HelRaw: Sofia Vierula and Ella Sahivirta 4.12.2023.

Final HelRaw seminar of year 2023

The final Helsinki Research on the Ancient World seminar (HelRaw) of this semester takes place with two speakers: Sofia Vierula (University of Helsinki) and Ella Sahivirta (University of Helsinki) on the 4th of December.

You are warmly welcome to join our speaker on Metsätalo or Zoom!


The topic of Sofia Vierula’s talk is “Disabled women’s participation and agency in the healing processes at provincial sanctuaries in the Roman Empire.”

Ella Sahivirta will tell us about “Aventine Asceticism - an Ascetic Model Designed by Senatorial Women in the City of Rome”.


Sofia Vierula:

Written Roman accounts on disabled and ill women are often limited to examples and anecdotes provided by male authors, mostly dismissive or presupposing in tone. In order to examine women’s own experiences, it is essential to study material that reflects women’s authority and includes women’s contribution. This kind of relative independence and women’s agency is present in the votive offerings dedicated by women all around Roman provinces and the Italian peninsula; the anatomical votives demonstrate a variety of Roman women’s experiences, concerns, health issues, priorities, and women’s roles in the healing processes.

A survey conducted on a sample of anatomical votive offerings dedicated by ill or disabled women in the Roman Empire concurs with some of the insights by medical writers such as Soranus, Galen, and Caelius. On the other hand, these offerings contradict many generalisations present in the literary sources, showing that literary retellings of women’s experiences did not necessarily represent reality, or lacked some aspects of their lives. Statistically, the most likely votive offering dedicated by a Roman woman is found from the Italian peninsula, is made of local terracotta, and represents a uterus or a breast. The sample shows that women dedicated other anatomical votives as well, and in addition to terracotta, stone materials and metals were used.

The preliminary results of the survey indicate that within healing sanctuaries, women had agency in their own healing processes both in the case of illness and disability; anatomical votives have been accessible for most women, as the offerings are diverse in quality, material, and style. Locations of the votives indicate that similar activities have been practiced at different healing sanctuaries and shrines at different time periods, and these offerings present a unique viewpoint to women’s health-related activities in the Roman Empire.




Ella Sahivirta:

Late Antique Christian asceticism has often been seen in research as male driven activity: ascetic legends of the era are often men, monastic rules are written by predominantly men, and in the case of female ascetic communities male clerics were needed to perform the sacraments and lead mass. In the sources men are more visible than women: we have hardly any sources remaining from female writers in general from this era, let alone theological sources from ascetic women. This does not however mean, that women were not independent ascetics or that they did not form ascetic ideologies during this developing era of the church as much as the men did. This PhD project aims to bring light to one of these cases of female-driven ascetic ideology – Aventine asceticism.


This model of asceticism has not been previously recognized as such due to the posthumous fame of the male clients promoting it – Jerome and Ambrose of Milan are among the most famous names in late antique church history. The women whose ideology they were promoting (their patrons) have been considered mere friends and even pupils of these men, who have taken up the limelight from their patrons. Yet, it is not their theology that made them famous, but their patrons. The strict, physical, and at times even dangerous ascetic regime Jerome argued for in his many writings was pioneered by his patron Marcella and perfected to monastic form by another patron Paula. The concept of Bride of Christ (the concrete engagement of the consecrated virgin to Jesus himself) was introduced to the West by Ambrose of Milan. His sister was a friend of Marcella and a consecrated virgin herself. Neither men showed any interest in either theme before meeting these women, and it can be argued that both shaped their careers towards these themes precisely because they were clients, not independent theologians.


In the presentation I will introduce the study subjects and their ascetic model that I have labeled Aventine Asceticism in my research. I will explain this model, and how it was unique to the many other ascetic models surrounding it in the context of late antique Christian asceticism. The main points of interest are:

- the model itself and the symbolic implications of each element of the Aventine image

- how the Aventine introduced the concept of the Bride of Christ, i.e. how they molded the meaning of consecrated virginity from a spiritual title to a sign of celestial royalty.


Both elements reveal the ultimate goal of Aventine asceticism. These women, from the heights of the ancient Roman nobility, would not settle for being great philosophers (as most ascetics did) or normal parishioners (as most women did). The social hierarchy they were used to, being members of the elite, did not vanish as the trend of asceticism spread from the East to the West in the Empire – it transformed itself into a notion of spiritual elitism. The lifestyle was one that practically only the aristocratic woman could undertake, and the complicated theology behind becoming Bride of Christ ensured most existing ascetic women did not qualify: only the Aventine virgins had what it took to actually marry Christ in Heaven, and only their relatives could then claim to be ‘in-laws of God’.


Research subjects

The women I study come from two prestigious senatorial families. Marcella and her sister Asella (a consecrated virgin) from the family of Caeionius, and Paula and her daughter Iulia Eustochium (also a consecrated virgin) from the family of Furius. These women created a small ascetic community on the Aventine Hill in Rome, meeting at Marcella’s family estate. All were extremely wealthy and had a social circle of senators, bishops and aristocrats, and as this PhD project shows, continued to exert their social influence from the position of ‘humble’ ascetics as well as they and their families had done for centuries from the position of the highest nobility of Rome.


These four women are an excellent group to study when looking into asceticism among the women of the Roman nobility. All are, at least according to Jerome, ‘the first’ in regards to this trend: Marcella was the first aristocratic woman in the city to publicly claim herself to be an ascetic (both Jerome and Methodius of Olympus claim this), and her sister was the first consecrated virgin we know of by name (although Jerome gives the same title to Eustochium as well). Paula was the first to have a monastic rule under her name: she was not the first to establish an official monastic community (her rival Melania the Elder was), but she is the first case of a monastic rule, small as it is, being attributed to a woman (Jerome’s Ep.108.20-22).


Two of these women, Marcella and Paula, also participated in one of the era’s many heresy disputes with concrete results. The Origenist controversy, a rather strange and very constructed dispute over the teachings of a relatively popular and by now long dead theologian from the 3rd century became the excuse Marcella and Paula needed to battle another famous ascetic aristocrat from Rome, Melania the Elder. This battle, as has been argued previously, was not one of theology but one of political networks and alliances. This dispute shows how much concrete influence aristocratic women had in the matters of the church, and how much they were willing to intervene on episcopal matters on behalf of their friends and in support of their shared ascetic ideology.




Time: Dec 4, 2023 05:15 PM Helsinki


Metsätalo room 26

Unioninkatu 40 00170 Helsinki


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About the speakers:


Sofia Vierula:

I am a classical philologist and a doctoral researcher in the programme of history and cultural heritage here at the University of Helsinki. My thesis focuses on women’s disability and illness in the Roman Republic and Empire, and reconstructing women’s lived experiences. My research interests include archaeology of disability, archaeology of accessibility, Graeco-Roman medicine, and Roman ideas of health, gender, and agency. On my free time I am currently learning Italian and Middle Welsh, and playing the piano and the accordion.


Ella Sahivirta:

I am a PhD student from the Faculty of Theology, Department of Church History. I began my PhD project in January 2021. I have been employed since then in the department on the paid position for doctoral students. My field is late antique church history, focusing on the Western empire and especially on asceticism among the senatorial aristocracy in the city of Rome. The time period of my research is 370-420 C.E. I did my master's thesis on this same period, when I looked at the opposition to Christianity by a pagan senator R.A.A. Volusianus through his correspondence with bishop Augustine of Hippo after the sack of Rome in 410. My goal is to defend my thesis in January of 2025 and continue on to post-doc research.