Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage: Jerome’s creativity

The late-fourth-century Christian ascetic and scholar Jerome had such extraordinary literary creativity that scholars to this day have barely recognized his genius.  Jerome wove Christian scripture, non-Christian Greco-Roman literature, and the work of early Christian thought leaders into innovative, outrageous, transgressive forms.  One of Jerome’s greatest and most influential works, Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage {Aureolus liber de nuptiis}, has been so badly misunderstood that many scholars believe that Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor at the Athenian lyceum, wrote it.  Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage is a sophisticated literary artifice.  Written by Jerome from his personal perspective as a man, Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage inconceivably tells women what men want.[1]

Golden Book, after that of Theophrastus

With remarkable daring, Jerome addressed Theophrastus’ Golden Book to women.  Theophrastus’ book occurs as a small section in Jerome’s voluminous treatise, Against Jovinian {Adversus Jovinianum}.  Jerome sought in Adversus Jovinianum to confute a theologian’s claim that “virgin maidens, widows, and married women {virgines, viduas, et maritatas}” have statuses of equal merit as Christians.  Immediately before citing Theophrastus’ Golden Book, Jerome declares:

What am I to do when the women of our time press me with apostolic authority, and before the first husband is buried, repeat continually the precepts that allow a second marriage? Since they despise the fidelity which Christian purity dictates, let them at least learn chastity from the heathen.

{ quid faciam, cum mihi mulieres nostri temporis, Apostoli ingerant auctoritatem; et necdum elato funere prioris viri, memoriter digamiae praecepta decantent? Ut quae Christianae pudicitiae despiciunt fidem, discant saltem ab Ethnicis castitatem. }[2]

Jerome thus constructed Theophrastus’ Golden Book as instruction for women.  As Aristotle’s successor in leading the Athenian lyceum, Theophrastus was an eminent classical philosophical authority.  Through Theophrastus, Jerome provided authoritative heathen teaching for women.

Jerome introduced Theophrastus’ Golden Book with a parody of wisdom attributed to Solomon.  Solomon is traditionally identified as the author of the biblical book Proverbs.  Like the biblical book Sirach, Proverbs concludes with a Hebrew acrostic.  Proverbs’ concluding acrostic has a genre that was probably as popular in the ancient world as it is today: an encomium to the strong, independent woman.  The first and last two lines of Proverbs’ encomium carry its main points:

A woman of strength, who can find?
Her price is greater than rubies.

Comeliness is deceit and beauty a vapor,
but a woman who fears the Lord — she will be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her deeds praise her in the gates.

{ אֵשֶׁת־חַיִל מִי יִמְצָא וְרָחֹק מִפְּנִינִים מִכְרָהּ׃

שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת־יְהוָה הִיא
תְּנוּ־לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶׂיהָ׃

Proverbs’ strong woman works outside the home, independently of her husband, in the breadwinner role that traditionally has been imposed on men as their exclusive, natural burden.

Jerome reconfigured the values of the Proverbs encomium to the strong, independent woman.  Jerome artfully declares:

Theophrastus’s book about marriage is said to be gold. In it he asks whether a wise man should marry. And after specifying that, yes, occasionally a wise man might venture on marriage — if the woman is beautiful, of good character, and honorable parentage, and he himself healthy and rich. But he immediately concludes, “All these things rarely coexist in a marriage. Therefore, a wise man should not marry.”

{ Fertur aureolus Theophrasti liber de nuptiis, in quo quaerit, an vir sapiens ducat uxorem. Et cum definisset, si pulchra esset, si bene morata, si honestis parentibus, si ipse sanus ac dives, sic sapientem aliquando inire matrimonium, statim intulit: “Haec autem in nuptiis raro universa concordant. Non est ergo uxor ducenda sapienti.” }[4]

Because the woman that Proverbs praises is actually rare, Theophrastus’ book is worth its weight in gold.  It prevents a mistaken evaluation of the worth of a wife.  Proverbs disparages the value of a wife’s beauty and emphasizes her earning potential.  But if a man is already rich, a woman’s earning potential has little marginal value to him in marriage.  Theophrastus’ book highlights a woman’s beauty and her social status.  In addition, the husband being healthy alludes to him being able to exercise fully the sexual opportunities that marriage potentially provides.  In short, Jerome through Theophrastus instructs Christian women that the Proverbs encomium to the strong, independent woman is bunk.[5]

Jerome also reconfigured in non-Christian terms the Christian gospel’s wisdom about serving two masters.  The gospel of Matthew declares:

No one can serve two masters: for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

{ οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν ἢ γὰρ τὸν ἕνα μισήσει καὶ τὸν ἕτερον ἀγαπήσει ἢ ἑνὸς ἀνθέξεται καὶ τοῦ ἑτέρου καταφρονήσει οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ }[6]

Jerome explains:

For in the first place marriage impedes his study of philosophy, nor can anyone serve both books and his wife.

{ Primum enim impediri studia Philosophiae; nec posse quemquam libris et uxori pariter inservire. }

Books here substitute for seeking God, and a wife, for seeking wealth.  Jerome immediately expands satirically the latter point:

Many things are necessary for married women’s practices: expensive clothes, gold, gems, shopping sprees, maids, all kinds of furniture, litters, and a gilt two-wheeled chariot.

{ Multa esse quae matronarum usibus necessaria sint, pretiosae vestes, aurum, gemmae, sumptus, ancillae, supellex varia, lecticae et esseda deaurata. }

Jerome also represents the reversal of love and hate.  He describes the wife’s jealousy of others and the husband’s attempts to establish friendships with others.  Jerome observes:

A wife suspects that her husband’s love goes the same way as her hate.

{ Alterius amorem, suum odium suspicatur. }

In Jerome’s creative allegory, just as marriage impedes a non-Christian from pursuing learning, marriage also impedes a Christian from serving God.

Biblical wisdom presents contrasting views of women.  Chapter 26 of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) alternates twice between describing the wicked wife and the good wife.  The obvious question is how to get a good wife rather than a wicked one.  Jerome through Theophrastus reasons:

There is no choosing a wife, but one has whatever comes along. If she has a temper, if she is foolish, malformed, proud, smelly, whatever vice it is, we learn it only after the wedding. A horse, a donkey, a bull, a dog, and the most worthless slaves, even clothes and kettles, a wooden stool, a goblet, and an earthen pitcher all are tested first and then bought or not. Only a wife is not shown, so that she should not displease before she is wed.

{ nulla est uxoris electio, sed qualiscumque obvenerit, habenda. Si iracunda, si fatua, si deformis, si superba, si fetida, quodcumque vitii est, post nuptias discimus. Equus, asinus, bos, canis, et vilissima mancipia, vestes quoque, et lebetes, sedile ligneum, calix, et urceolus fictilis probantur prius, et sic emuntur: sola uxor non ostenditur, ne ante displiceat, quam ducatur. }

Jerome through Theophrastus thus instructs women about men’s reluctance to marry.  Men cannot distinguish between good and bad women before marriage.[7]  Out of respect for men’s lack of knowledge, even a woman who believes herself to be good should not urge a man to marry her.

With Theophrastus’ Golden Book, Jerome displayed his mastery of Juvenal’s towering classical work of men sexed protests.  Like Juvenal, Jerome through Theophrastus protests wives’ rule of the household.[8]  Juvenal’s mimesis of a wife’s words is stilted and tendentious, with a style little different from his rhetorical questions.[9]  Jerome’s mimesis of a wife’s words is more realistic and more comic:

Talkative complaints occur throughout the night. “That woman looks so much prettier when she goes out. This one is honored by everyone. When women get together, they despise me as a miserable little woman.  Why were you staring at the woman next door?  What were you talking about with the maid?  What did you bring home from the forum? I am not allowed to have a male friend or companion.”

{ per noctes totas garrulae conquestiones: “Illa ornatior procedit in publicum: haec honoratur ab omnibus, ego in conventu feminarum misella despicior. Cur aspiciebas vicinam? quid cum ancillula loquebaris? de foro veniens quid attulisti? Non amicum habere possumus, non sodalem.” }[10]

Jerome makes similar points of protest to Juvenal, but in a more refined, more charitable way.  In protesting wives’ sexual relations with household eunuchs, Juvenal graphically describes a young man getting his testicles torn off so as to serve better sexually the mistress of the house.  Jerome more decorously mentions, “her eunuch, gelded to prolong her pleasure and to make it safe {in longam securamque libidinem exsectus spado}.”  Juvenal describes wives brutally flogging household servants.[11]  Jerome merely hints discretely about workplace sexual harassment:

Upon whomever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not.

{ Quoscumque illa dilexerit, ingratis amandi. }[12]

Juvenal graphically describes wives sneaking out at night to work in brothels and having sex with gladiators.  Juvenal also describes men having consensual sex with other men’s wives as if those men were brutish attackers:

Meanwhile her adulterer lurks, kept separate and hidden.
impatiently he maintains silence in the delay and draws back his foreskin.

{ abditus interea latet et secretus adulter,
inpatiensque morae silet et praeputia ducit. }[13]

Jerome, in contrast, more charitably recognizes men’s attractive qualities:

If a wife is beautiful, she quickly takes lovers. If she’s ugly, she readily desires them. It’s difficult to guard what many love, yet it’s annoying to possess what no one thinks worth having. The misery of having an unshapely wife, however, is less than that of protecting a shapely one. Nothing is safe for which the whole population sighs and prays. One man entices with his shape, another with his ingenuity, another with his wit, another with gift-giving. Somehow or sometime, that would be captured which is continually attacked on all sides.

{ Pulchra cito adamatur, foeda facile concupiscit. Difficile custoditur, quod plures amant. Molestum est possidere, quod nemo habere dignetur. Minore tamen miseria deformis habetur, quam formosa servatur. Nihil tutum est, in quod totius populi vota suspirant. Alius forma, alius ingenio, alius facetiis, alius liberalitate sollicitat. Aliquo modo, vel aliquando expugnatur, quod undique incessitur. }

Juvenal suggests as an alternative to a wife a boy sex-object.[14]  Jerome more humanely suggests a faithful servant, friends, and relatives.  Juvenal elaborates at length about wives’ propensities toward superstition and willingness to poison their husbands.[15]  Jerome addresses these problems briefly and pragmatically.  In a key symbolic gesture, Jerome refers to a good and kind wife as “a rare bird {rara avis}.”  He thus cites Juvenal’s description of a suitable wife as “a rare bird on this earth, exactly like a black swan {rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno}.”[16]  Jerome, with brevity and graciousness, trumped Juvenal in addressing marriage in this earthly life.

Within Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage, Jerome also poignantly points to a greater life.  Describing a husband’s solicitude for a good and kind wife, Jerome declares:

When she gives birth, we groan with her. When she’s in danger, we’re tormented with her.

{ cum parturiente gemimus, cum periclitante torquemur. }

The husband experiences continually being with his wife.  Jerome implicitly recognizes the good of that experience with an abrupt shift to describing an alternate experience:

A wise man can never be alone.  He has with him all men who are and who have ever been good, and he turns his free mind wherever he likes.  What his body cannot do, he embraces in this thought.  And if he lacks men with whom to speak, he speaks with God.  He will never be less alone than when he is alone.

{ Sapiens autem numquam solus esse potest. Habet secum omnes qui sunt, qui umquam fuerunt boni, et animum liberum quocumque vult, transfert. Quod corpore non potest, cogitatione complectitur. Et si hominum inopia fuerit, loquitur cum Deo. Numquam minus solus erit, quam cum solus erit. } [17]

Jerome thus described his experience of Christian ascetic life.  Jerome’s Christian ascetic life encompassed strenuous scholarly study and writing.  Wealthy women who admired and patronized Jerome provided vital support for his scholarly study and writing.  Jerome concluded Theophrastus’ Golden Book with fitting words for patrons:

To spend your money well while you are still alive would be a more certain inheritance than to leave what you acquired by your own hard work to be used for who knows what.

{ Licet certior haereditas sit; dum advivis, bene abuti substantia tua, quam tuo labore quaesita in incertos usus relinquere. }

Juvenal’s satire is all bite.  Jerome made with Juvenal’s satire a much greater work.  Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage explains to women the value of men’s Christian ascetic life.  It also suggests to wealthy women that they should financially support men in Christian ascetic life.[18]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage {Aureolus liber de nuptiis} was widely disseminated throughout medieval Europe. For a survey of influence, Schmitt (1972) pp. 259-68. De nuptiis was “by far the most important Theophrastan text known to the Middle Ages.” Id. p. 259. De nuptiis was incorporated in John of Salisbury’s influential Policraticus, Bk. 8, Ch. 11. For an English translation, Pike (1938) pp. 356-8. John wrote Policraticus about 1159.

In 1195, Lotario Dei Segni, the future Pope Innocent III, wrote On the Misery of the Human Condition {De Miseria Condicionis Humane}. He included in section I.16 text from Theophrastus’s Aureolus liber de nuptiis. See Lewis (1978) pp. 118-22, 290. De Miseria Condicionis Humane also included a witty reformulation of biblical injunction:

Who could ever tolerate a rival calmly? Mere suspicion strongly distresses the jealous man, for even though it is written, “They shall be two in one flesh,” still the jealousy of man does not endure two men in one flesh.

{ Quis unquam equanimiter potuit sustinere rivalem? Sola suspicio zelotipum vehementer affligit, nam licet scriptum sit, “Erunt duo in carne una,” zelus tamen viri duos in una carne non patitur. }

Id. pp. 122-3. Cf. Genesis 2:24. Throughout the Middle Ages, De Miseria Condicionis Humane was a highly popular and influential text.  However, men’s aversion to being cuckolded now tends to be disparaged.

Jerome has not been credited with writing Theophrastus’s Aureolus liber de nuptiis.  The most extensive recent scholarly analysis of Jerome’s satire takes literally Jerome’s claim that Theophrastus wrote that book.  It also provides this fine piece of learned, ingenuous analysis:

Bickel explained the resemblances between Juvenal and the extract from Theophrastus as follows: when Jerome was copying Theophrastus from Porphyry, memories of Juvenal’s sixth satire entered his mind and he added these reminiscences to the extract … These views were seriously challenged by J. van Wageningen, who explained the apparent reminiscences of Juvenal by the theory that Jerome derived the ecloga Theophrasti from Seneca’s De matrimonio, which was also used by Juvenal in composing his sixth satire.  Van Wageningen’s argument takes too little account of Bickel’s cogent demonstration that the ecloga Theophrasti shows numerous traces of Jerome’s own Latin style. … In praise of Jerome, however, it may be said that if he had not admitted that Theophrastus’ attack on women was not his own original work, the reader would hardly have guessed it, so markedly is his adaptation of the passage stamped with his own satiric style.

Weisen (1964) pp. 153-5.  A scholarly work published in 1997 and focusing on Chaucer wisely observed:

the evidence suggests strongly that no such book {Aureolus liber de nuptiis} ever existed in Greek and that it was Jerome who composed it and simply invented the ascription.

Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 8.  In a magisterial commentary on Jerome’s Booklet on maintaining virginity {Libellus de Virginitate Servanda} (Letter 22, to Eustochium), a leading scholar of Jerome greatly disparaged Jerome’s creativity:

Jerome’s brilliance often turns out to be no more than the glitter of pilfered tinsel.  … Any meretricious formulation that caught Jerome’s eye was memorized for redeployment later … Jerome recognized the limitations of his own intellectual ability: he knew that he was not really capable of independent and creative thought. … it is precisely originality of form which is often lacking in Jerome. … Jerome’s own contribution to the debate {about virginity} is often tasteless and bizarre.

Adkin (2003) pp. 2-5.  Properly attributing to Jerome Theophrastus’s Aureolus liber de nuptiis should help to correct that mistaken evaluation.

[2] Jerome, Against Jovinian {Adversus Jovinianum}, I.47, Latin text from Migne (1845), English translation (modified slightly) from Freemantle (1892) p. 846.  Jerome was confuting Jovinian.  Jerome’s quotation of Jovinian’s claim is in I.3. Subsequent quotes from Adversus Jovinianum have the same Latin source.

[3] Proverbs 31:10, 31:30-1, Hebrew text from Blue Letter Bible, English trans. from Fox (2009) pp. 888-9.  The above English translation presents the Hebrew lines as paired English lines.

[4] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, trans. (modified) from Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 150.  This translation is similar to that in Freemantle (1892) p. 846.  All subsequent quotations of Jerome, unless otherwise noted, are from Adversus Jovinianum, I.47 (Theophrastus’s Aureolus liber de nuptiis), sourced similarly.

[5] Solomon and Marcolf, a work widespread in fifteenth-century Europe, similarly challenges and parodies the wisdom of Solomon.

[6] Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13.

[7] Many men today attempt to learn about a women through cohabitation before marriage.  Such an approach has serious problems with incentives and ecological relevance.  It also ignores the significance of marital law.  In any case, non-marital cohabitation was less feasible in the fourth century because fewer men and women had the resources to maintain households separate from their families.  Cohabitation choices had then broader social significance.

[8] Cf. Juvenal, Satires 6, ll. 149-52, 210-24.

[9] Consider, for example this dialog between husband and wife:

{wife} “Crucify that slave.”
{husband} “What crime has he committed to deserve punishment? Who says they witnessed it? Who accused him? Give him a hearing!  No hesitation is ever long enough when a person’s life is at stake.”
{wife} “You idiot! Is a slave a person?  All right, let’s accept that he hasn’t done anything.  But it’s my wish and my command.  Let my will be reason enough.”

{ “pone crucem servo.” “meruit quo crimine servus
supplicium? quis testis adest? quis detulit? audi;
nulla umquam de morte hominis cunctatio longa est.”
“o demens, ita servus homo est? nil fecerit, esto:
hoc volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas.” }219-23

Juvenal, Satires 6, ll. 219-23, Latin text and English translations (modified slightly) from Braund (2004) p. 253. Subsequent quotes from Juvenal are similarly sourced.

[10] Jerome is thus an unappreciated father of the scintillating dialogue in the medieval (c. 1400) French work 15 Joys of Marriage.

[11] Juvenal, Satires 6, ll. 366-78 (man having testicles torn off).  Here’s discussion of the sexual merits of eunuchs in Juvenal.  Id. ll. 474-93 (wife flogging household servants).

[12] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, trans. (modified) from Fremantle (1892) p. 847.  Hanna & Lawler (1997), p. 152, has for this line:

Those whom she loves must be loved in return, whether they want to or not.

That translation has similar meaning, but is more obscure.

[13] Juvenal, Satires 6, ll. 237-8.

[14] Juvenal, Satires 6, ll. 33-7.

[15] Juvenal, Satires 6, ll. 542-91 (superstition), ll. 659-61 (poisoning husband).

[16] Juvenal, Satires 6, ll 165.

[17] In describing ascetic life in Aureolus liber de nuptiis, Jerome refers to loneliness and “what with his body he cannot do {quod corpore non potest}.” That may allude to consolations of companionship and sex that some husbands experience in marriage.

[18] Not all men favor Christian ascetic life.  A leading scholar of Jerome observed:

Despite all his austerities J.’s {Jerome’s} mind still seethed with lust.

Adkin (2003) p. 59.  In other words, Jerome had sexuality like that of an ordinary, healthy man.  Nonetheless, Jerome chose a Christian ascetic life.  Women can show love for men who do not choose such a life by taking care of them sexually in addition to financially supporting them.  That would be enough for most men.  Most men don’t demand to have it all.

[image] Modified version of Binding from Five Poems (increased color saturation, intensified highlights). Original 16th century Persia, The Walters Art Museum, W.610.binding.  Thanks to the Walters for preserving this binding and sharing liberally an image of it.


Adkin, Neil. 2003. Jerome on Virginity: a commentary on the Libellus de virginitate servanda (Letter 22). Cambridge: Francis Cairns.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fox, Michael V. 2009.  Proverbs 10-31: a new translation with introduction and commentary.  The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Vol. 18B. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Lewis, Robert E., ed. and trans. 1978. Lotario Dei Segni {later named Pope Innocent III}. De miseria condicionis humane. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.

Pike, Joseph B., trans. 1938. John of Salisbury. Frivolities of courtiers and footprints of philosopher: Being a transaltion of the first, second, and third books and selections from the seventh and eighth books of the Policraticus of John of Salisbury. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Schmitt, Charles B. 1972. “Theophrastus in the Middle Ages.” Viator. 2: 251-270.

Wiesen, David S. 1964. St. Jerome as a satirist: a study in Christian Latin thought and letters. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *