A Fifth-Century Woman Comes to Life Through Her Poetry: Meet Eudocia
By BETH HARPAZ
The author of a new book about fifth-century poet Aelia Eudocia cites Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist art installation, The Dinner Party, as an inspiration.
The Dinner Party honors 39 extraordinary women from across the span of civilization with place settings at a banquet table. The names of another 999 women–including Eudocia–appear on porcelain tiles on the floor.
“The first major wave of critical studies on Eudocia and her late antique milieu emerged shortly after the art world read her name on the Heritage Floor,” writes Professor Brian P. Sowers (Brooklyn College) in his book In Her Own Words: The Life and Poetry of Aelia Eudocia.
Yet despite the fact that nearly 3,500 lines of Eudocia’s poetry have survived, she remains one of antiquity’s “least studied female poets.” Sowers’ book remedies the paucity of scholarship on her poetry while sketching the outlines of her life and her “significant contributions” to fifth-century society.
Born in Athens, the daughter of a rhetor (an orator and teacher of rhetoric), Eudocia “received the best classical education available.” She also “earned a reputation as an accomplished poet at a young age.” Deprived of her inheritance by her brothers, she married into imperial society in Constantinople, traveled to Christian pilgrimage sites, became a patron of projects throughout the region, and lived out her life in Jerusalem after being exiled from her husband.
One of her poems, engraved in the floor of a public bath complex that she funded in Antioch, includes Christian and non-Christian references along with Homeric language. Sowers interprets this as her effort to be inclusive and recognize the diversity of the local population.
Eudocia’s poetry, like other writing from the era, also reworked existing stories for new audiences, for example blending Christian texts with references to the Iliad and the Odyssey while endowing her female characters with agency and power.
Her retelling of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from the Gospel of John expanded the woman’s role and “complicated her sexuality,” transforming the story “into one more ethically relevant to a fifth-century audience.” In Eudocia’s version, the woman makes “an evangelistic speech” to the townspeople that leads to their conversion. The woman is also allowed to choose between rejection of marriage (celibacy) or legal marriage. Eudocia’s depiction of Jesus, meanwhile, echoes the story of Odysseus on his wayward journey home.
Sowers also examines Eudocia’s two-part story about Cyprian, a magician who ultimately trades demon worship for Christian faith. Eudocia used this narrative to advance Christian ideology and show how the “Mediterranean world became Christianized.”