Ausonius’s Bissula & Jerome’s captive maiden: Rabbi Akiba understood

Among primates generally, male sexual coercion of females is rare. Among humans specifically, females rape males about as frequently as males rape females. The same is probably true of primates generally. In contrast, human warfare throughout history has tended to have a highly asymmetric gender structure: men kill other men and take captive their young women. A captive maiden figures in Ausonius’s Bissula and Jerome’s epistles, both written in the fourth century. As Rabbi Akiba understood centuries earlier, erotic love and marriage between a captive maiden and her captor is no mere metaphor.

captive Greek maiden

Ausonius’s Bissula was a young, blonde, blue-eyed captive German girl known only through Ausonius’s poem Bissula. Ausonius indicated that he received her as a war prize after Emperor Valentinian I’s victory against the Alamanni in 368. Ausonius loved Bissula, taught her Latin, and let her rule his house. According to Ausonius, she was too beautiful for a painter to represent:

Bissula, whom no wax nor paint can imitate,
can’t fit her natural beauty to fakes of art.
Vermilion and white, paint pictures of other girls.
Your hand, painter, can’t mix these like her face.
Away, mingle red roses with lilies,
and let their coloring of air be hers.

{ Bissula nec ceris nec fuco imitabilis ullo
naturale decus fictae non commodat arti.
sandyx et cerusa, alias simulate puellas;
temperiem hanc vultus nescit manus. ergo age, pictor,
puniceas confunde rosas et lilia misce,
quique erit ex illis color aeris, ipse sit oris. } [1]

Ausonius thus claimed that Bissula could defeat a painter’s power of mimesis. Men killed and women kept as prizes is a real, historical pattern of human warfare. But who can believe that a young captive maiden and her old-man master could have an intimate relationship as Ausonius depicted his with Bissula? If Ausonius’s myth of his masculine desire defeated the painter’s power of mimesis, that’s no real victory for him.[2]

While Ausonius indicated a historical origin for Bissula, Jerome’s captive maiden came from sacred literature. Deuteronomy 20:12-14 instructed the Israelites that in waging warfare against a town, they should kill all the males and take the women as war prizes. Deuteronomy 21:11-14 set out rules with respect to a particular type of captive woman:

When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hands, and you take them captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have desire for her and would take her for yourself as wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and do her nails. And she shall put off her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house and bewail her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. Then, if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.

{ כי־תצא למלחמה על־איביך ונתנו יהוה אלהיך בידך ושבית שביו׃
וראית בשביה אשת יפת־תאר וחשקת בה ולקחת לך לאשה׃
והבאתה אל־תוך ביתך וגלחה את־ראשה ועשתה את־צפרניה׃
והסירה את־שמלת שביה מעליה וישבה בביתך ובכתה את־אביה ואת־אמה ירח ימים ואחר כן תבוא אליה ובעלתה והיתה לך לאשה׃
והיה אם־לא חפצת בה ושלחתה לנפשה ומכר לא־תמכרנה בכסף לא־תתעמר בה תחת אשר עניתה׃ ס
} [3]

Jerome understood this captive maiden as a typological representation of classical culture:

A type of this sort of wisdom {classical, secular literature} is described in Deuteronomy under the figure of a captive woman. The divine voice commands that if an Israelite desires to have her as a wife, he shall make her bald, pare her nails, and shave her hair. When she has been made clean, then she shall pass into the victor’s embrace. If we understand this literally, isn’t it ridiculous? But in such a way we are accustomed to act when we read the philosophers, when books of secular wisdom come into our hands. If we find anything useful in them, we apply it to our own doctrine. But anything beyond this, having to do with idols or love or the care of secular things, we shave off. We prescribe baldness, and we cut them away like nails with a very sharp knife.

{ Huius sapientiae typus, et in Deuteronomio sub mulieris captivae figura describitur, de qua divina vox praecipit ut, si Israelites eam habere voluerit uxorem, calvitium ei faciat, ungues praesecet, pilos auferat, et cum munda fuerit effecta, tunc transeat in victoris amplexus. haec si secundum litteram intellegimus, nonne ridicula sunt? itaque et nos hoc facere solemus, quando philosophos legimus, quando in manus nostras libri veniunt sapientiae saecularis: si quid in eis utile repperimus, ad nostrum dogma convertimus, si quid vero superfluum, de idolis, de amore, de cura saecularium rerum, haec radimus, his calvitium indicimus, haec in unguium morem ferro acutissimo desecamus. } [4]

With keen appreciation for masculine heterosexual vulnerability, Jerome associated classical culture and the captive maiden with sensual desire:

Food of demons are the songs of poets, secular wisdom, the display of rhetorical language. These delight all with their loveliness but, while they captivate the ears with flowing verses of sweet rhythm, they penetrate the soul as well and bind the depths of the heart.

{ daemonum cibus est carmina poetarum, saecularis sapientia, rhetoricorum pompa verborum. haec sua omnes suavitate delectant et, dum aures versibus dulci modulatione currentibus capiunt, animam quoque penetrant et pectoris interna devinciunt. }

Jerome understood the allure to men of a captive maiden like Ausonius’s Bissula. The allure of the captive maiden is like the allure of classical culture:

What is surprising if I too, because of the charm of her speech and the beauty of her form desire to turn secular wisdom from a captive handmaid into an Israelite, or if I cut or shave off whatever is dead in her, idolatry, pleasure, error, and lust, and joining myself to her pure body, beget by her slaves born in my house for the Lord of hosts?

{ quid ergo mirum, si et ego sapientiam saecularem propter eloquii venustatem et membrorum pulchritudinem de ancilla atque captiva Israhelitin facere cupio, si quidquid in ea mortuum est idolatriae, voluptatis, erroris, libidinum, vel praecido vel rado et mixtus purissimo corpori vernaculos ex ea genero domino sabaoth? } [5]

Understood literally, the captive maiden wasn’t actually ridiculous to Jerome. A leading scholar of Jerome accused him of having a “dirty mind.” This scholar perceived a “note of prurience” pervading one of Jerome’s letters.[6] Jerome’s natural masculine heterosexual sense, far too commonly pathologized and brutalized under gynocentric ideology, apparently informed his response to the captive maiden. She for him was a representation of reality, not just a typological figure of classical culture.[7]

Ancient Jewish biblical interpreters understood the effects of women’s beauty on men and the risks of gyno-idolatry. A rabbi sometime between 70 and 250 GC (Tannaitic midrashim) narrated how Moab women at Shittim seduced Jewish men into worshiping the Baal of Peor. An old Moab woman would sell a Jewish man delightful food, then encourage him to go into a young Moab woman’s hut to buy more such food there. The young woman would offer him wine to drink:

Then the wine would inflame him, and he would say to her: Give yourself to me. And she would say to him: Do you wish me to obey you? Then renounce the law of Moses. [8]

Getting a man intoxicated in order to have sex with him is now formally regarded as rape. Coercing him into idolatry is an additional offense. The first would be prosecuted as rape if the victim were a woman or if criminal law were gender-neutral in actual application. Men must understand the power of young women over them. Men must be wary not to be exploited as captives to young women’s beauty.

Man can become captives even to a captive maiden’s beauty. Rabbi Akiba in Tannaitic midrashim rationally interpreted Deuteronomy’s rules about a beautiful captive maiden as preventing Jewish men from being exploited. In the ancient world, a woman’s long hair was highly important to her beauty.[9] Shaving a young women’s head disfigured her in sense of eliminating her superficial attractiveness to men: “she looks like a pumpkin-shell, and he sees her in all her disfigurement.”[10] Rabbi Akiba interpreted “do her nails” to mean that the captive maiden would be required to grow her nails so long that her hands would become hideously ugly and hurtful to encounter. With respect to “discard her captive’s garb,” Rabbi Akiba explained:

This indicates that the captor must divest her of her attractive dress and clothe her in widow’s somber attire, for these accursed {gentile} nations make their daughters adorn themselves in time of war in order to cause their foes to go whoring after those women.

A highly privileged woman about to be captured in war would rationally dress in fine clothing to emphasize her royal status. All else equal, men prefer to have as wives wealthy, high-status, well-dressed women. Yet taking as a wife a captive woman of that type likely would make for a difficult marital relationship. Deuteronomy thus made explicit provisions for divorce from the captive maiden. Rabbi Akiba warned, “you will come to hate her.”[11]

captive maiden

Ausonius’s Bissula and Jerome’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:11-14 show that both Ausonius and Jerome appreciated Rabbi Akiba’s understanding of a captive maiden’s allure. Because men value women so highly, men will kill other men, take their young women captive, and even fall in love with those captive maidens and seek to marry them. Societies must do more to raise men’s sexual welfare and reduce violence against men.[12]

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[1] Ausonius, Bissula 5, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation benefiting from those of Evelyn-White (1919) and Warren (2017). Bissula was probably written in the 370s. For contextual background on Bissula, see note [1] in my post on Ausonius and Sabina.

[2] On the metapoetics of mimesis in Bissula, Pucci (2016).

[3] Common English translations of Deuteronomy 21:12 have “pare her nails.” I use the more literal translation “do her nails.” What that specifically meant was an issue among ancient Jewish biblical interpreters. Stern (1998) p. 120.

[4] Jerome, Epistles 21, “To Damasus about Two Sons {Ad Damasum de duobus filiis}” (about the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32) 13.5-6, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), English translation (adapted slightly) in part from Mierow (1963) and Mohr (2007) p. 308. I follow Hutchinson (2014) p. 55, n. 26, in reading itaque rather than Hilbert’s atqui. This letter is dated 383 GC. Here’s Migne’s Patrologia Latina (1845) Latin text. The subsequent quote is from Jerome, Epistles 21.13.4, with the English translation from Mohr (2007) p. 307.

Ausonius sent Bissula to Axius Paulus, a close friend who was also a professor of rhetoric. Axius Paulus frequently visited Ausonius. Paulus probably lived in Saintes, in the southwestern Charente-Maritime department of France. Both Ausonius and Paulus knew Greek.

Jerome may have been aware of Ausonius’s Bissula. Ausonius was an eminent, widely known poet. He creatively engaged closely with Virgil’s poems. Jerome’s teacher was Aelius Donatus, the leading Virgil expert of Ausonius’s time. Mohr (2007) p. 313. Ausonius taught Paulinus of Nola and maintain correspondence with him. Paulinus of Nola in turn corresponded with Jerome about secular and sacred literature. On Ausonius’s correspondence, Green (1980). Jerome explicitly recognized Attius Patera’s distinguished family of rhetoricians in Bordeaux. They were originally from Bayeux. Sivan (1993) p. 87.

[5] Jerome, Epistles 70, “To Magnus, an orator of the city of Rome {Ad Magnum oratorem urbis Romae}” 2.5, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), English translation (adapted slightly) from Mohr (2007) pp. 310-11. This letter is dated 397 GC. Here’s Migne’s Patrologia Latina (1845) Latin text.

[6] Adkin (2003) pp. 230, 17.

[7] Mohr doesn’t adequately appreciate the importance of the captive maiden’s feminine beauty to Jerome:

He is wary of the maiden, even in her cleaned-up condition. His caution seems to stem, initially, from fear of her captivating charm which might compromise Christian commitment. … The voluptas and libido, pleasure and lust, that he wishes to excise from the captive are not, in fact, features of herself, but rather the response her beauty arouses in others.

Mohr (2007) pp. 309, 311. Jerome’s own Christian commitment was quite earthy. Jerome, who associated extensively with women, undoubtedly received pleasure from them in a way consistent with his Christian commitment. Moreover, Jerome was a highly sophisticated writer. He didn’t literally want all the women around him to be “emaciated, filthy, and joyless.” Cf. Mohr (2007) pp. 311-2. Jerome also wasn’t opposed to the attractive surface itself of secular literature. Hutchinson (2014) p. 54, n. 23.

Captivity has great social and gender significance even today. About 10 million persons are currently held behind bars in prisons and jails around the world today. Among them, men captives outnumber women captives by about fifteen to one. Showing little understanding of men’s sexuality or current practices of captivity, Stern stated:

it is necessary to remember that the sign of captivity is just a metaphor, a constructed representation, for the process of cultural influence: an ancient metaphor as much as a modern one, but nonetheless, solely a metaphor.

Stern (1998) p. 118. Gynocentric society works to suppress discussion of violence against men and highly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men. Never forget those in prison.

[8] From Tannaitic midrash on Numbers, Sifre Bamidbar, on 25:1-3, from Hebrew trans. Stern (1998) p. 108. College administrators today are intensively concerned that college men are seducing women from their studies using a gender-reversed version of this script.

[9] On the importance of long hair to a woman’s beauty, see note [5] in my post on Paul and Thecla.

[10] All the quotes in the above paragraph are from Tannaitic Midrashim on Deuteronomy 21:10-14, trans. Stern (1998) pp. 118-23. I’ve adapted Stern’s translation slightly and non-substantially to be more readable and to use more accessible English. I follow Stern in using the name Rabbi Akiba as “purely a matter of convenience,” not as an assertion that all the interpretations quoted actually were his.

Deuteronomy 21:11 refers to, among captives, “a beautiful woman whom you desire.” A Tannaitic midrashim rabbi interpreted this passage:

I conclude that this refers only to a beautiful woman; whence do we learn that this includes also an unattractive one? From the following: “whom you desire.”

Trans. Stern (1998) p. 119 (adapted non-substantially). An ancient Jewish principle of biblical interpretation is that no words of scripture are superfluous. Kugel (2007) p. 15. The ancient Greek idea of beauty was closely associated with sexual desire. Konstan (2015). The rabbi, however, understood that men suffering extreme sexual deprivation, or pursuing women in the dark of night, might desire even an unattractive woman. Hence the particular reference to a beautiful woman is an initial incidental description associated with the broader class of women whom men desire. As the great dispeller of delusions Lucretius recognized, gyno-idolatry can occur even when a woman isn’t objectively beautiful.

[11] Rabbi Akiba’s understanding of the captive maiden in Deuteronomy was “adopted by many of the most important medieval Jewish exegetes.” Those following Rabbi Akiba include Rashi, Abravanel, and Ibn Ezra. Stern (1998) p. 113.

Stern interprets Rabbi Akiba to be expressing “an extreme misanthropy of the sort of which Jews were sometimes accused by pagan authors.” Id. p. 106. Echoing misrepresented medieval literature of men’s sexed protest, Stern claims, “For Akiba, the captive woman is less a person than a poison.” Id. p. 104. Stern traces the source of Rabbi Akiba’s view to “Greco-Roman erotic narratives of the kind found in Parthenius’ Peri Erotikon Pathematon.” Id. passim. Apparently imagining that Rabbi Akiba wrote in the context of the strict sexual regulations of modern universities, Stern interpreted details of the midrashim with no understanding into men’s actual, gendered circumstances. For example, Stern claims that the “plain sense” of “captive’s garb” is clothing of “inferior, poor quality.” Id. p. 121. That wasn’t the “plain sense” in context to Rabbi Akiba, nor is it to me.

[12] Under gynocentrism, discussion of the captive maiden generally doesn’t include recognizing the similarly situated young men who were killed. Earnestly working to advance moral education under gynocentrism, Resnick passed by without gendered moral concern the Deuteronomic instruction to kill men and capture women. He, however, declared:

the contemporary educator would rightfully be concerned that teaching this passage {Deuteronomy 21:11-14, on the captive maiden} may perpetuate the view of woman as sexual object, privileging male desire and dominance.

Resnick (2004) p. 309. Dilating upon this gender ideology, Rey (2016) seems to me to be viciously hateful, willful bigotry that works to advance gender inequality in incarceration and more tyrannical gynocentrism. That work shows a broader and deeper development than the U.S. Mann Act of 1910.

[images] (1) La Captive Grecque {The Captive Greek Girl}. Painting by Henriette Browne in 1863. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Captive | B. Excerpt from photograph by comeonandorra. Made on July 20, 2011. Released on flickr under CC by-nc-2.0 license.


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

Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2.

Green, R. P. H. 1980. “The Correspondence of Ausonius.” L’Antiquité Classique. 49: 191-211.

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-18. Jerome. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae. S. Eusebii Hieronymi Opera, sect. 1, pars 1-3; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, v. 54-56. Vindobonae: F. Tempsky.

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.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to Read the Bible: a guide to scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

Mierow, Charles Christopher, with notes by Thomas Comerford Lawler. 1963. The letters of Saint Jerome. New York: Newman Press.

Mohr, Ann. 2007. “Jerome, Virgil, and the Captive Maiden: the attitude of Jerome to classical literature.” Ch. 12 (pp. 299-322) in Scourfield, J. H. D., and Anna Chahoud, eds. Texts and Culture in Late Antiquity: inheritance, authority, and change. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Pucci, Joseph. 2016. “Ausonius on the Lyre: De Bissula and the Traditions of Latin Lyric.” Pp. 111-131 in McGill, Scott, and Joseph Pucci, eds. Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter.

Resnick, David. 2004. “A case study in Jewish moral education: (non-)rape of the beautiful captive.” Journal of Moral Education. 33 (3): 307-319.

Rey, M.I. 2016. “Reexamination of the foreign female captive: Deuteronomy 21:10-14 as a case of genocidal rape.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 32 (1): 37-53.

Sivan, Hagith. 1993. Ausonius of Bordeaux: genesis of a Gallic aristocracy. London: Routledge.

Stern, David. 1998. “The Captive Woman: Hellenization, Greco-Roman Erotic Narrative, and Rabbinic Literature.” Poetics Today. 19 (1): 91-127.

Warren, Deborah, trans. 2017. Ausonius: Moselle, Epigrams, and Other Poems. London: Routledge.

4 thoughts on “Ausonius’s Bissula & Jerome’s captive maiden: Rabbi Akiba understood”

  1. Hey! Just wanted to say thanks for this article! It was a big help finding primary sources for a paper I have to write!

    Best wishes

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