St. Jerome - Golden Book of Marriage

St. Jerome (A.D. 340?-420)

Against Jovinianus -- Book I (Selections)
Pagan Examples of Womanly Chastity


Names that appear in Chaucer (whether drawn from this text or not)
are printed in boldface.


Good Women from Pagan and Foreign History

41. I have given enough and more than enough illustrations from the divine writings of Christian chastity and angelic virginity. But as I understand that our opponent in his commentaries summons us to the tribunal of worldly wisdom, and we are told that views of this kind are never accepted in the world, and that our religion has invented a dogma against nature, I will quickly run through Greek and Roman and Foreign History, and will show that virginity ever took the lead of chastity.

Fable relates that Atalanta, the virgin of Calydonian fame, lived for the chase and dwelt always in the woods; in other words that she did not set her heart on marriage with its troubles of pregnancy and of sickness, but upon the nobler life of freedom and chastity. Harpalyce too, a Thracian virgin, is described by the famous poet; and so is Camilla, queen of the Volsci, on whom, when she came to his assistance, Turnus had no higher praise which he could bestow than to call her a virgin. "O Virgin, Glory of Italy!"

And that famous daughter of Leos, the lady of the brazen house, ever a virgin, is related to have freed her country from pestilence by her voluntary death; and the blood of the virgin Iphigenia is said to have calmed the stormy winds. What need to tell of the Sibyls of Erythrae and Cumae, and the eight others? for Varro asserts there were ten whose ornament was virginity, and divination the reward of their virginity. But if in the Eolian dialect "Sibyl" is represented by . . . , we must understand that a knowledge of the Counsel of God is rightly attributed to virginity alone.

We read, too, that Cassandra and Chryseis, prophetesses of Apollo and Juno, were virgins. And there were innumerable priestesses of the Taurian Diana, and of Vesta. One of these, Munitia, being suspected of unchastity was buried alive, which would be in my opinion an unjust punishment, unless the violation of virginity were considered a serious crime. At all events how highly the Romans always esteemed virgins is clear from the fact that consuls and generals even in their triumphal chariots and bringing home the spoils of conquered nations, were wont to make way for them to pass. And so did men of all ranks. When Claudia, a Vestal Virgin, was suspected of unchastity, and a vessel containing the image of Cybele was aground in the Tiber, it is related that she, to prove her chastity, with her girdle drew the ship which a thousand men could not move. Yet, as the uncle of Lucan the poet says, it would have been better if this circumstance had decorated a chastity tried and proved, and had not pleaded in defence of a chastity equivocal.

No wonder that we read such things of human beings, when heathen error also invented the virgin goddesses Minerva and Diana, and placed the Virgin among the twelve signs of the Zodiac, by means of which, as they suppose, the world revolves. It is a proof of the little esteem in which they held marriage that they did not even among the scorpions, centaurs, crabs, fishes, and Capricorn, thrust in a husband and wife.

When the thirty tyrants of Athens had slain Phidon at the banquet, they commanded his virgin daughters to come to them, naked like harlots, and there upon the ground, red with their father's blood, to act the wanton. For a little while they hid their grief, and then when they saw the revellers were intoxicated, going out on the plea of easing nature, they embraced one another and threw themselves into a well, that by death they might save their virginity.

The virgin daughter of Demotion, chief of the Areopagites, having heard of the death of her betrothed, Leosthenes, who had originated the Lamian war, slew herself, for she declared that although in body she was a virgin, yet if she were compelled to accept another, she should regard him as her second husband, when she had given her heart to Leosthenes. So close a friendship long existed between Sparta and Messene that for the furtherance of certain religious rites they even exchanged virgins.

Well, on one occasion when the men of Messene attempted to outrage fifty Lacedmonian virgins, out of so many not one consented, but they all most gladly died in defence of their chastity. Whence there arose a long and grievous war, and in the long run Mamertina was destroyed.

Aristoclides, tyrant of Orchomenos, fell in love with a virgin of Stymphalus, and when after the death of her father she took refuge in the temple of Diana, and embraced the image of the goddess and could not be dragged thence by force, she was slain on the spot. Her death caused such intense grief throughout Arcadia that the people took up arms and avenged the virgin's death.

Aristomenes of Messene, a just man, at a time when the Lacedmmonians, whom he had conquered, were celebrating by night the festival called the Hyacinthia, carried off from the sportive bands fifteen virgins, and fleeing all night at full speed got away from the Spartan territory. His companions wished to outrage them, but he admonished them to the best of his power not to do so, and when certain refused to obey, be slew them, and restrained the rest by fear. The maidens were afterwards ransomed by their kinsmen, and on seeing Aristomenes condemned for murder would not return to their country until clasping the knees of the judges they beheld the protector of their chastity acquitted.

How shall we sufficiently praise the daughters of Scedasus at Leuctra in Boeethia? It is related that in the absence of their father they hospitably entertained two youths who were passing by, and who having drunk to excess violated the virgins in the course of the night. Being unwilling to survive the loss of their virginity, the maidens inflicted deadly wounds on one another.

Nor would it be right to omit mention of the Locrian virgins. They were sent to Ilium according to custom which had lasted for nearly a thousand years, and yet not one gave occasion to any idle tale or filthy rumour of virginity defiled.

Could any one pass over in silence the seven virgins of Miletus who, when the Gauls spread desolation far and wide, that they might suffer no indignity at the hands of the enemy, escaped disgrace by death, and left to all virgins the lesson of their example that noble minds care more for chastity than life?

Nicanor, having conquered and overthrown Thebes, was himself overcome by a passion for one captive virgin whose voluntary self-surrender he longed for. A captive maid, he thought, must be only too glad. But he found that virginity is dearer to the pure in heart than a kingdom, when with tears and grief he held her in his arms slain by her own hand.

Greek writers tell also of another Theban virgin who had been deflowered by a Macedonian foe, and who, hiding her grief for a while, slew the violator of her virginity as he slept, and then killed herself with the sword, so that she would neither live when her chastity was lost, nor die before she had avenged herself.


  Virginity Esteemed Among the Pagans

42. To come to the Gymnosophists of India, the opinion is authoritatively handed down that Buddha, the founder of their religion, had his birth through the side of a virgin. And we need not wonder at this in the case of Barbarians when cultured Greece supposed that Minerva at her birth sprang from the head of Jove, and Father Bacchus from his thigh.

Speusippus also, Plato's nephew, and Clearchus in his eulogy of Plato, and Anaxelides in the second book of his philosophy, relates that Perictione, the mother of Plato, was violated by an apparition of Apollo, and they agree in thinking that the prince of wisdom was born of a virgin.

Timaeus writes that the virgin daughter of Pythagoras was at the head of a band of virgins, and instructed them in chastity. Diodorus, the disciple of Socrates, is said to have had five daughters skilled in dialectics and distinguished for chastity, of whom a full account is given by Philo the master of Carneades.

And mighty Rome cannot taunt us as though we had invented the story of the birth of our Lord and Saviour from a virgin; for the Romans believe that the founders of their city and race were the offspring of the virgin Ilia and of Mars.


Second Marriages Repudiated Even by the Heathen

43. Let these allusions to the virgins of the world, brief and hastily gathered from many histories, now suffice. I will proceed to married women who were reluctant to survive the decease or violent death of their husbands for fear they might be forced into a second marriage, and who entertained a marvelous affection for the only husbands they had. This may teach us that second marriage was repudiated among the heathen.

Dido, the sister of Pygmalion, having collected a vast amount of gold and silver, sailed to Africa, and there built Carthage. And when her hand was sought in marriage by Iarbas, king of Libya, she deferred the marriage for while until her country was settled. Not long after, having raised a funeral pyre to the memory of her former husband Sichaeus, she preferred to "burn rather than to marry." Carthage was built by a woman of chastity and its end was a tribute to the excellence of the virtue.

As for the wife of of Hasdrubal, when the city was captured and set on fire, and she saw that she could not herself escape capture by the Romans, she took her little children in either hand and leaned into the burning ruins of her house.


  Examples of Greek Women Who Refused Remarriage

44. What need to tell of the wife of Niceratus, who, not enduring to wrong her husband, inflicted death upon herself rather than subject herself to the lust of the thirty tyrants whom Lysander had set over conquered Athens?

Artemisia, also, wife of Mausolus, is related to have been distinguished for chastity. Though she was queen of Caria, and is extolled by great poets and historians, no higher praise is bestowed upon her than that when her husband was dead she loved him as much as when he was alive, and built a tomb so great that even to the present day all costly sepulchres are called after his name, mausoleums.

Teuta, queen of the Illyrians, owed her long sway over brave warriors, and her frequent victories over Rome, to her marvelous chastity. The Indians and almost all the Barbarians have a plurality of wives.

It is a law with them that the favourite wife must be burned with her dead husband. The wives therefore vie with one another for the husband's love, and the highest ambition of the rivals, and the proof of chastity, is to be considered worthy of death. So then she that is victorious, having put on her former dress and ornaments, lies down beside the corpse, embracing and kissing it, and to the glory of chastity despises the flames which are burning beneath her. I suppose that she who dies thus, wants no second marriage.

The famous Alcibiades, the friend of Socrates, when Athens was conquered, fled to Pharnabazus, who took a bribe from Lysander the Lacedmmonian leader and ordered him to be slain. He was strangled, and when his head had been cut off it was sent to Lysander as proof of the murder, but the rest of his body lay unburied. His concubine, therefore, all alone, in defiance of the command of the cruel enemy, in the midst of strangers, and in the face of peril, gave him due burial, for she was ready to die for the dead man whom she had loved when living.

Let matrons, Christian matrons at all events, imitate the fidelity of concubines, and exhibit in their freedom what she in her captivity preserved.


Further Examples of Pagan Chastity

45. Strato, ruler of Sidon, thought of dying by his own hand, that he might not be the sport of the Persians, who were close by and whose alliance he had discarded for the friendship of the king of Egypt. But he drew back in terror, and eyeing the sword which he had seized, awaited in alarm the approach of the enemy. His wife, knowing that he must be immediately taken, wrested the weapon from his hand, and pierced his side. When the body was properly laid out she lay down upon it in the agony of death, that she might not violate her virgin troth in the embraces of another.

Xenophon, in describing the early years of the elder Cyrus, relates that when her husband Abradatas was slain, Panthea who had loved him intensely, placed herself beside the mangled body, then stabbed herself, and let her blood run into her husband's wounds.

The queen whom the king her husband had shewn naked and without her knowledge to his friend, thought she had good cause for slaying the king. She judged that she was not beloved if it was possible for her to be exhibited to another.

Rhodogune, daughter of Darius, after the death of her husband, put to death the nurse who was trying to persuade her to marry again.

Alcestis is related in story to have voluntarily died for Admetus, and Penelope's chastity is the theme of Homer's song.

Laodamia's praises are also sung by the poets, because, when Protesilaus was slain at Troy, she refused to survive him.


Roman Women Who Chose Death over Remarriage

46. I may pass on to Roman women; and the first that I shall mention is Lucretia, who would not survive her violated chastity, but blotted out the stain upon her person with her own blood.

Duilius, the first Roman who won a naval triumph, took to wife a virgin, Bilia, of such extraordinary chastity that she was an example even to an age which held unchastity to be not merely vicious but monstrous. When he was grown old and feeble he was once in the course of a quarrel taunted with having bad breath. In dudgeon he betook himself home, and on complaining to his wife that she had never told him of it so that he might remedy the fault, he received the reply that she would have done so, but she thought that all men had foul breath as he had. In either case this chaste and noble woman deserves praise, whether she was not aware there was anything wrong with her husband, or if she patiently endured, and her husband discovered his unfortunate condition not by the disgust of a wife, but by the abuse of an enemy. At all events the woman who marries a second time cannot say this.

Marcia, Cato's younger daughter, on being asked after the loss of her husband why she did not marry again, replied that she could not find a man who wanted her more than her money. Her words teach us that men in choosing their wives look for riches rather than for chastity, and that many in marrying use not their eyes but their fingers. That must be an excellent thing which is won by avarice! When the same lady was mourning the loss of her husband, and the matrons asked what day would terminate her grief, she replied, "The same that terminates my life." I imagine that a woman who thus followed her husband in heart and mind had no thought of marrying again.

Porcia, whom Brutus took to wife, was a virgin; Cato's wife, Marcia, was not a virgin; but Marcia went to and fro between Hortensius and Cato, and was quite content to live without Cato; while Porcia could not live without Brutus; for women attach themselves closely to particular men, and to keep to one is a strong link in the chain of affection.

When a relative urged Annia to marry a man (she was of full age and a goodly person), she answered, "I shall certainly not do so. For, if I find a good man, I have no wish to be in fear of losing him; if a bad one, why must I put up with a bad husband after having had a good one?

Porcia the younger, on hearing a certain lady of good character, who had a second husband, praised in her house, replied, "A chaste and happy man never marries more than once."

Marcella the elder, on being asked by her mother if she was glad she was married, answered, "So much so that I want nothing more."

Valeria, sister of the Messalas, when she lost her husband Servius, would marry no one else. On being asked why not, she said that to her, her husband Servius was ever alive.


Next follows The Golden Book of Marriage

From The Principle Works of St. Jerome, tr. W.H. Fremantle, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol. VI. New York, 1893. (paragraphing, chapter titles, and boldfacing of names supplied) [Hilles 281.7.VI]