Aemilia Hilaria (fl. 350 CE)

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Aemilia Hilaria (fl. 350 ce)

Gallo-Roman doctor. Name variations: Aemilia; Aemilia Hilaria (Aemilia the Jolly); (nickname) Hilarus. Pronunciation: Aye-MEEL-ee-uh Hee-LAH-ree-uh. Born around 300 ce in Roman Gaul (modern France); died at age 63 at an unspecified date; daughter of Caecilius Agricius Arborius and Aemilia Corinthia Maura, apparently both impoverished nobles from Gaul.

Aemilia Hilaria may be one of the few female doctors in the Roman Empire of whom a record has come down to us from antiquity. This assumption rests on a single line of a long Latin poem, the Parentalia, written by her nephew, Decimus Magnus Ausonius, the Gallo-Roman senator and tutor to the emperor Gratian: more virum medicis artibus experiens ("You were skilled in the medical arts in the fashion of men"). There is ample evidence for midwives in the Roman Empire at this period, and medical writings were available to women, but, as noted by Gillian Clark, the phrase "according to the fashion of men" "may suggest a full-time commitment." The Parentalia tells us that Aemilia's brother-in-law, Ausonius' father, was a doctor, and some professional medical association between the two is possible.

Everything we know about Aemilia Hilaria and her family derives from the Parentalia. It appears that she was born in the small city of Aquae Tarbellicae (modern Dax) early in the 4th century, a time when the provinces in Gaul were recovering from barbarian invasions and local revolts against imperial authority. Her father's family, partly descended from the native Celtic Aeduan aristocracy, had emigrated there from central Gaul perhaps around 260. Her mother came from the local municipal aristocracy, although Ausonius points out that they were poor. Aemilia had one brother, Aemilius Magnus Arborius, who became a tutor to an unnamed son of the emperor Constantius, and two sisters: Aemilia Dryadia, who died in infancy, and Aemilia Aeonia , the mother of Ausonius. Hagith Sivan in her Ausonius of Bordeaux: Genesis of a Gallic Aristocracy points out that Aemilia Hilaria and her siblings all took the nomen, or family name, of their mother, contrary to the usual practice of the times.

According to Parentalia 5, Aemilia Hilaria was given the male nickname Hilarus while she was still an infant because she was "affable like a boy" (comis pueri ad effigiem). In her youth, she "openly imitated a proper young man" (reddebas verum non dissimulanter ephebum), and later in life she showed a disdain for her femininity (feminei sexus odium), as a result of which she did not marry but remained a virgin for life. One should be cautious in taking these statements literally, however. As Clark, among others, notes, Christian women of this period were encouraged by the male clergy to hide their feminine appearance. While it is difficult to guess if Aemilia was a Christian—the phrase "love of consecrated virginity" (devotae virginitatis amor) seems to indicate this—the language and spirit of her nephew may speak more to poetic license than fact. Nevertheless, as he is our only source for Aemilia we have little choice but to accept Ausonius at his word, and so Aemilia Hilaria comes down to us as a woman who rejected a traditional Roman female image and role.


Ausonius, Parentalia 5.

suggested reading:

Sivan, Hagith. Ausonius of Bordeaux: Genesis of a Gallic Aristocracy. London: Routledge, 1993.

Alexander Ingle , Research Assistant, Institute for the Classical Tradition, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts