The Life of Saint Melania, Melania the Patrician Heiress, A.D. 383-403

cover of the ebook version of 'The Life of Saint Melania', by Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del TindaroSummary – A knowledge of the State of Roman Society helps us to understand the life of Saint Melania. The most fortunate woman in the world from a worldly point of view. Divine Providence appoints to her a different destiny. Her exalted descent and birth on the paternal side. Her descent on the maternal side. Her father, Valerius Publicola. She is brought up in great luxury. Her great culture. Her sufferings in her father’s house because of her desire for a life of virginity. She is forced to lead a worldly life and to enter into marriage. Her father uses violence to compel her to marry her relative, Valerius Pinianus. Excellent qualities of Pinianus. Melania adheres to all her resolutions which she had made known to her husband. Fresh sufferings. Her spirit of penance in the midst of luxury. Vain resistance to the designs of Providence. Melania gives birth to two sons, who are quickly snatched from her by death. The great love of Pinianus for Melania. She makes a vow of chastity to obtain her husband’s cure. Death of Publicola, who asks pardon of his daughter and leaves her full liberty to dispose of her property as she wishes. Melania leaves Rome and retires to the suburbs, where she lays aside her splendid robes, and wears the coarsest garments. Family life. Her generous hospitality to pilgrims, widows, and priests. The Emperor Honorius comes to Rome to inaugurate his VI. Consulate. Serena desires to see Melania. Melania’s resolution to dispose of her wealth for the benefit of the poor is opposed by her relatives. She visits Serena to implore trie protection of the Empress. Fresh plots devised by Pompeianus, prefect of Rome, who is killed by the people. Melania’s enormous wealth. Her boundless charity and unequalled generosity. Her apostolate of charity is no obstacle to her recollection of mind and the elevation of her soul to God.

We have sketched, in the preceding pages, a picture of Rome at the decline of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, with its vices and its virtues, its good and its evil tendencies. We have described, more especially, the conditions prevailing in patrician houses at the time that Melania was born, and amidst which she lived for twenty-five years. Unless we keep these matters before our minds, we shall not understand her life. The unwholesome atmosphere which surrounded her from infancy, the distaste with which it must have filled her sensitive spirit, the contrast presented, on the one hand, by the torrent of evil which swept everywhere, engulfing all in its muddy waters, and, on the other, by the steady and vivifying light of Christianity, a light which irresistibly attracted noble hearts, comforting them and filling them with hope: all these things undoubtedly contributed to shape her heroic resolve and led to the wonderful mode of life which she voluntarily embraced. Let us also remember that if among her numerous relatives there were some who were stumbling-blocks to her by their sensual indulgence, there were also not a few who were the mirrors of every virtue. The example of these latter must have been a strong and continuous stimulus urging her to follow in their footsteps. Amongst those allied to her by the ties of kindred were the elder Melania, Marcella, Asella, Avita, Laeta, Pammachius, Paulinus, Aproninus. These were the ornaments of the Christian aristocracy, the most beautiful flowers in the glorious garland which adorned the Roman Church in those far-off days.

Viewing things from the standpoint of the world, we must admit that Melania could not have come into the world under happier auspices. Happiness smiled upon her in her golden cradle. She was the idol of many, the envied of all. What more could the heart of maiden desire? Descended of an ancient lineage which was the pride even of Rome, she could claim in the near past, as well as in ages more remote, kindred with the wealthiest and most powerful houses. Her paternal and maternal relatives, during the whole of that century, had held with great distinction the highest offices in the State. Melania could even boast of imperial blood. An only child, she was the sole heiress of her father and paternal grandfather, and, at their deaths, enormous estates passed into her possession. No other patrician family could compete with hers in wealth. Her palace, royal in its splendour and magnificence, contained such riches that we are told she could not find a purchaser for it, because, in all Rome, there was no one wealthy enough to pay the price demanded.

Nature had endowed Melania with the fairest gifts of mind and body. In addition to rare beauty, she was possessed of a sweet, generous disposition, ever inclined to good. Her intellectual gifts were cultivated to the highest degree, and she profited to the utmost by all the educational advantages which were open to her. Beautiful, rich, and cultured, this most favoured child seemed born for earthly happiness. But Providence had designed for her a far different destiny. Instead of falling a victim to the corrupt tendencies of Roman society, she was to offer herself as a voluntary sacrifice of expiation for the decadent race which unchecked vice was fast hurrying to its doom. The priests, indeed, from the pulpits of Christian temples thundered in vain against the spread of evil, and even pagan writers used their pens against the all-pervading depravity. But the role assumed by Melania was the most efficacious protest that could be offered against the corruption of the ancient city: a protest not indeed made in words, but rather with the eloquence of deeds. The whole course of her life tended to the purest and most perfect fulfilment of the Gospel precepts. She was a living reproach to the prevailing errors and the mad excesses of the Roman patricians. If the extraordinary life of Saint Melania should seem to some to present a difficulty, it is in this fact that we find the solution of the problem.

Melania was born at Rome in the year 383. Her father, the senator Publicola, was of the illustrious house of the Valerii, whilst her mother was of the equally noble Ceionian gens, which, at the beginning of the fourth century, became merged in the families of the Rum* and Cecina. Her paternal grandparents were Valerius Maximus, who was very probably the same who filled the office of prefect in the year 362, and the elder Melania, of the Antonia family, a lady illustrious not only by birth, but also by her sanctity. She was left a widow at twenty-two years of age, with only one child, a son, Publicola, the rest having been taken from her by death. She renounced the world, and retired to Jerusalem, where she devoted herself to a life of prayer and solitude.

Melania’s grandfather on the maternal side was the pagan pontifex Albinus, who, although an idolator, was a distinguished and very learned man. Her grandmother, on the other hand, was a fervent Christian, whose salutary influence had done much to sanctify that pagan household. In point of fact, Melania’s mother, Albina, like her sister Laeta, was brought up in the faith of Christ, and it may well be that Melania, like Laeta’s little daughter, Paula, in her early childhood lisped her prayers to the true God at the old priest’s knee.

Publicola, whom his pious mother had offered to God in infancy, received a Christian education. He was a man of tender conscience, as we gather from his letters to Saint Augustine. He was also of gentle disposition and extremely charitable, but, like all mankind, he had his faults. A young patrician, enormously wealthy, descended from a family who had a glorious history in the annals of Rome, proud of the name which he bore the name of his great ancestor, P. Valerius Publicola, first of the Roman Consuls he was not by any means proof against the spirit of worldliness. There was nothing which he had more at heart than to outshine all his colleagues in the senate in pomp and luxury. Then, the fact of his being the one representative of the principal branch of the gens Valeria, and having no male issue to succeed him, caused him to place all his hopes for the future in his only child, Melania, who was his idol. He was, therefore, careful to give her such an education as would correspond with his cherished ideal. He had no other thought but to form her to be the first and most admired matron in Rome.

Thus it was that from infancy Melania was surrounded by her parents with every refinement of luxury. Nothing could exceed the rich elegance of her attire. At the same time, her mind and understanding were trained in all that culture which, in senatorial families, was the highest mark of distinction. We know for a certainty that she spoke Greek with as much fluency as if it were her native tongue, and she wrote with ease and elegance. She possessed a beautiful voice, and there is some reason to suppose that she was a trained musician.

The care with which this young girl was educated cannot be better described than in the words of her uncle, her mother’s brother, Volusianus. He was several times prefect of Rome, and was sent by Honorius III as envoy to the court of Theodosius II. When he met his beloved niece once more in Constantinople, after twenty years of separation, he could not restrain his tears at seeing her so utterly changed. Turning to his companion, he exclaimed, “Oh! if you could only know with what care beyond all others of our house she was brought up, and how she was precious as the apple of her father’s eye. I can compare her to nothing but a rosebud or a lily about to blossom, gradually unfolding its petals, and growing each day more beautiful.”

But this great solicitude of her parents, which, however affectionate it may have been, was yet purely human, was the cause of great torture to the innocent girl. Melania was not, like so many noble Roman ladies of the time, a convert to Christianity. She had never tasted the bitter fruit of Roman corruption. She came into the world with an instinctive hatred of those infamous customs which were the canker then eating out the heart of primitive Roman society. Her pure angelic soul revolted from the licentious manners which held sway around her. From her earliest years, the love of God completely filled her heart. She herself on her death-bed declared that in early childhood she had consecrated herself wholly to Christ. Providence, which had implanted these desires in the girl’s heart, did not permit them to remain barren. She had, in the example of many of her relatives, a powerful incentive to urge her to a life of chastity and self-renunciation. We are not alluding to her grandmother, the elder Melania. She did not meet her grand-daughter until after the latter had become a mother, nor is it to be supposed that she could influence the child by means of letters unknown to her parents, who had destined her for life in the world. The strongest power for good was probably Marcella, who was truly a guardian angel to many other Christian families of Rome. Seeing that Marcella manifested such an earnest desire that Paula, the daughter of her niece Laeta, should be trained to a life of virginity, we can hardly doubt that she must have shown the same loving anxiety with regard to Melania, who was bound to her by the same tie of kindred. Nor can we doubt that the latter found in her illustrious aunt a powerful protector and consoler. What a daily martyrdom it must have been for this saintly girl to be obliged to lead the life of indulgence and luxurious ease of her father’s house, with all its attendant pomp and splendour. But a worse martyrdom was to come. She had scarcely emerged from childhood when her parents began to discuss the question of her marriage, and to acquaint her with their wishes on that point. The reverence and respect which she felt for her parents precluded any overt resistance, and they, availing themselves of the unbounded authority which custom and the Roman law accorded to parents, did not hesitate to impose their will upon her. The discovery that their daughter’s inclinations were opposed to their designs only caused them to assert their authority with more unbending firmness.

This important question of marriage must have caused much and serious thought to both parents and child. How Melania must have devoted all the energy of her mind to the devising of some method of escape, whilst her parents were studying how they could best secure the continuance of their ancient line. We learn from her biographer that her marriage was carefully planned in family council, in order that the name of the Valerii might go down to posterity and that their enormous possessions might not help to increase the power and splendour of another house. In the brief notice of Melania which we find in the Menology of the Emperor Basil Porphyrogenitus, it is mentioned that, on account of her rare beauty and enormous wealth, she was much sought for in marriage, but that Publicola, desiring to have a relative for his son-in-law, chose one of the sons of his cousin, Valerius Severus, who was prefect of Rome in 382. Valerius Pinianus was the chosen bridegroom, a youth of most attractive qualities, who probably was especially acceptable to his future father-in-law because he dressed well, made a good appearance, and loved the easy life of a Roman patrician. He had also the advantage of being a Christian.

We cannot doubt that Melania, on hearing that her marriage had been arranged, overcame her natural timidity, and, following the example of her friend, Cecilia, plainly told her parents of her wish to consecrate herself to God. But her pious aspirations found no favour with those whose thoughts and interests were entirely worldly. We have no record of the tears and anguish which the shadow of that impending wedding must have cost the saintly child. We know not if anyone interceded on her behalf, nor what steps she took to gain her cause, nor with what earnest pleading she besought her parents to allow her to follow her inclinations. But the resistance of a girl of thirteen could not avail much against the strong will of a father who had determined that through his daughter the family name should be perpetuated. All that the history of her life tells us is that pressure was used to force Melania into a union with Pinianus, and that the marriage was really carried out against her will.

By the merciful arrangement of God, who ordained that all these events should have a very different result from that planned by human fore-sight, Melania found in Pinianus a husband worthy of herself. The marriage was celebrated in 397, when the bride was not yet fourteen, while the bridegroom had just attained his seventeenth year. He was an excellent young fellow, good-hearted, and of irreproachable morals. It says much for him that the saintly Bishop of Nola, Paulinus, loved him as a son. He would have been a perfect Christian but for his excessive desire of outstripping all his compeers in elegance and lavish expenditure. This fault must be attributed to the tendency of the age and to his early training in his parents’ house. He held his wife in the highest esteem, not because of her enormous wealth, but on account of her rare gifts of mind and body, which gained for her a complete ascendancy over him. He recognized in her an angelic soul, and his love for her was so great that he yielded to her wishes in everything rather than cause her the slightest displeasure.

From the first day of her married life, Melania entered upon a new phase of existence one filled with moral torture, with struggles, and with triumphs. Throughout it all we find her ever manifesting such sweetness of disposition, such modesty, and such respect for her husband as excites our highest admiration. At the same time, the constancy and fixity of purpose she displayed could only come from strength supernaturally bestowed. The Gospel of Christ, which she had meditated upon from childhood, had taken so firm a hold of her understanding and will that all else was as nought to her. She found in the Evangelical precepts and counsels her rule of life clearly marked, and nothing could ever induce her to deviate from it. So earnest was she in her love of higher things that she offered to place her enormous fortune at the disposal of her husband, to do as he liked with it, if he would only consent to let her serve our Lord in a life of virginal chastity. Pinianus demurred, but he gave a sort, of promise that some time in the. future he might accede to her request, and with this she had, perforce, to be content.

It had been settled that the young couple, scarcely more than children, should reside with Publicola in his palace on the Coelian Hill. This was the cause of much suffering to Melania. Her fervour daily increased, and with it her horror of a life of luxury and sensual ease. Living constantly under her father’s watchful eye, she was obliged to comply with his wishes, and to sustain the honour of the family by conforming to all the usages of Roman society. She had to dress with all the splendour befitting a matron of exalted rank, and to make her appearance in public surrounded with much state. All this was so repugnant to the young wife that it caused her real torture. She sought by the most ingenious devices to find an outlet for her spirit of penance and expiation. A curious and characteristic incident may serve to illustrate this. “When this most blessed lady,” we are told, “was sent to the bath by her parents, she went indeed as she was bidden, but unwillingly and under compulsion. So when she entered the heated chamber, she only washed her face and wiped it just for appearance sake; then calling to her all her hand-maidens, she gave them money and besought them not to betray her and disclose to her parents the fact that she had not bathed. And thus returning from the bath she made pretense as if she had been bathing. So deeply the longing for God had sunk into her soul.”

Again, she spent whole nights kneeling in prayer in her private oratory, and wore rough hair-cloth beneath her jewelled robes. Being detected in these penitential exercises, she was sternly forbidden them, and was subjected to redoubled surveillance, a crowd of eunuchs and handmaidens being appointed to attend upon her continually. The system of espionage was carried so far that even the privacy of her own apartments was no longer respected. She was forbidden to hold any intercourse with notably pious people, lest they might encourage her in her dislike for the life which she was obliged to lead.

But of what avail are man’s short-sighted plans against the eternal designs of God? All that human wisdom and foresight could do had been done to ensure that the greatest of Rome’s patrician houses should retain its proud pre-eminence and its reputation for lavish display. But it had been decreed in the Eternal Counsels that from this proud house should shine forth a glorious Christian example to serve as a protest against the increasing corruption of the world. At all costs an heir must be assured for the richest patrimony in the capital of the empire. But again Eternal Wisdom had decreed that, notwithstanding all precautions, an heir should be wanting, and that this colossal patrimony should be devoted to feeding the poor and to the assuaging of human misery. Every means was adopted to prevent a young girl from following the vocation to which God had called her. Nevertheless we shall see this girl guided in every step by Divine Providence until she is enabled at last, all human opposition notwithstanding, to carry out that vocation in full accord with her desires.

Melania’s first child proved to be a girl, whom the young mother consecrated to God from her birth. Now that she had given the longed-for heir to her father’s name, Melania fondly hoped that she would be allowed to follow her inclinations. But the moment had not yet come. The advent of the girl-baby was indeed welcomed, but husband and parents hoped that time would yet give them the male heir which they coveted.

Their joy may be imagined when, on the Feast of Saint Laurence, Melania gave birth to a son. The happiness of the house of the Valerit seemed indeed to have reached its climax. Alas! it proved but short-lived. All the proud, sweet hopes which blossomed around the infant’s cradle perished as they bloomed, and sorrow took up its abode in the splendid halls of the palace on the Coelian Hill. The day after his birth, while the baptismal waters yet glistened upon his brow, the heir to so much earthly greatness closed his innocent eyes upon it all for ever. But the biographer’s account of this incident, as it may be read in the Latin version of his story, deserves to be reproduced in full. The passage will give an idea of the many curious illustrations which Saint Melania’s life affords regarding the religious practices of Christian Rome at the end of the fourth century:

“Now it happened that the day was at hand for the festival and solemn commemoration of the martyr Saint Laurence. [This must have been August 10th of the year 399.] In her great ardour of spirit the most blessed damsel was eager to go and keep the whole night with watchings in the basilica of the holy martyr. But this her parents would not permit because she was too weakly and delicate of body to support this labour of watchings. So she fearing her parents, yet desiring to find favour with God, remained there watching in the oratory of her own house, continuing upon her bended knees until morning and beseeching God with many tears that He would grant the desire of her heart. When the day dawned her father sent eunuchs to see how his daughter, their mistress, had rested in her chamber. They, coming, found her still upon her knees in converse with God, praying earnestly unto the Lord. Just then she rose to depart, and as she looked round she saw them standing there; whereupon, in great distress and terror, she began to coax them and to promise them money if only they would not inform her father of what they had seen, but would tell him instead that they had found her sleeping in her room. It was often she spent the night like this, and she always tried to conceal it. On this occasion she rose at an early hour, and along with her holy mother went to the martyr-church of Blessed Laurence, and there, with many tears, prayed to the Lord that there might be given to her a stout heart in the service of God; for she greatly longed for a life of solitude in the Lord. On her return from the martyr-church she was seized with the throes of child-birth, and amid agonies of pain she was brought even to the point of death. A boy was born prematurely, who was baptized that same day. The next day his soul passed to God.”

Melania meanwhile lay at the point of death, and as the climax of grief and disappointment came the death of her little daughter.

In this moment of supreme trial, Pinianus gave convincing proof of his intense love for his bride. On learning that grave fears were entertained for her life, he ran, half frantic with grief, to the tomb of Saint Laurence, and there, with torrents of tears, implored the intercession of the illustrious martyr who is so dear to the Romans, offering the sacrifice of his own life provided that his beloved wife might recover. Melania, hearing of this vow as she lay upon what seemed her death-bed, sent Pinianus word that his prayer would only be granted if he gave his consent to her consecrating the remainder of her life to God. Her husband at once formally and unconditionally gave his promise that in future Melania should be free to serve God according to the dictates of her heart. Henceforth he would be to her only a brother. Melania was overwhelmed with joy; and yet she rejoiced not so much at her speedy and entire restoration to health, and her deliverance from the bondage which was so hateful to her, as at the thought that she had won her husband’s heart to God. The parents, however, embittered as they were by the overthrow of all their earthly hopes, in no wise changed their attitude towards their daughter. They exacted from her the same entire compliance with all the habits and customs of fashionable Roman life. They forbade as sternly as ever the carrying out of her religious intentions, To all her tears and prayers, they answered that they could not bear the storm of abuse and censure which would burst over their heads if they yielded to her wishes.

At last, after seven years of married life, Melania’s constancy was rewarded, and the sufferings inflicted on her by her parents came to an end. Her father was stricken with mortal illness, and knowing that he was about to depart from this life, he implored his daughter’s forgiveness for his hardness. He withdrew all opposition to her holy desires, and, moreover, left her full and uncontrolled possession of all his wealth. But the biographer’s own brief account of these last days is worth quoting: “And as the young husband and wife,” he says, “experienced great pain, seeing that, by their parents’ violence, they could not freely take up the yoke of Christ, they began to meditate withdrawing into solitude, abandoning the city altogether. But whilst they cherished these thoughts in their hearts, as the blessed one related to myself, behold there came to them in their desolation a sudden odour of Paradise, they knew not how, and the darkness of their melancholy was changed into ineffable joy. And returning thanks to God, they took confidence again to meet the assaults of the enemy.

“Afterwards, with the advance of years, her father was seized with his last illness, and being a very good Christian, he sent for the blessed ones, and said: ‘ Children, forgive me, that through extreme foolishness I have fallen into great sin, because, fearing the ridicule of evil tongues, I have grieved you by putting obstacles in the way of your heavenly vocation; but, behold, I am now going to the Lord, and you, for the future, having power over yourselves, gratify your desire according to the Will of God, provided you have stability. Only may the Lord God of all things grant me His mercy.’ These words they heard with great gladness. Then, when he had fallen asleep in the Lord, taking confidence, they at once went forth from the great city of Rome, and in its suburbs, free from solicitude they trained themselves in every virtue, knowing well that it would be impossible for them to render pure worship to God unless they kept themselves aloof from all intermeddling with the things of this world, according to what is written: Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and forget thy people and thy father’s house.” (Psalm 44:11)

Melania was now, at last, free to follow the call of God. After so many years of suffering and hard struggle, she had conquered. Nor was this all. Her mother and her husband, finding it impossible to shake her resolution, resolved to join her in her mode of life. Following in her footsteps, they trod the rugged path of perfection, and, like her, became the models of every virtue. What marvellous power of attraction must this young girl, barely twenty years of age, have possessed to exercise such fascination.

Melania’s first step after the death of Publicola was, as we have just heard, to leave Rome. Social depravity had rendered the atmosphere of the city stifling and unbearable to her. Hence she quitted her splendid palace, and took up her abode in one of her villas in the neighbourhood. She thus marked her reprobation of the sensual life which degenerate Romans were leading within the walls of the city, drawing down upon themselves the Divine vengeance of which the sword of Alaric the Goth and the burning brands of his barbarian hordes were five years afterwards to be the instruments.

Melania’s removal from Rome took place in the spring of the year 404. Her dislike to rich apparel, which had caused her so much suffering during her father’s life, now led her to put away her silken robes, her gold ornaments, and everything that was rich and costly in her attire. She wore a garment of coarse wool of the cheapest kind, and fashioned rather to hide and disfigure her beautiful form. Pinianus could not at first be induced to adopt such a mode of dress, and he clung to rich clothes of Cilician cloth. Melania, however, very soon won him sweetly and lovingly to accept rough woolen garments like her own, and afterwards she herself made his clothes with her own hands, fashioning them rudely from undyed wool. From henceforth the proud Roman nature was conquered.

Now if we consider ever so little the manner in which this young girl spent the first months in her country house, we shall easily perceive what a tremendous change had occurred in the lives of that patrician family. How delightful to Melania must have been those enchanting days of the lovely Roman springtime. She was surrounded by all the beauty of awakening Nature. Each day she saw develop before her a rich growth of leaf and flower. There, in the tranquil silence, broken only by the silver rippling of the fountains, the murmur of the soft zephyr sighing among the leaves, or by the matutinal warblings of the birds, her pure soul must have held unceasing communings with God. In that quiet retreat she led a life of Christian modesty and simplicity which aimed strictly at the perfection of the Gospel.

This home of Christian virtue could not strictly be called a monastery. There was nothing about it to justify the name. It was simply the abode of a large family, all the members of which were actuated with the one desire to live recollected in God, and to attain Christian perfection. We might in truth say that they were as angels who had come on earth to rebuke, by their spotless lives, the wickedness of the neighbouring Babylon. They formed such a family as could be found only within the Christian fold a family every member of which offered perpetual worship with heart and tongue to the Creator of the universe, to the Redeemer of the human race; a family who, by their humble, penitential lives, made reparation to Divine Justice for the pride and sensuality of their countrymen, and who, by the shining example of holiness, preached continually to those around them with an eloquence which does not belong to words.

Although Melania had left her native city, she could not find it in her heart to forsake that crowd of dependents who, like a flock of sheep, were always attached to the great houses in Rome, and were ever ready to do their patrons’ behests. She had studied in the Gospel the sublime doctrine of universal brotherhood, and in all these dependents she recognised the same image of the Creator as was impressed upon herself. Hence it was that she took with her to her villa a great number of poor families and of slaves, whom she henceforth treated as brothers and sisters. There, the cruel lash never left its livid mark upon those unhappy beings or caused their blood to flow when, by mischance, they had forgotten to bring hot water to their mistress at the appointed time. There, the charity of Christ held supreme sway, and Melania lived with her slaves in community of thought and feeling, practising with them every Christian virtue, instructing them with tenderness, labouring for their moral improvement, and sitting beside them at the same table.

She went still further. Forgetting the great lady, she, the first amongst Roman matrons, shared with her slaves the daily round of domestic duties. What horror, what scandal must such behaviour have caused those haughty Roman dames of the Capital who were accustomed to regard those who waited on them as beings of a lower nature. Here undoubtedly we have one of the most precious results of Christianity. If it had been possible, the Christian religion would have abolished slavery as an institution at one stroke, but this could not have been done without shaking society to its foundations. But to Christianity is due the indisputable merit of having abolished slavery in practice.

Although prayer and the chanting of the Psalms formed the principal occupations of each day, still the works of active charity were by no means neglected. The villa of the Valerii must have been of enormous size, for it was large enough to lodge the immense number of people whom Melania took with her from Rome, consisting, as we gather from Palladius, of fifteen eunuchs, fifty young girls who were vowed to virginity, with other free-born women, slaves, and more than thirty families who had followed Pinianus in his new mode of life. But in addition to these regular inmates, Melania’s country house afforded hospitality to the pilgrims who repaired to the Eternal City. Foremost amongst these, bishops and priests were received with every mark of honour and respect. History has chronicled the hospitality accorded in this villa to the numerous deputations of bishops, priests, and monks who came to Rome, in the latter end of 404 and the beginning of 405, to plead the cause of Saint Chrysostom with the Holy Father, Innocent I. Amongst these were Palladius, the author of the Lausiac History, and Cassian, the Deacon of the Church in Constantinople, who is well known for his famous Collations. Palladius speaks with lively expressions of gratitude of the respectful welcome and the generous hospitality with which he was entertained during his sojourn, and of the large sum of money presented to him on his departure in February, 406.

Whilst dispensing such lavish hospitality, and sparing no expense in the entertainment of her guests, Melania practised the most rigid mortification in her own daily life. When she first left Rome, her glowing fervour and love of penance urged her to such severe fasts and other penitential exercises that her delicate frame, fresh from the comparative luxury of her father’s house, was as yet unable to support the strain, and she was obliged to moderate her ardour. Still, she soon made so much progress in her endurance of austerities of this kind, that it seemed incredible in one so delicately nurtured. But Melania’s most striking characteristic was her love for the poor. They were ever foremost in her thoughts, and the chief objects of her care and solicitude. Thus it was that in order to be able to afford them greater assistance in their misery, she determined to dispose of her vast estates. This determination, as we shall see, was the cause of much suffering and trial.

The unexpected withdrawal from Rome of one of the greatest families of fabulous wealth to lead a life of mortification in the seclusion of the country was no doubt a great encouragement to the Church and all pious Christians, who rejoiced at this fresh triumph of virtue. Still, amongst the Roman aristocracy, steeped in sensuality, it awakened surprise and contempt. For the present, however, Melania’s name, coupled with the fame of her heroic action, had spread far and wide, and she was everywhere regarded as a woman worthy of the greatest admiration. It was at this time, that is, towards the end of December, 403, the imperial Court came from Ravenna to Rome, to be present when Honorius, on the first of January, entered upon his seventh consulate. The emperor, we learn, was lodged at the palace of the Caesars, and Claudianus has painted in glowing colours the festivities with which his presence in Rome was celebrated. All the great houses played a conspicuous and imposing part in these splendid demonstrations. Had Publicola been still alive, Melania would have held the first rank amongst the proud Roman dames at all the entertainments. However, there were not wanting those who remembered the state and magnificence which surrounded the beautiful girl but a few short months before, and now, recalling the wondrous change in her life, they told the story in the imperial palace. As a result the Princess Serena, the adopted sister and also the mother-in-law of the Emperor, was much impressed, and in fine she expressed a great desire to meet a lady of such admirable virtue.

Serena was, at that time, all-powerful at Court, and after the death of her daughter, the Empress Maria, she became ” Queen ” (Regina) both in name and in fact. She was a woman of the strongest religious feeling. Being brought into continual touch with all the bishops who came to Rome, since they naturally went to the palace to pay their respects to the Emperor, Serena availed herself of this intercourse to request such of the bishops as were Melania’s guests to induce their hostess to pay her a visit. She also asked the same favour of several of the Roman ladies who were either friends or relatives of the saintly girl. But Melania, in her great humility, feared that a visit to the palace would result in her being obliged to listen to praises of herself, hence several times over, with suitable excuses, she gracefully declined the invitation. Circumstances, however, at last obliged her to seek an audience with the princess of her own accord.

Pinianus had given full consent to Melania’s project of selling her property for the benefit of the poor, and thus fulfilling in its entirety the Evangelical counsel. But no sooner was her resolution made known than the cupidity of many of the senators, and particularly of her relatives, was aroused. They considered that they had now a favourable opportunity to enrich themselves beyond all expectation by taking advantage of the simplicity and inexperience of these young people, whom they frankly regarded as lunatics. Amongst these, Valerius Severus, the brother of Pinianus, distinguished himself for his unprincipled knavery. Whilst he craftily disputed with his brother and sister-in-law their right to dispose of the family estates, he, at the same time, secretly suborned their dependents, who were engaged on the farms in the neighbourhood of Rome. Encouraging them to mutiny by handsome bribes, he urged them to insist that, in the event of the estates being sold, they would accept no one as master but himself. This unexpected opposition caused the young couple great consternation. They feared much that the rebellion of the slaves on their Roman property might extend to the vast estates which they possessed in the various provinces. After long and anxious consideration, they came to the conclusion that they had no resource but to appeal directly to Honorius, meanwhile imploring the good offices of the princess on their behalf.

One of the most attractive episodes in Melania’s. life is her visit to the palace of the Caesars in 404, which was the result of this determination. The young wife, with her husband, appeared before Serena, not indeed in the gorgeous robes and dazzling jewels in which Court etiquette required that a patrician matron should be attired, but in the coarsest of woolen garments, and modestly veiled. But it will be interesting to reproduce the record of this interview as it is set down in the pages of Melania’s biographer.

“By reason,” says this faithful chronicler, “of their dispute with Severus, Melania and her husband sought to procure an interview with the most pious queen, which duly came to pass, the holy bishops interceding in their behalf. And as we imagine that it would be of great profit to narrate a few things of their meeting, which she often recounted to our edification, I shall set them down in all truth for the benefit of those who may by chance come across this my writing. Now it happened that there were many who thought that, according to the custom of the Roman senators’ wives, the Blessed Melania would have to uncover her head at the interview, but she declared her firm resolution not to make any change in her garments, remembering the text, ‘I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on?’ (Canticle 5:3). Neither would she remove the veil from her head, out of regard to the Apostle’s warning that it is unseemly for a woman to pray with her head uncovered. ‘No,’ she said; ‘not even if it were to cause the loss of everything I have will I change my resolution, for it is better that I should not transgress a single iota of the Scriptures and so act against my conscience in the sight of God, not even were I thereby to gain the whole world.’ For in truth her ordinary garments were to her the robe of salvation, and she considered all her life as one continuous act of prayer. For which reason she would not take off her veil, even for a short time, lest she should grieve the Angels, her companions. Having taken with her precious ornaments of no little value and crystal vases as presents to the pious Queen, with other rich trinkets also in the form of rings and silver and silken robes as presents for the faithful eunuchs and majordomos, she arrived at the Palace, and, being announced, they were permitted to enter.

“The pious Queen with great gladness immediately went to meet them at the entrance of the colonnade, and, seeing the blessed one in those poor garments, she was greatly moved, and welcoming her, she made her sit down upon her own throne of gold. Then she called all her attendants of the palace round her, and thus began to speak to them: ‘Come and behold her whom we saw four years ago at the height of worldly grandeur, and whom we now perceive grown old in celestial wisdom. Let us learn from her how reason, guided by the fear of the Lord, is superior to all earthly delights. Behold, one who has trampled under foot her delicate up-bringing, her abounding wealth, the state of her high position, and absolutely everything that is pleasant in this world, fearing neither the frailty of the flesh nor voluntary poverty, nor any other of those things which we hold in horror. She has resolutely curbed human nature itself, and given herself up to daily death, affording proof to all by these works how woman, in the practice of virtue, when resolution is strong, will not allow herself to be surpassed by man in anything.’

“And the servant of God, listening to these things, was not puffed up by the praise, but the more the Queen exalted her, the more she humbled herself, fulfilling the word of the prophet: All the glory of man is as the grass of the field. And the Queen embraced her and kissed her brow as she related to those present how much the two had suffered in their renunciation: of the world, and how they had been grieved by the father’s persecution, and how they were prevented from holding any converse whatever with holy persons, and from hearing the words of salvation regarding the way of God. For the devil drove the aforesaid father to such length that, although an excellent man, he committed great sin under pretext of good. Indeed, it was suspected that he wished to take away their property and give it to other descendants, by these means trying to prevent their heavenly purpose. Then once more the Queen, treating them both as Saints, spoke of the machinations of Severus, the brother of the lord Pinianus, who plotted to get all their wealth, which consisted of great and vast possessions, safely into his own keeping: and how each of their relatives in the senate was scheming to lay hands on their property, wishing to enrich themselves. And she said to them: ‘If it please you, I will indeed make Severus smart for this, so that having acquired wisdom, he shall learn not to defraud those who have consecrated their souls to the Lord.’

“But the saints gave this answer to the Queen: ‘Christ commanded us to suffer injuries without bearing malice; to allow ourselves to be struck on the right cheek and to turn the other, and if any man would force us one mile, to go with him two; and to him who takes away our coat, to let go also our cloak. Wherefore it is not seemly for us to render evil for evil, the more so that those who try to injure us are our relatives. We have confidence in Christ our Lord that by means of His divine assistance, and under favour of your Majesty’s good will, our modest substance will be well expended.’

“When the Queen heard these words, being most favourably impressed by them, she at once signified to her truly pious and Christian brother, the most blessed Emperor Honorius, that he should send orders to every province to the effect that their possessions should be sold at the responsibility of the governors and public administrators, and that likewise they should be responsible for the remittance of the price to the Blessed Melania and her husband. And the Christian Emperor carried this into effect so readily and so promptly that, whilst they were still closeted with the Queen, the commands were given and the executors appointed. The holy pair were filled with wonder at the benignity of these most pious princes, and magnifying God the Saviour for all, they both drew the precious ornaments from the crystal vases and offered them to their Majesties with the words, ‘Take from us these trifles as blessings, in the same way as Christ took the two farthings from the widow.’ And she (the Queen), at these words, with a sweet smile, thus answered them: ‘The Lord knows your charity and compassion. Wherefore, I regard him who takes any of your goods, saving only religious and the poor, as one who steals from the altar, and heaps everlasting fire upon his own head, because he takes the things which are consecrated to God.’ Wherefore the Queen ordered the Master of the Palace and two other illustrious eunuchs to conduct them back to their house, with every respect, swearing by the salvation of her most pious brother that neither they nor anyone else belonging to the palace should be permitted to take from them even so much as a single coin. And this escort, who, as it chanced, were good Christian servants of their good Christian Highnesses, executed with all gladness and alacrity the orders which they had received.”

But even the Emperor’s intervention did not remove all difficulties from their path. The young couple had still much opposition and even danger to encounter. A part of their estates remained still unsold, and their avaricious opponents, taking advantage of the critical state of affairs in Rome at the latter end of 408, owing to the invasion of the Goths, contrived, with the secret co-operation of the senate that the remaining estates should be adjudged confiscate to the Treasury. They were supported in their nefarious design by the prefect, Pompeianus, a fanatical worshipper of idols. The sentence of confiscation had already been drafted, but on the very day when it was to be proclaimed by the prefect, the people, rendered frantic by scarcity of bread, rose in rebellion, seized Pompeianus in his tribunal, and dragging him through the streets, finally put him to death in the centre of the city. Thus did God make manifest His care for the patrimony of the poor. Melania and Pinianus, unconscious of the mischief plotted against them, had quitted Rome shortly before the outbreak of this riot.

The sale of such enormous estates must inevitably have taken several years to complete. If we bear in mind that the smallest of Melania’s properties yielded an income of almost fabulous amount, having regard to the value of money in those times so far removed from our own, we can properly estimate her heroism in trampling earthly goods under foot that she might live up to her supernatural ideals.

It seems certain beyond all doubt that none of the wealthiest Roman patricians enjoyed such a prodigious fortune. It is also worthy of remark that the purchasers of Melania’s property, no matter how rich or powerful, were quite unable to pay the full purchase-money at once. In the majority of cases the owners were obliged to accept promissory notes. Melania’s palace on the Coelian Hill, of which she was anxious from the very first to dispose, was so magnificent and contained such an accumulation of riches that it was impossible to find a purchaser for it. It remained unsold, and in 410, after it had been pillaged by Alaric’s barbarian hordes and partly destroyed by fire, it was given away for nothing. The other properties were scattered everywhere. Vast estates belonging to the most illustrious house of the Valerii were to be found in Italy, Sicily, Africa, Gaul, Spain, Britain, and even in regions still more remote. One of these, near Tagaste, was of such extent and importance as to number amongst the population workers in gold, silver, and bronze; whilst two episcopal sees were included within its circumference, one belonging to the Catholic Church, the other to the Donatists. We are not, therefore, surprised to learn from the Saint’s biographer that some of the rooms in her house were filled with gold, the dazzling light of which, he tells us, resembled that of flames of fire.

The contrast of such wealth with the misery in which the greater number of her fellow-creatures were plunged, rendered its possession an intolerable burden to Melania, whose pure heart was enamoured with evangelical poverty. No words could express the joy which she experienced in the entire renunciation of this wealth. There was no province in the East or the West which did not experience the beneficial effects of her charity. The poor, the sick, pilgrims, those imprisoned for debt, citizens carried off into captivity by pirates, rational human beings groaning under the yoke of slavery, churches, monasteries: all continually received large subsidies from this heroine of the Gospel of Christ, whose hand was never weary of bestowing charity. It was indeed a sublime spectacle to behold her continually stretching forth that beneficent hand in aid of prisoners and penitents, seeking everywhere the sick, the hungry, and everywhere bringing relief to all. During the first two years after she left Rome she restored to freedom no less than eight thousand slaves. Her biographer tells us that to enumerate those whom she liberated in the subsequent years would be quite beyond his power. Be it noted also that this great apostolate of charity, which aimed at healing the gangrenous sores of society, was no hindrance to Melania’s recollection of mind, or to the continual elevation of her soul to God. The sweet persuasiveness of her words penetrated the hearts of others and conquered all opposition. Her example was as a shining light in the murky darkness which enveloped ancient Rome a light which revealed a mode of life hitherto wholly unknown, but not the less sublime in its aim, and worthy of all imitation.