The Life of Saint Melania, Roman Society in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries

cover of the ebook version of 'The Life of Saint Melania', by Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del TindaroSummary – The new life of Saint Melania is a valuable historical document. Its special importance. Saint Melania’s life is simply the perfect realisation of the Gospel ideal. The circumstances which influenced that life. The corruption of Roman society and its reformation in the fourth century. Condition of Christianity under Constantine and his successor. The reaction from Paganism. The overthrow of Polytheism and the final triumph of Christianity. Melania’s first impressions. Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries. Insurmountable barriers and distinctions of caste. The ideal of the Christian ruler according to the Gospel. This ideal not yet attained by the Emperors. Absolutism and excessive flattery. Corruption of the Court. Depravity of the people. Wretched condition of the slaves. Patrician customs. Insatiable avarice. Pride and arrogance. Extravagance and ostentation. Unbridled sensuality. Prodigality. Vices and effeminacy of the army. The Roman ideal of happiness. Sad results of this corruption. Behaviour of the true Christians. Christianity flourishes in the midst of Roman licentiousness. Contributory causes. Monastic asceticism. The coming of Saint Athanasius awakens religious fervour in Rome. Devotion to the Roman martyrs. Pilgrimages to the East. Earnest study of the Scriptures. Sojourn of Saint Jerome in Rome, and his instructions to the nobility. Saint Marcella’s school in the Aventine. Systems of Biblical instruction introduced into Rome by Saint Jerome. Results, especially with regard to the writings of the Holy Doctor Great designs of Providence.

The fourth century was undoubtedly one of the most glorious periods in the history of Christian Rome. It was a century of social resurrection. A vigorous Christianity had ingrafted itself upon the old root of the crumbling Roman Empire, and from this germ a new era of civilisation was springing forth. The life of Saint Melania, which has recently for the first time been given to the world in its entirety, contributes a golden page to the ecclesiastical history of those days of the Church’s triumph. The learned De Rossi, who was only acquainted with a portion of it, and that a very incorrect portion, does not hesitate to describe it as a “precious historical document.” May we be permitted also to call it a gem of purest water, flashing from the august brow of Christian Rome with the light of Gospel simplicity.

What lends special importance to the discovery is the light thrown upon the conversion of the greater part of the Roman aristocracy to the Faith during the fourth century. Up to the present, all the knowledge which we possessed of the great figures of those noble Roman senators, matrons, and maidens, who were in those days illustrious examples of Christian virtue and heroism, was derived from the allusions, more or less summary and incomplete, which are to be found here and there in the letters of Saint Jerome. The Saint, in his own vivacious style, has merely clothed these impressionist outlines in rhetorical language.

On the other hand, the life of the illustrious patrician which has recently been brought to light is a complete biography, the only one which has survived. Its elaborate details are recorded by one who lived for more than thirty-five years upon the closest terms of friendship with the Saint. These details are given with such simplicity of style and such clearness of expression as must charm the most unobservant reader.

The life of Saint Melania, extraordinary as it is in all its aspects, presents to us the practical and uncompromising realisation of the Gospel ideal. As we read this life we cannot avoid being filled with that amazement which overwhelms us when we are brought face to face with incomprehensible effects which exceed the limits of their natural and apparent cause. But in order to have a more intimate knowledge of the causes which contributed, each one in its own degree, to produce the phenomenon of this admirable woman, we must not study merely the gifts of nature and of grace which take the first place in the development of man’s life. It is necessary to go further and to take into careful consideration that combination of circumstances and social conditions in which her life was passed, for these constituted, so to speak, the atmosphere she breathed, an atmosphere which, in her case, happily, involved no contamination.

Melania was of illustrious birth, but her highly privileged soul soared beyond any thought of earthly creatures. From her very childhood she manifested such exalted virtue as caused those around her to regard her as an angel in human form. Of this we are assured by her biographer, who tells us that her soul was wholly angelic, and that from her earliest years she was all on fire with the love of Christ. But we do not need this testimony to be assured of her sanctity. Her life, in every stage of its development, affords us ample and convincing proof of this. It is impossible that such sublimity of thought and such masculine heroism of virtue could germinate spontaneously from nature in a girl so young and so delicate. It is necessary, therefore, to glance, however cursorily, at the peculiar circumstances amidst which, by the dispensation of Providence, those holy and generous impulses had birth and were matured by Divine Grace in this noble maiden’s breast, impulses which were to guide her to such an exalted destiny.

Roman society in the fourth century was already in a state of disruption and also of transformation, according to the Aristotelian axiom that the corruption of one state is the generation of another. Whilst, on the one hand, the sun of the old Rome of the Consuls and the Caesars had set, on the other, the new Rome, regenerated by Christianity, was arising in all the radiant beauty of youth. Christianity had silently penetrated into the very marrow of the ancient city, and by a process of infiltration and assimilation had absorbed and renewed it, modifying its belief, its worship, and its customs. This work of slow and persevering transformation made ever-increasing progress in the closing years of the fourth century and the beginning of the next. During the same period, the destruction of the old regime progressed in like proportion, shaken as Rome was internally by the corruption of manners, and externally by the invasion of the barbarians.

Thus it was that after Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, and the promulgation of the edict of Milan, the Christian religion emerged from the throes of persecution, refreshed and reinvigorated. Obeying the law of contradiction, Paganism waned to its setting, not, indeed, because the recently converted Emperor had, with a stroke of his pen, proscribed the ancient worship which was so deeply rooted in the lives and social customs of the people, but rather from the fact that when the profession of Christianity was sanctioned by the law, a knowledge of the Gospel became more widespread, resulting in the inevitable recognition of the divine seal of its origin, its history, and its works. On the other hand, Paganism, whilst still retaining the character of the official religion, no longer satisfied the needs of the soul, and thus left a dreary void in hearts naturally sincere.

But, at the same time, it found supporters in a by no means inconsiderable number of the Roman aristocracy, who held tenaciously to the old traditions, to the honours of the magistracy, and to the rich emoluments of the pagan priesthood. Hence came the reaction, provoked both by the growing influence of Christianity and by the favours so lavishly bestowed upon it by Constantine and his nephews, a reaction which, allied to the neo-platonic philosophy and the study of Greek literature, acquired full force under Julian. In the time of his successors these reactionary measures were sometimes kept in check, and sometimes were actively hostile, while again there were intervals of comparative peace. But the struggle was never wholly given up, nor the hope of ultimate victory abandoned.

The final assault on Christianity took place towards the end of the fourth century. It was made by the aristocratic party, headed by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus and his son-in-law, Nicomachus Flavianus, both remarkable for their culture and their influence amongst their pagan contemporaries. On this occasion, also, their efforts resulted in their utter discomfiture.

In 382, Gratian ordered the altar and statue of Liberty, which was regarded as the official symbol of the dominant Paganism, to be removed from the Senate for good and all. Thus, every link with the State having been broken, Paganism was reduced to the condition of a mere private cult. Henceforward the senators were no longer obliged, on entering the Curia, to burn the last grains of incense to the dethroned polytheism. A series of legislative enactments subsequently suppressed the ancient privileges of idolatry. The vestals, the priests, the temples, were deprived of their rich appanages. The Roman patricians, more or less sincere worshippers of the false gods, found themselves bereft of the hereditary honours and wealth of the priesthood. By degrees, they submitted to the growth of Christianity, which spread rapidly in family circles and throughout the city, and everywhere exercised a powerful and salutary influence by raising the hearts of men to the sublime ideals of the Gospel.

The interdict against idolatrous worship, issued by Theodosius the Great (391), gave the final blow to Paganism. The defeat of the tyrant, Eugenius, which followed, involved with it also the downfall of the patrician party, who had joined the usurper. Thus the Gospel became the only law, civil and political, throughout the Empire.

In the year 403, Saint Jerome wrote: “The Capitol, once dazzling with gold, behold it now sunk in squalor; soot and cobwebs cover every temple in Rome. The city totters to its foundations, and crowds of people pass by the ruined temples, flocking to the tombs of the martyrs.”

Meanwhile, Christianity was singing her song of triumph, and with her faith in Christ the Lord rendered stronger and more resolute than ever by the long-continued struggle, was entering upon a glorious period of her history, when Melania’s clear and vigorous intellect received its first impressions of the Eternal City. The Saint was born in 383, and remained in Rome until the year 408. To such a chosen soul, and one so imbued from infancy with Christian ideas, how distressing must have been the loathesome state of that society in whose bosom she first drew breath! Nor was it only in the inevitable contact with the pagan world that this contrast was thus painfully forced upon her, but in her daily intercourse with the Christian community itself. The methods adopted by various emperors, after Constantine, to attract the Pagans to the new religion, had resulted in sowing the seeds of corruption among the Christians as well. Many of the Pagans became Christians from motives of worldly interest, without any serious call or preparation. Hence, whilst externally professing the Christian faith, they continued to practise the customs, the manners, and the maxims of the Pagans.

The picture of Rome, drawn with marvellous unanimity by contemporary writers, both Christian and pagan, of the fourth and fifth centuries, reveals the city in an incredible state of senile decay and of corruption, yet, at the same time, manifesting an arrogance which knew no restraint. The various classes of society were separated by insurmountable barriers and distinctions of caste imperial, patrician, and plebeian. Never could those in these several states conceive themselves bound by any common tie. We make no mention of the slaves who were relegated to an infinite distance from all human society. How different this from the Christian idea of universal brotherhood!

Saint Augustine, in his De Civitate Dei, set before the wearer of the imperial diadem in those days, the manner in which he should discharge his office as a Christian ruler according to the Gospel ideal. He must govern with justice; amidst all the honour paid to him and the exaggerated and servile adulation by which he was surrounded, he must ever remember that he was only man; he should continually repeat to himself that he held his power from God, and make it subservient to Him in all things; he must fear, love and reverence God, preferring the Kingdom of Heaven to that of earth; he should be slow to punish, and only do so from the exigences of the public welfare, and not from vindictive motives; he should pardon easily, but at the same time, not so as to afford impunity to crime, but rather from the hope of the offender’s amendment; he should alleviate the sufferings of the condemned by clemency and liberal kindness; he should the more strictly curb sensuality that his position would afford him greater opportunities for indulgence; he should govern himself, before all others, so as to subdue all cupidity. All these things he should do, not from vain-glorious motives, but from a desire for eternal happiness. Moreover, he should not neglect to offer to God the sacrifice of humility, of mercy, and of prayer for forgiveness of his own sins. What a sublime conception of the sovereign ruler according to God’s own heart!

Although the supreme power had passed into the hands of Christian princes, yet no radical change had taken place therein. The same pagan absolutism sat upon the throne surrounded by the same adulation as in former days. The emperors of the fourth century, although Christians, did not renounce the pagan dignity of supreme pontiff (summus pontifex), as the prerogative of supreme power. Gratian was the first to refuse the insignia, but even he retained the title. Just as in the days of Domitian, of Caligula, of Diocletian, who arrogated to themselves divine rights, so it was still said of Constantine that he was a visible deity of eternally divine origin, and that his rescripts were celestial and worthy of adoration. It was affirmed of Valentinian that all his published edicts bore the signature of the divinity, in other words his own, whilst it was said of Gratian that he was Deo proximus humanarum rerum dominus, and that he was everywhere present, and of Theodosius that he was a visible deity who had come from Spain, that he shared in the divinity, cum Deo consors, that all people adored him, and that the happiness of mankind depended on him. To him sailors owed fine weather, travellers their safe return, and combatants their success in arms. Symmachus was surprised that Valentinian and Gratian did not receive greater worship than that paid to the gods. Even talent was regarded as a divine gift coming from Caesar:

Non habeo ingenium, Caesar sed jussit habebo
Non tutum renuisse Deo.

Such were the exaggerations and the gross flatteries wherewith that decrepit and effete society fed itself. It was the Church who frequently addressed the Caesars thus deified, reminding them of the limitations of their power before God and in the eyes of the Christians. Hosius, Athanasius, Liberius, Eusebius of Vercelli, Lucifer of Cagliari, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, each and all addressed the rulers in language such as had not been heard for ages, the language of truth which opposed to the will of man the Law of Divine Justice.

What shall we say of the Court? It was composed of an infinite number of officials of every rank and class, who were sunk in all the softness of Asiatic luxury. To an elaborate and detailed ceremonial they had super-added the manners and institutions of the East. It is not, therefore, surprising that the court had become a hot bed of corruption, where flattery, cupidity, calumny and intrigue were often the means of leading even good rulers into excesses of incredible weakness and cruelty. We must bear in mind that, in the opinion of contemporary writers, the greater number of the courtiers openly countenanced every kind of vice, and that their depravity and greed corrupted public morals. On the other hand, the Roman people, as if wearied of their glorious past, had fallen into the languid and ease-loving ways of old age. The efforts of the Church to induce men to live as brothers, to alleviate misery, to wipe out the disgrace of Paganism, and to preach that any reformation of society must be based on humility, charity, and self-denial, were often powerless before the apathy of those to whom she appealed.

Thus it was that Rome fostered the depravity of the people, and directly maintained the insurmountable barrier between the patricians and the plebeians, while, at the same time, the most sublime virtues springing from the doctrine of the Gospel flourished in her midst. Disorderly crowds of slaves and eunuchs, remnants of Oriental barbarism, thronged not only the imperial court, but also the palaces of the wealthy Romans and the streets and market-places of the city. Plebeians of the lowest class, who were mostly homeless outcasts, habitually spent their days in idleness, drink, gambling, begging, and brawling. No right was so much prized as that of attending the public spectacles at the expense of the State or of the patricians, and it was the only right which they would never for any consideration forego. Therefore, wherever the public shows were fewer in number, or there occurred any scarcity of food, riots of an alarming character infallibly ensued. The Roman prefects never suffered so much ill-treatment at the hands of the plebeians as during the fourth and fifth centuries, when it rarely happened that a prefect passed through his term of office without some popular disturbance. At the same time the number of poor in the city was enormous, and they congregated chiefly in the Vatican quarter. Such poverty is a convincing proof that moral license does not conduce to a people’s prosperity.

Meanwhile, the slaves, those outlaws from civil life and natural freedom, multiplied apace. Whether by reason of the great existing misery which drove even freemen into servitude to till the ground and to colonize the vast possessions of the wealthy, or owing to the invasion of the barbarian conquerors, an incredible number of these unhappy beings were owned by every great family as mere goods and chattels. The resources of the vast estates cultivated by these slaves were drained to the last degree to enable the owners to live in luxury. To such an extent was this carried that the slaves would sometimes have died of hunger if the merciful hand of the Church had not come to their aid. Crowds of human beings were daily to be seen in the forum, lying on the mats, naked and benumbed with cold, their tearful, languishing glances imploring the kindness of speedy purchase, which would after all only result in fresh ill-treatment. Life held nothing for them; they must submit to see their daughters torn from them and forced to become the slaves of vice, their very lives even were at the mercy of their powerful masters.

Of the nobles and wealthy patricians it may be said briefly that their time was wholly devoted to pleasure, to the seeking for honours and magisterial dignities, the accumulation of riches, and the excessive increase of their estates, especially in those provinces of which they were appointed governors. The maxims of Epictetus, which accorded with the fashion of the times, were held in supreme estimation. A great number, whilst disbelieving in the divinity of their deities, were addicted to degrading superstitions. They practised magic, studied the occult sciences, and were worshippers of Mithras, a cult then very much in fashion. The popular thirst for amusement was insatiable. Public games, the amphitheatre, the circus, spectacles of every kind, constituted the daily routine, and were the seminaries of every vice. The riotous life of the city, wholly devoted to pleasure, stifled all noble and honourable sentiment.

A cold and calculating selfishness took the place of honourable friendship, and set a premium on intimacy with gamblers and libertines. Slander was unrestrained, and the purest and most innocent could not escape its venomous tongue. Anonymous denunciations were of constant occurrence. A law made by Constantine in 325 testifies to the enormity of the evil, and the impossibility of remedying it. Witchcraft was practised secretly by many. The processes instituted under Valentinus by Maxentius against a number of senators and noble matrons for suspected witchcraft and other capital crimes are famous in history, notwithstanding the cruelty employed. There is also the well-known episode of the noble youth, Lollius, son of the ex-prefect Lampadius, who, whilst still a beardless boy, was exiled, and finally put to death by the executioner’s axe for having merely copied a book on witchcraft.

But the really gangrenous ulcer of this Roman society so nigh to dissolution was the insatiable avarice which pervaded all classes, but which in particular was the ruling passion of those who held the chief offices of the state. The rapacity and venality of high officials obtained such widespread notoriety, and these vices had become so common and familiar at that time as to excite no scruple whatever. Usury and tyranny in dealing with the poor and helpless were carried to the utmost pitch of cruelty. A poor debtor, unable to pay his debts, would be forced to sell his children, if indeed, starvation had not already compelled him to do so. The usurers of that time resorted to such inhuman methods as impounding corpses and preventing their burial. No wonder that such scenes should cause Saint Ambrose, that model bishop and magistrate, to shed bitter tears.

Barbarous cruelties were practised by the Treasury officials. It was almost impossible to satisfy the extortionate demands of the public exchequer. Those who were unable to pay the taxes were thrown into prison, where they and their wives were cruelly scourged, whilst their children were sold into slavery. Wherefore Orosius could indeed with good reason assert that it was by no means unusual to find Romans who preferred freedom and poverty amongst barbarous nations to the anguish of a life tortured by the exactions of Rome. Add to this a certain pretentious arrogance, which wrapped the Roman patrician round from the cradle to the grave. At his birth he received an outlandish string of names belonging to remote antiquity, thus recalling the family glories of the past. This custom was so universal as to be observed even in Christian families. It was carried to such a pitch that more than seven surnames were assumed, preferably in Greek, for as Ausonius tells us, the aping of Greek culture was a favourite affectation of the time. “Nam gloriosum Graeculus nomen putat quod sermo fucat doricus.” The great ambition of men of letters and of magistrates, even those of mediocre ability, was to have statues erected to them as a means of immortalising themselves. This was an honour lavishly bestowed by the rulers, the senate, the cities and municipalities. When they died, prolix and bombastic epitaphs were engraven on their tombs, commemorating such peerless gifts and virtues as would leave the owners of these endowments unequalled amongst men.

Unbridled love of pleasure, luxury, pomp and pride: such were the chief factors in the life of the Roman patrician. To lead an honest, humble life was held to be the mark of either meanness or stupidity. Hence the profusion of palaces and villas rivalling even imperial magnificence. Spacious vestibules adorned with a dazzling wealth of gilding, columns of precious marbles, pavements in mosaic of the most intricate design, gorgeous private basilicas, hippodromes, piazzas, fountains, baths, temples: such was the bewildering sight which met the eyes of the astonished stranger, to whom the great houses and villas of the patricians presented the appearance of miniature towns. The orator Symmachus, who, according to Olimpiodorus, had relatively but a modest income, possessed three magnificent palaces in Rome, as well as fifteen villas to which he could betake himself whenever he needed change.

The furniture too, corresponded with the magnificence of these delightful palaces. Gold, silver, ivory, bronzes, marbles, and rare stones of every kind, statues, candelabra, vases, richly dressed pages, exquisite robes, carpets upon which historical figures were represented: all that the most refined, luxurious taste could conceive was gathered within those walls. No material but the costliest silk, brocade, or purple cloth heavily embroidered in gold, was considered fit for a matron’s wear. But it was when travelling that the senatorial families surpassed themselves in the splendour of their silken garments, and in their gilded chariots and gorgeous equipages with the costliest trappings. Even the men, forgetting the simplicity of ancient times which was satisfied with the woolen toga, and unmindful of the prohibition of Titus, affected silken garments. The fluttering lacernae, the trabea, and the palmatae were all richly embroidered with gold. The presses, filled with robes of every description, allowed the Roman matrons, their owners, to change their dresses daily, and afforded ample means for the indulgence of inordinate vanity. Even young girls wore robes stiff with the richest embroidery, whilst their heads were covered with veils of transparent texture shimmering with gold, or of the finest Egyptian linen with purple and gold lace. Gems of dazzling splendour, and golden ornaments, often representing the value of whole estates, hung from the lacerated ears of matrons and marriageable girls, whilst the same costly gems adorned their heads, their necks, their arms, even their girdles and shoes.

The feminine passion for the acquisition of rich garments and rare jewels amounted almost to a mania. Husbands and fathers beggared themselves rather than cause their wives and daughters one sigh of ungratified desire. Under such circumstances it was not altogether surprising that Ataulfus should offer, with other presents, to Placidia, as a wedding gift, fifty beautiful youths, each carrying two large vases filled with precious stones of priceless value, a small sample of the booty which the Goths carried off from the houses of the Roman patricians.

The Roman matrons, in addition to their passion for dress, were consumed with the desire to appear beautiful. The art of improving nature was their unceasing study. They painted and enamelled their faces, darkened their eyebrows with black antimony, and dyed their hair golden colour. They supplemented their own tresses with false hair, the whole being adorned with gold and flashing jewels. The softest feather beds formed couches too hard for them to recline upon. Every day they spent long hours at the baths, and were anointed with perfumed salves. Their chief occupations consisted in the interchange of visits, during which they mutually slandered and calumniated one another. They appeared in public in gilded litters, and surrounded with an ostentatious pomp which seems almost incredible. An interminable crowd of slaves, footmen, valets, and eunuchs formed their escort.

The public baths, were the scenes of such wild license and debauchery that decency forbids us to dwell upon it. Every day a crowd of clients and parasites gathered inside the colonnades which surrounded the atrium in the houses of the patricians, and here they ingratiated themselves with their patrons by a judicious admixture of slander and flattery. The continual and interminable banquets, which were rather displays of wealth and voluptuousness than of elegance and good taste, can only be described as orgies. They were, indeed, far removed from the casta convivia with bellaria et nuces imagined by the genial grammarian Macrobius, at which the noblest and most cultured men of that time were to recreate after learned discussions. To soothe patrician ears, music was not wanting at these banquets, there being in existence a large number of ancient musical instruments, whilst new ones were constantly invented. A crowd of singers and mimes were always in attendance at the palaces of the nobles, that they might, by the practice of their art, revive and flatter the jaded senses which idleness and debauchery had dulled.

Very few of the patricians cared for anything requiring serious thought, and, for the most part, their libraries were as deserted as the graveyard. Men of culture and taste fell into bad repute. People avoided them as bores, and accounted their presence of evil augury. Adultery, infanticide, and divorce were the natural but terrible results of the unbridled licentiousness which reigned in patrician households. It would have been impossible to form an idea of the extreme length to which this corruption extended if a law passed in the year 390 had not lifted a corner of the veil. Not less remarkable was the wanton extravagance which everywhere prevailed. The patricians were enormously wealthy. Although the Goths only held the city for three days, still during that short time enormous riches fell into their hands. This great wealth of the Roman aristocracy was chiefly spent by them in idle display and sensual indulgence. The profuse extravagance indulged in by the nobles for the gratification of their vanity and love of ostentation amounted almost to insanity. Well might Saint Augustine declaim against the “gloriosa effusionis insania” which was the curse of the age. We may take an illustration from the expenditure which was expected of the great senatorial families when any one of their members entered upon office as consul, praetor, or quaestor. The vast sums which, in the efforts to win popular favour, were disbursed upon horses, wild beasts, games, pageants, and presents, would hardly be credited. When Olibrius was made praetor, Probus, according to the account of Olympiodorus, expended the value of 1,200 pounds weight of gold say 47,000 Stirling. Symmachus, for his son Quintus Fabius Maximus, paid 2,000 pounds of gold, or 78,000 Stirling; and when a festival, lasting seven days, was celebrated by Maximus in honour of his son’s entry upon office as praetor, it cost him the double of this, or something near 56,000, It was a mad contest of prodigality, in which the favour of the people was the prize of the highest bidder.

The contagion of the sensuality and vice within the city had naturally spread to the army. Discipline was no longer observed; the soldiers, forgetting that in former days the austerity of the Roman army had constituted its strength, amused themselves with effeminate songs and diversions. They who once were content to find repose on the bare ground, now required soft feather beds and marble dwellings. They refused to use humble vessels of earthenware, and were not ashamed to drink from enormous goblets which were heavier than their own swords. From the time of Gratian the Roman soldiers would no longer endure the weight of helmet and cuirass, and gave themselves up to drunkenness and orgies of every kind. Saint Ambrose vividly describes the repulsive spectacle of the officers, arrayed in resplendent attire of silk and gold, challenging one another, amid scenes of inconceivable debauchery, to prove which could drink the most wine, with the result that at the end, all alike lay drunk on the ground. It is not surprising that such excesses bred insubordination and license, and by breaking the bonds of discipline, paved the way for the ultimate triumph of the barbarian invaders.

From this state of affairs, we can well understand with what truth Saint Augustine, at the dismal sight of the capital of the empire perishing under the blows inflicted on the one hand by corruption, and on the other by the barbarians, traced with his master hand, in these characteristic touches, the ideal of happiness to which the Romans of his time aspired. It mattered nothing that the State was sunk in vice, provided that they were surrounded by abundance, that their arms were victorious, and peace secure. It was of far greater import that each one should amass enormous riches that he might squander them in the pursuit of pleasure. The poor man gave his services to the rich for the sake of having plenty to eat and a quiet, idle life under powerful patronage. The rich took advantage of the poor man’s need to surround themselves with courtiers and ministers to their pride. The populace bestowed their applause, not upon him who considered their true welfare, but upon him who most lavishly provided them with diversion. There must be no severe laws, no restraint on licentiousness. The rulers’ whole anxiety was centred upon the submissive temper of their subjects; whether they were virtuous or vicious mattered nothing. The provinces obeyed the governors, not as the custodians of public morality, but as rulers over all and the purveyors of their pleasures. They rendered them unwilling homage, and feared them with servile fear. The laws seemed framed only for the protection of property, not from any care of good morals. The opportunities for debauchery were brought to the doors of all. Gambling, drunkenness, disgraceful and cruel diversions were indulged in and openly justified. The man for whom these things had no relish was regarded as a public enemy. If anyone should seek to interfere with this reign of license he was to be silenced, to be ostracized, and, if necessary, to be made away with.

Such depravity was inevitably the precursor of disaster; and, indeed, the barbarian Alaric, with his army, had already reached the gates of Rome, which was plunged into terror at his approach. Then paganism, deaf to the voice of the Gospel, or even attributing to it the coming of these misfortunes, appealed to its own divinities for deliverance, returning to its superstitious lustrations and the sacrifices of pagan worship, while at the same time the public depravity continued as great as ever. The horrors of that time can scarcely be described. The proud Goth had stricken the city to the dust, giving it up to fire and pillage. Rome was deluged with the blood of her citizens, whilst her women were outraged and dishonoured. Now for the first time in Roman history patricians and plebeians were united by the common bond of terror, and the strange sight was seen of Christians and pagans seeking refuge under the shadow of the basilicas of the Apostles, and imploring mercy. But scarcely had the fugitives set foot on safe and hospitable ground, though the ruins of their own city were still smoking with the fires not yet completely extinguished, when they demanded the disgraceful diversions of the theatre, and plunged into greater dissipations than ever. The calamities and the multiplied sufferings of the barbarian invasion were of no avail to regenerate a society so completely given over to corruption. Contemporary writers do not exaggerate in any way when they unanimously declare that Roman morals in the fourth century and at the beginning of the fifth were not only depraved and vicious, but wholly incurable. They are also agreed that the barbarian oppressor was the instrument chosen by Providence to scourge the pride, the vanity, and the depravity of the corrupt capital of the empire.

It is not surprising, having regard to the depths of moral degradation to which ancient Rome had sunk, that good Christians should have shunned all intercourse with the patrician houses. We read of Marcella, the glory of Roman matrons, that she generally abstained from visiting at noble houses in order that her eyes might not be offended with the sight of objects which deserved to be trampled under foot. Saint Jerome, in general terms, directed patrician Christian maidens to avoid the houses of the nobles and to cultivate no intimacy with married women. And he also expressly desired that they should fly, as from the plague, from the company of those virgins and widows who, while ostensibly leading devout lives, frequented the society of matrons who were devoid of all sense of modesty. Thus it was that chosen souls who realized that they were created for a higher destiny than the gratification of sense were disgusted and sickened by the atmosphere of vice which surrounded them. Like prisoners incarcerated in dark and noisome dungeons, they longed to get away from Rome that they might breathe a purer air. Saint Jerome’s powerful voice resounded in their ears, calling on his friends to go forth from the corruptions of Babylon, as he designated the pagan portion of the city. They heard the sighs of Melania, who but recently returned from Jerusalem, counted every moment of her sojourn in the seat of all these iniquities and feverishly hastened the time of her departure. They heard also the mournful accents of Saint Paulinus, who, whilst longing to behold once more his friend Rufinus, yet considered that he should keep far from him on account of his proximity to the same corrupt city. And yet we shall only speak truth when we say that amidst the universal depravity of this pagan Babylon there existed and flourished at the same time the Kingdom of God.

Towards the end of the year 397, Saint Jerome declared that Rome possessed what the world in the past was ignorant of the very flower of Christianity. We learn from Saint Augustine that at the time of Alaric’s invasion (410) the number of the Faithful then living in the ancient capital of the Empire was very large. Hence Saint Paulinus of Nola, writing to Severus in the year 402, declared that the adherents of the daughter of Sion in Rome outnumbered those of the daughter of Babylon. If we try to understand the chief causes which, in the very centre of corruption, contributed to foster among the more right-thinking of the Roman patricians that fervent faith and sanctity of life which distinctively marked those times, we shall find that several influences were concurrently at work, all leading in the same direction. There was first the abhorrence of the degraded society in the midst of which they lived, with the consequent tendency to segregation, to monasticism, and to that life of virginal chastity to which so many matrons and young girls devoted themselves. Again, we have many conspicuous examples of sublime virtue afforded by that state of life which were themselves strong incentives to emulation. So, too, we must count the devotion to the martyrs whose graves, invested with a halo of glory, inspired glowing faith and heroic aspirations, whilst, finally, something was due to the pilgrimages to the holy places, and to the earnest and assiduous study of the Sacred Scriptures. From all these sources there emanated fiery sparks which enkindled in the souls of many patricians the glowing flames of Christian piety, and which led them in the end to make public profession of a higher life.

After the terrible persecution of Diocletian, and during the peace which the Church enjoyed under Constantine, monasticism had marvellously developed in the East. Numbers of Christians, witnesses of the heroism of so many martyrs who were tortured and put to death by their cruel persecutors, were thereby drawn to lead lives of such penitential fervour as approximated to martyrdom. The extraordinary sanctity of these lives attracted others to follow their example. Hence it was that in the space of sixty or seventy years the vast region of Egypt was covered with monasteries whose inmates were venerated for their exceptional holiness. Mount Nitria contained five thousand monks; a great number also dwelt in the place named Scete, and the so-called Cellia were covered with innumerable cells, the abodes of anchorites. A multitude of cenobites, who lives were consecrated to solitude, prayer, and labour, dwelt in all the countries which extended from Memphis to Babylon. Monasteries were continually springing up in the vicinity of the Nile. The celebrated Serapion was head of nearly ten thousand monks, as were also Pacomius and Paphnutius in the little island of Sabenna. The city of Oxyrhincus in the Thebaid was thronged with monks and celibates, who occupied the public buildings and the ancient pagan temples. When we call to mind the sentiments regarding martyrdom which animated all Egypt, the repulsive sensuality of life, especially pagan life in Alexandria and other cities, the desire of many to make reparation by severe penance for their sins, as well as the prestige which attached to those venerable solitaries, the fame of whose supernatural lives and virtues had spread everywhere, we can easily understand the eagerness with which people hastened from all parts to visit abodes of peace and sanctity such as had never been seen before. Thus it was that during the latter end of the fourth century Egypt, beyond all other countries, chiefly aroused the admiration of Christendom and kept alight the torch of Religion. It resembled a huge monastery, with Syria and Palestine as offshoots. Meanwhile the fame of Eastern monasticism had already spread to the West, where it aroused not only admiration but also a desire to see those abodes of angelic virtue. Saint Jerome, Rufinus, Sylvia of Aquitaine, or, as others would have it, the Iberian lady AEtheria, Sulpicius Severus, and many other illustrious personages, together with noble Roman matrons, such as the elder Melania, Paula, Eustochium, and Fabiola, hastened eagerly to visit the homes of this new asceticism and to converse with the ascetics themselves.

Towards the middle of the fourth century Saint Athanasius, flying from the persecutions of the Arians, sought refuge in Rome. There, during his sojourn in 341 and the following years, he succeeded in inspiring many of the nobility with a desire for the ascetic life and the profession of virginity. Marcella, who had been left a widow in the very flower of her youth, only seven months after her marriage, became the most devoted client of the illustrious Bishop of Alexandria, venerated at that time by the whole Catholic world as the strong pillar of orthodoxy. Under such a master Marcella soon came to play a leading part in the revival of asceticism amongst the Roman patricians. Athanasius recounted the story of the wonderful life of Antony, then still living, to whose sanctity and fame even the great Constantine had paid homage. Coming upon such authority, the strange history of the Patriarch of Eastern monasticism was as a flame which set the more exalted souls on fire. The lesson was not lost, and henceforth they turned to evangelical perfection as the one remedy for the terrible desolation occasioned by the corruption of the age.

A fresh impetus was given later to these initial desires by the reading of the no less wonderful and edifying life of Saint Martin, Bishop of Tours. Souls who longed to soar above the unwholesome atmosphere which surrounded them into purer and more exalted regions, found themselves powerfully urged to the imitation of such models. Then it was that the Roman nobility became conspicuous for the resplendent examples of virtue amongst its members. At the same time, such example, given by personages remarkable for birth, wealth, and culture, whilst arousing admiration in some, excited in others only feelings of contempt. These latter, the champions of the age and its morals, felt vaguely that such virtue condemned the ostentation and sensuality of their own lives, which were spent in the pursuit of honours and in wanton indulgence.

The illustrious senators, Furius Pammachius, Pontius Paulinus, Turcius Apronianus, and Macarius, the vicar of Rome, were amongst the nobles who were converted to a truly ascetic life of penance, humility, and charity. Conspicuous amongst the matrons of the highest rank were Marcella, the elder Melania, Paula, Lea, A vita, Blesilla, Paulina, Furia, Fabiola, who, together with the fairest flowers of Roman maidenhood, Axella, Eustochium, with her niece Paula, Principia, Marcellina, Eunomia, Demetrias, and others, afforded the most striking contrast between the purity and humility of Christian life and the pride and corruption of Roman society. Their part was that of the mirror, reflecting everywhere a brilliant light, which proved a perpetual incentive to virtue.

At the same time, devotion to the martyrs, whose tombs extended for three miles round the walls of the Eternal City, reached its climax in the second half of the fourth century, particularly during the pontificate of Damasus, to whom the cultus of the martyrs was specially dear. From those sacred tombs, enclosed within the walls of magnificent basilicas, and adorned with marble, encased in gold and silver, perfumed with incense and balsams, illumined by the mystic light of tapers and lamps, and overshadowed by the symbolic mosaics of the sanctuary, there breathed in all the fullness of its power the good odour of Christ, and there was revealed in all its grandeur the heroism which is the fruit of the Gospel. The concourse of people at these tombs was enormous, especially on the martyrs’ anniversaries; and the solemnity of the ceremonial at these sacred spots, so deeply venerated, was such as to seem a reflection of that heavenly glory which surrounded their beatified souls. To these holy shrines the patricians, with their families, were amongst the first to hasten, and here the consuls, themselves the representatives of the proudest and most exalted worldly dignity, paid homage to the power of virtue by the lowering of their faces.

Noble Roman matrons mingled with the crowds of devout plebeians who kept the nightly vigils which preceded the martyrs’ festivals. Young girls who had resolved to consecrate themselves to God, and who hence avoided appearing in public, might be seen there pouring forth their souls in prayer during the quiet hours, when the throngs of pious worshippers had withdrawn. Thus it is easy to understand how powerful was the influence of the Roman martyrs over the patrician classes, and especially over those souls whom Divine Grace was already urging to high ordeals or even to the pitch of heroism.

Amongst the other incentives to fervour must be reckoned the pilgrimages to the East, which were so general in Rome during the latter end of the fourth century. Veneration for the Holy Places of Palestine was the chief motive of these pilgrimages, together with the desire of imprinting on the memory a vivid recollection of the Bible narrative, and also of visiting those centres of sanctity and religious life for which the monasteries of Egypt in particular were celebrated. None were so strongly inflamed with this pious ardour as the noble matrons of Rome. Hence we find the elder Melania, grandmother of our Saint, who was left a widow at twenty-two years of age, amongst the first to raise the standard of the Cross. To the grief of her relatives, and the amazement of the whole city, she separated from her little son, her only child, and consecrated herself to a life of penance and recollection in a monastery in Jerusalem.

Later on, others, equally noble and equally illustrious, followed her example. Saint Paula, the widow of Toxotius, accompanied by a young girl, Julia Eustochium, explored Palestine and visited the monasteries of Egypt. She finally took up her abode near the sacred grotto of Bethlehem, where she founded monasteries, and where she died. Her tomb there was much honoured. Shortly after her departure from Rome she had been joined by Fabiola, the heiress of Fabius Maximus This noble lady, by her public penance for faults committed in her youth, was a shining example to those Romans who had grown old in vice. She led for a considerable time the life of an ascetic in Bethlehem, until she was recalled by pressing affairs to Rome, which she again edified on her return by her humility and her benefactions.

The last of this noble band was the younger Paula, the daughter of Laeta. She also belonged to the Julian gens, and going to the East after her grandmother’s death, she set a rare example of virginal purity. The letters which these holy women wrote to their friends and relatives, in which they vividly described the peace and happiness of their life, and the odour of sanctity which breathed from all around them, were so many incentives to others to follow their example. They could not fail to exercise a powerful influence upon the higher classes of Roman society.

The earnest study of the Holy Scriptures is closely connected with the pilgrimage to Palestine. It would be going beyond the limits of our subject to discuss the general movement which, in the fourth century, led the greatest luminaries of the Church to the unceasing study and exposition of the sacred books. The East, with its schools of Alexandria and Antioch, as well as the West, with its principal Doctors, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary, reveal to us how keen was the desire in those days to search into the meaning of the Sacred Scriptures, and what efforts were made by the Fathers of the Church to spread a knowledge of them amongst the people. Confining ourselves exclusively to Rome, and in particular to the Roman aristocracy, we can assert in all truth that such serious study, and such burning ardour for Biblical research, was never known as during the close of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, especially amongst women and girls. This is one of the most marked characteristics of the period. At that epoch, indeed, there was good reason to condemn the corrupt manners and the vain display of the Roman aristocracy; but, at the same time, a large portion of Christian Rome continued to preserve that robust faith which the Apostle of the Gentiles once praised. The Holy Scriptures were regarded as the Word of God, which contained the Divine oracles, the laws given to man as his safe-conduct to eternal happiness. It was the unfailing nourishment of Christian virtue, the certain guide to perfection, support and comfort in the misfortunes of life and amid the dangerous hurricanes of the world. As we may notice in the early paintings in the Catacombs, the artists drew most of their inspiration from the Bible. Scenes from the Old and the New Testament were depicted in the adornment of the Basilicas. In the sculpture of the Sarcophagi the changes were rung upon a limited cycle of Biblical themes, and Christian poets took their subjects, as the Fathers of the Church did their treatises, from the suggestions supplied by Holy Scripture.

But these Biblical studies reached a climax when Rome enthusiastically welcomed within its walls, and admitted to the rights of citizenship, the Dalmatian priest, Jerome, the son of Eusebius. He had come to Rome with Paulinus, Bishop of Antioch, and Epiphanius of Salamis in the island of Cyprus, when important ecclesiastical business rendered it necessary for these prelates to confer with the Pontiff Saint Damasus. Jerome, who then began to assist the Pope in his correspondence with the Eastern Church, was the guest of the noble matron Paula. It was during this time that he became more widely known and appreciated as an eloquent and learned writer, deeply versed in the exegesis of the Sacred Scriptures. His learning, his piety, and his stern virtue rendered him in a short time the object of general and enthusiastic veneration. His sojourn in Rome, although of short duration (382-385), was a veritable apostolate, which left a deep and lasting impression, more especially upon the patricians.

From his youth, Jerome had conceived an intense love for the Sacred Scriptures. As the years advanced he made immense progress, and his more developed intelligence, his researches, his travels in the East, his acquaintance with the dialects, his hearing of the best masters, such as Gregory of Nazianzum, in Constantinople, and Didymus at Alexandria, all these things had contributed to make him, beyond any of his contemporaries, a consummate master of Biblical science. Before long his acknowledged ability caused him to be regarded as the oracle of the Christian faith. Meanwhile he was in perpetual request in Rome, not only with the Pope and with scholars like Pammachius and the venerated Domnio, but also with noble matrons and virgins, who longed to receive from him that divine instruction which he knew so well how to impart with profit and unction. Although his humility made him reluctant to do so, Paula, by dint of importunity, induced him to give an entire course of conferences on the Old and the New Testament to herself and her little daughter, Eustochium. In course of time, the illustrious Marcella, who was regarded as the chief ornament of the Roman aristocracy, formed a regular school of Biblical studies in her palace on the Aventine. This became a centre of attraction for the flower of the nobility who were aspiring to Christian perfection. Saint Jerome tells us that this devout matron, who was filled with faith and gifted with more than ordinary talent, had an almost incredible ardour for the study of the Sacred Scriptures. She was already the devoted client of the illustrious Athanasius when, in 382, she became acquainted with Jerome’s rare virtue and learning. She succeeded by unceasing importunity in obtaining his consent to become her guide and master in her chosen study. The most distinguished women, both girls and matrons, of Rome’s aristocracy were amongst Marcella’s assiduous pupils. Paula, who was united to her in the closest bonds of friendship, could not be separated from her. Thus her little daughter, Eustochium, was trained, in the house on the Aventine, to a life of virginity, and there learned to relish the sweetness of the Sacred Scriptures. This princess, a daughter of the most illustrious of senators, lived with Marcella, and under her tuition made steady and remarkable progress. Marcella’s house was the central library where everyone could obtain copies pf the Bible and the works of the most famous ecclesiastical writers, amongst which those from the pen of Saint Jerome were specially prized.

It may be said with truth that Saint Jerome not only assisted in the establishment of a school in Rome for the instruction of the patricians in the Holy Scriptures, but that he also introduced a system of Biblical teaching for young girls, for youths, and for consecrated virgins and widows. He wished that girls should be taught from infancy to learn the names of the series of Prophets, Patriarchs, and Apostles, and that they should also commit the Psalms to memory. To make this work attractive to them he advised the giving of little prizes. As they grew older he recommended a study of the Proverbs of Solomon to help them to live wisely, and of Ecclesiastes, that they might estimate worldly vanity at its proper value; then the Book of Job, from which they might learn lessons of patience in the troubles of life. Finally, he would have them pass to the study of the Gospels, a study which should henceforth be unceasing, and also of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. With advancing years and increasing understanding they were to set to work upon the Pentateuch, the Books of Kings, of Paralipomenon, Esdras, and Esther; and, lastly, when there was no risk of misunderstanding the mystical and spiritual meaning, the Canticle of Canticles. For adults he prescribed, in addition to daily and persevering study of the Scriptures, the reading of the Commentaries of the Fathers.

Under Saint Jerome’s fostering care this movement developed rapidly and produced marvelous results. The great Doctor of the Church himself testifies to the profound knowledge of the Bible which several of the Roman matrons and young girls possessed. His praise might almost seem exaggerated if it were not justified by the proofs which he gives. Saint Paula was perfectly acquainted with the Greek and Latin languages. She studied Hebrew with her daughter, in which they both made such wonderful progress as to be able to speak and write it with facility. Similarly Blaesilla, after she had renounced all the vanities of the age, following the example of her mother and sister, conceived the same desire of learning a foreign language. Though this was one peculiarly difficult for a Roman, still she realized that it was the key to a more intimate knowledge of the Old Testament. Her progress in Hebrew was no less rapid than that of her relatives. Henceforth she also became enamoured of the study of the Scriptures. We read that during a long illness, which ended in her death, she had a volume either of the Gospels or the prophetic writers continually in her hands.

The noble lady, Fabiola, was another student whose interest in Holy Scripture aroused the enthusiastic admiration of Saint Jerome. Writing to Furia, who was a relative of Eustochium, he declared that if she could see her cousin Fabiola, not only would she be charmed with her beautiful soul, but that she would also hear from her eloquent lips all the wisdom contained in the Old and New Testaments. This was no exaggeration. The various difficulties regarding Biblical questions which this girl proposed to her master were such that he was often unable to answer at once, and was obliged to ask for time to consider them. We have here sufficient proof of the serious nature of his pupil’s studies. But amongst all these noble Roman ladies, Paula and Marcella stand forth pre-eminent. With regard to the former we know from Saint Jerome her extraordinary attraction for the spiritual sense of Holy Writ, while, as for the latter, the same Saint’s letter to Principia, written after Marcella’s death, shows in what esteem he held her. Moreover, in various parts of his works he speaks of her with a respect and admiration which makes it clear that his farewell tribute was no idle compliment. This illustrious woman, so superior to the rest of her sex, united to her ardent faith and her indifference to all earthly things a learning which was far beyond the common. So intimate was her knowledge of Scripture, and so great the clearness of her intellect, that Saint Jerome looked up to her as to a superior, and treated her as a competent critic of his own doctrine.

The notable increase at this epoch of Christian faith, and the more ardent practice of sublime virtue, must undoubtedly be attributed, in large measure, to that Roman school in which women of the highest social rank played so conspicuous a part. The study of the Sacred Scriptures raised men’s minds to the consideration of the supernatural. It introduced them to another kind of wisdom, and taught them to despise the things of the world and to love those which are of Heaven. But this same group of illustrious Roman ladies also rendered to the Church another substantial service. It is to them we are indebted for the veritable library of precious treatises and for the numerous commentaries so invaluable for Biblical exegesis which Saint Jerome has left behind him for the instruction of posterity. It was, indeed, the searching questions daily propounded by these noble ladies which elicited the greater number of the holy Doctor’s answers, many of them little treatises on the particular points at issue. It was their persistent importunities which drew from the solitary of Bethlehem, whom the censures of rivals and the malevolence of adversaries had discouraged, the greater part of his commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, the revised versions of the text, and the translations from Greek into Latin of Origen’s Homilies on the Gospels. Precious documents these last, now that the originals themselves have been altogether lost to us.

In conclusion, it must not be forgotten that all these various causes, which exercised such powerful influence upon the social reformation of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries, amidst its deplorable moral degradation, were means ordained throughout and controlled by the action of Divine Providence. It was God’s goodness which willed that the evils existing in nations should yield to remedies, and which appointed to these nations the laws under which they must advance. On the one hand, we find the mistress of the world dragged to destruction, and her gates opened to the barbarians by that ambition, pride, and pomp which, together with an ever-increasing thirst for pleasure and its concomitant boundless cupidity, were the results of an enervating naturalism such as brutalizes man and destroys the most vital and ennobling principles of social life; and, on the other hand, we see Christianity with its Divine Gospel, the eternal and unchanging rule of every moral resurrection and all real progress, inevitably provoking a reaction against the raging torrent of vice, and, at the same time, laying the foundation of a new civilization which postulates, as its basis, an ascendancy of the mind over matter, of the soul over the body, of reason over the passions, of law over a perverted moral sense, and, consequently, incorruptible justice, rightful liberty, and true fraternity.