Olympias (c. 365–408)

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Olympias (c. 365–408)

Deaconess in Constantinople. Born around 365; died in 408 in Nicomedia; buried at a monastery on the shore of the Bosporus; in the early 7th century, remains removed from the original site to the convent she had founded; married Nebridius (prefect of Constantinople), in 386 (died 386).

Of aristocratic birth, Olympias was born in Constantinople and was briefly married (386) to Nebridius, the prefect of the city before he died. In order to maintain their political prominence, Olympias' family thereafter betrothed her to a relative of Theodosius I, the reigning emperor of the Roman Empire. Olympias refused the offer of a second husband, a slight which infuriated Theodosius, who as a consequence confiscated for a time her extensive estates in Thrace, Galacia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia, as well as her property in Constantinople itself. Political clout matters, however, and after some delicate negotiating, Olympias' connections won back her properties in 391. Thereafter, preferring a religious life to a worldly one, Olympias used her wealth to underwrite a host of Christian causes. One of her closest friends and advisors was John Chrysostom, then the bishop of Constantinople. John was especially dedicated to issues of social justice and the plight of the poor, and as a result Olympias spent a fortune trying to address these concerns. John, despite his charitable work, was also a controversial political player (at a time when religion was politics), with the result that Olympias often found herself an unpopular figure at court.

Court life, however, did not dominate Olympias' interests: after her wealth had been restored, she was ordained a deaconess and founded a convent (situated near Hagia Sophia) to promote the religiosity of others. Nevertheless, politics always overshadowed her world. When John Chrysostom was exiled from Constantinople for opposing the imperial will, Olympias refused to recognize the religious authority of his appointed successor. As a result of her second, public confrontation with the emperor, she was exiled from the capital to Nicomedia. There, Olympias received letters of consolation, most notably from John. She was never recalled to her native city. She died in 408 in Nicomedia and was buried at a monastery on the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus.

Olympias was eventually officially recognized as a saint and her convent in Constantinople continued to flourish until it was physically destroyed during the famous "Nika" riots of 532. Justinian, however, restored in 537 what Olympias had originally endowed. In the early 7th century, when a Persian invasion threatened the Byzantine control of all of Anatolia, Olympias' remains were removed from the original site of their burial to the convent she had founded.

William S. S. , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California