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mode of vegetation might have peopled Paradise with a
race of innocent and immortal beings. The use of map
riage was permitted only to his fallen posterity, as a neces-
sary expedient to continue the human species, and as a
restraint, however imperfect, on the natural licentiousness


of desire. The hesitation of the orthodox casuists on this
interesting subject betrays the perplexity of men unwilling
to approve an institution which they were compelled to

If it did not inspire sadness to discover that human
minds, of intelligence above the average, can be capable
of such fatuity, it would provoke one to laughter to read
the Fathers as they gravely asseverate that they do not
consider marriage as being necessarily sinful — providing
that it were not committed more than once. Jerome, who
was the great advocate of monasticism in the early Church,
says that virginity is to marriage what the fruit is to the
tree, or what the grain is to the chaff. Seizing upon
Christ's parable of the sower, he asserts that the thirty-
fold increase refers to marriage; the sixty-fold applies to
widows, for the greater the difficulty in resisting the allure-
ments of pleasure once enjoyed the greater the reward;
but by the hundred-fold the crown of virginity is expressed.
Was there no one to suggest to him that in the natural
expectation of increase his order is reversed? As a sample
of the turgid rodomontade with which those Fathers of the
Church induced the women of their time to sacrifice, for
the glory of God, the duties of wifehood and motherhood
which the Creator ordained that they should perform, we
will quote from Cyprian at length: "We come now to
contemplate the lily blossom; and see, O thou, the virgin
of Christ! see how much fairer is this thy flower, than
any other! look at the special grace which, beyond any
other flower of the earth, it hath obtained! Nay, listen to
the commendation bestowed upon it by the Spouse him-
self, when he saith — Consider the lilies of the field (the
virgins) how they grow, and yet 1 say unto you that Solo-
mon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!
Read therefore, O virgin, and read again, and often read


again, this word of thy Spouse, and understand how, in
the commendation of this flower, he commends thy glory.
In the glory of Solomon you are to understand that, what-
ever is rich and great on earth, and the choicest of all, is
prefigured; and in the bloom of thy lily, which is thy like-
ness, and that of all the virgins of Christ, the glory of
virginity is intended. . . . Virginity hath indeed a
twofold prerogative, a virtue which, in others, is single
only; for while all the Church is virgin in soul, having
neither spot, nor wrinkle; being incorrupt in faith, hope,
and charity, on which account it is called a virgin, and
merits the praise of the Spouse, what praise, think you,
are our lilies worthy of, who possess this purity in body,
as well as in soul, which the Church at large has in soul
only! In truth, the virgins of Christ are, as we may say,
the fat and marrow of the Church, and by right of an
excellence altogether peculiar to themselves, they enjoy
His most familiar embraces."

The effect of this senseless exaltation of virginity, and
of persuading great numbers of maidens to forswear the
pleasures and the duties of matrimony, in the conviction
that they thereby rendered themselves far more pleasing
to God than were their mothers and married sisters, was
unquestionably injurious to the morals of the time. The
result was as bad for the "lilies" themselves as it was
for the women who elected to abide on the natural, but
despised, plane for which the Almighty intended them.
Too many of the former gave scandalous proof that their
ambition for virginal sanctity was unequalled by their
steadfastness in the contest. Nature has a way, when
insulted, of making reprisals. The writings of the Fathers
are full of lamentations and exhortations which indicate
that the youthful female saints of their time found it one
thing to aspire to the glory of virginity and quite another


to live consistently with its character. All were not satis-
fied with the indemnification provided by the joys of con-
scious holiness for the loss of those pleasures which they
denied themselves by their vows. Very early there
sprang up among the celibates of the Church a fashion of
choosing spiritual companions, the choice usually being
made from among the opposite sex. The canons of many
of the first councils dealt with the agapetce who professed
to be the spiritual sisters of the unmarried clergy. Even
in the days of persecution this had become prevalent;
Cyprian wrote severe strictures on the custom, but did
not succeed in bringing about its abolishment. Jerome
speaks of it in unrestrained terms: "How comes this
plague of the agapetce to be in the Church? Whence come
these unwedded wives, these novel concubines, these
prostitutes, so I will call them, though they cling to a
single partner.? One house holds them, and one chamber.
They often occupy the same couch, and yet they call us
suspicious if we fancy anything amiss. A brother leaves
his virgin sister; a virgin, slighting her unmarried brother,
seeks a brother in a stranger. Both alike profess to have
but one object, to find spiritual consolation from those not
their kin. . . . It is on such that Solomon in the Book
of Proverbs heaps his scorn. ' Can a man take fire in his
bosom,'" he says, '"and his clothes not be burned.?'"
These insurrections of nature continued until Church celi-
bacy became a fully organized system and the women de-
voted to perpetual virginity were shut away in convents;
even then, if all reports be true, the enemy, though cast
down, was not effectually destroyed.

The effect of this laudation of virginity upon the women
who chose to remain in the world was equally detri-
mental to good morals. The natural result of the system
might have been easily imagined, if the good sense of the


teachers of that age had not been dulled by the concep-
tion of the human body as being hopelessly evil. Out of
a large family of girls, one, "Priscilla," or "Agnes," has
been induced, by the fervid representations of some apostle
of celibacy as to the glorious sanctity of virginity, to de-
vote herself to this " higher life." What will be the effect
upon the "Marthas" and the "Elizabeths" who decide
to remain in the world? Believing, as they also do, in the
greater sanctity of virginity, they will necessarily consider
themselves less pure and chaste than they would if such a
comparison with their seraphic sister had not been thrust
upon them. A line of demarcation is drawn between the
once united band. On the one side stand chastity and
angelic purity personified in the professed virgin; on the
other side is marriage, not forbidden, but merely tolerated;
a little lower down, according to the Nicene scale, is con-
cubinage, and lower still, but on the same side, is prosti-
tution. The "Marthas " and the "Elizabeths " were given
the alternative of either following the example of "Agnes "
— against which their good sense rebelled — or of consider-
ing themselves only at the top of a class at the bottom of
which were the notoriously impure. No greater injustice
than this was ever done to womanhood.

In a society where the chaste love of a wife for- her
husband and the privileges and duties of a mother were
regarded as placing a woman upon an inferior moral
grade, it is not surprising to find that a large proportion
accepted the rating of their time and lived down to it.
Largely in consequence, then, of the substitution of a
fantastic holiness for unromantic goodness, though the
Church grew strong in the world, morals remained much
what they had been under paganism. True, there were
many of those professed virgins whose names are recorded
in history, and who, as the result of what seems to have


been a prodigious contest, maintained their character and
withal achieved a noble and deserved reputation; but it
is at least open to question whether or not the influence
of these shining marks of sanctity was not offset by the
otherwise pernicious effect of the system.

Before we proceed to the individual mention of some of
these early saints, we will glance at the secular women
who were their contemporaries.

Constantine had thoroughly orientalized the imperial
court, and all the officials and aristocracy of the empire
followed the fashion according to the degree of their abil-
ity. Gorgeous apparel, trains of eunuchs, barbaric splen-
dor, and ostentatious titles replaced the white toga and the
stately, though severe, grandeur of the Roman citizen of
former times. The Roman spirit was dying out in sloth
and effeminacy; it was fitting that a new capital of the
Empire should be erected in the East, for the new times
were strange and unrelated to the manes of the Roman
ancestors. Nobility of thought had likewise perished, at
least from the secular life of the Empire. As Duruy says:
"Courts have sometimes been schools of elegance in
manners, refinement in mind, and politeness in speech.
Literature and ait have received from them valuable en-
couragement. But at the epoch of which we are writing,
poetry and art — those social forces by which the soul is
elevated — no longer exist. With an Asiatic government
and a religion soon to become intolerant, great subjects of
thought are prohibited. There is no discussion of political
affairs, for the emperor gives absolute commands; no his-
tory, for the truth is concealed or condemned to a com-
plaisance which is odious to honest men; no eloquence,
for nowhere can it be employed except in disgraceful adu-
lation of the sovereign. . . . Only the Church is to
have mighty orators, — but in the interests of heaven, not


earth; and so, in this empire now exposed to countless
perils, the little mental activity now existing in civil society
will occupy itself only with court intrigues, the subtleties
of philosophers aspiring to be theologians, or the petty
literature of some belated and feeble admirers of the early

The three sons of Constantine, among whom, by will,
he Qivided the Empire, were adherents of the Christian
religion; but Constantius, who soon became the sole ruler,
though a weighty factor in the evolution of the Church's
doctrine, was no very edifying example of the moral effect
of her teaching. His jealousy and implacability almost
exterminated the race of Constantine, numerously repre-
sented as that sturdy emperor had left himself. The
closest ties of relationship did not avail to save the lives
of those who might stand in the way of the new ruler's
ambitions. Constantina, the sister of Constantius, had
been married to Hannibalianus, his cousin, but in spite of
this double relationship the latter cruelly perished.

Constantina was a woman of whom it would be inter-
esting to know more than the few references which history
affords. She must have been a person of able as well as
ambitious character, for her father had invested her with
the title of Augusta. After his death, she deemed that the
purple ought not to clothe a woman with mere powerless
dignity, but that the right was hers to take a hand in the
affairs of the Empire. In this view of her privileges she
lacked the support of her three brothers: the situation was
sufficiently disturbed by their own inharmonious claims.
But after the death of Constans and Constantine, the way
was cleared for Constantina to push her own interests.
This she did by creating a puppet emperor out of Vetranio,
a good-natured and obliging old general who was com-
manding in Ulyricum. Constantina herself bound the


diadem upon his brow; but during an interview with Con-
stantius, a menacing shout of the soldiers induced Vetranio
hastily to divest himself of the purple and thankfully ac-
cept his life with an honorable exile. Constantina had
the diplomacy to make her peace with her brother as soon
as she saw the f ruitlessness of this scheme. She probably
had deserted Vetranio before he had ceased trying to reign
for her. Later on, she was married to Gallus, who, with
his brother Julian, alone of the princes of the house of
Constantine had survived the suspicion and the cruelty
of Constantius. Gallus was appointed Caesar of the East-
ern provinces, and thus Constantina's ambitions were ap-
peased. But as is frequently the case with those who are
ambitious of political power, though intensely eager for the
purple, she was entirely unworthy of the position. The
historians of the time give this woman an exceedingly bad
name, and doubtless the people of Antioch, where she and
her husband established their court, agreed that it was
abundantly deserved. She is described, not as a woman,
but as one of the infernal furies, tormented with an insa-
tiate thirst for human blood. That, of course, we may
consider an extravagance of rhetoric on the part of Am-
mianus; but there is an ugly story of a pearl necklace which
Constantina received from the mother-in-law of one Clema-
tius of Alexandria. The ornament procured the death of
Clematius, who had incurred the malice of his relative by
disappointing her of his love. The rapacity and cruelty
of Constantina, joined with the mad profligacy of her hus-
band, ended by ruining them both. The displeasure of
Constantius was aroused, and that was usually only ap-
peased by the death of its object. He sent urgent messages
inviting Gallus to visit him in the West, for the purpose
of consulting on the affairs of the Empire; and it was
especially urged that the Caesar should bring his wife.


"that beloved sister whom the emperor ardently desired
to see." Constantina " knew perfectly of what her brother
was capable"; she was not deceived by his protestations
of affection for herself. But while she might be able to
pacify him on the ground of her sex and their relationship,
it was certain death for Gallus to put himself in the power
of the tyrant of the East. Constantina set out alone to
make her plea to her brother, but died on the way.
There was nothing that her husband could do but obey
the "invitation" of the emperor; but he was not allowed
to see the face of Constantius. On the road, he was
seized, and, after a mock trial, in which no sort of defence
could have saved him, was beheaded.

Julian, the brother of Gallus, alone of the progeny of
Constantine remained. His life was constantly in danger
from the suspicions of Constantius; but it was preserved,
and thereby paganism was destined to have one more
trial, or rather one more dying struggle. That Julian
escaped the dangers to which he was exposed was prob-
ably owing in a large measure to the friendship of Euse-
bia, the wife of the emperor. He afterward repaid this
kindness by an eloquent, and we may be assured sincere,
eulogium upon her character.

Eusebia was a native of Thessalonica, in Macedonia,
Her family was of consular rank. She became the second
wife of Constantius in the year 352, and seems to have
enjoyed in matters political a considerable influence with
her husband, which she always employed meritoriously.
Her beauty is frequently spoken of by the ancient authors
as being remarkable; but what is still more worthy of
notice is the fact that, in an age when there were so
many divided interests, the historians of all parties agree
in the praise of her moral character. True, there is a
hint somewhere that her kindness to Julian sprung from


a tenderer motive than friendship; but all else that is
known of her, as well as the frozen nature of Julian him-
self, sufficiently refutes such a suggestion.

In the time of Eusebia the Church was torn by the
contentions between the orthodox and the followers of
Arius. Constantius, as the imperial arbiter of eternal
truth as well as of the temporal destinies of his subjects,
sought to obtain peace by banishing the principal dis-
putants, as he did Athanasius and Liberius of Rome.
Eusebia's chief connection with these events, though her-
self an Arian, seems to have been influenced by her chari-
table inclination. When Liberius was going away into exile
she sent him five hundred pieces of gold with which to
defray his expenses. This however, rather churlishly as
it would seem, he sent back with the message that she
"take it to the emperor, for he may want it to pay his

In this connection there is an incident recorded by
Theodoret which indicates that the clergy, especially the
bishops, of those times found resolute champions among
the ladies, as they have in all ages. Two years after the
exile of Liberius, Constantius went to Rome. " The ladies
of rank urged their husbands to petition the emperor for
the restoration of the shepherd to his flock: they added,
that if this were not granted, they would desert them, and
go themselves after their great pastor. Their husbands
replied, that they were afraid of incurring the resentment
of the emperor, ' If we v/ere to ask him,' they continued,
'being men, he would deem it an unpardonable offence;
but if you were yourselves to present the petition, he
would at any rate spare you, and would either accede to
your request, or else dismiss you without injury.* These
noble ladies adopted this suggestion, and presented them-
selves before the emperor in all their customary splendor


of array, that so the sovereign, judging their rank from
their dress, might count them worthy of being treated
with courtesy and kindness. Thus entering the presence,
they besought him to take pity on the condition of so large
a city, deprived of its shepherd, and made an easy prey
to the attacks of wolves. The emperor replied, that the
flock possessed a shepherd capable of tending it, and that
no other was needed in the city. For after the banish-
ment of the great Liberius, one of his deacons, named
Felix, had been appointed bishop. He preserved invio-
late the doctrines set forth in the Nicene confession ' of
faith, yet he held communion with those who had cor-
rupted that faith. For this reason none of the citizens of
Rome would enter the house of prayer while he was in it.
The ladies mentioned these facts to the emperor. Their
persuasions were successful; and he commanded that the
great Liberius should be recalled from exile, and that
the two bishops should conjointly rule the Church. This
latter arrangement did not suit the people, so Felix retired
to another city."

Liberius generally refused to acknowledge Arians as
Christians; whether or not he had the boldness to refuse
that name to the empress is not told us. It is certain that
Eusebia's kindness to Julian was worthy of a Christian,
even though it succored one who was to be the arch-
enemy of the faith. She befriended and protected him when
he was summoned to a court where it was to the interest
of every courtier to report every action and every chance
word to Constantius. She may have been desirous of
making a friend of the heir-apparent, being herself child-
less; but it is easy to believe that "the good and beautiful
Eusebia," as Julian calls her, was both sincere and disin-
terested in her kindness. She brought it about that the
emperor gave his permission to the young man, who had


hitherto been a prisoner, to retire to a beautiful estate
which he had inherited from his mother.
■ The fortunes of Julian were in good hands at the court.
Constantius was greatly influenced by the eunuchs who
surrounded him, and who were the bureaucratic officers of
those times; but Eusebia was stronger than all others
combined. When the emperor complained that the un-
aided rule was too much for him, she suggested that he
raise his young kinsman to the Cssarian dignity. Her
advice was followed; and the imperial purple, and with it
the hand of Helena, the sister of Constantius, were con-
ferred upon Julian. As a wedding gift, Eusebia, with the
most refined consideration possible, presented him with a
valuable collection of the best Greek authors. It is likely
that he felt more appreciative gratitude for the books than
he did either for the official dignity or the highborn bride.
As C^sar, it was intended by Constantius that he should
be no more than a figure; and for his wife it is doubtful if
he ever felt any real affection. As historians have re-
marked, in his numerous writings Julian sometimes men-
tions the Helen of Homer, but never once his own Helen.
She must have been considerably older than her husband,
and was probably a Christian, as were her brothers.
That there was no offspring of this marriage was imputed
to the arts of Eusebia, who, according to Ammianus Mar-
cellinus, exercised a close and unnatural supervision over
the household of her protege. Inasmuch as there appears
no motive for a wish on the part of the empress that
Helena should be childless, we are inclined, as Gibbon
says, "to hope that the public malignity imputed the
effects of accident as the guilt of Eusebia." The em-
press died in the year 360, immediately before Julian
broke with Constantius and began to rule on his own


Julian led a forlorn hope in the cause of the old gods.
This at le.'ist may be said for him: there was nothing in
the treatment which he received from those who professed
to be Christians to hold his faith to their religion. One
only had befriended him, and she was regarded as a
heretic. The historians of the time endeavor to picture
Julian as leading a crusade of persecution against Chris-
tianity. Theodoret speaks of his "mad fury "; but inas-
much as he is constrained to recount stories which rather
illustrate the triviality of the mind of the historian than
the cruelty of the persecutor, it is evident that the glory
of martyrdom was not won to any considerable extent
under Julian. We are inclined to think that one of these
narratives exemplifies the latter's patience more than any
other of his characteristics. There was a woman named
Publia, who had become the prioress of a company of vir-
gins. One day these women, seeing the emperor coming,
struck up the psalm which recites how "the idols of the
nations are of silver and gold," and, after describing their
insensibility, adds "like them be they that make them
and all those that put their trust in them." Julian re-
quired them at least to hold their peace while he was
passing by, Publia did not, however, pay the least atten-
tion to his orders, except to urge her choir to put still
greater energy into their chaunt; and when again the
emperor passed by she told them to strike up: " Let God
arise and let his enemies be scattered." At last Julian
commanded one of his escort to box her ears. "She how-
ever took outrage for honor, and kept up her attack upon
him with her spiritual songs, just as the composer and
teacher of the song laid the wicked spirit that vexed Saul."

Before we leave this brief reference to the secular ma-
trons of the early Church in order to turn our atten-
tion to the sacred virgins, it is necessary to summon the


testimony of Jerome, This learned and eloquent Father is
the great authority on the women of his time. Only those
vowed to celibacy enjoyed his highest approbation; yet
he had many friends among the married ladies of Rome,
Jerome was a satirist. His pen was caustic when it dealt
with persons or matters that did not meet his approval.
He was the Juvenal of his age, but he wrote in prose, and
not for the sake of satire, but as the champion of ortho-
doxy and virginity. Many of his writings are in the form
of letters to ladies who were his friends. The one to
Eustochium, the daughter of Paula, is the most striking of
all. In this epistle Jerome sets forth the motives which
should actuate those who adopt the monastic life. It also
gives us a vivid picture of Roman society as it then was —
the luxury, profligacy, and hypocrisy prevalent among
both men and women. This letter was written at Rome
in the year 384. " I write to you thus, Lady Eustochium
(I am bound to call my Lord's bride ' lady '), to show you
by my opening words that my object is not to praise the
virginity which you follow, and of which you have proved
the value, or yet to recount the drawbacks of marriage,
such as pregnancy, the crying of infants, the torture caused
by a rival, the cares of household management, and all

Online LibraryAlfred BrittainWomen of early Christianity → online text (page 9 of 28)