« Oceanus, a Roman of noble birth Olympias, the younger Optatus, bp. of Milevis »

Olympias, the younger

Olympias (2), the younger, widow; a celebrated deaconess of the church of Constantinople, 767the most eminent of the band of holy and high-born women whom Chrysostom gathered round him. Her family was of high rank, but pagan. Her birth is placed by Tillemont c. 368. She was left at an early age the orphan heiress of an immense fortune. Happily for her, her uncle and guardian, Procopius, was a man of high character, an intimate friend and correspondent of Gregory Nazianzen. She was equally fortunate in her instructress, Theodosia, the sister of St. Amphilochius of Iconium, whom Gregory desired the young girl to set before her constantly as a pattern. During Gregory's residence at Constantinople, 379–381, he became much attached to the bright and beautiful maiden, then probably about 12 years old, calling her "his own Olympias," and delighted to be called "father" by her (Greg. Naz. Ep. 57; Cann. 57, pp. 132, 134). Olympias had many suitors. The one selected by her guardian, Procopius, was Nebridius, a young man of high rank and excellent character, whom she married in 384. There can be little doubt that her married life was not a happy one (Pallad. Dial. p. i64). In less than two years she was left a widow without children. She regarded this early bereavement as a declaration of the divine will that she was unsuited to the married life, and ought not again to be married. Theodosius desired her to wed Elpidius, a young Spanish kinsman of his. But Olympias steadily refusing to listen to his suit, Theodosius commissioned the prefect of the city to take the whole of her property into public custody until she attained her 30th year. The imperial orders were carried out with so much harshness that she was even forbidden to go to church for her devotions, or to enjoy the congenial society of the leading ecclesiastics. Theodosius soon restored to her the management of her estates (ib.), and thenceforward she devoted herself and her wealth entirely to the service of religion, practising the greatest austerities. Her whole time and strength were given to ministering to the wants of the poor and sick, and to the hospitable entertainment of bishops and other ecclesiastics visiting the imperial city, who never left her roof without large pecuniary aid, sometimes in the form of a farm or an estate, towards their religious works. Among these Palladius enumerates Amphilochius, Optimus, the two brothers of Basil, Gregory Nyssen (who dedicated to her the Commentary on a portion of the Song of Solomon, which he had written at her request, Greg. Nys. in Cant. t. i. p. 468), Peter, Epiphanius of Cyprus, and the three who subsequently became the unwearied persecutors of Chrysostom and even of Olympias herself, Acacius, Atticus, and Severianus. Her house was the common home of the clergy, and of the monks and virgins who swarmed from all parts of the Christian world to Constantinople. She was the victim of much imposition and her charity was grievously abused. Indeed, her liberality was so unrestricted and inconsiderate that Chrysostom interposed his authority to limit it, saying that her wealth was a trust from God which she was bound to use in the most prudent manner for the relief of the poor and destitute, not in making presents to the opulent and covetous (Soz. H. E. viii. 9). Olympias followed Chrysostom's advice, which brought upon her the ill-will of those who had enjoyed her lavish generosity.

When still under 30 years of age Olympias was appointed by Nectarius deaconess of the church of Constantinople. The courtly old prelate consulted her on ecclesiastical matters, in which he was a novice, and was guided by her advice (Pallad. p. 166; Soz. H. E. viii. 9). She retained this position under Chrysostom and became his chief counsellor and active agent in all works of piety and charity, not only in Constantinople, but in distant provinces of the church.

On the arrival of the Nitrian monks known as the Tall Brothers in Constantinople in 401, Olympias received them hospitably (Pallad. p. 153), careless of the indignant remonstrances of Theophilus (ib. p. 155). On Chrysostom's final expulsion from Constantinople, June 20, 404, Olympias was the chief of the band of courageous women who assembled in the baptistery of the church to take a last farewell of their deeply loved bishop and friend, and to receive his parting benediction and commands (ib. 89, 90). Suspicion of having caused the fire in the cathedral which immediately followed the departure of Chrysostom from its walls fell on Olympias and the other ladies. Olympias was brought before the prefect Optatus, who bluntly demanded why she had set the church on fire. He proposed that on condition of her entering into communion with Arsacius, as some other ladies had done, the investigation should be dropped and she freed from further annoyance. Olympias's proud spirit indignantly rejected the base compromise. A false charge had been publicly brought against her, of which her whole manner of life, which the prefect could not be ignorant of, was a sufficient refutation. The trouble brought on Olympias a severe and almost fatal illness. On recovering her health, in the spring of 405, she left Constantinople. Sozomen seems to speak of a voluntary retirement to Cyzicus. But the language of Chrysostom (Ep. 16, p. 603 C) leads us to believe that she was never allowed to remain long in one spot, her persecutors hoping that thus her spirit might be broken and she induced to yield. This hope being frustrated, Olympias was once again summoned before Optatus, who, on her renewed refusal to communicate with Arsacius, imposed a heavy fine of 200 pounds of gold (Soz. H. E. viii. 24; Pallad. p. 28). This was readily paid, and the news of Olympias's heroic disregard of all worldly losses and sufferings for truth's sake gave intense joy to Chrysostom in his banishment. He wrote congratulating her on her victory, calling upon her to glorify God Who had enabled her to acquire such great spiritual gain (Chrys. Ep. 16, p. 604 A). We know nothing very definitely of the remainder of her life. Our only trustworthy information is from Chrysostom's 17 letters to her, some of which are long religious tracts, the composition of which relieved the tedium of his exile and made him almost forget his miseries. We gather from them that Olympias was subject to frequent and severe attacks of sickness, and that the 768persecution of the party of Arsacius and Atticus was violent and unsparing. The compulsory dispersion of the society of young females of which she was head, and who, like her, had refused to hold communion with the intruding bishops, was a great sorrow to her (ib. 4, p. 577 A) But the dates of these letters are uncertain. The style in which she is addressed in this correspondence is "at once respectful, affectionate, and paternal" (Stephens, S. Chrysostom, p. 383), "but it exhibits a highly-wrought complimentary" tone, full of "bold and lavish praise" of her many signal virtues which is "too widely remote from the mind and taste of our own times to be fairly estimated by us." Chrysostom wrote for her consolation a special treatise on the theme that "No one is really injured except by himself" (t. iii. pp. 530–553); as well as one "to those who were offended by adversities" (ib. pp. 555–612). To both of these he refers in his 4th letter to her (Ep. 4, p. 576 C). The date of her death cannot be determined. She was living when Palladius pub. his Dialogue in 408, but not when the Lausiac History was pub. in 420.

[E.V.]

« Oceanus, a Roman of noble birth Olympias, the younger Optatus, bp. of Milevis »
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