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Marcella was married and had seven children. When her husband died, these children were under her sole care. This would be a difficult situation at any time but especially during the times of the Roman Empire.
Porphyry, a well established NeoPlatonic philosopher was an acquaintance of the family. He was about 60 years of age at the time of the death of her husband. Still, he asked the widowed Marcella to marry him. She did. They joined households.
It is interesting that some say that Porphyry proposed marriage to ease her way under the difficult circumstances created by the death of her first husband. However, the famous Letter to Marcella that Porphyry wrote makes clear that the Neoplatonist had very different reasons for proposing marriage.
Porphyry's letter seems to have been written when he was required to travel on some official business and he was away from his family for longer than he wished. He, like many a husband in such circumstances wrote home.
He says in part:
"I chose you as my wife, Marcella, though you were the mother of five daughters and two sons, some of whom are still little children, and the others approaching a marriageable age ...
It was not for the sake of having children that I wedded you, deeming that the lovers of true wisdom were my children ...
neither did I expect that you would afford me any ease [...or] other housewifely care (So we know the philosopher Marcella was not given to the domestic arts!)
Later in this same letter he says"
. . . And now that I am compelled to delay here, though I cherish the hope of a speedy return . . . I earnestly beg you to keep firm hold upon philosophy . . ..you may console yourself for the absence of him who sustains your soul, and is to you father, husband, teacher, and kindred, yea, if you will, even fatherland ..." (Porphyry, Letter to his wife to Marcella_]. Source: http://lists.village.virginia.edu/
Note that Porphyry asked her to 'keep firm hold upon philosophy". Only a philosopher would think of saying such a thing to another philosopher! Philosophy can be her anchor, her sustenance in the difficult time while she is home alone with seven children to parent on her own.
He says "...I earnestly beg thee to keep firm hold upon philosophy, the only sure refuge and not to yield more than is fitting to the perplexities caused by my absence."
Source: Prudence Allen. The Concept of Woman p. 209 .
It is clear from these texts that this woman practiced philosophy. Rather than viewing Prophyry's porposal as simply an 'act of kindness and nothing more" it is much more likely that her practice of philosophy may well have been the thing that attracted Porphyry. He encourages her to hold tight to her philosophical practice amidst his absence and the increased responsibilities that absence entails for her.
One wonders what this marriage of two philosophers during the time of the Roman empire was like. Imagine the joy of having a spouse with whom you could discuss philosophy and share how the practice of philosophy shaped and strengthened ones life. It is clear from his letter that Porphyry misses Marcella and assumes that she misses his presence in turn.
But the written records are silent about what he might have gained or learned from his conversations with Marcella, his philosopher wife. But is is clear that this does not seem to be merely a marriage of convenience as some have claimed.
The Letter has been translated by Alice Zimmem and published in book form, Concerning the Life of Philosophy and the Ascent to the Gods.
If you want to read a translation of the letter, one is available on line. You will need to scroll down the page until you reach the Letter to Marcella .
If you want to know more about Marcella's husband, go to Porphyry, NeoPlatonist
This page last updated 12/13/14.
Society for the Study of Women Philosophers