Latin Classics in the Letters of Saint Jerome
Keywords:epistolae, letters, Church Fathers, Latin literature, ancient literature, early Christianity
Saint Jerome, one of the most important Latin Fathers of the Church, was born in the 4th century AD in the town of Stridon, located somewhere on the border between Pannonia and Dalmatia. After finishing elementary school in his home town, he continued his education in Rome with the well-known teacher and grammarian Aelius Donatus, becoming acquainted with all the important Latin classics. In Rome, Jerome was baptised and after that he decided to become a monk. He dedicated his life to God and started writing prayers, translating the Bible and correcting its existing translations, and engaging in criticisms and polemics caused by contemporary events and practices. He also wrote over 120 letters, which were addressed to various people, some of them famous in their own right and some known today precisely through his writings. A lot of variety can be found in his letters: some of them are just short answers, while others grew to be independent books including discussions about moral, exegetic, and dogmatic questions.
Letter XXII was written in the year 384 AD as an instruction for the virgin life of Julia Eustochium. In chapter 30, the reader is introduced to some facts about Jerome's life, as well as to the statement: "Ciceronianus es, non Christianus." This he heard in his feverish dreams, nightmares even, in which he was told not to read pagan literature any more. He promised not to, but the question inevitably arises if this was possible. He had already read and learnt by heart so many Latin classics that it was impossible for him to ignore them. Therefore it comes as no surprise that his writings are permeated with echoes of, or borrowings from, Horace, Virgil, Terence, Cicero, Plautus, Lucretius, Persius, Ovid, Martial, Quintilian, and Seneca. His letters also preserve a number of passages from their works. The Latin authors most frequently mentioned in the letters are Virgil, Horace, and Cicero - writers whose works were used as examples in Aelius Donatus' school. It was there that Saint Jerome developed a predilection for them, which was to last all his life. They also influenced his use of language, which developed a degree of elegance and sophistication close to Cicero's Latin.
Saint Jerome was attached to the Latin classics, their language, Roman history and philosophy. Having absorbed them into his mentality, he could not stop using them in his work even with a conscious effort The number of allusions to and quotations from Latin writers to be found in his letters (approximately 270) reveals him to have been well educated in Latin literature, able to use all this immense knowledge towards improving his own work dedicated to God.
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