Roman widow and associate of Jerome who founded two influential religious communities in Bethlehem. Born in 347; died in 404; daughter of Rogatus and Blesilla; married Toxotius; children: four daughters, Blesilla (d. 384), Paula the Younger, Eustochium, and Rufina; one son, Toxotius.
Paula was born in 347, the daughter of patricians, Rogatus and Blesilla . Her ancestry was among the loftiest to be found within the Roman aristocracy of the 4th century, for through her Hellenic (by descent) father, Paula traced her roots back to Agamemnon, while through her mother, she was related to the great Scipios and Gracchi of Republican fame. Paula's parents were Christian, and she was so raised, although near relatives on both sides of her family remained pagan throughout her life. Her parents were also extremely wealthy, owning extensive estates in both Italy and Greece. Paula had at least one brother about whom nothing is known. Well educated in both the secular and religious fields as befit one of her status and faith, Paula was early introduced to the intra-Christian doctrinal conflicts of her time, for in her youth the Arian Emperor Constantius II roughly handled the bishops of Rome and their orthodox followers. Perhaps the memory of these assaults upon orthodoxy influenced Paula's subsequent distaste for theological deviancy.
Married at age 15 to Toxotius, a man of her own elevated social standing (for he bore the blood of the Julian house in his veins) but a pagan, Paula nevertheless knew a happy marriage. The couple had four daughters (eldest to youngest: Blesilla, Paula the Younger, Eustochium , and Rufina ) and one son (Toxotius) before the elder Toxotius died when Paula was 31, a loss which grieved her much. Little is known about Paula during the time of her marriage, except that her friends constituted a virtual "who's who" within the Christian and pagan elite of Rome. The most influential of these was Marcella (325–410), a Christian who, spurred by reports from the East about the development of the monastic movement, had established a chaste community of Christian women in her palace on the Aventine Hill. Marcella's "convent" engaged in prayer, scriptural study, and good works, and was so successful at encouraging others to do the same that her example was enthusiastically endorsed both by the reigning pope, Damasus, and by the up-and-coming Biblical exegete, Jerome.
Paula began to live in the manner of Marcella. Although she did not join the latter's community in a formal sense, as a widow Paula embraced a life of chastity, kept in close contact with Marcella's establishment, and allowed her daughter, Eustochium, to take up residence with that community. Inspired by notions of Christian charity, Paula also began to distribute largesse amongst the poor, and she personally began to eschew outward manifestations of wealth, coming to prefer to dress in sackcloth rather than in the silk she had once known. Of particular importance for the future, through Marcella, Paula met Jerome, whose devout disciple she became. Thus living a life of alms-giving, prayer, and scriptural study, Paula began her withdrawal from the secular world—a process which was accelerated by the visit to Rome of the eastern bishops, Paulinus and Epiphanius, who came to the city (382) in order to participate in a synod devoted to the problem of Arianism. Paula acted as host for Epiphanius, providing housing for that influential cleric from Cyprus during his stay. Although intrigued by the encouragement of her guest to visit the East, Paula nevertheless delayed abandoning Rome primarily because of her concern and affection for her children, one of whom, Toxotius, long flirted with paganism (although he eventually became a devout Christian).
Eventually, however, several influences converged to induce Paula to follow her growing desire to take up residence in the Holy Land. First, her daughter Blesilla, once briefly married but thereafter (with Paula and Eustochium) a spiritual intimate of Marcella and Jerome, died in 384, leaving Paula as emotionally distraught as she had been after the death of her husband. Second, the example of Melania the Elder (one of Paula's Roman Christian friends), who had left Rome first to tour the Holy Land and then to become an abbess in Jerusalem, enticed Paula to follow suit. And third, Pope Damasus also died (again in 384). This loss hit Paula very personally, for after Damasus' demise the orthodox Christian community in Rome split into increasingly acrimonious factions. Before long, petty jealousies came to the fore, with the result that Jerome, who had been Damasus' good friend, came under attack by some who would assume Damasus' mantle. Among the charges raised against Jerome was his intimacy with so many Roman matrons, including especially Paula. In fact, it was suggested that there was more than a spiritual bond between Jerome and Paula—a charge which both vehemently denied. Nevertheless, the time had come (385) for Paula to become a religious pilgrim. After splitting most of her wealth among her three children who would remain in Italy, Paula, with Jerome and Eustochium as companions, left Italy for the attractions of the Christian East.
Journeying to Jerusalem by way of Cyprus (where she was briefly reunited with Epiphanius) and Antioch (where she visited with Paulinus), Paula's group reached Jerusalem in the winter of 385–86. There the trio visited the major religious sites before beginning a tour of the Holy Land, beginning with Bethlehem. This visit moved Paula deeply, but her passion to follow in the footsteps of Jesus stirred her on. After a circuit through Palestine, Paula, Jerome and Eustochium returned to Jerusalem, where they visited the new monastic foundations of Melania the Elder and Rufinus, before setting off to Egypt, there to acquaint themselves with the religious community in Alexandria and the monastic foundations of the hostile countryside.
Returning to Bethlehem by late 386, Paula decided to establish two religious communities of her own near the site of Jesus' nativity—undoubtedly influenced by the example of Melania the Elder, and by what she had seen in Egypt. Building began immediately on twin foundations—one for Paula and her growing troop of feminine companions, and one for Jerome and his smaller group of comrades (the buildings of these religious communities were completed in 389). The rules which governed the lives of those who lived in these houses were, by Paula's choice, based upon those of Pachomius: poverty and mortification of the flesh were embraced, as was a life divided among physical labor, study and prayer. Isolation, however, was neither attempted nor realized, for Paula and her associates maintained correspondences with friends and family throughout the empire, and they welcomed many guests to their religious refuge.
Thus established, Paula's foundations flourished, and her fame grew in association with that of Jerome. The most lasting work produced under Paula's patronage at Bethlehem focused upon Jerome's religious writing. Spurred on by Paula, who wished to associate with her religious foundations a noteworthy library revolving around his work, Jerome wrote a string of Biblical commentaries while resident at Bethlehem. Also, it was there that he produced his famous edition of the Bible, a work destined to have profound impact upon the medieval church.
Unfortunately, all was not to remain tranquil for Paula and Jerome. In the year 394, a doctrinal argument focused upon the dubious orthodoxy of Originism against which Jerome, with Paula in alliance, raged. The debate put Jerome and Paula at odds with their one-time friends, Melania the Elder and Rufinus. In addition, their strong stand against Origin's influence undermined their relationship with John, bishop of Jerusalem. Intensifying the religious issues involved were petty jealousies, as the reputation of the foundations at Bethlehem began to eclipse anything being produced in Jerusalem. Although several attempts over the years were made to mediate this dispute (including one mounted by Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria) and to reunite in friendship the primary disputants, the damage was never really repaired, and Paula's erstwhile respect for her Roman counterpart was never completely restored. Indeed, Melania's orthodoxy came under suspicion, and hostilities between Paula and her continued, especially after the allies of Jerome and Paula attempted to enlist in their cause Melania the Younger , the granddaughter namesake of Paula's religious rival.
A second infringement upon the peace of Paula's foundations was of less lasting significance. In 395, the threat of an invasion of Huns forced the temporary evacuation of Bethlehem, with the result that Paula, Jerome and their associates took up temporary residence in the city of Joppa. However, the potential attack upon Bethlehem never materialized, and all returned to what had become their home in the following year. There, Paula was met by both good and bad news. The bad news was that Paula's daughter, Paula the Younger (who had been married to the Roman Senator Pammachius) had died, a fact which wounded Paula deeply. The good news was that Paula now had a granddaughter—also named Paula—the child of Toxotius and his wife Laeta . (This Paula would later care for Jerome in his old age.) Regardless of the vicissitudes of family life, religion—both that connected with the daily running of her communities, and that which continued to wage war against the evils of creeping Originism—continued to demand most of Paula's attention over the last decade of her life.
By the late 390s, a third problem, however, had begun to concern Paula, for by that time her personal fortune had run out. On a private level this did not bother Paula at all, for she had long since renounced the comforts of wealth. Nevertheless, she became concerned that without enough money, the continuing work of her communities would be threatened. Eustochium, of course, remained at her mother's side and helped financially as much as she could. But even with that assistance, funds became tight. As a result, Paula was forced to borrow heavily upon the reputation of her family's wealth and status, so that when she died at age 57 in 404, she was deeply in debt. Despite this obvious problem, Jerome (with Eustochium at his side) continued with his work as Paula hoped he would. Jerome also continued to stir up considerable controversy, as he never ceased to attack theological deviancy where he saw it. In fact, Jerome's attacks affected Paula's communities after her death. For instance, angered by Jerome's theological positions, a band of Pelasgians destroyed the buildings which had been erected with Paula's money and at her command. Fortunately, Eustochium—as steadfast in her piety as had been Paula—rebuilt what had been destroyed.
The passing of Paula moved Jerome greatly, for he saw in her the epitome of feminine Christian piety. His words, thus, serve as an appropriate epithet for Paula's impact on those around her: "Even if all of the parts of my body were transformed into tongues and were capable of speech, I could never find words to recount the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula."