The Tragic Plight of Mary: Barbarians, Faithful Handmaids, and Redemption

Among my present duties is an editorial assistantship for CUA Press.  Currently, I’m collating Gennadios 250, a heretofore uncollated manuscript that contains a collection of Theodoret of Cyr’s letters.  This particular collection was first published by Sirmond, and hence it is called the Collectio Sirmondiana.  The collection was published in two volumes in the Sources Chrétiennes series (vv. 98, 111).  My work will eventually be incorporated into an edition and translation of Theodoret’s letters to appear in CUA’s Library of Early Christianity series.  One of my professors, Dr. John Petruccione, is editing the Greek text, and the first draft of translation was done by the late Prof. Thomas Halton.  

The letters are often quite fun to read.  The collection contains everything from festal exhortations to consolatory letters to widows.  Some of the latter are quite touching, but others hardly seem comforting at all!  This letter (ep. 70) particularly grabbed my attention.  It tells a rather touching story of the bond between a handmaid and her mistress, after both are sold into slavery by the Vandals.  

The Greek text is Azéma’s with my minor corrections (two movable nu’s).  The translation and note are my own, though I have consulted Azéma’s.    

To Eusthatius, Bishop of Aegae. Ep. 70.  

The story of most-noble Mary is worthy of the tragic stage.  For she is the daughter of the highly-esteeemed Eudaimon, as she herself states and anyone else will aver.  But in the course of the misfortune that seized Libya,[1] she lost her free-born status and fell into slavery.  Certain merchants, after buying her from the barbarians, sold her to certain countrymen of mine.  She was sold along with her own handmaid, who had formerly served in Mary’s household.  They bore the bitter yoke of their slavery in common, both the handmaid and the mistress together.  But the handmaid refused to overlook their difference in status and did not forget her mistress’s former nobility.  Instead, she maintained her prior reverence for her mistress, and would attend to her as well, in addition to their common masters.  She would wash her feet, make the bed, and take care of all the other chores of this sort.  This became known to those who had bought them.  At that point, the mistress’s former freedom and the handmaid’s kind service became the talk of the entire city.  On learning this, our most faithful soldiers gave the ransom to those who had bought her and freed her from her slavery (for I was away at the time).  On my return, once I had been informed about her turn of misfortune, and the praiseworthy initiative of the soldiers, I prayed that God would reward them for their good, and entrusted the noble young woman to one of my most faithful and reverent deacons, instructing him to make suitable provisions for her.  Ten months later, upon learning that her father was alive and still a magistrate in the west, she quite naturally desired to return to him.  Since many have said that there are a good number of western merchants who are coming to your city for the feast you are now celebrating, she asked to make her departure with a letter from me.  Therefore I have written this letter to call kindly upon your piety: give thought to her noble roots, and ask any of those adorned with piety to speak with the merchants, ship captains, and businessmen, that you may entrust her to faithful men who are able to restore her to her father.  For they will surely benefit beyond any human expectation when they return this daughter to her father.  

[1] “Libya”  in Classical Greek refers to most of Northern Africa.  In this case, Theodoret refers to the Vandal invasion of North Africa, which began in 429.  


Τραγῳδίας ἄξιον τὸ κατὰ τὴν εὐγενεστάτην Μαρίαν διήγημα. Αὕτη γάρ ἐστι μὲν θυγάτηρ τοῦ μεγαλοπρεπεστάτου Εὐδαίμονος, ὡς καὶ αὐτή φησι καὶ ἄλλοι τινὲς μεμαρτυρήκασιν. Ἐν δὲ τῇ καταλαβούσῃ συμφορᾷ τὴν Λιβύην, τῆς προγονικῆς ἐλευθερίας ἐξέπεσεν, καὶ εἰς δουλείαν μετέπεσεν. Ἔμποροι δέ τινες, αὐτὴν παρὰ τῶν βαρβάρων πριάμενοι, διεπώλησάν τισι τὴν ἡμετέραν οἰκοῦσιν. Συνεπράθη δὲ αὐτῇ καὶ παιδίσκη, πάλαι τὴν οἰκετικὴν τάξιν ἔχουσα παρ’ αὐτῇ· κοινῇ τοίνυν εἷλκον τὸν πικρὸν τῆς δουλείας ζυγόν, ἥ τε θεράπαινα καὶ ἡ δέσποινα. Ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἠθέλησεν ἀγνοῆσαι τὸ διάφορον ἡ θεράπαινα, οὐδὲ τῆς προτέρας ἐπελάθετο δεσποτείας· ἀλλὰ τὴν εὔνοιαν τῇ συμφορᾷ διεφύλαξεν, καὶ μετὰ τὴν τῶν κοινῶν δεσποτῶν θεραπείαν ἐθεράπευε τὴν νομιζομένην ὁμόδουλον, ἀπονίπτουσα πόδας, ἐπιμελομένη στρωμνῆς, καὶ τῆς ἄλλης ὡσαύτως ἐπιμελείας φροντίζουσα. Τοῦτο τοῖς πριαμένοις ἐγένετο γνώριμον. Ἐντεῦθεν ἐθρυλήθη κατὰ τὴν πόλιν ἥ τε ταύτης ἐλευθερία καὶ τῆς θεραπαίνης ἡ εὐτροπία. Ταῦτα μεμαθηκότες οἱ παρ’ ἡμῖν ἱδρυμένοι πιστότατοι στρατιῶται —ἐγὼ γὰρ τηνικαῦτα ἀπῆν—, καὶ τοῖς πριαμένοις ἀπέδοσαν τὴν τιμὴν καὶ ταύτην τῆς δουλείας ἐξήρπασαν. Ἐγὼ δὲ μετὰ τὴν ἐπάνοδον, διδαχθεὶς καὶ τὸ δρᾶμα τῆς συμφορᾶς, καὶ τῶν στρατιωτῶν τὴν ἀξιέπαινον ὄρεξιν, τὰ ἀγαθὰ μὲν ἐπηυξάμην ἐκείνοις, τὴν εὐγενεστάτην δὲ κόρην τῶν εὐλαβεστάτων τινὶ διακόνων παρέδωκα, σιτηρέσιον ἀρκοῦν χορηγεῖσθαι παρεγγυήσας. Δέκα δὲ διεληλυθότων μηνῶν, μαθοῦσα τὸν πατέρα ζῆν ἔτι καὶ ἄρχειν ἐν τῇ Δύσει, ἐπεθύμησεν εἰκότως πρὸς ἐκεῖνον ἐπανελθεῖν· καί τινων εἰρηκότων, ὡς ἀπὸ τῆς Ἑσπέρας ἔμποροι πλεῖστοι καταίρουσιν εἰς τὴν νῦν παρ’ ὑμῖν ἐπιτελουμένην πανήγυριν, ᾔτησε μετὰ γραμμάτων ἐμῶν τὴν ἀποδημίαν ποιήσασθαι. Τούτου χάριν ταύτην γέγραφα τὴν ἐπιστολήν, παρακαλῶν σου τὴν θεοσέβειαν, ὡς εὐγενοῦς φροντίσαι βλαστήματος, καὶ κελεῦσαί τινι τῶν εὐλαβείᾳ κοσμουμένων, καὶ ναυκλήροις καὶ κυβερνήταις καὶ ἐμπόροις διαλεχθῆναι, καὶ πιστοῖς αὐτὴν ἀνδράσι παραδοῦναι, ἀποκαταστῆσαι τῷ πατρὶ δυναμένοις. Πάντως γὰρ ὅτι πάμπολλα κερδανοῦσι παρὰ πᾶσαν ἀνθρωπίνην ἐλπίδα τῷ πατρὶ τὴν παῖδα προσάγοντες.


 ἐν αὐτῷ,

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