Faltonia Betitia Proba

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Faltonia Proba teaching the history of the world since the Creation through her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Miniature from a 15th-century manuscript of the De mulieribus claris by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Faltonia Betitia Proba (c. 306/c. 315 - c. 353/c. 366) was a Latin Roman Christian poet, possibly the most influential Latin poet of Late Antiquity.

A member of one of the most influential aristocratic families, she composed the Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi, a cento composed with verses by Virgil re-ordered to form an epic poem centred on the life of Jesus.


Proba belonged to an influential family of the 4th century, the Petronii Probi. Her father was Petronius Probianus, Roman consul in 322, while her mother was probably called Demetria.[1] She had a brother, Petronius Probinus, appointed consul in 341; also her grandfather, Pompeius Probus, had been a consul, in 310. Proba married Clodius Celsinus Adelphus, praefectus urbi of Rome in 351, thus creating a bond with the powerful gens Anicia. They had at least two sons, Quintus Clodius Hermogenianus Olybrius and Faltonius Probus Alypius, who become high imperial officers. She also had a granddaughter Anicia Faltonia Proba, daughter of Olybrius and Tirrania Anicia Juliana.

Her family was Pagan, but Proba converted to Christianity when she was an adult, influencing her husband and her sons, who converted after her. Proba died before Celsinus. She was probably buried with her husband in the Basilica di Sant'Anastasia al Palatino in Rome, where, until the 16th century, there was their funerary inscription,[2] later moved to Villa Borghese before disappearing. The bond between Proba and this church might be related to saint Anastasia, who probably belonged to the gens Anicia: Proba and Celsinus could have received the honour of being buried ad sanctos (next to the tomb of a saint), because of the particular veneration of the Anicii for this saint.[3]

With her husband she owned the Horti Aciliorum at Rome, on the Pincian Hill.[4]


Two poems are attributed to "Proba", and only one is extant. Most modern scholars identify Faltonia Betitia Proba as the author of these works, with the other possible identification being her niece Anicia Faltonia Proba.[citation needed]

Constantini bellum adversus Magnentium[edit]

The first poem, now lost, is called Constantini bellum adversus Magnentium by the Codex Mutinensis. It dealt with the war between Roman Emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius. Proba was involved to this war through her husband Clodius Celsinus Adelphus, who had been praefectus urbi of Rome in 351, that the same year Italy passed from the sphere of influence of Magnetius to Constantius after the Battle of Mursa Major.[3]

The existence of this first poem is based on the first verses of the second poem. Here Proba rejects her first Pagan composition, and scholars think that the Pagan poem was destroyed according to her will.[5]

De laudibus Christi[edit]

After her conversion, around 362,[6] Proba composed a Christian epic poem, the Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, also known as De laudibus Christi.

The poem is a Virgilian cento, a patchwork of verses extracted from several works of Virgil, with minimal modifications (in this case, with the introduction of Biblical names). The 694 lines are divided into a proemium with invocation (lines 1-55), episodes from the Old Testament (lines 56-345), episodes from the New Testament (lines 346-688) and the end.[7]

Proba was skilled in both Greek and Latin. She knew Virgil's poems quite well and memorized most of them. She devised a scheme one day that the history of the Bible could be compiled in a pleasant easy-to-read verse. She researched Bucolics, the Georgics, and the Aeneid and would then mix various lines from each with great care and skill to complete a story following all the rules of meter and the respect of verse that a connoisseur had trouble detecting the scheme. The resulting cento presents the Biblical story from the creation of the world up to the coming of the Holy Spirit by using 694 lines from Virgil. She also wrote a Homeric cento with verses taken from Homer that followed a similar scheme.

Jerome heavily criticized this work, claiming that an "old chatterbox" (garrula anus) wanted "to teach Scriptures before understanding them", considering "the Christless Maro a Christian" (Letters 53.7, written from Bethlehem to Paulinus of Nola).[8] Pope Gelasius I (492-496) declared the De laudibus Christi an apocryphal; therefore, even though the poem was not considered heretical, its public reading was forbidden. Despite this prohibition, the work had some success. Emperors Arcadius (395-408) and Theodosius II (408-451) requested copies of the poem, for example, and Isidore of Seville praised the author of this work;[9] furthermore, during the Middle Ages this cento was widely used in education, leading Giovanni Boccaccio to include Proba on his list of famous women. The first printed edition of the De laudibus Christi, dating back to 1472, is possibly the first printed work composed by a woman.


  1. ^ Fassina.
  2. ^ CIL VI, 1712.
  3. ^ a b Lizzi Testa.
  4. ^ Samuel Ball Platner, "Horti Aciliorum", A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Oxford University Press, 1929.
  5. ^ Jane Stevenson, Women Latin Poets, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-818502-2, p. 65.
  6. ^ For the year of composition, see Clark, Elizabeth Ann, "Faltonia Betitia Proba and her Virgilian Poem: The Christian Matron as an Artist", in Clark, Elizabeth Ann, Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith, Studies in Women and Religion 20, Edwin Mellon Press, 1986, p. 124-152.
  7. ^ Antonio Arbea, El carmen sacrum de Faltonia Betitia Proba, la primera poetisa cristiana, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, [1].
  8. ^ However, it has been proposed the identification of the garrula anus referred by Jerome with Melania the Elder (see Alessia Fassina, Una patrizia romana al servizio della fede: il centone cristiano di Faltonia Betitia Proba, Doctorate thesis, Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia, 2004, [2].
  9. ^ Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, i.39.26.


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