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
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.

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

10 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!

  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?

      1. Ok thanks!

        Also, I could really use some prayer right now. I’m super excited to be going to a Christian school next year, but I just received a very strict dress code. Of course, all of the rules they set only apply to women. No shorts, no halters, can only wear one pieces to events where a swimsuit is needed, etc.

        I find this incredibly offensive. I’m sick of being told that my body is inherently sinful. I DESPISE the fact that women are told that they are responsible for men’s lustful thoughts if they’re not completely covered up. Because really, how is that any different than telling a women who gets raped that it’s her fault since she was “asking for it”? I’m disgusted. I’m very, very hurt.

        I hate modesty culture. I think it’s very disturbing. I almost believe that modesty culture only advanced my eating disorder when I was anorexic. I think I internalized the message, “the female body is dangerous and sinful, so therefore, the less of a body I have, the less of a sin I am”.

        I shouldn’t feel guilty for existing. I shouldn’t feel guilty for having a body.

        I’ve been crying for over an hour because of this stupid dress code I’ve been sent. Im tired of indirectly being called a whore all the time. God forbid my shoulders be seen by a man. It’s taken me years to understand that just because I wear shorts or my shoulders are shown, that doesn’t mean I am a slut/whore. So this stupid list has triggered a lot of bad memories from my past.

        So I would really appreciate your prayers. I’m sorry to pour my heart and soul out to you like this because I know that’s uncomfortable to hear something so personal from a stranger (and it’s also uncomfortable to share it), but I just feel so alone and CRAZY right now for crying over this dumb list and I don’t know what else to do.

        1. Hi Megan,
          If the boys don’t have a dress code, that would be very unfair. But are you sure the girl’s dress code is because the school’s leaders think the female body is inherently sinful?

          It’s just part of society for institutions to have dress codes. Every workplace, for example, has a dress code, and some of these are very specific and strict. There’s a dress code where I work that includes no shorts, no halter tops and one-piece swimsuits, etc. But I don’t think for one minute that the administration thinks the female body is dangerous.

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