BMCR 2022.10.37

Melania the Younger: from Rome to Jerusalem

, Melania the Younger: from Rome to Jerusalem. Women in antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780190888237 $29.95.

In 1984, Elisabeth A. Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor Emerita of Religion and Professor of History at Duke University[1], devoted a first study to saint Melania the Younger, Melania the Younger. Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Almost forty years later, the grande dame of Early Christian Studies reopens the Melania dossier with a new monograph on the saint, Melania the Younger: from Rome to Jerusalem. She adds a new translation by Dr. Theodore C. Papaloizos[2], more elegant and readable than the one provided in the earlier book and, above all, she changed her perspective: whereas the first study was essentially a translation followed by a substantial historical commentary, the second one is more like a monograph on late ancient Christianity (IVe-Ve c.  PCN), followed by the translation of the Greek Vita S. Melaniae.

The study is remarkable. Clark, an experienced teacher and an accomplished scholar, has drawn a compelling and inspiring picture of early Christianity.

The book begins with acknowledgments, useful maps of Melania’s wanderings, family trees of Melania and her husband Pinian, and an abbreviation list; the study itself is structured in three parts: the first is focused on Melania’s life, the second (§ 2–5) on the historical framework and the last (§6–9) on her travels, all of which are always linked to the historical, political and religious frameworks of the time[3]; in addition, there is a translation of the Greek vita, an extensive bibliography and an index.

The first chapter gives an overview of the saint’s life. Melania the Younger, *c. 385 — † 439, after the death of her infant children, embarked with Pinian, against the will of the families, on a life of asceticism. The immense fortune of the spouses allowed them to support and even found many religious and charitable institutions. Finally, the couple engaged in a long pilgrimage that led them to Jerusalem. The biography is completed by a set of secondary topics:

-the sources on the saint’s life, especially the vita written by the monk Gerontius in Greek and Latin[4];
-insights into the hagiographic genre — the vita, inspired by Greek novels, distances itself from them by its pedagogical and didactic orientation — ;
-the place of women in paleochristianism;
-instruction and literacy during late antiquity — Melania is not only educated but has a perfect command of both Latin and Greek.

Chapter two presents a picture of the Empire, Rome, urbanism in general, and finally the Church at the end of the fourth century.

Urbanism was both a symbol of domination and a powerful instrument of Romanization. Rome had now lost its function as a political center to Milan and Ravenna but remained a megalopolis of one million inhabitants protected by the imposing Aurelian wall, which separated the urbs from the suburbium. It is in these suburbs that Melania and her husband took refuge when they left Rome. The city also continued to offer its citizens services and facilities: forums, public libraries, immense thermal baths, … and above all the annona, a system of free distribution of foodstuff. Rome had a Christian community of about 100,000 believers attending large churches, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme… . The cult of the holy martyrs, especially that of St. Lawrence venerated by Melania and Pinian, had acquired momentum under the impulse of Pope Damasus (366–384). Christianization had modified the social organization of the city, drawing attention to a new social class, the poor, whose support was coordinated by the bishops who gained in prestige and power.

The following chapter deals with the senatorial class, the Roman family and the real estate of aristocratic families. Melania and Pinian came from the class of senators now politically powerless but retaining great prestige and sometimes exercising high administrative functions. Several members of the Valerii family to which Melania and Pinian belonged, held the important office of praefectus urbis Romae. The wealth of the senatorial class was based on land ownership, considerable in the case of the Valerii. Melania lived perhaps with her extended family in a residence, domus, built on the Caelium. She was in conflict with the paterfamilias Valerius Publicola who disapproved of her unbridled asceticism and euergetism threatening the perpetuation of the domus.

Chapter four treats of the tensions between pagans and Christians. This was an unequal fight lost in advance for the pagan party: in 382–384, Symmachus, the prefect of Rome, requested in vain the restoration of the Ara Victoriae. The Christianization of the empire had been launched by the conversion of Constantine in 312: persecutions ceased, and the new religion, appreciated for its charitable practices, gradually ousted paganism which survived in the countryside and among traditionalist aristocratic families. The strong men of the new religion were the bishops of the large cities, who around the seventh century combined spiritual and temporal power. The fundamental opposition, Christianity versus paganism, will soon be overthrown by dissension, schisms, heresies, extreme ascetic practices, inside Christianity.

Chapter five is entirely devoted to asceticism, which required a renunciation of social relations, pleasures, goods, food, sexuality … in order to get closer to God. The practice appeared in Egypt and rapidly spread throughout the empire. It affected all social classes, but especially the upper classes. Some ascetics withdrew to the desert, others, notably aristocratic women practiced their quest at home. The reasons for the success of asceticism were numerous. One is that ascetic women, especially those from the upper classes, were able to escape marriage and motherhood. Asceticism was exposed to much criticism. The Christians thought that certain ascetics approached heresy, aristocratic families viewed with a bad eye an euergetism that squandered their wealth, the slaves of Melania and Pinian, freed or sold, revolted fearing to be abandoned or left with less lenient masters.

The chapters 6–9 deal with Melania’s and Pinian’s wanderings through the Roman Empire. Around 405, after the death of Melania’s father, the couple left Rome increasingly threatened by the barbarians; in 410, Alaric’s Visigoths took and plundered the city. The couple, accompanied by Albina, Melania’s mother, withdrew to their property in Campania and began selling, with difficulty, their immense possessions in Rome, Italy and Spain. Around 408, they left Italy to go to their properties in Sicily. Many rich Romans owned huge villae in Sicily. The impressive vestiges of the famous Villa Romana del Casale have preserved the magnificence of these palaces[5]. It was perhaps in Sicily that Melania and Pinian entered in contact with the Pelagians, in particular the anonymous author of De Divitiis who advocated radical asceticism.

Exotic animal transportation, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy
Exotic animal transportation, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy

Towards 410, Melania, Pinian and Albina sailed to North Africa and withdrew to their estate near Thagaste. The Provincia Africa proconsularis had long been a prosperous territory whose agriculture ensured wheat supply to Rome. Religious life illustrated by the works of famous theologians, like Tertullian, Cyprian, Saint Augustine, a familiar of Melania and Pinian …, was vibrant and violent clashes between Christian orthodoxy, and paganism, and especially heterodoxy were frequent. In Thagaste, the couple founded large monasteries for men and women and made generous donations to the church. Melania radicalized her ascetic practices and immersed herself in the study of the Holy Scripture.

In 417, the African properties sold, the three left for Jerusalem. In 429, the Vandals took control of North Africa, heralding the fall of Rome and the Western Empire in 476. With the journey to Jerusalem began Melania’s pilgrimages to sacred places, the Egyptian desert, to meet the hermits, the Holy Land, to find the traces of the historical Jesus. The fashion for pilgrimages to the East was popularized by St Helena’s journey to the Holy Land around 326–328. Before settling in Jerusalem, the travelers visited Alexandria; they came back in 418, this time with the express intention of meeting the desert fathers. In Jerusalem, Melania, Pinian and Albina first resided in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Melania later retired to a cell on the Mount of Olives. It was in Jerusalem that Melania began collecting relics, the bones of the protomartyr St. Stephen and the forty martyrs of Sebaste … deposited in the oratory of the monastery for women she had built. Albina died in 431, Pinian in 431 or 432; Melania then lived in the Aposteleion, an annex to the women’s monastery. In 436, she received a letter from her uncle Volusianus staying in Constantinople, the new Rome, to attend the marriage of Princess Licionia Eudoxia to the Western Emperor Valentinian III (*419—†455). Melania left Jerusalem on the spot with the firm intention of converting the former prefect of Rome. In Constantinople, she stayed in the palace of Lausus, chamberlain of Theodosius II, who had commissioned the famous Historia Lausiaca. She participated in Christological debate taking anti-Nestorian positions. With the help of Proclus, bishop of Constantinople, she succeeded, in baptizing her uncle, who died shortly afterwards, in January 437. At the end of February, she traveled back to Jerusalem, arriving in time for the Easter celebrations. In December 439, she celebrated the nativity of Christ in Bethlehem and died soon after in Jerusalem.

Professor Clark perfectly mastered her subject and there is little to criticize in this well-written and solidly structured study. In my opinion, iconography has sometimes been neglected. The subject — Late Rome, Sicily, Constantinople, Jerusalem … really demands a set of well-chosen pictures. I fear that the publisher, OUP, is more to blame than the author and I hope that a second edition will correct the unfortunate oversight. The bibliography sometimes omits important non-English studies, as Maraval 2011 or Demandt 2018. I would also have preferred to get a complete dossier on the life of Melania the Younger. I miss the original Greek and Latin version of Gerontius and the translation of the Latin one. This is all the more regrettable since we have acceptable scholarly editions of both vitae and an English translation of the Latin version; all these texts could have been added to the monography[6].

That said, positive aspects largely dominate. The method is perfectly adapted to the subject in that Clark constantly links hagiography to history, economy and culture of late antiquity:

“Although Melania’s Vita is a hagiography, designed to exalt the sanctity of its subject, I hope to have shown that it offers a rich resource for historians not only of religion but also of Roman society, culture, economy, and late-ancient power politics.”  [198]

This is a fundamental heuristic position of Clark, a theologian and philosopher by training who later turned to history, specifically to history of ideas:

“What is the present state and probable future of historical theology in the field of patristics? The question can be succinctly answered: less theology, more history.[7]

The results are also appreciable, since beside a commentary on the Life of Melania the Younger, the study provides an excellent overview of the social, religious and cultural history of late antiquity.

Finally, the form cleverly blends solid philology and exciting storytelling. Thanks to her mastery of the subject and her pedagogical skills, Clark has succeeded in making eminently complex topics, sometimes distant from our current concerns, understandable and interesting. Clark’s book is a scientific page-turner. I hope that this accessible study will serve as an introductory text for courses on paleochristianism, thus preserving the memory of Professor Elizabeth Clark who sadly passed away on September 7, 2021[8].



Berschin, Walter. 20202. Von der Passio Perpetuae zu den Dialogi Gregors des Großen. Biographie und Epochenstil im lateinischen Mittelalter, Band 1. Stuttgart : Anton Hiersemann Verlag.

Charania, Ayra. 2021. “‘Her generosity was legendary’: Duke professor Elizabeth Clark remembered for strong advocacy, revolutionary change”. The Chronicle 22 X 2021.

Chin, Catherine Michael. 2021. “Elizabeth A. Clark : September 27, 1938 — September 7, 2021.” Studies in Late Antiquity 5 no. 4, 478–480.

Clark, A. Elizabeth. 1986. Ascetic piety and women’s faith: Essays on late ancient Christianity. Lewiston, N.Y. : Mellen.

Ead. 2003. “La Vie Latine de Sainte Melanie : Édition critique (review)”. Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (January), 575‑576.

Ead. 2004. History, Theory, Text : Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

Ead. 2010. “From Patristics to Early Christian Studies”. In : Harvey/Hunter. 2010, 7 – 41.

Demandt, Alexander. 20183. Geschichte der Spätantike: das Römische Reich von Diocletian bis Justinian 284 -565 n. Chr. . München : Verlag C. H. Beck.

Gerontius. 1962. Vie de sainte Mélanie. Édité par Denys Gorce. Paris : Les Éditions du Cerf.

Gerontius, and Elizabeth A. Clark. 1984. The life of Melania, the Younger: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Studies in Women and Religion 14. New York : E. Mellen Press.

Gerontius. 2002. La vie latine de sainte Mélanie. Édité par Patrick Laurence. Jerusalem : Franciscan Printing Press.

Maraval, Pierre. 2011. Lieux saints et pèlerinages d’Orient : histoire et géographie des origines à la conquête arabe. Vol. 9. Paris : Cerf ; CNRS Éditions.

Martin, B. Dale and Patricia Cox Miller, eds. . 2005. The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography. Duke University Press : Durham.

Papaloizos, C. Theodore, and Gerontius. 1977. Gerontius’s Sanctae Melanie Junioris Vita (The life of Saint Melania the Younger): a translation with introduction, notes, and commentary. Ph. D. Catholic University of America.

Shoemaker, J. Stephen. 2021. “Editor’s Note: Elizabeth A. Clark (1938–2021)”. Journal of Early Christian Studies 29, no. 4.

Steger, Brigitte, et Jean-Pierre Darmon. 2017. Piazza Armerina: La villa romaine du Casale en Sicile. Paris : Édition A&J Picard.

White, Carolinne. 2010. Lives of Roman Christian Women. London : Penguin.

Wilson, Roger. 2020. “Cr. Steger 2017”. BMCR, nᵒ 17 (March).



[1]  Elisabeth A. Clark Center for Late Ancient Studies.

[2] (Papaloizos 1977).

[3] Cf. [15] and (Martin/Miller 2005).

[4]  BHG 1241-1242, (Gerontius/Gorce 1962) ; BHL 5885, (Gerontius/Laurence 2002), rec. (Clark 2003), (Berschin 20202, 156-159).

[5] (Steger 2017; cr. Wilson 2020).

[6] (Gerontius 1962 ; 2002; White 2010, 179-230).

[7] (Clark 1986, 3) I underscore; cf. (Clark 2004, 158-161 ; Ead. 2010, 7-41).

[8] Obituaries: (Elizabeth A. Clark ; Young, North American Patristics Society;  Charania 2021 ; Shoemaker, 2021 ; Chin 2021).