Thursday, November 23, 2017

Olympias, Elder and Younger

Olympias the Elder was the daughter of a wealthy Roman aristocrat who was one of the most important Roman Senators of Constantinople.  The date of her birth is unknown, but she and her brother were raised by maid servants while her father was serving in the senate in Constantinople.  Shortly before his death, her father arranged for the engagement of Olympias to the emperor’s son Constans. When Constans succeeded to the throne in 337 CE, he remained devoted to Olympias and took her under his protection, but allowed her to remain a virgin in accord with her wishes. 

When Constans died, Constantius II succeeded to the throne and gave Olympias as a bride to Arsaces II, the King of Armenia.  Olympias and Constantius II were married, but had no children.  When Constantius II died, Julian the Apostate succeeded to the throne, and Arsaces II took a second wife, named Pharantzem. Pharantzem envied Olympias because she was so loved by Arsaces II and the Armenian people.  Pharantzem arranged for the Holy Sacrament that was brought to her to be poisoned and Olympias died in 361 CE .

Olympias the Younger was born in Antioch c. 368 CE to a Christian noblewoman named Alexandra and the brother of Olympias the Elder.  Her parents died when she was very young and she inherited a large fortune.  She was placed under the Christian guardianship of Gregory and Theodosia of Nazianzus. At the age of sixteen she was married to the Praetorian Prefect of Constantinople who died leaving her a childless widow two years later.  Olympias believed this to be a sign that God wanted something different from her than married life. 

John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople ordained her to the diaconate.  The Emperor appointed a prefect to administer her property until she was twenty-one years of age.  After the administration of her fortune was restored to her, Olympias built a large convent next to the Hagia Sophia.  Three of her relatives and a large number of women entered as soon as the convent was opened.  Olympias employed her entire estate building hospitals and orphanages in Greece, Asia Minor and Syria. Chrysostum worried that unscrupulous priests were swindling her out of her inheritance.  When he urged her to be cautious in the administration of her property, the outraged elite clergy plotted to get rid of of both of them and seize her assets for themselves. 

Meanwhile, Olympias befriended a hermit monk who persuaded her to support the large band of pilgrims who had followed him into the Nitrian desert, while Chrysostom tried to bring about a reform of the Church and reconcile Constantinople with Rome and Alexandria.  In his homilies Chrysostom pointed to Olympias as a model Christian piety and an example for the people to follow.  His eloquent preaching earned him great popularity, but the clergy elite were offended by his insinuations and plotted to destroy him.   

In 404 CE, the Patriarch of Alexandria called for a synod at which Chrysostom was charged with heresy and forced into exile in the Caucasus.  The commoners revolted in protests and burned the cathedral to the ground.  Olympias wrote letters calling for the decision of the synod to be overturned.  The clergy elite accused her of setting the fire that destroyed the cathedral.  She strenuously denied the accusations, but she was arrested and the Patriarch confiscated her properties and ordered her exile to Nicomedia.   

Chrysostom wrote a series of letters to Olympias encouraging her and reminding her that the Church had been redeemed from such trials in the past.  Her letters to him were full of concern for his well-being and worry over his safety.   Chrysostom wrote, “Do not be anxious on my behalf, nor rack yourself with solicitude, on account of the severity of the winter, and the weakness of my digestion, and the incursions of the Isaurians. For the winter is only what it is wont to be in Armenia; nothing more need be said about it; and it does not very seriously injure me.”

During the first winter both of them suffered and nearly died from a recurrent intestinal disorder.  Medications sent to them from Constantinople seemed only to exacerbate their condition.  Olympias fell into despair and Chrysostum tried to buoy her spirits, but her condition did not improve.  She began to long for death as a release from suffering, and Chrysostum feared that he if he died first she would give in to despair.  Knowing she needed his support helped him to survive the harshest conditions and the beatings of robbers sent to attack him. 

When the intestinal disorder returned Chrysostom was confined to his bed for months unable to digest food.  Perpetual vomiting, headache, loss of appetite, and constant sleeplessness began to wear him down.  Olympias recovered briefly, but then the sickness returned and she began to suffer from hallucinations.  Each of them was more concerned about the other than for themselves.  Olympias continued writing letters to the clergy and nobility of Constantinople, trying to use her influence to overturn the synod's charge of heresy against Chrysostom.   

Feeling that her advocacy on his behalf is what led to her punishment, he begged her to stop writing.  Despite efforts of the elite to undermine the influence of Chrysostom and Olympias on the common people, their popularity only increased during exile.  Afraid they might be rescued, the Patriarch ordered that Chrysostom be moved to a more remote location. Chrysostom died in 407 CE while being transported to Pityus, in modern Abkhazia where his tomb is a shrine for pilgrims.  As he had feared, Olympias succumbed to her illness and died after she heard of his death.   

Chrysostom and Olympias were venerated as saints from the moment of their deaths.  Centuries later their relics were brought back to Constantinople and are enshrined in the Church of the Holy Apostles.