For a while now, I’ve been intrigued by Olympias and her relationship with John Chrysostom, an important early church father. As today, the 25th of July, is her feast day, I thought I’d share some information on this formidable woman.
Olympias (c. 361–408) was born into a noble family, and her family socialised with wealthy and educated people of the highest class. Her parents died when she was still a child. And later, after being married for only two years, her husband also died. At twenty years of age, Olympias was a widow with an immense fortune and free from family obligations. The emperor Theodosius strongly urged her to remarry, but she refused and rejected all marriage proposals. Influenced by the story of Thecla, she instead renounced her aristocratic lifestyle and devoted herself to the church.
At the age of thirty, she was ordained as a deaconess by Nectarius, the archbishop of Constantinople. Nectarius was succeeded by John Chrysostom in 397, and Olympias became the new archbishop’s loyal friend and supporter.
Both Chrysostom and Olympias genuinely cared for the poor. John was a benevolent pastor of his flock including its poorer members. And, unlike other bishops, he lived modestly. He did not hold lavish dinners, for example. Furthermore, he openly spoke against the abusive behaviour of the powerful towards those with less power.
The emperor had placed an administrator over Olympias’s fortune but, in 391, she gained control of it. She was generous with her wealth, giving to those who were in need. She also built hospitals and an orphanage, and she became a deaconess-abbess of a monastery named Olympiades which housed more than two hundred and fifty deaconesses and virgins. Her convent was located adjacent to Chrysostom’s church.
John’s concern for the poor and his modest lifestyle brought him into conflict with the emperor and empress. And after criticising the empress, who he compared with Herodias, he was exiled in 404 until his death in 407. Chrysostom persuaded Olympias to remain in the city of Constantinople, but she refused to accept Chrsysotom’s replacements, Arsacius and then Atticus. Olympias was a powerful and prominent woman in the church at Constantinople, so her slight of these bishops caused problems for them and for her.
Furthermore, while in exile in Cappodocia, Chrysostom wrote letters back to Constantinople, making his presence felt even in his absence. He was quite the celebrity. Chrysostom and Olympias also wrote to each other, supporting each other through this difficult time. The contents of seventeen letters that Chrysostom wrote to Olympias still survive today. His letters reveal a deep affection for his friend. They also reveal that Olympias was a strong and determined woman who acted on her principles.
While in her late 40s, and after being harassed by accusations, threats and various troubles, Olympias was exiled by Atticus in 407. She died in exile on the 25th of July 408, a few months after Chrysostom’s death. Sadly, Atticus put a stop to all the charitable schemes Olympias had put in place, so her good works ended with her death. What Atticus couldn’t do, however, was stop people talking about Olympias and she came to be venerated as a saint.
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This statue of Olympias is one of 140 statues of saints that surround St Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
John Chrysostom and Olympias: Soul Friends
Church historian Sozomen (c. 400–c. 450) mentions Olympias in chapters 9, 24 and 27 in book 8, here.
Some of Chrysostom’s letters to Olympias can be read here.
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