Mummy Portrait 5379

Could Theocleia have looked like this? Manchester Museum, Mummy Portrait 5379 (Hawara, Egypt, ca. AD 117-138)

Another installment on the wonderful ’empathy workshop’ on family conflicts in the ancient world this week at the Manchester Museum.

Most readers of the Acts of Paul and Thecla instinctively side with Thecla, the story’s heroine, which makes perfect sense.  When she tells her mother she wants to give up her marriage in order to follow the apostle Paul, we know we are meant to root for her. And what we know about first-century marriage inclines us to understand why a teen-aged bride would be anxious about it. Brides were often as young as twelve, marriages tended to be arranged, husbands tended on average to be twenty-five – twice the bride’s age – but could some times be much older. Forced marriage was a ‘live’ issue in the Roman empire – the law was against it, but there is quite a bit of evidence that the law was not always respected.


A sadder and wiser Theocleia? Mummy Portrait, Manchester Museum 2266 (Hawara, Egypt, ca. AD 138-160) [NB This portrait’s date is closer to the late second-century writing of the Acts of Paul and Thecla than it is to the mid-first-century lifetime of the historical Paul (and Thecla if she really existed).]

In the story, Theocleia is a marvellously convincing villian. She becomes apoplectic when she hears that her daughter wants to refuse the marriage, and denounces Thecla as a Christian to the authorities, urging the governor Castellius to condemn the reluctant brideto execution by burning. This is an honour killing of sorts – it is intended to assert the family’s honour – but curiously it is the child’s mother, not the men of the family, who is behind it, and she tries to use the mechanisms of the Roman state – rather than vigilante justice – to achieve her revenge.  Still, Theocleia’s willingness to see her daughter die to avenge the family honour is deeply disturbing.

An intrepid group of students this week took the point of view of Theiocleia,and wrote soliloquies for her, exploring the motives that might drive a first-century mother to wish such a fate for her daughter.

Abbie Lewis (Thomas Whitham’s Sixth Form, Burnley) wins the prize for getting into the spirit of Theocleia’s anger:

‘How dare he [Paul]? Who does he think he is? I had it all planned, I have been waiting for this marriage all my life! My daughter deserves a man who can pay for her and also look after me. Does anybody actually think about their mother anymore? I have managed to look after Thecla her whole life and now she decides against her destiny without any thought for me? Poor Thamyris, what a good man; such a caring husband he would make and also the money he made! I – well Thecla – would be set up for life, the selfish, stupid girl! She needs to be taken to the governor, burnt in front of everyone. Yes, that’s what I will do, no way she will live in chastity! A woman should be married off at a young age, and having children, looking after their mother, not making life-changing decisions. She needs to burn and so does Paul. Preaching to change people’s minds? That is not correct.’

Meanwhile, Rupert O’Donavan (Merchant Taylor School, Liverpool) took a more sympathetic approach.

‘I can’t believe that my daughter doesn’t want to marry Thamyris. I’m so disappointed that I’m missing out on the dowry, but if she’s not happy she shouldn’t get married. I’m ashamed she didn’t kiss Thamyris and I couldn’t help but cry because I thought my daughter wouldn’t be happy. When I shouted “Burn the wicked wretch!” it was only a heat of the moment thing. I’d rather have a daughter who was alive and unhappy than a dead one. As long as Thecla is free and not under the service of a man I’m happy. No dowry could be large enough to pay for her happiness. The reason I was so upset was due to the pain Thamyris must have felt, especially being her fiancé. If she doesn’t love him then she shouldn’t marry him. Of all the people she could have picked at least it’s Paul who is one of the disciples.’

Thanks to Abbie and Rupert, and to their classmates and teachers, for a discussion that changed my way of seeing Theocleia.



  1. […] exchange took place as a reaction to my post last week about Theocleia, the mother of St Thecla (Theocleia’s Revenge). As it happened, I was also planning a post on Perpetua’s father, based on a workshop […]

  2. […] of the Ancient Faces and Voices project with Thomas Whitham Sixth Form in Burnley, Lancashire); Theocleia’s Revenge (Another post from Burnley – this time the story from the money-grubbing mother’s […]

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