Thursday, 14 April 2016

Ausonius and his Aunt Aemilia Hilaria

Decius Maximus Ausonius is an author who deserves to be better known and appreciated. He covered the bulk of the fourth century AD (AD310–305) and rose from prosperous farming stock to become professor at the University at Burdigala (modern Bordeaux) and later was raised to becoming tutor to prince Gratian, who was emperor of the West from 375 to 383. Gratian made him consul in and at the same time Ausonius’ son was Pretorian Prefect of Gaul.

Among the most affecting of Ausonius’ poems are his eulogies to his family members, the Parentalia. These seem to have been written by his to be recited over their graves on the anniversaries of their deaths as part of what seems to have been a ‘pagan’ (or at least traditional)ceremony in which they were invoked by having their names recited three times. These verses seem to have been collected and ‘published’ late in his life, perhaps when his poetic energies were lower.

I want here to highlight the unusual case of Aemilia Hilaria, his maternal aunt (matertera), who was a doctor, as was Ausonius’s own father, Julius Ausonius. This is the text of his verses to his aunt’s shade. The ellipsis is believed to indicate a textual lacuna.

Aemilia Hilaria, My Mother's Sister, An Avowed Virgin
You too who, though in kinship's degree an aunt, were to me a mother, must now be recalled with a son's affection, Aemilia, who in the cradle gained the second name of Hilarus because,
bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy, you made without pretense the very picture of a lad ...
busied in the art of healing, like a man. You ever hated your female sex, and so there grew up in you the love of consecrated maidenhood. Through three and sixty years you maintained it, and your life's end was also a maiden's end. You cherished as well me with your precepts and your love as might a mother; and therefore as a son I make you this return at your last rites.   (Ausonius Parentalia 6, from Loeb Edition Opuscula vol.1, trans Hugh G Evelyn White, 1919, pp.67 & 69)

It is hard to say what Aemila was. She might have been a lesbian, or more probably considered herself to be a male in some sense. It was not of course possible to alter the physicality of one’s sex in those days. But it was possible to transcend the social expectations, which she did, becoming a doctor. Perhaps she worked alongside Julius, the author’s father. While Ausonius describes his mother with little affection, and reports her spinning wool in the convention of the Roman matrona, Aemilia was clearly a but unusual. As we know from many studies, a lot of women worked outside the home, ran businesses and professions, ventured money as investors. Jane Gardner’s excellent book Women in Roman Law and Society (Indiana University Press, 1991) gives many accounts from Roman primary sources of just that, many in the eastern provinces; she discusses Aemila and other women doctors on pp.240-1).

There seems to have been a tension in parts of the empire between social expectations and individual wishes. Aemilia’s sister Aemilia Maura (‘the dark’) is said to be ‘perpendiculum’ (rigidly upright, as the word refers to a mason’s or carpenter’s plumb line), but no such terminology is given for Aemilia Hilaria, who is said to have more virum.

That her cognomen (given in the poem’s title as in female form, but the title might not be on the original) is given as masculine in the text suggests that she carried a male name and identified with that name. She supposedly did so ‘without pretense’, but ‘ever hated [her] female sex’.

Aemila Hilaria and her sister Aemila Maura seem largely to have brought up Ausonius after his mother died early. The term ‘virgin’ as translated by White need not make us assume anything of her sexuality or lack of it. Virgo just means ‘unmarried woman’ and the use of that word alone English sense of someone who has never had sex dates only to c.AD1300. Here virgo devota is someone who has pledged not to marry, which might simply be a dedication to her career as a doctor. It is only a generation back that most women did not drop their work upon marriage, and in the UK is was considered appropriate for women teachers to be single if at all possible. However, Graydon Snyder in Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine says there were ‘pagan’ communities of women with the term virgo devota (virgines devotae), but that a simple unmarried woman might be termed virgo innupta. (Mercer University Press, 2003, p.234), this being from analysis of memorials. Perhaps Aelia lived in a female community as a male, or relieved from the pressure of females to conform.

It is Ausonius’s comment that she hated her own sex (feminei sexus odium tibi semper et inde/ crevit devotae virginitatis amor,) which is slightly surprising.

Greek myth contain several instances of contrary sexuality. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Iphis is female but raised as a boy (Ov. Met. 9.9); the name Iphis, allegedly Cretan, was available for both sexes. The mother, impelled by her husband’s command to kill her first child if a girl, invokes Isis, who tells her to pretend the newborn girl is a boy; Iphis reaches adulthood and falls in love with a girl, Ianthe. Isis, invoked again, transforms Iphis into a male.

Antoninus Liberalis, a later Greek author, wrote a collection of Metamorphoses, which includes the myth of Leucippus, born female and given a male name, again in Crete, but in this case the deity is Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. Reference is made to other, mostly lost, myths. Leucippus means ‘white horse’ (leukos hippos). There is also a Leucippus, a male disguised as a female and a companion of Daphne.

Only in myth could sex be changed in those days. But there is a possibility that Aemilia Hilaria could have been intersex; a few years ago I remember reading of a number of children in Cuba, growing up in a remote community, who were male at birth, but who became female at puberty. This was a significant genetic indeterminacy, but every year many children are born biologically intersex. It is not impossible that children on Crete in antiquity were subject to the same limited gene pool in an island community and that such a prodigy entered myth.

However, there is real warmth in Ausonius’s writing about his unusual aunt, showing she was valued and loved in her own society.


  1. Many thanks for this. I am a Classical Studies undergrad with the OU and just on my last essay. I am thinking of possibly using the snippet of female doctor (challenging preconceptions) if that is OK. Best regards and thanks for the blog.

  2. A340, I would guess, or A219? By all means, but please cite Ausonius, not me. I'm a tutor on A330, so I would prefer my name not to be cited on another module. Kind regards, Martin

  3. Or perhaps she was simply a heterosexual woman who didn't want to get married and have kids. To this day the assumption is that women who don't want to get married and have kids must have something wrong with them. They MUST hate men, they MUST hate kids, they must be selfish, they must be virgins, they love their jobs to much and so on. In my experience there is another possibility, that she simply didn't want to get married and have kids. Until we find something in her voice that says otherwise, we can't make assumptions about her based on the view of someone else. Those assumptions say more about the author, than about the woman herself.

  4. Thank you for your interesting comment. I can only comment on the information we possess, which is Ausonius's eulogy. I don't agree with your suggestion that 'we can't make assumptions ... based on the view of someone else'. That's exactly what historians do. Without the ability, based on many years of detailed scholarship, to speculate, we can all just pack up. In the case of Hilaria, she's widely used as a feminist model, as in Jane Gardner's 'Women in Roman Law and Society'.