Melania the Younger (c. 385–439)

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Melania the Younger (c. 385–439)

Roman ascetic who was an important patron of the early Christian Church. Born around 385; died in 439 ce; daughter of Valerius Publicola (son of Melania the Elder) and Albina; married Valerius Pinianus (son of Valerius Severus, the Roman prefect), around 399.

The daughter of Valerius Publicola (the son of Melania the Elder ) and Albina , Melania the Younger was born around 385. Her parents were from extremely wealthy and well-connected Roman families of Senatorial rank; for example, her maternal grandfather, Ceionius Rufius Albinus, served as the prefect of Rome, a post reserved for the most elite, between 389 and 391 ce. On her father's side, Melania's family had been Christian for at least a couple of generations before her birth—a testimony to the growing impact of Christianity on Rome's ruling class in the mid-4th century. Her maternal ancestors, however, had been both important members of the pagan establishment and slower to embrace Christianity; her great-grandmother Caecina Lolliana was a priestess of Isis, and her great-uncle Publilius Ceionius Caecina Albinus was a pontifex. In fact, Melania's maternal grandfather was probably pagan, as is suggested by the fact that his son (Melania's uncle), Rufius Antonius Agrypnius Volusianus, converted to Christianity, largely because of Melania's advocacy, only shortly before his death. If Melania the Younger's maternal grandfather remained a pagan throughout his life, he nevertheless was tolerant of Christianity, as is intimated by the following: he (perhaps) took a Christian wife; he seems to have corresponded with St. Ambrose of Milan; he clearly married his daughter Albina to a Christian; he allowed her to convert to Christianity if she had not already been raised in the faith by a Christian mother; and he did nothing to interfere with the Christian upbringing of Melania the Younger. Rome in the mid-4th century was a fairly tolerant place where a Christian and a pagan could rub elbows and even marry without necessarily adopting the other's religion. (This tolerance was lost in subsequent generations as the Church, encouraged by Christian emperors, eradicated the last vestiges of pagan Rome.) Melania the Younger may have had a brother, but if so, he died without issue and probably young.

When she was 14, Melania the Younger wed a distant relative, the 17-year-old Christian Valerius Pinianus (a son of Valerius Severus, the Roman prefect of 382). This union reunited two threads of an ancient house, in order to foster political influence and consolidate the immense economic resources which each side of the family individually possessed. The marriage does not seem to have pleased Melania the Younger, whose ascetic religious inclination had already been incited by the example of her grandmother Melania the Elder. Desiring a life of ascetic chastity but pressured by her family to generate heirs who could maintain the family's station and wealth, Melania the Younger reluctantly acceded to her father's wishes. Her marriage resulted in two pregnancies: the first producing a daughter and the second a stillborn son—a birth which almost killed Melania. Not long after this heartbreak, Melania the Younger's daughter, not yet two, also died. The shock of the double deaths convinced both Melania and her husband Pinian that her original wish to eschew intimate relations was also God's will. As a result, although they continued to live together, the couple renounced conjugal relations and began to experiment with an austere way of life which was the antithesis of their upbringing.

Accomplishing the latter was not an easy task, for the couple possessed vast estates, great movable wealth, and huge numbers of slaves across three continents. These they began to sell off, beginning with their Italian and Spanish properties, in order to fund a number of Christian works. Melania the Younger's father, although himself a generous patron of Christian causes, stoutly opposed their decision to divest entirely their worldly goods, as well as their choice to remain childless—for he saw no shame in secular Christianity and did not relish the thought that he would never know grandchildren. Unable to make headway with his willful daughter, however, the dying Valerius Publicola at last made a virtue out of necessity and reconciled with Melania the Younger on her terms.

Also opposed to Melania's and Pinian's decision to disburse their wealth was Pinian's brother, Severus, who attempted legal action in order to maintain their family's control of the estate being so purposefully liquidated by the couple. Presumably, Severus' case revolved around the fact that neither Melania the Younger nor Pinian was 25 years old—the age of legal authority for such actions—when they began their wholesale sell-off around 405. Nonetheless, this attempt failed when Melania the Younger, exploiting the connections which came with her wealth and station, approached Honorius, the emperor of the Roman West, through Serena (Honorius' mother-in-law and the wife of Stilicho, who at the time was Honorius' most important general), probably in the year 408. Through Serena's successful advocacy, Honorius not only allowed Melania and Pinian to act as they saw fit, he even ordered bureaucrats dispersed throughout the empire to act as agents on behalf of their divestment.

Much, but not all, of Melania's and Pinian's estate in Italy and Spain was thereby converted to cash by 410, in which year a double disaster hurt both interests. First, Honorius executed Serena and Stilicho for political reasons (the game at the imperial court was played for high stakes), and second, the Visigoths invaded Italy and sacked Rome. Before both disasters occurred, however, Melania and Pinian, with her mother in tow (Melania was all the family Albina had after the death of her husband), had made their way to North Africa to hasten the sell-off of properties there. Thus, they escaped both the fallout of the emperor's anger aimed at their political friends, and the ravages of the Visigoths, although they did lose their unsold Italian properties as a result of the appearance of the barbarians.

In North Africa, the trio established themselves on land they owned near Thagaste, the small hometown of St. Augustine, where they grew close to that great bishop's brother, Alypius. From this location, they oversaw the conversion of most of their African estates into cash which they used both to adorn the church of Thagaste and to distribute to the needy through local monasteries and convents. Concerning the latter, so much money was spent so quickly to so little lasting effect that Augustine, Alypius, and Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, advised the well-intentioned threesome to give up on trying to feed all of the poor and to concentrate on investing in the spiritual future. Melania, Pinian and Albina heeded this advice and endowed both a monastery and a convent, their first such foundations. About this time, an episode which had the potential of rupturing the friendship between Augustine, Melania and Pinian occurred, in which the people of Hippo (where Augustine was bishop) attempted to force ordination upon Pinian so that he could become their priest. This was deftly avoided by Pinian, who rather sought the life of a recluse, but local feelings were bruised and he had to swear that he would not take orders elsewhere.

Melania the Younger, Pinian and Albina remained in North Africa for about seven years, during which time they embraced more and more isolated asceticism: their clothes became little more than rags, their fasts became longer and more frequent, and all comforts were purposefully shunned (they lived in barren monastic cells and even had their beds constructed so as to make sleeping a torture). Throughout all of this, they spent most of their time in prayer, studying scripture, and working; in Melania the Younger's case, this frequently meant copying books. When they did strike out into the larger world, it was to advise the less driven to avoid heresy at all costs and to embrace a life of chastity (even going so far as to bribe men and women to remain chaste). The issue of heresy was a personal one to Melania the Younger, for her famous grandmother Melania the Elder had had her reputation tainted through her association with the increasingly discredited theology of Origen. Although Melania the Younger stayed clear of that particular pitfall, the world of the early 5th century was fraught with theological dangers, and reputations could be permanently lost if one fell in with the wrong theological sort.

However real their desire to withdraw from the world might have been, Melania and Pinian found their fame begin to spread, increasingly bringing the outside world to their doors. Perhaps motivated by a desire to cut back on the attention that ascetic piety drew at that time, and perhaps also influenced by the erosion of North African social stability in the wake of Rome's continuing collapse before the barbarian invasions, Melania the Younger, Pinian and Albina left Thagaste (417) to journey to the Holy Land. The traveled by way of Alexandria and Egypt (in the footsteps of Melania the Elder), where they met many of the most famous priests and bishops (like Cyril) of the day, as well as many of the charismatic Christian hermits (like Nestoros) who were exerting so much influence over the contemporary practice of the Christian faith. Their stay in Egypt obviously left an indelible impression on the pilgrims, because even though they continued on to Jerusalem to establish their permanent residence there, they nevertheless took a subsequent opportunity to return to Egypt so as to press their largesse upon the reluctant holy women and men of that land.

In Jerusalem, the threesome took up their abodes in tiny cells constructed on the Mount of Olives, close to, but definitely distinct from, the religious community which a generation before had been founded by Melania the Elder. It seems that Melania the Younger wanted it known that her theology was not that of her grandmother, a notion that was further driven home by her friendly visits to Jerome, her grandmother's theological rival. On the Mount of Olives, both Albina (c. 430) and Pinian (c. 431) died, losses which left their mark on Melania the Younger. Her mother's death caused her to abandon all social contact for a year, after which she founded a second convent (her first since North Africa), situated on the Mount of Olives. Although Melania the Younger declined to become this community's leader, she did write its rule and intervened to make life more palatable for its members when the austerity of their abbess tried even the most devout. After Pinian's death, Melania the Younger engaged in a second period of mourning, this time for four years, after which she established a second monastery, also on the Mount of Olives, in his memory. Interest-ingly, by the time of this, her final, foundation, Melania the Younger's money had run out, for the construction of this community was dependent upon a gift of cash which she received from an admirer.

Soon after Melania the Younger set up these communities, she learned that her (as yet) pagan uncle, Volusian, was traveling to Constantinople upon imperial business. Desiring that he should embrace Christianity, and wishing to see the greatest city of the Roman world, she decided to visit the capital of the Eastern Empire herself. Among the entourage accompanying her was Gerontius, the priest whom she probably met in Jerusalem and who wrote the chronicle of her life from which most of the information about her comes. The journey from Jerusalem to Constantinople was a triumph of sorts, for her fame had preceded her virtually everywhere she went. Her reception also was one as befitted a celebrity: among those Melania the Younger met was the Empress Eudocia (c. 400–460), who was so impressed by Melania's piety that she would one day return Melania the favor by visiting her in Jerusalem. Moreover, her journey had its intended effect, for although Volusian died in Constantinople, he did so only after having received baptism.

Melania the Younger thereafter returned to Jerusalem and her cell on the Mount of Olives. There she resumed her ascetic life while continuing her sponsorship of Christian building: in addition to the religious communities which were constructed under her patronage, she built a chapel of the Apostolion and a martyrium to hold relics attributed to Zachariah, Stephen, and the 40 martyrs of Sebaste. Melania the Younger was so busy with these various activities that she left Jerusalem only one time after her return from Constantinople. When Eudocia made her way to Jerusalem, in part to preside over the installment of relics in Melania's martyrium (Eudocia had a vested interest: she had wanted these relics for projects of her own), Melania the Younger met her at the port city of Sidon. The last three or so years of Melania's life thus were largely given over to spiritual struggle, prayer and study. Throughout, her reputation continued to grow—so much so that when she died in 439, Melania the Younger was mourned not only by those living in her communities, but by all Christians, great as well as humble. No taint of unorthodoxy affixed itself to her memory. In fact, present at her death was Paula the Younger , whose grandmother Paula (347–404) had (with Jerome) been among Melania the Elder's most ardent theological critics. It seems that Melania the Younger rehabilitated the reputation of her family in the minds of those who constituted the Church's orthodox faction.

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