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Saint Melania the Elder or Maior (325–410) was an influential figure in the Christian ascetic movement (the Desert Fathers and Mothers) that sprang up in the generation after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. She was a contemporary of, and well known to, Abba Macarius and other Desert Fathers in Egypt, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Paulinus of Nola (her cousin or cousin-in-law; he gives a colorful description of her visit to Nola in his Letters), and Evagrius of Pontus, and she founded a religious community on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Of women in the early history of the church, few records are found. However, there are some facts known about one such leader, "Melania the Elder" (325-410), one of the wealthiest citizens of the empire, who was born in Spain, married at fourteen, and lived with her husband Valerius Maximus Basilius in the suburbs of Rome. She lost her husband and two out of three sons to disease when she was twenty-two. She moved with her remaining son Valerius Publicola or Poplicola to Rome.
She stayed with the monks in the desert near Alexandria, Egypt (today the area is known as Wadi Natroun and the Coptic Christian monks can still be visited there). When persecution broke out after the death of Bishop Athanasius in 373 and many of the monks were exiled to Palestine, Melania went with them to aid them, visiting them in prison by night disguised in a slave's hood. (source: Rosemary Ruether's book cited below)
She left for Rome to see her son, who had married Caeionia Albina, born ca 368, daughter of Caeionius Rufius Albinus and wife, and influenced his daughter, also named Melania. His daughter is known as Saint Melania the Younger or Minor after taking up the religious calling like her grandmother.
She returned to Palestine in 404 and died in 410 in Jerusalem.
Because of her involvement as a pro-Origenist in the controversy over Origen in the 390s, Jerome was especially vitriolic about her, punning on her name and calling her "black in name and black in nature." (He tried to expunge his earlier lavish praises of her from his writings.) She is more highly regarded in the Eastern Orthodox Church. She was a spiritual mentor to Evagrius of Pontus, later author of the Eastern Orthodox Philokalia; she persuaded him to go to Egypt to join the desert ascetics and carried on a correspondence with him while he was there (His letters are published in German under the title "Letters from the Desert"). A good biography of Melania the Elder can be found in Rosemary Ruether's chapter, "Mothers of the Church: Ascetic Women in the Late Patristic Age," in Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin, eds., Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions," New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979,from which most of the details in this paragraph were obtained. Peter Brown's books on Late Antiquity are another good source.
- Medieval Sourcebook, Palladius, The Lausiac History
- Christian Settipani. Continuité gentilice et continuité sénatoriale dans les familles sénatoriales romaines à l'époque impériale, 2000[page needed]