stylized and conform to the model already provided by hagiographical literature: the passing from this world to the hereafter is a sweet, painless occurrence.

In a brief conclusion, A. reviews her findings. She emphasizes the rhetorical uses to which Jerome puts the inherently ambiguous concept of old age and the fundamental antithesis of puer-senex to which she has dedicated much space.

All things considered, A. has touched upon a theme of no little relevance to the present and she has dealt with the subject in a legible and lively manner. However, various queries and observations arise from a reading of her work. These have substantive implications both for A.’s interpretation of the texts upon which she focuses and for the contemporary practice of historiography.

Suggestive though it is, the antithesis of puersenex that A. posits seems overdrawn. If we take the trouble to examine the text of Cicero’s Cato Maior de Senectute 37-38, we find the eponymous protagonist of this dialogue praising Appius Claudius Caecus for having been an “old man” ( senex) who to a certain degree behaved as though he were a “youth” ( adulescens); there is no mention here whatsoever of “child” or “boy” ( puer).

At the beginning of the letter in which he laments the death of his “pupil” Nepotianus, Jerome lists previous writers who had dealt with the theme of the loss of loved ones, explicitly affirming that he had read the work of Crantor that inspired Cicero’s letter to himself at the death of Tullia ( Epist. 60.5). Scepticism is salutary, and not often enough exercised. However, citation of modern discussions would have considerably bolstered A.’s case when she asserts that Jerome probably knew Crantor’s treatise through that of Cicero (p. 102 n.9)7 as would reference to Rufinus of Aquileia, who called Jerome’s bluff when the latter claimed to have read the works of Pythagoras ( Apol. c. Hier. 2.7). Indeed, Jerome’s posturing as a learned ecclesiastic can shed light upon his claims to authority on the basis of his old age.

As regards excessive grief for the dead and Jerome’s comparison of death to sleep, one might have wished for somewhat further exploration of these themes. In the first instance, significant work has been done upon the Classical threnody and its survival into modern Greek culture, e.g. that of M. Alexiou and her students.8 In the second instance, something might have been done — however briefly — with the epigraphic evidence for κοιμητήριον and similar words.9 There is a world of difference in outlook between νεκρόπολις and κοιμητήριον, even if the material culture may not reflect the linguistic reality with such clear-cut definition.

Lastly, alas, the editor failed to do his or her job properly. Errors in the Latin texts appear with alarming frequency (e.g. pp. 60, 63, 64, 66); copy-editing by the publisher should have removed these blemishes, which are not to be expected from an institution such as the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum. The editor might also have pushed the author to cite more frequently in the original language, in her footnotes, those choice bits of evidence that she paraphrases within her text. Moreover, since A. wrote a work dedicated to a detailed study of the epistles of Jerome, an index locorum for that author would have been just as useful as that provided for biblical citations (p. 139). Lastly, the editor might reconsider certain rules, such as the inane repetition of an entire citation or the use of authors’ initials even after the first reference in the notes, e.g. p. 30 nn. 3-5 all have “C. Gnilka” and p. 79 nn. 133-134 both read “Verg., Georg. III, 67″. In short, citation guidelines urgently need to be updated and streamlined whereas citations require far greater care than shown in this book. In attending to these matters, the publishing house will provide a great service both for readers and for promising authors, as was the case here.

These observations and queries, however, do nothing to diminish the fine accomplishment of A. in drawing our attention to an interesting body of material, with its associated questions, and the way in which one of the foremost Christian intellectuals of Late Antiquity dealt with a problem that is particularly relevant to today’s world. Indeed, as the post-modern world seeks to deal afresh with the phenomenon of ageing and the ethical problems posed by advances in medicine, it is opportune to reflect upon what Christianity made of the Classical tradition regarding old age and death. A.’s work constitutes a useful and stimulating contribution to an emerging scholarly debate focussed upon these issues, showing once again the enduring importance of ancient philosophical thought.


1. T.G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore 2003); K. Cokayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (New York 2003); M. Harlow and R. Laurence, edd., Age and Ageing in the Roman Empire, JRA Suppl. 65 (Portsmouth 2007). For earlier bibliography, readers are referred to W. Suder, Geras: old age in Greco-Roman antiquity. A Classified Bibliography (Wroclaw 1991).

2. Witness the absence of any reference whatsoever to Jerome from the full and illuminating account of the Nachleben of Cicero’s Cato Maior de Senectute that P. Wuilleumier provides in the introduction to his CUF edition of the text: P. Wuilleumier, Cicéron : Caton l’ancien (Paris1969 3) pp. 58-60.

3. J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (London 1975) pp. 337-339.

4. A. writes that Jerome began his studies at Rome towards 340 (p. 17). Either this is a typographical error for 360 or the trace of an earlier version that relied upon the chronology to be found in J.N.D. Kelly and previous authors. Subsequently, in flat contradiction of Jerome’s purported birth in 347, A. writes that the saint was “quarantenne” in 385 (p. 21). Despite the ambiguity inherent in the Italian word, which might mean either precisely age 40 or more generally the decade of the 40’s, A. is self-contradictory: by her own reckoning Jerome should have been 37 or 38 years old. Finally, A. asserts — more than once — that Jerome passed away in 419 (pp. 22, 23), in direct contradiction of her previous assertion. There is no excuse for the editor’s failing to remark this chaos.

5. Since historiographical narratives (e.g. Caesar’s commentarii and philosophical treatises (e.g. Epicurus to Menoeceus on the subject of happiness) are couched in the form of letters or at least described as letters by ancient readers, “genre” seems to the reviewer to be the wrong term to apply. Perhaps literary “form” would be more precise.

6. This is doubtful. A. is on more certain ground when she recognizes that Jewish thought as expressed in the Old Testament viewed old age as a sign of divine favour, when it was not viewed as an affliction (as in the case of Psalm 89).

7. The man who had a self-accusatory dream in which he was labelled as Ciceronianus rather than Christianus had indubitably read Cicero’s work on the death of Tullia. But it might seem an exercise in hypercriticism to doubt Jerome when he explicitly claims to have read a Greek author, especially in view of his background and interests until one consults Scourfield’s commentary upon this letter, (J.H.D. Scourfield, Consoling Heliodorus: A Commentary on Jerome, Letter 60 (Oxford 1993) pp. 19 and 115), Kelly’s biography of Jerome ( op. cit. pp. 13-14 and 16-17), or Courcelle’s extensive treatment of Latin authors and Greek literature in Late Antiquity ( P. Courcelle, Les lettres grecs en Occident de Macrobe à Cassiodore (BEFAR 159, Paris 1943) pp. 53-55).

8. M. Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, revised by D. Yatromanolakis and P. Roilos. Cambridge 2002. It might be remarked in passing that application of the terms “threnodist” and “threnody” to Jerome and his writings upon the recently deceased is one of the few objectionable elements in the highly readable and well documented survey provided by S. Rebenich, Jerome (London 2002).

9. For a detailed philological analysis of the epigraphic and literary evidence, see E. Rebillard, ” κοιμητηριον et COEMETERIUM : tombe, tombe sainte, nécropole,” MEFRA 105 (1993) 975-1001.