Fabiola (d. 399 CE)

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Fabiola (d. 399 ce)

Early Christian saint and founder of the first public hospital in Rome. Name variations: Saint Fabiola. Pronunciation: Fab-ee-OH-la; date of birth unknown; died in 399 ce; married twice to men unnamed in sources.

Made public recantation of sins after the death of her second husband; donated large sums of money to the poor and religious institutions and founded a house for the sick in Rome; traveled to Jerusalem (395) and studied Scripture with St. Jerome; returned to Rome at onset of Huns; founded a house for pilgrims in Portus.

Fabiola lived in the first century of legal, state-sanctioned Christianity in the Roman Empire. This period, in which Christianity was fused with traditional Roman and pre-Roman customs and beliefs, was one of great social change in habits and viewpoints of all classes in the empire. Fabiola appears as one of a number of aristocratic women who personified this transition in the renunciation of the traditional (as far as our sources let us see) wifely role of the Roman woman.

Details of the life of Fabiola come to us from a letter (77) of St. Jerome's written in 399 to Oceanus, a relative of hers, and a few incidental remarks in other letters (55, 66). Jerome also wrote two letters on theological subjects to Fabiola herself (64, 78). In his letter to Oceanus, Jerome gives Fabiola an appropriate aristocratic pedigree as descended from the gens Fabia that produced notable heroes during the period of the Roman republic. It is unlikely that this family had survived in lineal descent over six centuries to Fabiola's time from the time of Fabius Cunctator, the general of the Second Punic War. Nevertheless, it is clear that Fabiola belonged to a wealthy and well-thought-of family.

Jerome dwells on the fact that Fabiola was married twice. This appears to have been cause for scandal even later in her life. Her first husband troubled Fabiola deeply. Jerome tells us that he "possessed such vices that not even a prostitute or a low slave could endure them" (77.3). She separated from him, an act somewhat risqué for a proper Roman matron, but laudable according to Jerome's Christian morality since men were required to divorce unfaithful wives. In one of the more egalitarian pronouncements of early Christianity, Jerome says: "Whatever is ordained for men consequently also applies to women" (77.3). Although her husband's behavior was cause for public discussion, Fabiola remained silent on the subject.

With her own hand she would offer food and give water to a living corpse.


Because she was still quite young at the time, she took another husband, a fact that Jerome does not excuse but justifies on the ground that this was better than adultery. "She saw another law in her members fighting against the law of her mind and saw herself a chained captive dragged into sexual intercourse" (77.3). Jerome also remarks that at this time she was ignorant of the Christian teaching that precluded a woman from marrying again while her first husband lived. This prompts a question as to whether or not Fabiola had yet converted to Christianity. If she had already done so, then her attachment to the religion as a young woman must have been nominal or untutored. In any case, this period of her life seems to have been luxurious, and she held parties and sought out upper-crust society.

After the death of her second husband, Fabiola appeared in the Lateran basilica in Rome and confessed her sins publicly and with great humility. Jerome praises her honesty and lack of shame in announcing her relations with men. Fabiola began the life of a penitent Christian. She dressed in pauper's clothing, sold some of her estates and donated the money to the poor. With these funds she also opened a nosocomeion, a house for the sick, apparently the first of its kind in Rome. Although the Romans had hospital facilities in military camps, most health care was performed at home. It was the Christians of this period, starting in the provinces of the Eastern Empire, who tended to the sick among the poor and built special structures for this purpose. Jerome details how Fabiola took an active role in cleansing the wounds of the sick, as well as in transporting them and in feeding them. She supplied clothing and gave money to the indigent. Jerome emphasizes the extent to which this behavior was unusual, even among faithful donors to the church. So industrious was she that the healthy were said to envy the sick. Fabiola also traveled to parts of Italy and endowed monasteries both directly and through intermediaries.

In 395, somewhat surprisingly, she left her work in Italy and traveled to Jerusalem in the province of Palaestina. Fabiola's reputation had preceded her, and a large crowd welcomed her. Jerome himself hosted her, possibly at his residence in Bethlehem, and oversaw her study of sacred Scripture. He relates the fervor and extent of her investigations, which included asking him questions that he could not answer. Around this time he may have written his Letter 54 to her, explaining the meaning of holy vestments in the Old Testament. A second Letter, 78, to her published after her death, discussed the places passed by the Israelites on their journey from Egypt. Jerome also mentions her interest during this period in visiting any place that Mary the Virgin , the mother of Christ, had stopped.

When an invasion of the Eurasian Huns threatened the eastern provinces, many of Jerome's circle prepared to leave Judea, though Jerome remained. Fabiola returned to Rome, but she did not stay long, complaining that the walls of the city shut her in. She continued her charitable work, making a point of distributing alms to the poor in person. In Portus, a community neighboring Ostia, the harbor of Rome, she and St. Pammachius founded a xenodochium (as Jerome calls it in Letters 66.11 and 77.10) or house for strangers. This is the regular Late Antique word for hospital (in Letter 77.10 Jerome also uses the Latin hospitium) although Jerome indicates that it served to house pilgrims as well as the destitute.

Shortly after this, Fabiola, believing that her remaining time on earth was limited, gathered together monks to continue her work. She died in her sleep in 399. Many people attended her funeral at Rome; at a later date in the early history of the Church, she was canonized. Her feast day is December 27.

suggested reading:

Gask, George E., and Todd John, "The Origin of Hospitals," in E. Ashworth Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine, and History. Essays on the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice Written in honor of Charles Singer. Vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Jerome, Letters 66, 77.

Alexander Ingle , Lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan