The Epitaph of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus by Aconia Fabia Paulina

Few texts that have come down to us from late antiquity are more moving than this epitaph written in the voice of a widow.

In late 384, when Praetextatus, serving for the year in the high office of Praetorian Prefect, died just before being able to assume the supreme honor of the consulship, he and his wife of forty years, Paulina, were among the last great senatorial families still performing pagan rites in the Eternal City. Indeed, blood sacrifices such as the taurobolium (memorably if anachronistically portrayed in the TV series Rome) were now at least technically illegal, as were all secret and nocturnal rituals. Within a decade all places of pagan worship would be closed.

The verses are inscribed on the back of a marble base (CIL VI 1779), which probably supported a now-lost statue of the Praetorian Prefect; his rank would have merited one of gilded bronze. Also inscribed are his cursus honorum (the list of offices and priesthoods he had held) and verses in praise of Paulina. The monument is further discussed here by Maijastina Kahlos.

It is interesting to reflect that the young seeker Augustine, still groping for something to believe in, may have paused before (or rather behind) the newly raised monument of Praetextatus and read these lines. Not long earlier, the ailing consul-designate might even have been in Augustine’s audience when the aspiring rhetor auditioned before the City Prefect. The African had obtained a hearing before the pagan Symmachus “through the mediation of those intoxicated with Manichee follies,” but ultimately the Prefect sent him on to Milan and Christianity (Confessions. 5.13.23). It is to Augustine’s memoirs that we must turn to find anything like the intimacy of Paulina’s eulogy.

Another Church-Father-to-be who might have passed the monument, though with only a contemptuous glance, was Jerome. The waspish monk was in Rome, toiling on the Latin translation of the Bible that would become known as the Vulgate, while organizing the communities of widows and virgins that would soon land him in hot water. Jerome hated Praetextatus for his gibes at the church, and later confided that the senator’s soul was in hell.

The widow alludes to the scholarly activities of her husband. Some have taken meliora reddis quam legendo sumpseras as evidence that Praetextatus was part of a circle of learned aristocrats producing critical texts of the classics. Alan Cameron, in exploding the idea of such activity, suggests that the senator’s improvement of what he read was limited to marginal notes in his own copies, and that like most of his contemporaries he was no great scholar of Greek. (See The Last Pagans of Rome, pp. 478-80 and 542-44.)

Paulina herself was surely well educated, and might have written the epitaph without professional assistance. If so, she is the best surviving Latin poetess of the fourth century — her only rival, alas, being the Proba who patched together scraps of Vergil to make Bible stories.

Regardless of whether a ghost writer was involved, it is Paulina’s voice we hear, and her sincerity cannot be doubted. She lays bare the innermost parts of her life, speaking not of shared public festivals but rather of mystic rituals and secret knowledge. In doing so, she offers up her private self as a sacrifice but at the same time asserts the worthiness of the path she and her husband have followed.

Latin Text


Copyright © Peter Donnelly

Splendor parentum nil mihi maius dedit,

quam quod marito digna iam tum uisa sum.

sed lumen omne uel decus nomen uiri,

Agori, superbo qui creatus germine

patriam, senatum coniugemque inluminas

probitate mentis, moribus, studiis simul,

uirtutis apicem quis supremum nanctus es.


   tu namque quidquid lingua utraque est proditum

cura soforum, porta quis caeli patet,

uel quae periti condidere carmina

uel quae solutis uocibus sunt edita,

meliora reddis quam legendo sumpseras.

   sed ista parua: tu pius mystes sacris

teletis reperta mentis arcano premis

diuumque numen multiplex doctus colis,

sociam benigne coniugem nectens sacris

hominum deumque consciam ac fidam tibi.



   quid nunc honores aut potestates loquar

hominumque uotis adpetita gaudia?

quae tu caduca ac parua semper autumans

diuum sacerdos infulis celsus clues.

   tu me, marite, disciplinarum bono

puram ac pudicam sorte mortis eximens

in templa ducis ac famulam diuis dicas.

te teste cunctis imbuor mysteriis,

tu Dindymenes Atteosque antistitem

teletis honoras taureis consors pius.

Hecates ministram trina secreta edoces

Cererisque Graiae tu sacris dignam paras.

   te propter omnes me beatam, me piam

celebrant, quod ipse me bonam disseminas,

totum per orbem ignota noscor omnibus.

nam te marito cur placere non queam?

exempla de me Romulae matres petunt

subolemque pulcram, si tuae similis, putant.

optant probantque nunc uiri nunc feminae

quae tu magister indidisti insignia.


   his nunc ademptis maesta coniunx maceror,

felix, maritum si superstitem mihi

diui dedissent, sed tamen felix, tua

quia sum fuique postque mortem mox ero.

The splendor of my kinship granted me

no greater gift than this: that I seemed fit

to be your wife. For in my husband’s name,

Agorius, I find my light and grace.

You, created from proud seed, have shone

on fatherland, on senate, and on spouse

with rightness of conduct, of learning, and of mind.

You won the crown of virtue in this way.

   Whatever has been penned in either tongue

by sages free to enter heaven’s door

(whether poetry composed in expert lines,

or prose that’s uttered with a looser voice),

you’ve read, and left it better than you found.

   But these are little things. You piously

in mind’s most secret parts had hid away

the mysteries you learned of sacred rites.

The many-faceted numen of the gods

you knew to worship; and your faithful spouse

you bound to you as colleague in the rites,

now sharing what you knew of gods and men.

   Why speak of earthly powers, public praise,

and joys men seek with sighs? You called

them fleeting, counted them as small,

while you won glory in the priestly garb.

   The goodness of your teaching, husband, freed

me from death’s lot; you took me, pure,

to temples, made me servant to the gods,

stood by while I was steeped in mystery.

Devoted consort, you honored me with blood

of bull, baptized me priestess of Cybele

and Attis; readied me for Grecian Ceres’ rites;

and taught me Hecate’s dark secrets three.

   On your account, all praise me as devout;

because you spread my name throughout the world,

I, once unknown, am recognized by all.

How could my husband’s spouse not win applause?

Rome’s matrons look to me as paradigm,

and if their sons resemble yours they think

them handsome. Women and men alike

now long to be upon the honor roll

which you, as master, introduced of old.

   Now all these things are gone, and I, your wife,

am wasting in my grief. I had been blest

if gods had granted me the sooner grave.

But, husband, even so I’m blest: for yours

I am, and was, and after death will be.

Notes on the Translation

kinship: In later Latin the meaning of parens has expanded.

master: The Latin magister can refer to Praetextus’s role as a magistrate (governor or other high official) or as the master of a priestly college. The more general sense of teacher or sage is retained, and this line could just as aptly be rendered “which you, O Master, introduced of old.” Nothing is known of the “honor roll.”

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