Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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 the 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. For example, he did not hold expensive and lavish dinners for the elite. 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.[1] Chrysostom persuaded Olympias to remain in the city of Constantinople, but she refused to accept Chrysostom’s replacements, Arsacius and then Atticus. Olympias was a powerful and prominent woman in the church at Constantinople, so her slight of these archbishops 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 and his letters caused unrest. 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 profoundly deep affection for his friend and that she suffered with depression. 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.[2] Acting out of spite, 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.

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Olympias’s feast day on July 25th; the Roman Catholic Church celebrates her feast day on December 17th.


Footnotes

[1] Chrysostom was exiled from Constantinople (Istanbul) to the town of Cucusus (Göksun) in Cappadocia during 404-407. Due to his ongoing influence on the church at Constantinople, he was then exiled even further away to Pitiunt (Pityus) in modern Georgia. He never reached this destination. He wasn’t well and died en route on September 14, 407.

[2] Olympias was exiled at Nicomedia (Izmit), 91 km east/south-east of Constantinople. She died there on July 25 408, after a long illness including depression.

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This statue of Olympias is one of 140 statues of saints that surround St Peter’s Square in Vatican City.


Further Reading

John Chrysostom and Olympias: Soul Friends
Sozomen (c. 400–c. 450) mentions Olympias in chapters 9, 24 and 27 in book 8 of his church history, here.
Some of Chrysostom’s letters to Olympias can be read here.

Related Articles

Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic
Female Martyrs and their Ministry in the Early Church
Nino of Georgia: A Woman Evangelist “Equal to the Apostles
Catherine of Siena: 3 Lessons from her Life and Ministry
Wealthy Women in the Roman World and in the Church

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

18 thoughts on “Olympias of Constantinople: Deaconess and Chrysostom’s Friend

  1. “… and she came to be venerated as a saint” even to this day…
    Thank you, Marg, Very Much for this bit of history!

  2. Thanks Marg! I admit that I don’t know a lot about early church mothers. Fascinating read!

  3. Thank you, Marg, for this beautiful spirit-filled essay on deaconess Olympias! You said it so well, and may the number of deaconesses increase in the image of Olympias!

      1. Hi Marg
        I have read that Saint John Chrysostom personally ordained several women as deacons with his own hands. Can you confirm that this is known as true based on a historically reliable source? I mean is that clearly expressed in a written biography or a similar resource on him or Saint Olympias one that we know has historical merit or is it more like the apocryphal legends about Mary Magdalene?
        Dana

        1. Hi Dana, I don’t recall reading a source that states Chrysostom ordained female deacons. Considering he was a bishop, however, it is reasonable to assume he did this many times. This was one role of bishops. For example, the historian Sozomen records that Nectarius, the archbishop of Constantinople immediately before Chrysostom, had ordained Olympias as deaconess (Ecclesiastical History 8.9).

          As mentioned in the article above, the deaconess house adjacent to his cathedral in Constantinople housed hundreds of female deacons.

          Furthermore, Chrysostom clearly approved of female deacons: “For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church” (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, Homily XI).

          Are you working on a project or essay?

          1. To be honest women deacons and women in ministry have been a passion of mine for several years. While I was studying for my graduate degree over the last two years (a Masters of Science in Leadership emphasizing Homeland Security and Emergency Management) I was also studying women deacons and women in ministry with a special interest in deacons and Romans 16. I have written several times about this on Quora thus far. I am currently 23 years old. Before any of this entered my life, my parish church asked for volunteers, and I volunteered for ministry at my parish church. And now God has entrusted me with co-teaching catechism for high school students. This is certainly a big responsibility for me because we are helping them become disciples of Christ (I frequently think about this ministry as very much like Paul’s own non ordained ministry in Acts 9:19-25 and Galatians 1:11-17).
            Moreover, my hope is that I can balance having a normal secular life and profession with my ministry and my study of theology and related subjects along with my writing.

            Ultimately, I aspire to write a commentary on the New Testament. The main reason that I asked is that I was trying to decide if the ordination of the female deacon in the 300s AD was an Apostolic Tradition based on John Chrysostom’s testimony. It seems incomprehensible to me that he would not understand or know about Canon 19 of the First Council of Nicaea if Canon 19 does in fact specify that deaconesses are lay women who are not ordained. In the meantime, I have written about female deacons in history to Bishop Robert Barron and half a dozen other people that I thought might listen. The only response I have received so far came from Father Chris Alar. I have an unrelated ministry of helping people and evangelizing online as well.

            My life changed radically forever when I was a teenager because I had a personal encounter with Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since then, I have been striving to be a believing, holy Catholic disciple of Christ in the mist of the Catholic Church. Going back to female deacons whenever women’s ordination or ministry came up in conversation, I was the one who would explain to my mother and father, and others that as it was, I agreed with the Church’s contemporary teaching about how women don’t need to be ordained or anything like that. (My mom periodically struggled with why women couldn’t be ordained as deacons and my dad openly suggested that women should be deacons at one point). Every time this subject came up, I would defend the Church’s contemporary teaching.

            So, between the age of 19 and 20 I believed everything that my Roman Catholic Deacon told me on the matter when I went to be confirmed around the age of 20. I never had a problem with women not being ordained or not being official deacons because I believed the Church when she said that women didn’t need to take on these ministries. Well, God the Father really had a big surprise for me!

            Somehow, one day I ended up watching one of N. T. Wright’s videos on YouTube for some unrelated reason (it was uncommon for me to watch non-Catholic religious content at that time), I just so happened to watch one of his many videos where he talked about Romans chapter 16. He was preaching about how Phoebe was a female Deacon who carried Paul’s letter to Rome, and how clear it is in the Bible that women were ministers who “did a lot more than just make the tea” to say the least I was surprised by this claim, I thought this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But then I looked up Romans chapter 16 in my NABRA bible and was even more shocked to learn that it said Phoebe was a “minister”. Needless to say, I didn’t know women could be official ministers because I had never heard of Phoebe or her ministry before.

            I started studying it and soon my heart was beginning to be enkindled with passion for this ministry and for applying Romans 16 today. Still, I didn’t really know if it is possible for women to be deacons or what that might mean in the real world. The religious authorities told me it was not possible.

            So, then a key incident happened to me regarding this matter. It happened when my mom, my dad and I all took a vacation to visit relatives in Southern California because I had two weeks off from studying for my undergraduate degree. And during that vacation my dad and I would go to Mass together in the morning and some people stayed a few minutes after to socialize. The celebrating priest came out and spoke to me after that Mass and asked me in a very serious tone whether I felt called to become a sister and he waited for me to respond, and I said that it had crossed my mind, but I would have to wait and see what the Lord wanted. As my dad and I were leaving the parish church he remarked that I should consider becoming a deacon later on. I asked him if he was joking about that, and he said he was serious. Within myself I felt like rolling my eyes and arguing at this suggestion because I still thought women could not be deacons. This was in 2018 around the same time when a lot of Catholics were beginning to seriously consider the possibility of female deacons because Pope Francis had appointed a Commission on the subject in 2016.
            So, later on that week my dad had an appointment with a parish to obtain a personal document. In the Catholic Church there are many documents. There is one for each Sacrament that a person receives once in a lifetime Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, and Ordination. These documents and/or some others are required to prove that a Sacrament took place and that you are in good standing and so on. So, we went to the morning Mass together and then entered the parish hall to run the errand (which took about 45 minutes). It was a rather spacious building with several different areas including a library. I went into the library and this issue came up again! What are the odds? As soon as I entered the library, I heard two men debating about whether women would soon be deacons. I listened intently with interest as they discussed this matter, I experienced a deep sense of excitement when I realized that this is a real possibility for the Church and perhaps even for myself personally.

          2. Hi Dana, thanks so much for sharing your story! 🙂 I loved reading it! And it helps me to understand where your questions are coming from.

            I’ve also been interested in diakonoi for a long time, especially in the early years of the church. Diakonos, along with the related verb and abstract noun, was the first Greek word I looked into. That was many years ago.

            My master’s thesis was on “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40-120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea.” Ten chapters of it, and the bibliography, are here: https://margmowczko.com/bibliography-for-deacon-articles/

            Church history is full of female deacons. It shouldn’t be controversial.

            I’m excited for you. <3

          3. Hi Marg
            Can you please take a few moments to translate Cannon 19 of the First Council of Nicaea into English. I have struggled to understand those last two sentences, but I cannot look up all the keywords including σχηματι online. As a result, I can’t make heads or tails of whether all deaconesses are said to be non-ordained at that time or only some of them. Anyway, I know that this is easy for you. It looks like the first word in the last sentence is damaged although I don’t know if that makes any difference in the translation.
            Περι των Παυλιανισαντων ’ειτα προσφυγοντων τηι καθολικηι ’ακκλησιαι ‘ορος ’εκτεθηται ’αναβαπτιζεσθαι ’αυτους ’εξαπαντος. ’Ει δε τινες εν τωι παρεληλυθοτι χρονωι εν τωι κληρωι ’εξησασθησαν, ’ει μεν ’αμεμπτοι και ’ανεπιληπτοι φανειεν ’αναβαπτισθεντες χειροτονεισθωσαν ‘υπο του της καθωλικης ’εκκλησιας ’επισκοπου. Ειδε ‘η ανακρισις ’επιτηδειους ’αυτους ‘ευρισκοι καθαιρεισθαι ’αυτους προσηκει. ‘ωσαυτωσ δε και περι των διακονισσων, και ‘ολως περι των ’εν τωι κληρωι κανονι ’εξεταζομενων, ‘ο ’αυτος τυποϛ παραφυλαχθησεται. ’Εμ(ν)ησθημεν δε διακονισσων των ’εν τωι σχηματι ’εξετασθεισων, ’επει μηδε χειροθεσιαν τινα ’εχουσιν, ‘ωστε ’εξαπαντος ’εν τοις λαικοις ’αυτας ’εξεταζεσθαι.
            Dana

          4. Hi Dana, σχηματι is dative singular of σχῆμα (schema) in the phrase ’εν τωι σχηματι.

            Here’s my literal translation of this phrase: ’Εμ(ν)ησθημεν δε διακονισσων των ’εν τωι σχηματι ’εξετασθεισων
            And we remember deaconesses, those who ‘have been enrolled’ (’εξετασθεισων) in the role or “habit” (’εν τωι σχηματι).

            [’εξησασθησαν and ’εξεταζομενων in previous sentences in canon 19, and ’εξεταζεσθαι near the end of canon 19, may all refer to being enrolled. ’εξεταζω (the lexical form) means to search out, examine, or test, but it can also mean to be numbered or enrolled.]

            Here’s what I think the last bit of canon 19 means.
            “We [also] acknowledge the deaconesses who have been enrolled in the [same] role” but who haven’t had hands laid on them like the other deaconesses, etc.

            What I think this is about is that Paulianist deaconesses who have been ordained with the laying on of hands can also be ordained by a Roman Catholic bishop if worthy. But Paulianist deaconesses who have been enrolled without the laying on of hands may be still recognised in some way, but are considered laity.

            My translation does not take into account technical language and religious jargon. For example, σχῆμα may be used technically for “habit” (like a nun’s “habit.”)

            I’ve done my best to translate and make sense of sentences about the deaconesses, but I could well be misunderstanding something. In other words, I could be wrong.

          5. Thank you so much Marg. I know in my heart that what deaconesses did is more important than their rank or status, but I still want to know whether they received the sacrament of Order. I think a sure answer to that question will probably have to wait until researchers find out for sure what the female presbyters mentioned in the Roman Catholic lectionary before 11th century AD were. I agree that the explanation for Canon 19 that describes some of the heretical deaconesses being re ordained and others not being re ordained is the only way that the ordination that St. John Chrysostom was familiar with could be an Apostolic Tradition.
            The strange thing about the women’s ordination issue is that the answer to the whole issue is in the Old (Old Testament Deborah the chief judge of Israel and the women serving at the tent meeting) and New Testaments (New Testament Romans chapter 16). Yet we still have to reference the Church History and living memory of the Church in order to understand what these Scriptures truly mean in real life. To me this is part of an approach to tradition in general and specifically Apostolic Tradition that the Roman Catholic Church should appeal to more often. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of sacred Tradition makes it appear too much like the oral Torah in Judaism. When I write my Bible commentary, I think I will explain Apostolic or sacred Tradition as something that is referred to in sacred Scripture itself. Including mentioning the reference to the authority of oral tradition in Saint Paul’s letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and the use of traditional material from Judaism in the Bible within the letter of Jude.
            Dana

          6. I wish you well with that, Dana. 🙂
            I just saw this today. It may be of interest to you. On its 25 anniversary, two scholars write about John Paul II’s letter, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”
            https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/09/16/womens-ordination-sexism-241394

      2. I tried looking up the ancient biography that others have cited as “Life of Olympias” but couldn’t find any results.

        1. I haven’t seen or read “The Life of Olympias” for myself. Elizabeth Ann Clark has an English translation in her book, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends: Essays and Translations.

          Double-check this, though, before buying or borrowing the book.

          Also, I am not an expert on either Chrysostom or Olympias.

  4. Why did he not hold lavish dinners?

    1. Because they were very expensive and because such dinners were usually given to show off to other wealthy people and to foster favour with them. Chrysostom preferred to give money to the poor than spend it on expensive, showy dinners for rich people.

  5. Hi Marg. Amazing article as always. Every time I read your posts I wonder why I have never heard of these people or stories before. The sort of information that is found in your writings should be common knowledge for Christians.

    Anyway, I do have another random question. I was wondering, was the quality of life for the average person in Ancient Rome considered better than the quality of life of people living anywhere else in the world at that time? Or do you think life was equally just as hard no matter where you lived?

    1. It’s very hard to compare qualities of life. Many people in Rome and in the Roman Empire had a miserable existence (e.g., slaves who worked in mines). Did people within North and South American tribes have a happier, healthier life? Did the Germanic tribes just north of the Roman Empire or the African nations to the south treat their people better than the Romans? Did people in the east (in Japanese, Chinese and Arabian cities for example) enjoy a rich culture with a technological sophistication equal to or better than at Rome? Who knows?

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