Homerocentones & Vergiliocentones from Jerome to Boccaccio and beyond

Faltonia Betitia Proba presents Virgilian cento

Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones are created by stitching together verses of Homer and Virgil, respectively. The great fourth-century Christian scholar Jerome ridiculed Christian Vergiliocentones in a letter to Paulinus of Nola in 394. Jerome in that letter alluded to Proba and her Virgilian Cento Concerning the Glory of Christ {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi}. Jerome’s disparagement of centos paralleled the views of prominent Christian thinkers Irenaeus in the second century, Tertullian in the third century, and Augustine in the fifth.[1] Yet about a millennium later, Christian authors lavishly and superficially praised Proba’s cento. In doing so, they interpreted Jerome to support Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones and failed to appreciate Proba’s challenge to dominant gender ideology. When gender is important, reason often doesn’t guide interpretation.

Jerome wrote among closely connected elite thinkers pondering how the canon of traditional Greco-Roman culture related to Christian scripture. Paulinus of Nola, to whom Jerome wrote at least three warm letters, was a student of Ausonius. Ausonius had written the stunning Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} probably in the 370s. While Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis isn’t explicitly Christian, Ausonius himself was a Christian, and his Cento nuptialis has significant thematic connections to Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola were close and frequent correspondents. Jerome may well have known of both Proba’s and Ausonius’s Vergiliocentones. Frequently censored through the ages, Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis would have disturbed Jerome even more than Proba’s cento.

With his usual vigorous, vibrant rhetoric, Jerome ridiculed Christian Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones in his letter to Paulinus. Jerome is the sort of writer who would playfully construct an obscene gesture with words and fabricate a text and attribute it to the ancient Athenian philosopher Theophrastus. When discussing field-specific learning, Jerome at first didn’t distinguish secular writing from sacred writing:

Agricultural laborers, masons, craftsmen, workers in wood and metal, wool-dressers and fullers, as well as those artisans who make furniture and cheap utensils, cannot attain the ends they seek without instruction from qualified persons. Those who practice medicine are medical doctors, and craftsmen put together craft-work {quoting Horace, Epistles 2.1.115-6}. Only the art of writing all everywhere claim to have. Taught or untaught, we all everywhere write poems {quoting Horace, Epistles 2.1.117}. The garrulous old woman, the raving old man, the wordy solecism-speaker — one and all they take it up, tear it apart, and teach it before learning it.

{ Agricolae, caementarii, fabri, metallorum, lignorumve caesores, lanarii quoque et fullones, et caeteri qui variam supellectilem et vilia opuscula fabricantur, absque doctore non possunt esse quod cupiunt. Quod medicorum est promittunt medici, tractant fabrilia fabri. Sola scripturarum ars est, quam sibi omnes passim vindicant. Scribimus indocti, doctique poemata passim. Hanc garrula anus, hanc delirus senex, hanc sophista verbosus, hanc universi praesumunt, lacerant, docent, antequam discant. } [2]

Writing poetry was an elite activity in the fourth-century Roman Empire. Jerome declaring that writing poetry is more prevalent than common manual trades shows Jerome engaging in extravagant rhetoric. His learned quotes of Horace distinguish him from the ignorant solecism-speaker. Jerome, like Paulinus, was highly educated in elite, secular literature.

Much more so than Paulinus, Jerome was also highly educated in Holy Scripture. Jerome mocked the pretense that secular learning is sufficient to understand and teach Holy Scripture:

Some, with brows knit and weighing grand words among unimportant women, philosophize concerning sacred literature. Others — for shame! — learn from women what they teach men, and if this weren’t bad enough, expound it to others with a certain ease, or even boldness, in speaking. They expound what they themselves do not understand. I remain silent about those who, like me, come to the study of Holy Scripture after having studied secular literature. When they have stroked the ear of the people with well-arranged speech, they think that whatever they say is the law of God. They do not deign to know what the prophets and the apostles perceived, but attach inept evidence to their own feelings, as if this were a grand accomplishment and not the most corrupt mode of speaking. They distort the intentions of Scripture and tug it, though it resist, toward their own inclination.

{ Alii adducto supercilio, grandia verba trutinantes, inter mulierculas de sacris litteris philosophantur. Alii discunt, proh pudor, a feminis, quod viros doceant: et ne parum hoc sit, quadam facilitate verborum, imo audacia edisserunt aliis, quod ipsi non intelligunt. Taceo de mei similibus, qui si forte ad Scripturas sanctas, post saeculares litteras venerint; et sermone composito aurem populi mulserint, quidquid dixerint, hoc legem Dei putant: nec scire dignantur, quid Prophetae, quid Apostoli senserint; sed ad sensum suum incongrua aptant testimonia; quasi grande sit, et non vitiosissimum docendi genus, depravare sententias, et ad voluntatem suam Scripturam trahere repugnantem. }

Jerome’s reference to women introduces his particularization “sacred literature.” Unlike in traditional Greco-Roman culture, gender had normative significant to Christians in the incarnation of God and in teaching sacred literature. Jerome’s paralipsistic reference to his prior study of secular literature emphasizes that he, unlike the others he ridicules, went on to study extensively sacred literature. For Jerome, sacred literature requires particular expertise, particular gender in teaching, and particular respect for its authority. Jerome in his letter to Paulinus was positioning himself to teach Paulinus about sacred literature, not secular literature.

Proba and her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi represented to Jerome the wrong way to approach sacred literature. Proba was a married woman deeply learned in the secular literature of Virgil. She turned from the path of secular literature to write a Vergiliocento — an epic of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament constructed from verses of Virgil. At least one other poet similarly made Christian Homerocentones.[3] Jerome apparently felt that study of sacred literature was being shortchanged. Secular learning was being given priority over study of sacred scripture:

Otherwise we wouldn’t read Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones, nor would we say that even Virgil was a Christian without Christ because he had written: “Now the Virgin returns, the kingdom of Saturn returns. Now a new race will spring up in the whole world {quoting Virgil, Eclogues 4.6-7},” and a father saying to his son: “Son, you alone my strength, my mighty power {quoting Virgil, Aeneid, 1.664},” and after the words of the Savior on the cross: “Speaking thus he rested and remained held in place {quoting Virgil, Aeneid 2.650}.” These are childish views and similar to the sport of pretentious frauds: to teach what you don’t know; or rather — to vent my spleen — not even to know that you don’t know.

{ Quasi non legerimus, Homerocentonas, et Virgiliocentonas: ac non sic etiam Maronem sine Christo possimus dicere Christianum, qui scripserit: “Jam redit et virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna. Jam nova progenies coelo demittitur alto.” Et patrem loquentem ad filium, “Nate, meae vires, mea magna potentia solus.” Et post verba Salvatoris in cruce, “Talia perstabat memorans, fixusque manebat.” Puerilia sunt haec, et circulatorum ludo similia, docere quod ignores: imo, ut cum stomacho loquar, ne hoc quidem scire quod nescias. } [4]

Jerome believed in the teaching authority of unmarried men who had made extensive study in the separate field of sacred literature. He wasn’t concerned about how the brutalization of men’s sexuality diminished marriage. Jerome, a priest engaged in monastic life, advocated for the distinctive calling of priests and monks. Jerome implicitly disparaging Proba’s cento is highly plausible.[5]

Antoine Dufour presents book on famous women to Queen Anne

Living about a millennium after Jerome, Boccaccio reconsidered Proba’s cento and the secular literature of ancient Rome. Seeking to earn a living in fourteenth-century Italian gynocentric society, Boccaccio wrote two collections of biographies: About Famous Women {De claris mulieribus} and About the Downfall of Illustrious Men {De casibus virorum illustrium}. The collection about women, which Boccaccio dedicated to Countess Andrea Acciaioli, was successful and influential. It included a chapter on Proba. Boccoccio credited Proba with lost works:

The more we think the work {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi} worthy of being remembered forever, the less we can believe that so intellectually gifted a person {Proba} would have been satisfied with only this effort. In fact, I think that, if Proba lived for many years, she must have written other praiseworthy works which have not reached us, to our loss, because of scribal laziness.

{ Et quanto magis illud memoratu perpetuo dignum putamus, tanto minus credimus tam celebre mulieris huius ingenium huic tantum acquievisse labori; quin imo reor, si in annos ampliores vite protracta est, eam alia insuper condidisse laudabilia, que librariorum desidia, nostro tamen incommodo, ad nos usque devenisse nequivere. } [6]

Proba herself indicated in her surviving work that she had written an earlier work. Boccaccio claimed that, “according not to no source,” Proba wrote a Homerocento:

Among these {Proba’s lost works}, according not to no source, was a Homeric cento consisting of verses taken from Homer in which she displayed the same skill and used the same subject matter she had employed for Virgil. If this is the case, we can infer (and it rebounds even more to her credit) that she was deeply learned in Greek as well as Latin literature.

{ Que inter – ut non nullis placet – fuit Omeri centona, eadem arte et ex eadem materia qua ex Virgilio sumpserat ex Omero sumptis carminibus edita. Ex quo, si sic est, summitur, eius cum ampliori laude, eam doctissime grecas novisse literas ut latinas. } [7]

Boccaccio’s wording and previous rationalization of lost works suggest that his claim about Proba writing a Homerocento isn’t to be taken seriously. No evidence exists that Proba wrote a Homeric cento or that she knew Greek.[8] Boccaccio aimed to magnify Proba, particularly in relation to learned men:

But now I ask you: what more could one wish than to hear of a woman scanning the poems of Virgil and Homer and choosing those verses apt for her purpose? Let learned men consider how artistically she wove together her selected passages. Though they themselves belong to the honorable calling of sacred literature, they find it difficult and challenging enough to pluck passages here and there from the vast sacred book and to press them into an ordered prose narration of the life of Christ — something Proba did from a pagan poem.

{ Sed queso nunc: quid optabilius audisse feminam Maronis et Homeri scandentem carmina, et apta suo operi seponentem? Selecta artificioso contextu nectentem eruditissimi prospectent viri, quibus, cum sit sacrarum literarum insignis professio, arduum est et difficile ex amplissimo sacri voluminis gremio nunc hinc nunc inde partes elicere et ad seriem vite Cristi passis verbis prosaque cogere, uti hec fecit ex gentilitio carmine. }

Boccaccio depicted men learned in sacred literature composed centos on the life of Christ, as if the Gospels didn’t suffice. Boccaccio here seems to be mocking Jerome’s concern about centos in his letter to Paulinus. With his perverse wit, Jerome, rather than being offended, probably would laugh with Boccaccio if they were to read this together.

Boccaccio then went on to mock himself. He declared:

If we reflect on normal feminine practice, the distaff, the needle, and the loom would have been sufficient for Proba, had she wanted to lead an idle life like the majority of her sex. But she achieved eternal fame by taking her sacred studies seriously and scraping off completely the rust of intellectual sloth. Would that her example was favorably regarded by those women who yield to pleasure and idleness, who think it wonderful to stay in their rooms and waste irrevocable time in frivolous stories, who often drag out their hours from dawn to late at night in harmful or useless gossip and save time only for the pursuit of wantonness! Then they would see how much difference there is between seeking fame for praiseworthy works and burying one’s name together with one’s body — in effect, dying as if one had never lived.

{ Erat huic satis – si femineos consideremus mores – colus et acus atque textrina, si more plurium torpere voluisset; sed quantum sedula studiis sacris ab ingenio segniciei rubiginem absterxit omnem, in lumen evasit eternum. Quod utinam bono intuerentur animo voluptatibus obsequentes; et ocio quibus pregrande est cubiculo insidere, fabellis frivolis irreparabile tempus terere, et a summo diei mane in noctem usque totam persepe sermones aut nocuos aut inanes blaterando deducere, seu sibi tantum lasciviendo vacare, adverterent – edepol – quantum differentie sit inter famam laudandis operibus querere, et nomen una cum cadavere sepelire et tanquam non vixerint e vita discedere! }

About ten years before writing this, Boccaccio wrote his Decameron. In that work, seven women and three men go to a villa outside Florence for two weeks to escape the plague. There they idly enjoy each other’s company and tell each each other superficially frivolous and wanton stories. They don’t engage in scholarly study, or even engage in urgent discussion about how to cure the plague or help others suffering from it.

Boccaccio ironically concluded his chapter on Proba. Men in the ancient Greco-Roman world competed vigorously for fame — sometimes, as was the case with Peregrinus Proteus, to their own great harm. Boccaccio in De claris mulieribus presented both famously good and famously bad women. Believing in Christ, rather than making one’s own name famous or infamous, is the way to immortality for a Christian. Proba seeking immortal fame, if she actually did, wouldn’t be to her Christian credit.

After Boccaccio’s witty work on Proba came less imaginative writing in support of women. Christine de Pizan, who might be regarded as an early female supremacist, praised Proba as a great writer. Christine in her Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames} declared of Proba:

now that woman ran through, which is to say, skimmed and read, the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, as are entitled the books Virgil composed, and now she would take from one part entire verses, now from another she would tap small pieces. With wondrous craftsmanship and subtlety she composed entire verses in good order. She put together small pieces and paired and joined them while respecting the rules, craft, and measures of feet and the joining together of verses. Without making a slip she organized them with such great mastery that no man could have done better.

{ maintenant par Bucoliques et puis par Georgiques ou par Eneydos, qui sont livres ainsi appellez qui fist Virgile, ycelle femme couroit, c’est a dire, visitoit et lisoit, et maintenant d’une partie les vers tout entiers prenoit et maintenant de l’autre aucunes petites parties touchoit. Par merveilleux artefice et soubtiveté a son propos ordeneement ver entiers faisoit et les petites parties ensemble mettoit et coupploit et lyoit en regardant la loy, l’art et les mesures des piez et conjunctions des vers. Sans y faillir ordenoit tant magistraument que nul homme ne peust mieulx. } [9]

Of course no man could do better than the great woman.

The Dominican friar Antoine Dufour explained in 1504 that Proba was a better poet than Homer and Virgil. At the command of Anne of Brittany, Queen Consort of France, Dufour wrote The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres}. Dufour knew well both the letters of Jerome and Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. Dufour apparently altered his sources to puff up Proba:

By that time {fourth century} reigned one of the greatest poets and orators in the world, by the name of Proba, wife of Adelphius, who created a work that I, had I not read it, would consider impossible. For she composed a book in which she joined the entire Old and New Testament in meter, taking nothing but the words of Virgil. She called it centones of Virgil. Saint Jerome in the prologue of his Bible, praises her saying: “We have seen the celebrated work of the Vergiliocentones.” Thereafter, wanting to prove herself in the Greek language, she wrote another book in Greek out of the sentences of Homer, which she also named Homerocentones, of which Jerome speaks in this same prologue. To conclude, this woman was so very clever that in reading these books, you would say that Homer, Virgil and other orators, her predecessors, are nothing but her disciples.

{ En ce temps régnoit l’une des plus grans poèthes et oratrixes du monde, nommé Proba, femme d’Adelphus, laquelle fist ung oeuvre que, si je ne l’avoye leu, je le tnedroye comme impossible. Car elle fist ung livre là où accorda tout le viel et nouveau Testament en mettre, ne prenant riens seullement fors les parolles de Virgille. Elle l’intitula les centones de Virgille. Saint Ihérosme, au prologue de sa Bible, la loue en disant: “Nous avons veu l’oeuvre sollempnel de Virgiliocentones.” Depuys, se voullant monstrer en la langue grecque, fist ung aultre grant et merveilleux livre en grec des sentences d’Omère, qui fut aussi par elle nommé Homerocentones, duqel Saint Ihérosme parle en ce mesme prologue. Somme, ceste femme fut si tresingénieuse qu’en lisant ses livres, vous direz qu’Omère, Virgille et aultres orateurs, ses prédécesseurs, ne sont que ses disciples. } [10]

Jerome’s letter to Paulinus was included as a preface to the Gutenberg Bible and other medieval bibles. Dufour surely knew that Jerome in that letter didn’t praise Proba for her Vergiliocento. Moreover, Dufour almost surely had no credible information that Proba wrote a Homerocento. Scholars have recently complained of misogyny in evaluations of Proba’s work. Across all of history, misogyny probably mattered much less than the social value of praising women.[11]

Proba is a vitally important and sadly under-appreciated author. Proba wasn’t concerned to engage in gender war against men authors. She was a learned, wealthy, married woman in a politically elite fourth-century Roman family. Her epic poem of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament — her Vigilian cento — would have delighted and instructed elites like her. Jerome ridiculed Proba’s cento in relation to the calling of men like him and Paulinus of Nola. Jerome’s calling wasn’t Proba’s calling. For understanding how to renew loving intimacy between women and men, the Virgilian centos of Proba and Ausonius are more important today than are Jerome’s letters and commentaries.

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[1] Homercentones are Homeric centos (centos made from verses from Homer’s poems). Vergiliocentones are Virgilian centos (centos made from verses from Virgil’s poems). Vergil is an alternate spelling of Virgil. The spelling Vergiliocentones is more common than Virgiliocentones. I use the former in English above, but the spelling in quoted, non-English source text is as from the source. The plural of “cento” may be written as “centos” or “centones.”

Writing in Greek late in the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons complained:

they {heretics} gather together sayings and names from scattered places and transfer them, as we have already said, from their natural meaning to an unnatural one. They act like those who would propose themes which they chance upon and then try to put it into verse from Homeric poems, so that the inexperienced think that Homer composed the poems {centos} with that theme, which in reality are of recent composition.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies {Adversus haereses} 1.9.4, Greek and Latin text in Harvey (1857) pp. 85, 86-7; trans. Unger (1992) p. 47. Here’s an online English translation linked to the relevant pages in Harvey. On the Homerocento that Irenaeus presents as an example, Wilken (1967).

Writing early in the third century, Tertullian declared:

And they {heretics} therefore possess power and facility in inventing and constructing errors. That shouldn’t be regarded as a marvel, as if it were difficult and inexplicable. A example in secular writings is readily available of that facility. Today you see from Virgil composed a totally different story, the matter following his verse, and his verse chosen according to the matter. In that way Hosidius Geta sucked all of his tragedy Medea out of Virgil. Among other works he did at his leisure, my relative explicated from the same poet {Virgil} the Pinax of Cebes. These are commonly called Homerocentones. They from the songs of Homer make their own work by composing into one body many pieces from here and there.

{ Et ideo habent uim et in excogitandis instruendisque erroribus facilitatem, non adeo mirandam quasi difficilem et inexplicabilem, cum de saecularibus quoque scripturis exemplum praesto sit eiusmodi facilitatis. Vides hodie ex Virgilio fabulam in totum aliam componi, materia secundum uersus et uersibus secundum materiam concinnatis. Denique Hosidius Geta Medeam tragoediam ex Virgilio plenissime exsuxit. Meus quidam propinquus ex eodem poeta inter cetera stili sui otia Pinacem Cebetis explicuit. Homerocentones etiam uocari solent qui de carminibus Homeri propria opera more centonario ex multis hinc inde compositis in unum sarciunt corpus. }

Tertullian, On the prescription of heretics {De praescriptione haereticorum} 39.2-5, Latin text of Refoulé (1957), my English translation benefiting from that of Holmes (1870) and Bindley (1914).

Writing early in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo stated:

but I fear that, if I select some portions only, I may appear to many who know the material to have omitted parts that are more essential. Then, too, the evidence that is presented must be supported by the context of the entire psalm, at least so far as to show that there is nothing to contradict it in case the whole is not pertinent to its support. Otherwise I fear that I might seem to be gathering individual verses on the topic in hand, in the technique used in centos, when one makes selections from a long poem not written on the same subject, but on another and very different one.

{ deinde — quia testimonium, quod profertur, de contextione totius psalmi debet habere suffragium, ut certe nihil sit quod ei refragetur, si non omnia suffragantur—ne more centonum ad rem quam volumus tamquam versiculos decerpere videamur, velut de grandi carmine quod non de re illa, sed de alia longeque diversa reperiatur esse conscriptum. }

Augustine, City of God {De Civitate dei} 17.15, Latin text and English translation from Loeb Classical Library (1965).

[2] Jerome, Epistles 53.6-7 (to Paulinus of Nola), Latin text from Migne, my English translation benefiting from those of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) 2, Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 499-500, and Hutchinson (2014) pp. 63-70 (selected passages). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from id. Putnam in Ziolkowski & Putname (2008) translated sophista verbosus as “wordy solecist”; it’s “the person full of eloquent solecisms” in McGill (2007) p. 189, n. 37. Both seem to me better than “wordy sophist” of NPNF.

[3] Homerocentones from the fifth century are attributed to Eudocia Athenais. She in 421 married Theodosius II, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Emperor. On Eudocia’s centos, Whitby (2007) and Sandnes (2011) Ch. 6.

Proba wasn’t the only ancient poet to write a Christian Vergiliocento. Writing in support of Christianity, Minucius Felix early in the third century incorporated into his Octavius 19.2 a Virgilian cento. Sandnes (2011) pp. 125-7. Pomponius’s Verses to the Grace of the Lord {Versus ad gratiam Domini} is a Christian Virgilian cento of the late fourth or early fifth century. On that cento, McGill (2001). On the incarnation of the Word {De verbi incarnatione} and On the church {De ecclesia}, attributed to Vettius Agorius Basilius Mavortius of the late fifth to early sixth century, are other Christian Vergiliocentones that have survived from antiquity.

[4] Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008), p. 500, follows Hilberg’s emendation cum Clitomacho loquar. McGill (2007), p. 188, n. 28, and Hutchinson (2014), p. 67, n. 54, follow the manuscript reading cum stomacho loquar. Id. points out that the latter sets up an allusion to Socrates. I follow that reading.

The phrase quasi non legerimus Homerocentonas et Vergiliocentonas ac non sic etiam… has been difficult to understand exactly. McGill (2007) p. 177. The key insight is to understand this sentence as exemplying the problem indicated in the previous sentence. Hutchinson (2014) p. 67, n. 53. I’ve used the relatively loose translation “otherwise” to represent that semantic relation.

Jerome was deeply learned in the works of Virgil. Mohr aptly explained:

Throughout his formative years, trained by a Virgilian expert, Jerome had been immersed in the works of Virgil. Virgil could not simply be used or discarded, he was part of Jerome’s blood and bone. Though he did not approve of attempts to turn his beloved poet into a sort of proto- Christian, Jerome desperately wanted to hear a Christian song in Virgil’s lines, and listened carefully for it. In terms of his image of the captive maiden, the important thing is that Jerome recognized and valued her fertility, and envisaged a continuing relationship with her, to keep what he could of his classical heritage by producing new life out of it.

Mohr (2007) p. 318. Jerome’s view of fertility and producing new life was less connected to flesh-and-blood life than the views of Proba and Ausonius.

[5] Jerome’s explicit disparagement of the idea that Virgil was a Christian maps to Proba’s introductory claim:

God be present, raise my mind:
may I tell that Virgil sang of the holy gifts of Christ. }

{ Praesens, Deus, erige mentem:
Vergilium cecinisse loquar pia munera Christi. }

Proba, Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 22(2nd half)-23, sourced as in note [14] of my post on the centos of Ausonius and Proba. Two of the three Virgilian passages that Jerome cites in disparaging Christian Virgilian centos (Aeneid 1.664 and 2.650) appear fully in Proba’s cento (ll. 403, and 624, respectively). Jerome’s third Virgilian citation (Eclogues 4.6-7) appears in part in Proba’s cento (l. 34). Jerome’s references to the garrulous old woman and women boldly teaching also suggest Proba. Moreover, Proba was among the elite to which Jerome and Paulinus of Nola belonged. With good reason, “scholarly consensus has settled on this conclusion”: Jerome was alluding to Proba’s cento. McGill (2007) p. 178. Cf. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 57-8, which challenges that view by raising some relatively unimportant questions and then refraining from discussing the matter further.

Jerome disparaging Proba’s cento would be consistent with the views of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Augustine on Christian centos. See previous note [1]. Isidore of Seville, a scholar, priest, and Christian church leader writing about 600 GC, knew of Proba’s cento, recognized Proba’s witness as a Christian, but didn’t regard her poem highly:

Proba, wife of Adelphius, the consul, the only woman {Isidore} placed among the men of the church; out of her concern for the praise of Christ, she composed a cento about Christ, put together out of Virgilian lines. Her art we do not admire, but we praise her ingenuity.

{ Proba, uxor Adelphii proconsulis, femina, idcirco inter viros ecclesiasticos posita sola pro eo quod in laude Christi versata est, componens centonem de Christo, Virgilianis coaptatum versucilis. Cuius quidem non miramur, sed laudamus ingenium.}

Isidore of Seville, De viris illustribus 18.22, Latin text and English translation from Sandnew (2011) pp. 141-2. Isidore in Etymologarium 1.39.26 made a shorter, more simply factual notice of Proba.

[6] Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus 97, “Proba, Wife of Adelphus,” trans. Brown (2001) pp. 410-15 (adapted slightly). The subsequent three quotes are similarly from id. Here’s the Latin text online.

Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, ll. 1-8, tells of an epic poem she wrote long ago on a civil war. According to a scholiast to the ninth-century Codex Mutinensis, Proba wrote on Constantius’s war against Magnentius (350 to 352 GC). Green (1995) p. 552.

In 1503, Symphorien Champier had published his book The Ship of Virtuous Ladies {La nef des dames vertueuses}. His book drew from Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, but focused exclusively on praising women. Champier dedicated his book to the French princess and regent Anne of France. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 109.

[7] Brown (2001) translated ut non nullis placet as “according to some sources.” Above I’ve translated that Latin phrase more literally to make clearer Boccaccio’s wink.

[8] Jerome’s letter to Paulinus is the most probable historical origin of claims that Proba wrote Homerocentones. Proba was known to have written a Vergiliocento. Jerome linked Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones, and alluded to Proba. Therefore Proba also wrote Homerocentones. While that conclusion doesn’t logically follow, advocating for women under gynocentrism commonly defies reason. Consider, for example, modern claims about domestic violence against women.

Pollmann, one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Proba, asked about Proba, “Did she know Greek?” Pollmann (2014) p. 255. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 25, n. 37, provides an uncritical list of citations to claims that Proba knew Greek. Cf. id., pp. 62-5 on the medieval reception of Jerome’s letter to Paulinus in relation to Proba. More plausible than vague claims about an unknown, lost “ancient source” attesting to Proba having written Homerocentones is Boccaccio’s surely fictional dilation of information from Jerome’s letter to Paulinus.

[9] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames}, Old French text from Richards & Caraffi (1999), p. 156, English translation by Ziolkowski in Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 146-7. Christine explicitly quoted Boccaccio’s biography of Proba in her own biography, but she showed none of Boccaccio’s literary flair in writing fiction. Christine declared:

In spite of the fact that the effort required by this work {Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi}, on account of its length, should have taken a man’s lifetime, not nearly so long passed in her attention to this poem; on the contrary, she produced many other outstanding and most praiseworthy books. One among the rest that she composed in verse was also entitled Cento, because of the hundred (cento) verses that are contained in it. She took the expressions and verses from the poet Homer; from this one can conclude to her praise that she not only knew Latin literature but also knew Greek perfectly.

{ Et nonobstant que le labour de celle oeure, pour sa grandeur, deust souffire a la vie d’un homme, a y vacquier ne s’en passa mie a y tant, ains fist plusieurs autres livres excellens et tres louables. Un entre les autres en fist en vers appellés aussi Centomie pour la cause de cent vers qui y sont contenus: et prist les diz de Omerus, le pouette, et les vers. Par quoy on peut conclurre, a la louenge d’icelle, que non pas tant seullement les lettres latines savoit, mais aussi les grecques sçeut parfaictement. }

Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, from Ch. 29, “On Proba the Roman,” Old French text from Curnow (1975) p. 725, English translation by Ziolkowski in Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) p. 147. In addition to following Boccaccio’s claim that Proba wrote Homerocentones, Christine may have also assimilated to Proba the fifth-century Homerocentones of Eudocia Athenais.

[10] Antoine Dufour, The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres} (1504), Old French text from Jeanneau (1970) p. 142, English translation from Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 110. On Dufour’s Vies des femmes célèbres, Szkilnik (2010). Szkilnik declared:

He {Dufour} does not intend to write an apology nor a denigration of women like other men before him had done. What makes him different is his ability to look for (and find) serious, accurate sources with which he will correct prejudices, whichever they might be.

Id. p. 69. But Dufour also significantly misrepresented Jerome, whose writings he knew well. Id. pp. 77, 79.

[11] In 1574, the classical scholar and scholarly printer Henri Estienne compared Proba to the Amazon queen Penthesileia. He vowed to rival her like no man had done before. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) p. 31. That’s implicit praise. Estienne was less successful than Achilles in rivaling Penthesileia. On recent scholarly bias, see notes [12] and [20] in my post on the centos of Ausonius and Proba.

[images] (1) Proba the Roman presents her epic song from Virgil. Woodcut from Filippo de’ Barbieri, On the Discord between Jerome and Augustine, Settled Using Dicta of the Sibyls and of all the Gentiles, both Prophets and Ancient Poets Who Prophesied Concerning Christ {Discordantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini Sybillarum et gentilium de Christo vaticinia}, printed in 1481, instance Stockholm, Royal Libarary, Barbieri (1481) p. 31v. Image via Wikimedia Commons. The Biblioteca Nacional de Espana has an instance, with an uncolored, slightly different woodcut (image 24), similar to an instance in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (f. 39) and in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (p. 46). (2) Antoine Dufour presenting to Queen Anne of Brittany his book praising famous women. Miniature created c. 1506 and attributed to Jean Pichore. In Antoine Dufour, The Lives of Famous Women {Les Vies des femmes célèbres}. Renck (2015) provides more on this book and its illuminations. Manuscript preserved as Nantes, Musée Dobrée, ms. XVII. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Brown, Virginia, ed. and trans. 2001.Giovanni Boccaccio. Famous women. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Curnow, Maureen Cheney. 1975. The Livre de la cité des dames of Christine de Pisan: a critical edition. Ph.D. Thesis. Nashville, Tenn: Vanderbilt University. Available via Proquest Dissertations.

Green, R. P. H. 1995. “Proba’s Cento: Its Date, Purpose, and Reception.” The Classical Quarterly. 45 (2): 551-563.

Harvey, W. Wigan, ed. 1857. Sancti Irenaei: Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses. Cantabrigiae: Typis academicis.

Hutchinson, E.J. 2014. “And Zeus Shall Have No Dominion, or, How, When, Where, and why to ‘Plunder the Egyptians’: The Case of Jerome.” Ch. 3 (pp. 49-80) in Peter Escalante, and W. Bradford Littlejohn, eds. For the healing of the nations: essays on creation, redemption, and neo-Calvinism. Davenant Trust.

Jeanneau, Gustave, ed. 1970. Antoine Dufour. Les vies des femmes célèbres. Genève: Droz.

McGill, Scott C. 2001.“’Poet a Arte Christianus’: Pomponius’s cento Versus ad gratiam Domini’ as an Early Example of Christian Bucolic.” Traditio. 56: 15-26.

McGill, Scott. 2007. “Virgil, Christianity, and the Cento Probae.” Ch. 6 (pp. 173-193) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Mohr, Ann. 2007. “Jerome, Virgil, and the Captive Maiden: the attitude of Jerome to classical literature.” Ch. 12 (pp. 299-322) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Pollmann, Karla. 2014. “Ph.D. Thesis Review: Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, Proba the Prophet. Studies in the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba.” Samlaren. Swedish Science Press. Stockholm: Elanders Gotab.

Renck, Anneliese Pollock. 2015. “Les Vies Des Femmes Celebres: Antoine Dufour, Jean Pichore, and a Manuscript’s Debt to an Italian Printed Book.” The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History. 18: 1-23.

Richards, Earl Jeffrey and Patrizia Caraffi, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1999. La Città delle Dame. Milano: Lune.

Sandnes, Karl Olav. 2011. The Gospel “According to Homer and Virgil”: cento and canon. Leiden: Brill. Here’s a closely related article by Sandnes.

Schottenius Cullhed, Sigrid. 2015. Proba the Prophet: the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba. Leiden: Brill. Related: cf. ch. 2, Proba and Jerome; ch. 5, cento and Genesis.

Scourfield, J. H. D., and Anna Chahoud, eds. 2007. Texts and Culture in Late Antiquity: inheritance, authority, and change. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Szkilnik, Michelle. 2010. “Mentoring Noble Ladies: Antoine Dufour’s Vies des femmes célèbres.” Ch. 4 (pp. 65-80) in Brown, Cynthia Jane, ed. The Cultural and Political Legacy of Anne de Bretagne: negotiating convention in books and documents. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Unger, Dominic J., with John J. Dillon, trans. 1992. St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies. New York, N.Y.: Newman Press.

Wilken, Robert L. 1967. “The Homeric Cento in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I, 9,4.” Vigiliae Christianae. 21 (1): 25-33.

Whitby, Mary. 2007. “The Bible Hellenized: Nonnus’ Paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel and ‘Eudocia’s’ Homeric centos.” Ch. 7 (pp. 195-231) in Scourfield & Chahoud (2007).

Ziolkowski, Jan M., and Michael C. J. Putnam, eds. 2008. The Virgilian Tradition: the first fifteen hundred years. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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