BMCR 2024.05.36

In her own words: the life and poetry of Aelia Eudocia

, In her own words: the life and poetry of Aelia Eudocia. Hellenic studies, 80. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2021. Pp. 224. ISBN 9780674987371.

Open access


‘The story of a fair and virtuous maiden, exalted from a private condition to the Imperial throne, might be deemed an incredible romance, if such a romance had not been verified in the marriage of Theodosius [II].’[1] So is Aelia Eudocia (401-460 CE) introduced in Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall, and it is not hard to see why her serendipitous rise to power and her dramatic fall from grace have long captured the imagination of ancient and modern historians alike. Yet this fascination with Eudocia’s life has come at a considerable cost. One of the best-preserved female poets of antiquity, Eudocia has curiously received little attention as a poet, and her work has found few sympathetic readers. Nearly 3,500 lines of poetry survive by her hand, about three times as many as Sappho’s, as Sowers’ new book informs us, yet no general study of her poetry exists.

In her own words: the life and poetry of Aelia Eudocia aims to fill this gap by offering the first-ever book-length study of Eudocia’s entire poetic corpus. Despite what the book’s subtitle may suggest, this is not a study of Eudocia’s life and poetry. Sowers is not interested in ancient accounts and testimonials about her life; these, he notes, were written by men and reflect an aristocratic male worldview which ‘disproportionately silences or elides over female voices and female perspectives’ (1). Instead, Sowers wishes to focus exclusively on Eudocia’s own poetry. His project, explicitly set against the male bias of older biographical accounts, aims to ‘recover the literary Eudocia’ (2) and to allow her to speak, as the book’s title boldly proclaims, ‘in her own words’.

This is an important and difficult topic, which Sowers handles with varying levels of success. The book contains two uneven halves. The first (ch. 1-2), dealing with material that has recently received increasing attention, provides state-of-the-art orientations and advances some cautious, yet intriguing arguments. The book’s latter half (ch. 3-4) works less well, and its somewhat careless treatment of ancient sources leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, despite such shortcomings, Sowers’ book is to be commended for bringing some little-known texts to the attention of a wider readership. The book ends with an acknowledgement that much work on Eudocia’s poetry remains to be done and I hope that my comments below will underline the need for further research on this fascinating body of work.

The book’s most significant—and provocative—contribution lies in its commitment to recover Eudocia’s female voice, which is apparent in the book’s very structure. Each of its four chapters is devoted to a different text from Eudocia’s prolific oeuvre. Perhaps a reasonable choice given most readers’ unfamiliarity with the texts discussed here, this division is motivated, we are told, by a conscious decision to let Eudocia ‘dictate her own story’ (31) and allow her words ‘to guide the organization and content of each chapter’ (123). Treating Eudocia both as the object of, and the key to, one’s analysis has some obvious downsides, not least the fact that the book offers no overarching narrative or central argument. Instead, Sowers looks at each text in isolation, drawing out some of its central themes without painting a unified portrayal of Eudocia the poet.

Given how central Eudocia’s female voice is to Sowers’ project, it is surprising that the book remains conspicuously silent around the theoretical questions its approach poses. What does it mean to hear Eudocia speak ‘in her own words’? ‘Is it enough to be a woman in order to speak as a woman?’, as Shoshana Felman pointedly asks. ‘Is “speaking as a woman” determined by some biological condition or by a strategic, theoretical position, by anatomy or by culture?’[2] Eudocia composed an entire work using only lines from Homer and wrote several paraphrases of other, male-authored texts. To claim that her agenda can ‘emerge without male mediation and interpretation’ (4) is to ignore Eudocia’s conscious choice that ‘her own words’ were decidedly not her own. Sowers is quick to acknowledge that his ‘own active hand as (male) reader and interpreter is present throughout’ (6), but the reader is never given any indication of how a male interpretation of Eudocia’s poetry differs from a female one. For a book that wears its feminist heart on its sleeve, such silences can be particularly debilitating.

The first chapter is the strongest in the book and showcases Sowers’ programmatic agenda to tell Eudocia’s story through her own words. Taking Eudocia’s travels across the eastern Roman empire and her role as civic benefactor as its starting point, the chapter embarks on a detailed discussion of two fragmentary texts written by the empress herself. The first is a single hexameter line with which Eudocia capped her memorable address to the people of Antioch, while the second is an incomplete verse inscription excavated at the bath complex of Hamat Gader, in modern-day Israel, which praises the springs’ craftsmanship in highly stylised language. In Sowers’ reading, Eudocia emerges as a skilful practitioner of civic benefaction, capable of a witty turn of phrase and of diplomatic pragmatism: her Homeric allusions, he argues, were met by an equally Homeric response on the Antiochenes’ part, while her use of religiously ambiguous language in her inscribed poem was designed to appeal to the diverse crowds that would have travelled to the bath complex. The discussion is meticulous and sound, but above all the chapter stands out for its willingness to discuss the life and poetry of Eudocia in tandem. Admittedly, both texts discussed here—what Sowers calls Eudocia’s ‘socially engaging poetry’ (31)—lend themselves much more readily than the rest of her work to this sort of contextual reading, which the remaining chapters do not replicate.

The second chapter looks at Eudocia’s best-known work, her Homerocentones, which retells stories from the Christian Bible using whole or half-lines taken directly from Homer’s epics. Although this sort of poetic bricolage has not always appealed to scholarly taste, it has received increasing critical attention in recent years.[3] Sowers reads Eudocia against her Latin counterparts, primarily Proba and Ausonius, whose prefaces contain some explicit metaliterary comments on the aesthetics of cento poetry. Eudocia’s own preface to her centos, he argues, evinces an awareness of the wider centonic tradition and Sowers teases out in some detail the aesthetic criteria of Eudocia’s agenda.

The chapter ends with a well-chosen case study: Eudocia’s retelling of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman, found in the Gospel of John. Sowers argues that Eudocia’s cento updates the story for a contemporary audience by removing references to Samaritan and Jewish communities and introducing late antique ideas around celibacy and marriage. His conclusion, that Eudocia depicts the Samaritan Woman as a superior evangelist to her Johannine counterpart, is a compelling suggestion, which could have benefitted from a more sustained discussion of the role of female evangelists in Greek Christian discourse. The choice of the case study is also telling: regularly criticised for her promiscuousness but held as a model of a willing believer, the Samaritan Woman seems a suggestive parallel for a pagan-turned-Christian empress whose life was also plagued by rumours of adultery. The intriguing similarities between the Samaritan Woman and the historical Eudocia, which Sowers does not pursue here, would have provided a nice opportunity to explore how the two parts of the book’s subtitle, the life and poetry of Aelia Eudocia, can be related.

The remaining two chapters focus on Eudocia’s lesser-known work, a metrical paraphrase of the life of St Cyprian of Antioch. Eudocia’s poem is based on three prose narratives that circulated independently—the Conversion, the Confession, and the Martyrdom of St Cyprian—although only the first and parts of the second book of Eudocia’s version survive. This fascinating text has remained largely inaccessible to modern readers and Sowers is to be congratulated for producing a largely faithful translation of the poem—the first ever complete translation into English—appended at the end of the book.[4] Unfortunately, Sowers’ discussion of the poem represents the weakest part of the book, not least because his discussion regularly fails to differentiate between the prose original and Eudocia’s poetic version.[5]

The third chapter focuses on the first book of Eudocia’s poem, based on the Conversion, which narrates the twin conversions of the young virgin Justa and the magician Cyprian, a story that borrows freely from the Greek novels as well as early Christian narratives of martyrdom and conversion (primarily the Acts of Paul and Thecla). After an interpretative summary of the poem’s contents, Sowers offers a discussion of the character of Justa and, in particular, the representation of her female characteristics. Adopting Victor Turner’s model of a ‘social drama’, he argues that, despite what one might expect when considering similar heroines like Thecla or Perpetua, Justa does not experience any social displacement during her conversion; instead, she reinforces, rather than inverts, social categories of femininity.

This is an intriguing claim with potentially far-reaching implications for the study of women in late antiquity: here is a woman’s reinterpretation of a female character that converts to Christianity but retains all the social trappings of her femininity. However, Sowers’ argument collapses at closer inspection. All the elements he adduces to back his claim—namely that, unlike Thecla, Justa does not dress in masculine clothes or cut her hair, and that her physical power emasculates the young man who attempts to rape her—are already found in the prose original. Sowers’ claim that Justa adheres to feminine ideals might be true as far as the prose original goes, but it fails to say anything meaningful about Eudocia’s poem. It is doubly unfortunate then that in offering a reading of the prose original in place of Eudocia’s poem, the chapter’s discussion manages to silence Eudocia’s voice once again.

The next and final chapter looks at Eudocia’s retelling of the Confession, a first-person narrative of Cyprian’s travels around the religious sites of the pagan world. Sowers’ approach here is similar to the previous chapter and the majority of the discussion is taken up by a summary of Eudocia’s second book that reads like a running commentary. Once again, the discussion fails to differentiate between elements found in the original and Eudocia’s poem, and much of what is said applies almost exclusively to the prose original.[6] It is telling of the exclusive focus on the prose that any consideration of gender (or, indeed, of poetry) has all but disappeared towards the end of the book. The chapter’s final section, entitled ‘Origins and Influences’, compares Cyprian with other itinerant wonderworkers, such as Apollonius of Tyana and Pythagoras. This might be a justifiable choice for the prose original of the Confession perhaps,[7] but it is unclear to what degree Eudocia engaged directly with these prose narratives, if at all. One wonders whether a more apt comparandum for Eudocia’s hexametric poem would have been, say, Odysseus’ Apologoi, the exemplary first-person epic monologue about a man’s travels.

A brief conclusion summarises the discussion of each chapter, without offering a synthesis of the book’s contents, but aiming instead to highlight ‘a few salient features of Eudocia’s poetry’ (123). It is here that the pitfalls of the book’s structure are most clearly on display. Tensions in Eudocia’s work are acknowledged but never resolved. We are merely told, for example, that the ‘inherent ambiguity’ in Eudocia’s religious approach in the Hamat Gader poem ‘stands in contrast to her language in the Confession’ (124-5), but there is no attempt to explain or interpret this tension. Eudocia may have adopted different religious postures depending on the occasion and audience, but this observation raises more questions than it answers: what does this religious versatility tell us about Eudocia’s poetry? Does it matter that this is not simply the work of a woman, but also an empress? As one might expect, the decision to allow Eudocia’s words ‘to guide the organization and content’ of the book reproduces, rather than resolves, the ambiguities in her self-representation.

In her own words represents a welcome, if not always successful, attempt to shed light on one of antiquity’s most significant female authors. Sowers’ book will inform, provoke, and occasionally mislead but, above all, it is hoped, it will convince readers unfamiliar with Eudocia’s poetry that her words deserve our sustained attention.



[1] E. Gibbon. The History of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. D. Womersley (Penguin; London, 1994) v. 2, p. 266 (originally v. 4, published in 1788).

[2] S. Felman. 1975. ‘Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy’, Diacritics 5.4: p. 3, original emphasis.

[3] See R. Schembra. 2020. Centoni omerici: il Vangelo secondo Eudocia. Alessandria; A. Lefteratou. 2023. The Homeric Centos: Homer and the Bible Interwoven. Oxford.

[4] An incomplete prose translation can be found in M. Thiébaux. 1994. The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology. New York: pp. 60-6.

[5] The only modern edition of the three prose narratives, absent from Sowers’ bibliography, is R. Bailey. 2017. The Acts of Saint Cyprian of Antioch: Critical Editions, Translations, and Commentary. Diss., McGill University.

[6] Inversely, when the distinction is upheld, little is made of it: considering Eudocia’s ‘departure from her prose models’, Sowers comments, ‘one should not read too much into this section’ (104).

[7] Bailey 2017: 47-68 (n. 5 above), treating the prose original, covers understandably the same ground.