BMCR 2020.11.03

Borderline virginities: sacred and secular virgins in late antiquity

, Borderline virginities: sacred and secular virgins in late antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 224. ISBN 9781472480170. $112.00.

A branch of Roman religion that has always attracted particular attention is the collegium of Vestals. Standing out already in the perception of the ancients, it notably featured complete (although not perpetual) virginity as one of its prime prerequisites,[1] thus highlighting the priestessesses’ prominence in the religious landscape of Rome as well as implying the seriousness of crime in case of violation of this vow.[2] Although this feature is one of her intellectual points of departure as well, the author of the study under review, which originated as a PhD-Project conducted at the University of Bergen and the Norwegian Institute in Rome, does not confine herself to the Vestals and the bodily status attached to them. In fact, Undheim, currently a Professor for the Study of Religion at Bergen, is to be lauded for having ventured out into the intersectional spaces between traditional polytheism and Christian positions in Late Antiquity, in order to gain further insights into the phenomenon of sacra virginitas in that period.

As becomes clear in the Introduction (pp. 1–30), Undheim views virginity as a culturally constructed and negotiated concept and thus inserts herself into a theoretical current which has been applied for some time in “cultural-turn”-inspired studies on Late Antique religious discourse, as well.[3] The validity of such an approach is illustrated through a comparative distinction between normative depictions of virgins, on the one hand, and their “borderline” counterparts, on the other, a term under which Undheim understands a wide range of non-“stereotypical” virgines as they appear in the texts. Geographically speaking, as Undheim herself acknowledges early on (p. 3), her focus on “comparative virginology” (p. 15) is narrower than the sub-title of the book might suggest, since the treatment is centered on the city of Rome (which, of course, is partially due to the source material). A second delimitation made explicit from the start (pp. 3 ff.) is the thematic marginalization of the Virgin Mary–a debatable choice, one may conclude (with Jerome and, above all, Ambrose), even if a reasonable one in terms of the different character and space which such a discussion would inevitably have required.

Through a socio-cultural lens (and with a chronological focus on the fourth century, in particular), Undheim presents a polygeneric array of virgin-types occurring in non-Christian sources, patristic writing, and inscriptions, thus helping significantly to render the picture of virginitas more complex than it tended to be drawn in earlier scholarship. In the careful discussion of these single voices, Undheim not only offers useful definitions and analyses at the terminological level but, on a larger scale, manages to further problematize the characteristic “they–vs.–us–narratives” which pervade large areas of Late Antique rhetoric. This is achieved throughout three sections following the Introduction, which is rounded up by a brief summary of each chapter’s topics and methodology (pp. 22–24).

Chapter 2 (pp. 31–104) starts with Romanitas as a framework for “‘intertexts’ and ‘intersections,’ against which ‘virgin ideologies’ and the notions of virgins’ sanctity were constructed and negotiated” (p. 32). The questions dealt with in this part of the book are centered around aspects of social status, age, and insignia (i.e., symbolism of dress), areas shown by Undheim to be suitable in order “to complicate […] neat generalizations” (p. 84): Whereas the latter are present both in Christian as well as non-Christian texts, these source groups, albeit each specific in character relate, according to Undheim, to a “shared context, a context in which they both figured and thus in turn mutually attributed to” (p. 85).

This picture of sacred virginity is further broadened in chapter 3 (pp. 105–144). Here Undheim presents the reader not only with the phenomenon of ‘masculine’ female virgins but also with lesser-studied occurrences of ‘male virgins,’ both types serving to explore the potentialities of the body-detached, i.e., ‘ungendered’, idea(l) of virginity. In this regard, Tertullian and Jerome are credited with “a rather innovative turn in the religious history of the sacred virgins” (pp. 126 ff.) in that it was they who reshaped the concept of virgo as applicable to men, as well. However, as Undheim admits, such transformative use of the term remained rare, a discussion only partially supplemented through the epigraphical record.[4] At any rate, as to the rise of clerical celibacy, this development did not come with “a compromising ‘feminization’ of men” (p. 134).[5]

In chapter 4 (pp. 145–202), Undheim deals with the virgines lapsae by juxtaposing Symmachean letters and papal decretales, antiquarian writings and patristic sermons, Senecan controversiae and ecclesiastical history. Whereas this may seem risky from a historico-religious point of view,[6] the polyphony of sources here, too, as in the preceding sections of her study, is read in terms of “fixity, flexity, and fluidity” (pp. 19–22), which allows Undheim to analyze the demarcating force of physical virginitas and the wider ramifications of its abstract variant at the same time. In this latter sense we are invited to understand “sacred virgins of Late Antiquity as metonyms of a socio-religious community, and […] their virginity as symbolizing the stability, unviolability and (eternal) continuity of this community” (p. 166).

The volume, produced in a handy format with only few typos, is concluded by a bibliography (pp. 203–220) and (general) index (pp. 221–224). A formal point of unease relates to the statement made concerning the choice of editions, i.e. “where nothing else is stated, the Latin text is quoted from the Patrologia Latina or Loeb Classical Library” (p. 203), which does not convince in all instances.[7]

Such criticism aside, with Undheim’s study, one is offered a valuable contribution for further understanding the reciprocal relationship of Antike und Christentum and it is in the application of this twofold perspective where its indisputable merit lies. Of particular interest is the focus on virginitas-related language used for men, which surely would have to be set within the context of a narrower differentiation of Christian ordines in Late Antiquity.[8]  Undheim’s comparative reflections on the marital status in Ancient Rome also suggests a connection with the increasing scholarly interest in what is now called the ‘single life,’[9] although the latter need not to imply any particular form of sanctity, of course.


[1] Furthermore, “[v]irginity was the single most important aspect of a Vestal’s priestly identity” in the words of Meghan J. DiLuzio, A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2016, p. 152.

[2] An aspect relatively often addressed in the sources, for which one could add the useful documentation offered by Alexander Bätz, Sacrae Virgines. Studien zum religiösen und gesellschaftlichen Status der Vestalinnen. Paderborn: Schöningh 2012.

[3] A list of scholars with which Undheim aligns this approach is given by herself (p. 24).

[4] See e.g. pp. 129–131 for the funerary inscription of young Theusebius (now AE 2015: 1866), a discussion to which, however (in terms of dating and context), more recent treatments, Carlo Carletti, Epigrafia dei cristiani in occidente dal III al VII secolo. Ideologia e prassi. Bari: Edipuglia 2008, p. 169f. (no. 49) and Attilio Mastino, Paola Ruggeri, Raimondo Zucca, “Un testo epigrafico sul sacramento del battesimo in Sardinia”, in: Rossana Martorelli, Antonio Piras, Pier Giorgio Spanu (eds), Isole e terraferma nel primo cristianesimo. Identità locale ed interscambi culturali, religiosi e produttivi. Atti XI Congresso Nazionale di Archeologia Cristiana (= Studi e ricerche di cultura religiosa N.S. VIII). Cagliari: PFTS University Press 2015, pp. 511-520 (with further literature), should have been added.

[5] For the relationship between virginity and Christian perfection in Jerome (and the context of ‘Romanness’), one might, apart from Undheim’s references to the Jovinian controversy (pp. 124–127), also think of other instances in the Corpus Hieronymianum, his ‘veteran virgins’ attested in ep. 107.9.3, to name one, with Andrew Cain, Jerome and the Monastic Clergy: A Commentary on Letter 52 to Nepotian, with an Introduction, Text, and Translation (VigChr. Suppl. 119). Leiden: Brill 2013, p. 138f.; 147f.

[6] This has been signaled already by Jochen Schultheiss, “Concepts of Virginity”, The Classical Review 69.2 (2019), pp. 558–560, here 559f.

[7] Absentees include Kytzler’s Teubneriana for Minucius Felix, Hilberg’s CSEL-volumes (with all their possible caveats) for Jerome’s letters or Reynolds’ OCT for Seneca’s epistulae morales, only to name a few.

[8] See now Christian Hornung, Monachus et sacerdos: Asketische Konzeptualisierungen des Klerus im antiken Christentum (VigChr. Suppl. 157). Leiden: Brill 2020, passim.

[9] Cf. Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019.