Melania the Elder

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Melania the Elder

Saint Melania the Elder, Latin Sancta Melania Maior (born in Spain, ca. 350[1] - died in Jerusalem before 410[2][1] or in ca. 417[3]) was a Desert Mother who was an influential figure in the Christian ascetic movement (the Desert Fathers and Mothers) that sprang up in the generation after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion of the Roman Empire. She was a contemporary of, and well known to, Abba Macarius and other Desert Fathers in Egypt, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Paulinus of Nola (her cousin or cousin-in-law; he gives a colorful description of her visit to Nola in his Letters), and Evagrius of Pontus, and she founded two religious community on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.[4][1] She stands out for the fact that the convent she founded for herself and the monastery she established in honour of Rufinus of Aquileia belong to the earliest Christian religious communities, and because she promoted the asceticism which she, as a follower of Origen, considered indispensable for salvation.[1]


St. Melania the Elder (325-410), one of the wealthiest citizens of the empire, was born in Spain, and was related to Paulinus of Nola. Her father, Marcellinus, was of consular rank.[5] She married at fourteen, and moved with her husband, Valerius Maximus Basilius Proconsul of Achaea and a Praefectus Urbi, to the suburbs of Rome. Her husband and two out of three sons had died by the time she was twenty-two. She became a Christian in Rome and, leaving her son, Valerius Publicola, with a guardian, set off to Alexandria, accompanied by her servants, to join other Christian ascetics to visit the monks at Nitria.[6]

She stayed with the monks in the desert near Alexandria, Egypt (today the area is known as Wadi Natroun) for about six months. When persecution broke out after the death of Bishop Athanasius in 373 and many of the monks were exiled to Diocaesaraea in Palestine, St. Melania followed and supported them financially. The governor had her briefly imprisoned, but released her when he realized her social status.[5] She built a convent in Jerusalem, and a monastery on the Mount of Olives for the monk and theologian Rufinus of Aquileia.[7]

Because of her involvement as a pro-Origenist in the controversy over Origen in the 390s, Jerome was especially vitriolic about her, punning on her name and calling her "black in name and black in nature." (He tried to expunge his earlier lavish praises of her from his writings.)[8] Palladius of Galatia described her as "a very learned lady who loved the world".[5]

Around the year 400 she left for Rome to see her son, who had married Caeionia Albina, daughter of Caeionius Rufius Albinus. Due to her influence, her granddaughter, known as Melania the Younger would later take up the religious life.[6] She also visited Paulinus of Nola and brought him a relic of the True Cross.[3] Augustine of Hippo wrote Paulinus that his kinswoman was in North Africa when her son, Valerius, died in 406.[2]

When the Visigoths marched on Rome in 410 Melania, her daughter-in law, Albina, and granddaughter Melania and her husband fled to Sicily. From there they went to the family estate at Thagaste in North Africa, where they remained for seven years. They then went to Jerusalem, where Malania died around 417.[3]

She is regarded as a saint. Her feast day is June 8.


She was a spiritual mentor to Evagrius of Pontus, later author of the Eastern Orthodox Philokalia; she persuaded him to go to Egypt to join the desert ascetics and carried on a correspondence with him while he was there.



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