Posthumous portrait of turbulent times in ancient Rome

Posthumous publication

In ancient Rome at the end of the fourth century, it is a time of upheaval with internal rioting and external threats, and pagan beliefs and gods giving way to the spread of Christianity and the worship of a new, monotheistic God.

Jerome and His Women​, by Joan O'Hagan (Black Quill Press)

- Reviewed by Robert Fairhead, NSW Writers Centre

A confession: I am not an avid reader of historical fiction, nor of titles suggesting romantic themes. However, after a little Google research on the author and reassurance on the subject matter, I was keen to read and review ​Jerome and His Women.​

Joan O’Hagan was born in Australia, studied Latin, Greek and ancient history at university in New Zealand, and lived and worked overseas for the best part of her life – including 30 years in Rome, where she worked at the Australian Department of Immigration.

O’Hagan drew upon her classical education, Roman surroundings and experience at the Immigration Department to write internationally acclaimed contemporary and historical crime fiction.

This is her fifth and last novel. O'Hagan died in 2014.

The Pontiff, Damasus I, commissions Jerome, a priest and foremost theologian and scholar, to translate the Bible from Greek texts into a single definitive Latin version.

While he has the Pontiff’s favour, and is even rumoured to be a possible successor to Damasus, Jerome is deeply unpopular with others in the Church hierarchy and Roman aristocracy for railing against their wanton ways and, in particular, for extolling a celibate, "virgin life" outside of a​nd within marriage.

"His women" are a circle of well-educated widows and their daughters from aristocratic families, all of whom have turned their backs on luxurious Roman life – selling off properties and valuables to donate to the poor and the Church – in exchange for chaste lives of prayer and poverty, and the study and discussion of the scriptures.

Among the women is Paula, a wealthy widow, who forms a close intellectual and spiritual relationship with Jerome, assisting him with his translation of the Bible, sharing his dream of a monastic life in the desert, and eventually funding their travels to the Holy Land, where they build two monasteries and a hospice for pilgrims in Bethlehem.

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