In her commentary on Jerome’s Vita Malchi, in the section called ‘Literary form and texture’ Gray discusses the existing literature on which Jerome drew in composing Vita Malchi. She provides a detailed account of the sources and possible influences on Jerome under the headings Christian literature, biblical quotations and allusions, and secular literature. In a previous article, I have indicated multiple references and allusions to both classical sources and the Bible in this work of St Jerome. In this article the focus falls on a possible allusion to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a source which has not previously been considered amongst the possible influences on Vita Malchi. The love stories of Aeneas and Dido and Pyramus and Thisbe are compared to and contrasted with the story of Malchus and his ‘wife’.
In her commentary on Vita Malchi, in the section called ‘Literary form and texture’, Gray discusses the existing literature on which Jerome drew in composing Vita Malchi.1 She provides a detailed account of the sources and possible influences on Jerome under the headings of Christian literature, biblical quotations and allusions, and secular literature. In agreement with many scholars before her,2 Gray recognises the importance of the novelistic elements, but states that this work does not belong to one specific genre.3 Weingarten says of Vita Malchi that “the story has been written up in the form of a new literary creation” in which he makes use of both biblical and classical models, while also using contemporary local material from Ammianus and the Babylonian Talmud.4 There are a considerable number of references and allusions to both classical sources and the Bible in Jerome’s Vita Malchi and the function of many of these references and allusions has been dealt with in a previous article.5 The following classical sources have been identified, but none of them is mentioned by name in the work itself:6 Virgil, Aeneid 1.218; 2.204; 4.165-172;7 4.402-407;8 and 10.843; Seneca, Troades 510-512;9 and pseudo-Quintilian, Declamationes maiores 13.2.
There are numerous references and allusions (some more obvious than other) to biblical passages: Genesis 3:5; 18:11, 29:23-30; 30:4-9 ; Exodus 2:15-22; Proverbs 6:6-8;10 26:11; 30:25; Daniel 6:16-24;11 Matthew 14:4; Luke 1:5; 9:24, 62; 14:26; John 10:12; Acts 4:32; 5:1-11; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22-23; Titus 2:9-10;12 and 2 Peter 2:22.
In this article the focus falls on a possible allusion to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe,13 a source which has not previously been considered amongst the possible influences on Vita Malchi. The love stories of Aeneas and Dido14 and Pyramus and Thisbe are compared and contrasted with the story of Malchus and his ‘wife’.
I first provide short summaries and shall then proceed with a comparison between the three stories.
1 The Story of Aeneas and Dido
Virgil relates the famous love story of Aeneas, the Trojan prince, and Dido, the Carthaginian queen, in the fourth book of Aeneid. After the sack of Troy, on his way to Italy where he was destined to found Rome, Aeneas and his men land in Carthage, where they are welcomed by Queen Dido. Although hesitant at first, she falls in love with Aeneas. Juno sees Dido’s love for Aeneas as a way of keeping Aeneas from fulfilling his destiny. She convinces Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, to assist her in finding a way to unite them in marriage. One day while they are hunting, a thunder storm, arranged by Juno, breaks out and forced the hunting parties to seek shelter. Dido and Aeneas end up alone in a cave, where they make love. Dido now considers their relationship as a marriage, but for Aeneas it is still a love affair. When Jupiter realises what is happening with the two of them, he sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his divine calling. Aeneas prepares to leave Carthage and when confronted by Dido, he informs her that he has no choice but to obey the will of the gods. The story comes to a tragic end when Aeneas and his men sail away, since Dido commits suicide after cursing him and his descendants.
2 The Story of Pyramus and Thisbe
The love story of Pyramus and Thisbe is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 4.55-92. A young man and a beautiful young girl, who are still living with their parents in the city of Babylon, fall in love but their fathers do not approve of their relationship. The two families are neighbours and their houses share a common wall in which the lovers discover a thin crack through which they share their love messages. One day while sitting at the different sides of the wall, they decide to escape the guards, leave the city and meet each other after dark at the grave of Ninus under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives first at the said place, but when she notices a lioness fresh from the kill, she flees into a dark cave, leaving her veil behind. The lioness after having quenched her thirst, comes across the veil and rips it apart. When Pyramus arrives, sees the tracks of the lion and Thisbe’s veil, he assumes that she was killed and commits suicide by thrusting his sword into his belly. Thisbe returns and realising what has happened, kills herself with the same sword. Before she dies she appeals to their parents and the gods to allow them to be buried in the same tomb and to be together at last. The story ends with the statement that her requests were granted by the gods and their parents.
3 The Story of Malchus and His ‘Wife’
When his parents tried to force him into marriage, Malchus left his hometown Nisibis to join a group of monks in the desert of Chalcis. Many years later, when he got the news that his father had died, he decided to leave the monastery and return home to claim his inheritance. On his way home he and his fellow travellers are taken into captivity by Saracens. Being forced into marriage with a fellow captive, (as reward for his loyal service to his owners), Malchus and the woman, who became separated from her husband when she was taken captive, decided to live in chastity and only pretend that they were living as a married couple. Malchus eventually got tired of his captivity and after he informed his companion of his escape plan, she joined him. When their pursuers caught up with them, they fled into a cave and after being saved by a lioness, which killed both pursuers, they got away unharmed and arrived safely at a Roman camp. Malchus subsequently joined a group of monks again and ‘his wife’ was entrusted to a group of virgins. They finally settled in Maronia where they spent their last years in chaste companionship.
4 Comparison of Three Stories
Important features of the three narratives are now presented in table format in order to point out similarities and differences:
5 Further Remarks about the Three Narratives
The issues of marriage, remarriage, and adultery play an important role in these narratives. Dido feels that she has betrayed Sychaeus, because she has broken the vow which she made not to marry again. She also feels betrayed by Aeneas, who does not consider their union as a marriage. Pyramus and Thisbe cannot wait to get married but their parents would not allow them. But it is not only about marriage; the issue of remarriage is addressed in two of the three narratives.15 Malchus told his owner that he is not allowed to take a married woman as his wife, because according to his religion such a marriage would constitute adultery.16
If we compare Malchus’ story with the love romances mentioned earlier, e.g. Xenophon’s Ephesiaca, we notice that the plots of these novels are very complicated in comparison with the three stories we have discussed. There are certainly striking correspondences with Hellenistic novels, but it seems as if his main inspiration was the biblical and Latin classical sources.
It is important to look for similarities between the different narratives, but the differences are often just as significant or even more important. I mention a few examples. The desire of Pyramus and Thisbe to meet with their complete bodies or just be able to kiss each other stands in stark contrast with Malchus’ statement that he never saw his wife naked or touched her body. The fact that the parents of Pyramus and Thisbe forbade their relationship has the same effect as the actions of Malchus’ parents who tried to force him into marriage – Pyramus and Thisbe as well as Malchus decide to disobey their parents and run away.
If we can use a metaphor to describe the similarities and differences between the three love stories, we may say that the different authors had more or less the same ingredients but they used different recipes. It almost seems as if Jerome wanted to ‘improve’ on the recipes of the classical authors and to point out that his end product was much better than theirs. He created, as it were, a Christian version of the classical stories, but replaced the erotic love ‘ingredient’ of the the classical stories with his idea of Christian brotherly love, which is expressed in the chastity of Malchus and his ‘wife’, in order to align the inherited stories with Christian and, more specific, ascetic values. Virgil’s story ends with the fury of Dido who curses Aeneas, wishing that he had rather never reached the shores of Carthage and then commits suicide, because she cannot live with the disgrace and humiliation. Ovid’s story ends in the tragic suicidal deaths of two beautiful young people. Their loving and faithful relationship has a fatal ending, with the only positive note the fact that they are finally united, even if it only means that their ashes are contained in the same urn. Jerome’s story has a happy ending and after their ‘forced marriage’ almost resulted in a double suicide, their mutual decision to live together in chastity not only saves their lives, but proves to be the reason why they still live together at an advanced age as holy people who please God.17
It is difficult to prove that Jerome had the Pyramus and Thisbe narrative in mind when he wrote Vita Malchi, because there are no direct references to the author or the work or the specific story. There are no specific verbal resonances, only the basic elements discussed above which the Pyramus and Thisbe story shares with the other two stories. Before de Vogüé18 has noted the parallel between the cave scenes of Aeneas and Malchus, the other structural parallels with book 4 of Aeneid were not so easy to identify either, but it now seems that it plays an important role in the interpretation of the uita. Weingarten19 regards the first cave scene as the central passage of the uita,20 and the fact that it alludes to the Aeneid narrative contributes largely to the interpretation of the work as a whole. Fuhrmann states that Jerome has still made use of pagan classical sources in Vitae Malchi and Hilarionis, but he does not make it explicit by referencing them. Being under attack from people who criticized him for his use of the pagan classics, Jerome seems to be cautious to refer to the work of a pagan love poet in this work which mainly deals with the theme of chastity.21
Jerome certainly knew the story of Pyramus and Thisbe and he also quotes a whole sentence from Metamorphoses 4.57-58 in his commentary on Hosea: And this man’s wife, Semiramis, about whom many wonderful things are told, built the walls of Babylon. And the well-known poet testifies about her when he says: which city Semiramis is said to have surrounded with walls of brick long ago.”22 This line comes from the beginning of the story and is as far as I know the only line of Ovid, quoted by Jerome.23 The husband of Semiramis to whom he refers here is Ninus, the founder of Nineveh, at whose grave Pyramus and Thisbe plan to meet.
In the following lines of the same passage of the Hosea commentary, Jerome also refers to Aeneas and Dido.24 He discusses the city of Babylon and their god Baal and he also mentions the book of Daniel in the same context. It might perhaps be a coincidence that Jerome mentions Aeneas and Dido (and quote a line from Aeneid 1.729), quotes a line from the Pyramus and Thisbe story and refers to a passage in Daniel – three sources which I think he all alludes to in Vita Malchi. The one thing which these stories have in common is the fact that they have something to do with the East and the gods of the East. Pyramus and Thisbe lived in Babylon, Daniel was in exile there and Dido originally came from Tyre. The main characters of Vita Malchi are also from Syria and it is specifically mentioned that Jerome met them there when he was in Syria as a young man.
The remarkable similarities (and differences) between the three ‘love stories’ have been indicated and have led the author to the conclusion that Vita Malchi is presented as a Christian ‘love story’ with a happy ending – an alternative to the tragic love stories of Virgil and Ovid. I am convinced that Jerome had not only used the love story of Dido and Aeneas as intertext or countertext,25 but that he also had the Pyramus and Thisbe story in mind when he wrote Vita Malchi.
1 C. Gray, Jerome: Vita Malchi. Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary (OCM), Oxford, 2015, pp. 15-42.
2 See e.g. M. Fuhrmann, Die Mönchsgeschichten des Hieronymus, in: Christianisme et forms littéraires de l’antiquité, Geneva, 1977, pp. 41-99, at p. 64: “Die Vita Malchi ist überhaupt dem Roman verpflichtet: in der Erzähltechnik, in der Zeichnung des Helden und vor allem in der Struktur und den Motiven der Handlung; man kann sie geradezu als eine Übertragung des Liebesromans in das Mönchsmilieu bezeichnen.”; T. Adamik, “The Influence of the Apocryphal Acts on Jerome’s Lives of Saints,” in: The Apocryphal Acts of John, ed. by J.N. Bremmer (Studies on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, 1), Kampen, 1995, pp. 171-182; H. Kech, Hagiographie als Christliche Unterhaltungsliteratur, Göppingen, 1977, p. 93; and S. Rubenson, “Philosophy and Simplicity: The Problem of Classical Education in Early Christian Biography,” in: Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity, ed. by T. Hägg and P. Rousseau (TCH, 31), Berkeley–Los Angeles, 2000, pp. 110-138, at p. 123.
3 Gray, Jerome: Vita Malchi,p.15: “It is clear from my analysis that the VM does not emulate one single piece of writing or belong to a strictly circumscribed genre” and “The attempt to separate out possible influences has illustrated some fundamental connections between genres as diverse as epic, comedy, novel and biography.”
4 S. Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints: Hagiography and Geography in Jerome (AJEC, 58), Leiden, 2005, p. 165.
5 J.P.K. Kritzinger, “The Use of Comparison and Contrast in Shaping the Identity of a Desert Monk,” in: Christians Shaping Identity from the Roman Empire to Byzantium. Studies Inspired by Pauline Allen, ed. by G.D. Dunn and W. Mayer (SuppVC, 132), Leiden–Boston, 2015, pp. 208-224.
6 Cf. Fuhrmann, Die Mönchsgeschichten, p.74: “Hieronymus hat sich ausserdem erlaubt, heidnische Autoren ins Feld zu führen dieser Verlockung hat er nur in seinem hagiographischen Erstling so offennachgegeben, während er sich in der Vita Malchi under Vita Hilarionis mit Anspielungen begnügte, die nur der Kundige bemerkt.”
7 A. de Vogüé, Histoire littéraire du movement monastique dans l’Antiquité, 1: Le monachisme latin de l’itinérarire d’Égérie à l’éloge funèbre de Népotien (384-396) (Patrimoines Christianisme), Paris, 1993, p. 91, notes the allusion to the cave episode of Dido and Aeneas, but Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, pp. 173-174, provides a more detailed and very useful discussion of this passage.
8 S. Hagendahl, Latin Fathers and the Classics: A Study on the Apologists, Jerome, and Other Christian Writers (Acta Universtiatis Gothoburgensis, 62/Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia, 6), Göteborg, 1958, p. 118, has also pointed out similarities between Jerome’s description of the ants and an ant scene following the cave episode in Aeneid 4. See Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, p. 173, for details.
9 G.E. Duckworth, “Classical Echoes in St. Jerome’s Life of Malchus,” CB, 24 (1947/1948), pp. 28-29, at p. 29, pointed out Jerome’s dependence on the formulation of Seneca, Troades 510-512: “Fata si miseros iuvant, | habes salutem; | fata si vitam negant, | habes sepulchrum.”
10 The reference to Solomon in Jerome, VM 7.3; Jérôme. Trois Vies de moines (Paul, Malchus, Hilarion], ed. by P. Leclerc, E.M. Morales, and A. de Vogüé (SC, 508), Paris, 2007, 202, is the only direct reference to a specific author: “… unde recordatus Salomonis, ad formicae solertiam nos mittentis, et pigras mentes sub tali exemplo suscitantis …”
11 In J.P.K. Kritzinger and P.J. Botha, “The Significance of the Second Cave Episode in the Vita Malchi,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 70(1) (2014), pp. 1-8 (doi:10.4102/hts. v70i1.2004), it is argued that there exists a strong possibility that Jerome had the Daniel narrative as an intertext in mind when he wrote Vita Malchi.
12 The reference in Jerome, VM 6.2; SC, 508.196: “… sciebam – enim Apostolum praecepisse, dominis sic quasi Deo fideliter seruiendum – …” to the apostle’s command to serve your master loyally is not specific and could refer to three different biblical passages, but with the word apostolum, he clearly refers to St Paul.
13 Ovid, Met. 4.55-92.
14 Virgil, Aen. 4.
15 Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, p. 174: “Jerome also uses the fate of Dido as part of his argument against remarriage in his letter to Geruchia (ep. 123): quoting Aen.IV.548-552, he writes: ‘proponis mihi gaudia nuptiarum; ego tibi opponam pyram, gladium, incendium.’”
16 Cf. also Kritzinger, “The Use of Comparison and Contrast,” p. 215: “There is no direct allusion to John the Baptist in paragraph 6.2 and it might be difficult to prove that Jerome had John in mind when he wrote this, but the scenario between Malchus and his owner narrated here shows certain correspondences with the confrontation between Herod and John the Baptist, as described in Matt 14:3-4 and Mark 6:17-18.”
17 Jerome, VM 2.3; SC, 508.188: “De his cum curiose ab accolis quaererem, quaenam esset eorum copula: matrimonii, sanguinis an spiritus; omnes uoce consona, sanctos et Deo placitos, et mira nescio quae respondebant.”
18 Cf. Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, p. 171, n. 20, for the full details of de Vogüé.
19 Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, p. 171: “The structural parallels are considerable, for Jerome creates a series of antitheses opposed one by one to the elements of the Aeneid narrative.”
20 Cf. Kritzinger and Botha, “The Significance of the Second Cave Episode,” p. 8: “We believe that the first cave episode should not be regarded as the single most important event of the vita and that a closer reading of the second cave episode and a comparison of this passage with the first episode contribute to a fuller understanding of the work as a whole.”
21 Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, p. 171, mentions another plausible reason for the lack of direct citations from Latin literature: “The vita Malchi, Jerome tells us, is based on the Syrian Malchus’ own account: perhaps it is because of this that there are no direct citations from Latin literature which might look incongruous.”
22 Jerome, Commentariorum in Osee Prophetam 1.2.16-17; S. Hieronymi presbyteri opera, 1, Opera exegetica, 6, ed. by M. Adriaen (CCL, 76), Turnhout, 1969, p. 28: “Huius uxor Semiramis, de qua multa et miranda referuntur, muros Babylonis exstruxit. De qua insignis poeta testatur dicens: quam dicitur olim | Coctilibus maris cinxisse Semiramis urbem.”
23 Cf. Hagendahl, Latin Fathers and the Classics, p. 283: “The Metamorphoses are mentioned, one line (IV.57 sq.) quoted and one passage (I.111 sq.) paraphrased. To these instances noticed already by Lübeck (pp. 191 sq.) I can only add *In Eccles. p.442~ Met. I. 19-20 (p.129).”
24 Jerome, Commentariorum in Osee Prophetam 1.2.16-17; CCL 76.28: “Hic aduersus Zoroastrem magnum, regem Bactrianorum, forti certamine dimicauit; et in tantam peruenit gloriam, ut patrem suum Belum referret in Deum, qui Hebraice dicitur Bel et in multis prophetis, maximeque in Daniele iuxta. Theodotionem, sub idolo Babylonis, hoc appellatur nomine. Hunc Sidonii et Phoenices appellant Baal; eadem enim inter beth et lamed litteras consonantes, ain uocalis littera ponitur, quae iuxta linguae illius proprietatem nunc Beel, nunc Baal legitur. Vnde et Dido Sidonia regii generis, cum Aeneam suscepisset hospitio, hac patera Ioui uina delibat, qua Belus et omnes a Belo soliti.” (my bold emphasis).
25 Here I strongly agree with Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, p. 171, that “Jerome does use Virgil’s pagan poetry to provide an opposing contrast and a countertext against which to construct Malchus, his Christian hero.”
G.E. Duckworth, “Classical Echoes in St. Jerome’s Life of Malchus,” CB, 24 (1947/1948), pp. 28-29, at p. 29, pointed out Jerome’s dependence on the formulation of Seneca, Troades 510-512: “Fata si miseros iuvant, | habes salutem; | fata si vitam negant, | habes sepulchrum.”
The reference in Jerome, VM 6.2; SC, 508.196: “… sciebam – enim Apostolum praecepisse, dominis sic quasi Deo fideliter seruiendum – …” to the apostle’s command to serve your master loyally is not specific and could refer to three different biblical passages, but with the word apostolum, he clearly refers to St Paul.
Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints, p. 171, mentions another plausible reason for the lack of direct citations from Latin literature: “The vita Malchi, Jerome tells us, is based on the Syrian Malchus’ own account: perhaps it is because of this that there are no direct citations from Latin literature which might look incongruous.”
Jerome, Commentariorum in Osee Prophetam 1.2.16-17; S. Hieronymi presbyteri opera, 1, Opera exegetica, 6, ed. by M. Adriaen (CCL, 76), Turnhout, 1969, p. 28: “Huius uxor Semiramis, de qua multa et miranda referuntur, muros Babylonis exstruxit. De qua insignis poeta testatur dicens: quam dicitur olim | Coctilibus maris cinxisse Semiramis urbem.”
Jerome, Commentariorum in Osee Prophetam 1.2.16-17; CCL 76.28: “Hic aduersus Zoroastrem magnum, regem Bactrianorum, forti certamine dimicauit; et in tantam peruenit gloriam, ut patrem suum Belum referret in Deum, qui Hebraice dicitur Bel et in multis prophetis, maximeque in Daniele iuxta. Theodotionem, sub idolo Babylonis, hoc appellatur nomine. Hunc Sidonii et Phoenices appellant Baal; eadem enim inter beth et lamed litteras consonantes, ain uocalis littera ponitur, quae iuxta linguae illius proprietatem nunc Beel, nunc Baal legitur. Vnde et Dido Sidonia regii generis, cum Aeneam suscepisset hospitio, hac patera Ioui uina delibat, qua Belus et omnes a Belo soliti.” (my bold emphasis).