Melania the Elder (c. 350–c. 410)

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Melania the Elder (c. 350–c. 410)

Roman who founded two of the earliest Christian religious communities. Born around 350 ce; died around 410 ce; granddaughter of Antonius Marcellinus; grandmother of Melania the Younger; married possibly Valerius Maximus (a praetorian praefect), probably in 365; children: three sons, including Valerius Publicola (father of Melania the Younger).

Melania the Elder (so called to distinguish her from her namesake granddaughter) was from a Roman Senatorial family (her paternal grandfather, Antonius Marcellinus, served as consul in 341) with Spanish roots. Her family was also extremely wealthy and Christian—a religion which Melania the Elder avidly pursued as a young woman in Rome. Her husband was of an equally prestigious family, the Valerian, and was perhaps the Valerius Maximus who held the office of praetorian praefect in the 360s. If this was so, then a young Melania married a much older man, probably about the year 365. Despite the probable difference in their ages, this union produced three sons before Melania was widowed at the age of 22. The death of her husband was followed within months by the deaths of two of her children, leaving only Valerius Publicola (the eventual father of Melania the Younger ) to reach adulthood.

In one sense the tragedy of these triple deaths liberated Melania the Elder, for instead of remarrying, she left Rome for Egypt and Palestine, there to associate with the holy men and women who dominated the Church of the period as priests, bishops, monks and nuns. Rome was then, in Christian terms, far less developed than were Jerusalem, Alexandria and their surrounding areas. Melania the Elder was able to pursue her dream of visiting the East because she had given birth to three children who had lived past the age of two. By Roman law, she thus had earned the right to certain freedoms denied women who could not boast of that accomplishment. What Melania the Elder originally intended to do with her surviving son is unclear. One source reports that she took him at least as far as Sicily when she left Rome, seemingly intent upon bringing him with her to the East. If so, she changed her mind, for Valerius Publicola was reared in Rome under the care of a guardian, where, although without a mother's care, he never suffered for the lack of money. Mother and son would not see each other again until she returned to Rome, probably some 37 years later.

Like many Christians of her time, Melania the Elder wished to disassociate herself from material possessions (although she retained control of a huge estate throughout her life which she used to fund her religious career) and to deny as many bodily pleasures as possible in order to cultivate the spirit, thus to prepare for the hereafter. It was common especially for Roman women bent upon such purification to withdraw from the world into their own homes, where they fasted and prayed in a self-imposed isolation—albeit one which could be reversed simply by walking out into any public thoroughfare. Melania the Elder, however, both knew of the monastic movement which had only recently swept the Christian East and had the financial wherewithal to travel there and experience it firsthand.

The early monastic movement involved holy men and women who sought the isolation of inhospitable locales where they lived lives of bodily denial, so as to subordinate all physical desires to the will of the spirit, to study and interpret sacred scripture without any distractions, and to engage in what was thought a very real struggle against demons, who thus engaged would be unable to tempt less resolute Christians back in everyday society. These hermits were among the "stars" of the late 4th-century Christian world, and their passion to root out evil in themselves and in the world was deemed charismatic by just about everyone. Although their wish to live in the wilderness was in large part generated by the fact that they would thus be removed from other human beings, the self-imposed isolation of these holy figures was self-defeating, for as their fame grew, more and more of their Christian brethren followed them into the desert in order to be in their physical proximity. This soon necessitated a second stage of monastic development: that in which communities of voluntary disciples had to be organized, both to prevent them from being a distraction to the original attraction and to give them something constructive, and hopefully, "orthodox," to do. The idea of organized Christian communities somehow set aside from everyday society—and therefore also set aside from religious authority—thus arose. These communities were at once both inspirational and troublesome: the former because "God's soldiers" were known to be "out there" leading the struggle against the forces of Satan, and the latter because, without the proper over-sight by religious authority, there was the potential for these communities to be side-tracked into doctrinal deviancy.

Whatever the potential pitfalls, Melania the Elder wished to devote herself to physical denial, spiritual struggle, and religious study, and found what she needed to do so in the East. Upon her arrival there, she familiarized herself with the vibrant religious life of Egypt by visiting both the influential See of Alexandria and the hermits of the desert. Perhaps one of the more important reasons Melania the Elder did so was that she had become very fond of the theological writings of Origen (born c. 185 in Alexandria), which she had come to know through the Latin translations of her contemporary Rufinus. Later, when she moved on to Jerusalem in the late 370s, Melania founded and endowed a convent for herself and a monastery in honor of Rufinus (who remained in the West) on the Mount of Olives. These were not only among the earliest such establishments founded, they also fostered the asceticism Melania the Elder thought essential for salvation and a study of scripture in the tradition of Origen. This tradition, popular especially in the East, interpreted the Bible in the light of significant philosophical principles which had first been set forth by pagan thinkers. Although for a long time no one questioned the orthodoxy of such an approach to the Gospels, this began to change in the 390s, especially in the West. Thereafter, the orthodoxy of those working in the tradition of Origen came increasingly under fire.

Melania the Elder never thought of herself as a heretic. Indeed, she thought of herself as a bastion of orthodoxy. For example, when the Arian emperor Valens persecuted those in Egypt who espoused the orthodoxy of the Trinity, Melania gave them shelter. Because she was a disciple of Origen, however, others began to question her orthodoxy. Even as the weight of Church opinion began to swing toward the anti-Origenists, Melania the Elder maintained her allegiance to Origen's interpretive assumptions, and kept close ties with others (such as Rufinus, Evagrius Ponticus, and Palladius) who did likewise. This choice eventually set her at odds with the likes of the famous Jerome and his female associate Paula , both of whom had monastic communities of their own near Bethlehem. As the argument over the orthodoxy of Origen's tradition heated up, so did the rivalry between the houses of Melania the Elder and Rufinus on the one hand and those of Jerome and Paula on the other—violence even occasionally flared. Indeed, by about 399 the controversy was so intense that Melania decided to return to Rome for a period. This decision, however, probably had less to do with a desire to let things in the East cool off than it did to Melania's desire to put forth the case for Origen to her granddaughter. Melania the Younger's Senatorial status, kinship to Melania the Elder, and growing fame as a religious zealot in her own right made her an attractive target for proselytizing by the anti-Origen faction—if the younger Melania could be won over by them, then the elder's position could be seriously weakened.

Thus Melania the Elder returned to Rome (by way of Sicily, where she gave to Paulinus of Nola a piece of wood thought to be from the true cross) and to her kin. If doctrinal matters were Melania the Elder's primary reason for her homecoming, it probably failed, for although Melania the Younger did not go out of her way to embarrass her grandmother, neither did she fall into Origen's camp. In fact during her own religious career, Melania the Younger took some pains to disassociate herself from her grand-mother's memory and foundation, while simultaneously cultivating good relations with Jerome. It is not surprising, therefore, that tradition has it that the personal relationship between the two Melanias was a stormy one.

It is not known how long Melania the Elder remained in the West, but she probably did not stay long. Returning to her beloved community in Jerusalem, Melania continued her work in the manner of Origen and the defense of her orthodoxy until she died about the year 410.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California