Melania the Elder was born in Spain c. 350 CE into one of the wealthiest families of the Roman Empire. She married at the age fourteen and moved with her husband to a large estate on the outskirts of Rome. By the time she was twenty-two her husband and two of her three sons had died. She converted to Christianity in Rome and left her remaining son with guardian, while she made a pilgrimage to visit the monks in the Nitrian desert, an area in Egypt where the earliest Christian monastic sites were founded. The monasteries at Nitria, Kellia and Scetes attracted thousands of visitors interested in the ascetic life between the 4th and 7th centuries. The area takes its name from lakes in the region that contain deposits of natron, a salt used by the Ancient Egyptians in the embalming of mummies.
Melania stayed with the desert hermits for about six months. When a persecution broke out against them, she followed them into exile in Palestine with Saint Jerome and supported them financially. She was thrown in prison, but released her when her high rank and social status were made known. Because of her involvement in the controversy between Egypt and Rome, Jerome turned against her and she returned to Rome where she persuaded her granddaughter to follow her in the ascetic life.
Melania the Younger was born in Rome c. 383 CE. Melanie wanted to be a desert hermit like her grandmother, but her father insisted she marry her cousin so that he would have heirs. She reluctantly obeyed and after seven years of marriage she gave birth to two children, both of whom died. Convinced this was a sign from God, Melania persuaded her husband to join her in taking a vow of celibacy and seeking the solitary way of life in the desert.
Melania’s father still wanted heirs and opposed the couple's intention of dispersing their properties and giving the money to the poor. He filed a suit against them in court claiming that Melania lacked authority over her assets because she was still a minor. Melania's grandmother came to her defense and convinced her parents to drop the suit. After the death of Melania’s father, Melania the Elder moved in with the young couple and helped them sell Melania's estate and use the money to build monasteries and institutions that supported the poor. At the time Melania the Younger owned largest estate in the entire empire with significant holdings in Sicily, Italy, Britain, Iberia, Africa, Numidia and Maretania. Before the Goths sacked Rome in 410 CE, Melania and her family sold their estate in Rome and moved on to Sicily.
After establishing a monastery in Sicily, Melania went to another of her land holdings near Carthage, where she built a double convent for men and women. Melania was in charge of the women and her husband was in charge of the men. In 417 CE they turned the monastery over to others and went to Jerusalem. Melania spent a year under the direction of Jerome. She sold her estate in Iberia and used the proceeds to found a convent near the Mount of Olives in 418 CE. Her husband died two years later and Melania traveled throughout Egypt visiting monasteries and learning from the desert hermits, deepening her understanding of the ascetic way of life.
In 431 CE Melania went to the Court of Theodosius II in Constantinople where she won many converts and convinced the Empress Eudokia to return with her to Jerusalem. On the way the Empress dislocated her foot, but when Melania touched the foot, the pain went away. This was the first of many healing miracles with which Melania is credited. Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem in 438 CE, Melania died having distributed the largest estate in the empire for the benefit of numerous monasteries, convents, hospitals and hospices.