The Rhetoric of the Pious Empire and the Rhetoric of Flight from the World

A Socio-Rhetorical Reading of the Life of Melania the Younger

by Kyung-mee Jeon (Author)
©2018 Thesis 206 Pages


This book aims to shed new light on asceticism of the heart and imperial Christian aspects in the ascetic life of Melania the Younger, in particular, and of a specific group of Roman aristocratic ascetic women, in general. The author draws on the examination of rhetorical language and textual production of the Life of Melania the Younger written in the fifth century. In so doing, the author investigates the broader religious and socio-cultural contexts of the two forms of conflicting rhetorics in the text, according to socio-rhetorical criticism. The tension of the dual subjectivity arising from the asceticism of the heart and the ideological and material aspects of Christian imperialism in the context of Jerusalem and Constantinople takes the reader into unexplored intellectual territory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1. Hagiography, Roman Women’s Asceticism of the Heart, Jerusalem, and Empire
  • 1. Overview of this Study
  • 2. Overview of Recent Studies on Hagiography and Ascetic Women in Late Antique Christianity
  • 3. The Location of this Study in Recent Studies on Late Antique Christian Holy Women
  • 4. Methodology
  • 4.1. Rhetoric and the Socio-Religious Rhetorical Approach in this Study
  • 4.2. Text and Context, and the Approach of this Study
  • 4.3. This Study’s Approach to Roman Women’s Asceticism of the Heart
  • 4.4. This Study’s Approach to Christian Imperialism in the Roman Empire
  • 5. Procedure
  • 6. The Life of Melania the Younger: Brief Introduction to the Main Editions of the Greek Text
  • Chapter 2. The Flight from the World and the World of the Pious Empire
  • 1. Rhetorical Analysis
  • 1.1. Narratives and Rhetoric of Fleeing from the World: the Dissociation between the Heavenly and the Worldly
  • 1.2. Narratives and Rhetoric of Empire: Rhetorical Transformation into the “Utopian” and “Reformist” Argumentation
  • 2. The Rhetoric of Flight from the World and Early Christian Asceticism of the Heart
  • 2.1. Desert Monks’ Tradition and the Flight from the World
  • 2.2. Origen, the Ascetic Vision of Fleeing from the World, and its Notion of Sanctification
  • 2.2.1. Ascetic Vision of Fleeing from the World: Origen 1
  • 2.2.2. Ascetical Moral Conversion as a Christian Way of Sanctification: Origen 2
  • 2.3. Antony of Egypt and Spiritual and Moral Struggles in Early Desert Monks
  • 2.4. Later Desert Monasticism and Melania the Younger: Monastic Withdrawal and Monastic Quest for Virtue
  • 3. The Rhetoric of Empire and the Ideology of Ascetic Society in the Roman Empire of the Fourth to Fifth Centuries
  • 3.1. The Christian Roman Empire, the Pious Emperor, and Asceticism in the Late Fourth to Fifth Centuries
  • 3.2. Christian Ideology of Imperial Victory and Pious Emperor
  • 3.3. Christian Ideology of Imperial Victory, Imperial Women’s Piety, and Asceticism
  • 3.3.1. Mother and Virgin
  • 3.3.2. Imperial Women’s Power and Ascetic Piety
  • 3.3.3. Asceticism, the Glory of the Virgin Mary, and Empire
  • 3.4. Imperial Women and a Holy Woman, Melania the Younger
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. Flight from the World and Crossing over to Jerusalem
  • 1. Ascetic Exile, Jerusalem, and the Roman Women Ascetics
  • 2. Cosmopolitan Ascetics of Jerusalem in the Fourth to Fifth Centuries
  • 3. Emerging Christian Ideas of the Holy Place and Holy City, Jerusalem
  • 4. Monastic Jerusalem in the Fourth to Fifth Centuries
  • 5. The Ascetical Monastic Desire for Ascent and Heaven: Melania the Younger and Some Other Roman Women in and around Jerusalem
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. Jerusalem, Imperial Christianity, and Monastic Settlers
  • 1. Imperial Appropriation of Sacred Space and Sacred Material
  • 1.1. Constantinian Buildings and Monastic Settlers in Jerusalem: In Pilgrims’ Eyes
  • 1.2. Private Progress into Jerusalem (1): Building Activities, Relics, and Roman Women Ascetics in the Theodosian Age
  • 1.3. Private Progress into Jerusalem (2): Melania the Younger, Building Activities, Relics in the Theodosian Age
  • 2. Imperial Christian Ownership and Identity in Jerusalem of the Fourth to Fifth Centuries
  • 2.1. Concerns for Christian Imperialism and Roman Palestine and Jerusalem
  • 2.2. An Archetypal Pattern of the Wood of the Cross: Christian Imperial Ideology of Victory and Imperial Ownership
  • 2.3. A Type of Imperial Christian Subjectivity Produced in Roman Palestine and Jerusalem
  • 3. Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. Final Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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This book is a revised version of my 2016 doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto and the Toronto School of Theology. I went through thorough processes of reshaping my manuscript according to the style of the series ECCA, to produce this volume. My special word of thanks goes to Dr. Jörg Ulrich for his constant commitment to reviewing my revision work and his great help in providing precise information on editing guidelines such as guidelines for footnote references to ancient Christian authors and texts. I would also like to thank Dr. Anders-Christian Jacobsen, a member of the editorial board, for his careful reading of my manuscript and warm support of it. I know that some assistants of both members of the editorial board in the University of Halle and the University of Aarhus provided very useful help in the process of my revision; thus, I would like to express thanks to all of them. I thank Dr. Christine Shepardson, the third member of the editorial board, for accepting my book for the series of ECCA. I am also thankful to Dr. Hermann Ühlein, a Senior Commissioning Editor, and Laura Diegel, a Junior Editor at Peter Lang, for professional handling of my proposal. My wish and endeavor to publish my dissertation originated from encouragement by my dissertation readers who were Dr. T. Allan Smith as my advisor, Dr. David Neelands, Dr. Alan Hayes, Dr. Phyllis Airhart, and Dr. Lynda L. Coon. Thus, I owe a great debt of gratitude to them. It would be a remaining task for me to work on further development in subject matters related to this book, especially considering Dr. Lynda L. Coon’s valuable suggestions for possible expansion of my dissertation. I also wish to thank Dr. Pablo Argárate, now at the University of Graz, who generously encouraged my interest in the study of women in late antique Christianity. I would like to thank a group of Korean friends and theologians as well as my family members for their encouragement as I prepared this book in Seoul, Korea. I am grateful to all of them, but in particular to Dr. Hae-young Choi, Dr. Suk-hee Lim, and also to Dr. Sophia Park.

Seoul, in August 2018

Kyung-mee Jeon

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Chapter 1 Hagiography, Roman Women’s Asceticism of the Heart, Jerusalem, and Empire

1. Overview of this Study

The Life of Melania the Younger conveys the physical and spiritual movement of Melania the Younger (ca. 383–439) from Rome of her background as an aristocratic family member to Jerusalem, in which she lived long and died as an ascetic. The Life belongs to one of the fullest hagiographical texts regarding late antique Christian holy women.1 The primary research question of this study has arisen from the predominantly double-sided images of the heroine in the Life of Melania the Younger, the images which are produced by conflicting rhetorical language. The central rhetoric of the flight from the world in the Life depicts the heroine fleeing from the worldly life and crossing over into the unknown world to learn and practice the ascetic way of life in the east. At the same time, the other predominant rhetoric of pious emperors, empresses and empire with which Melania the Younger is closely associated during her ascetic life rouses the heroine’s imperial patrician image. This study examines how the two different rhetorical languages and images in the Life are interpreted.

Indeed, during the past couple of decades, scholarship on late antique Christian texts about holy women has predominantly drawn on literary and rhetorical approaches with the increasing concern for the social ideology underlying the textual representation. During the 1970s and 1980s, the dominant concern regarding holy women in late antique Christian texts was to highlight women’s agency as historical subjects. The recent concern for the socio-literary approaches has begun with the emphasis that late antique Christian texts about holy women are almost exclusively the product of male authors. Thus, how women were depicted or were rhetorically constructed by male authors has been the major topic in the studies of late antique Christian ← 11 | 12 → holy women, highlighting the issue of gender, which was produced socially and inscribed textually.

This study, therefore, is not unique for its inquiry into literary and rhetorical representation in the research of holy women in late antique Christianity. However, this study embarks on a new methodological attempt to find a way in which rhetoric could offer the key to approaching historical reconstruction. By means of such a method, this study also seeks to illuminate unexplored aspects of one specific group of late antique Christian holy women, the ascetic group to which Melania the Younger belonged. Current studies have focused on literary and rhetorical analysis combined with the critique of gender ideology in late antique society; however, there has been insufficient attention given to historical realities.

This study has gained methodological insights from socio-rhetorical criticism, which considers both the internal textuality or rhetoric of a text and the external context of the text, in order to posit a historical reconstruction. In socio-rhetorical criticism, “socio-” refers to its extensive approach to a text as “containing an intermingling of social, cultural, religious, and literary traditions and conventions”; “rhetorical” refers to its attention to the way language in a text is a means to “change attitudes and induce action” among readers.2 Thus, socio-rhetorical criticism purposes to interpret how rhetorical discourses, religious belief, and socio-cultural reality interweave in a text. The later section of this chapter will explain this study’s methodology using socio-rhetorical criticism. At this point, it is sufficient to mention that the socio-rhetorical approach in reading the Life of Melania the Younger has provided a methodological basis, first, for investigating the contexts of textual encoding of the Life by highlighting the inseparability between text and context or language and socio-religious reality; second, the socio-rhetorical approach has provided the perspective for interpreting the textual meaning of the Life in an inclusive way in which a modern reader’s religious, social, cultural, and ideological views could illuminate the early Christian textual representation.

Following the socio-rhetorical approach, this study will interpret the rhetoric of the flight from the world and the rhetoric of empire within the specific religious and social locations that disclose different ideals. Through the investigation and interpretation of the particular locations arising from the Christian ascetic ideal and practice, and the Christian Roman Empire, which are also textually represented in the Life, this study will attempt to reconstruct the ← 12 | 13 → “asceticism of the heart”3 and the imperial Christian subjectivity of Melania the Younger in particular, and of a specific group of Roman aristocratic ascetic women in general. This study, while focusing on Melania the Younger, also considers the ascetic lives of Melania the Elder, Paula (the Elder), Eustochium, and Paula the Younger, because they belong to socially and religiously similar settings. They belonged to families of the most powerful senatorial order in the Roman aristocratic class. They left Rome, embracing the eastern desert asceticism. They settled in and lived in Jerusalem and its environs, establishing monasteries and practicing ascetical monasticism there.4

Throughout the whole process, the goal of this study is to reconsider the Roman aristocratic ascetic women who went over into and lived in and around Jerusalem in the fourth to fifth centuries in terms of both their ascetically inclined hearts and their imperial Christian activities, both aspects which point to the paradoxical characteristics, but also point to the historical reality of those ascetic women. It is this study’s view that the complexities of this dual identity warrant closer examination. Indeed, those ascetic women represented by Melania the Younger have been hardly illuminated in the light of the interior life of their asceticism. On the other hand, it is necessary not to take the close alliance between the Roman Empire and the activities of those women ascetics for granted. Scholars of late antiquity, of course, have acknowledged that the supposed separation between politics and religion is a modern concept and never can be applied to the Roman imperial world in the fourth to fifth centuries. They have discussed how those ascetic women from an aristocratic background were commonly associated with Christian imperial courts. But this study attempts to go further to see if the asceticism of those women served as a means of Christian imperial dominion over others. This study will finally argue that the conflicting rhetoric in question, rhetoric of the flight from the world and of empire in the Life of Melania the Younger could be used to gain a better understanding of the historical reality of the younger Melania and some other Roman women. ← 13 | 14 →

In summary, this study attempts to interpret the predominantly conflicting images of Melania the Younger, as produced through the two main types of rhetoric in the Life of Melania the Younger, rhetoric of fleeing from the worldly life and rhetoric of empire, by means of the socio-rhetorical approach. In so doing, the final goal of this study is to reconstruct a picture of the probable historical reality regarding the heroine and some other ascetic women, a historical picture which is clued by the rhetoric in question. This study will argue that Melania the Younger and some other ascetic women demonstrate a type of Christian subjectivity devoted to the eastern desert asceticism of the heart, and at the same time framed in the imperial Christian structure in the Mediterranean world-context of the fourth to fifth centuries.

2. Overview of Recent Studies on Hagiography and Ascetic Women in Late Antique Christianity

There can be no question that it is due to the collective achievements of the Bollandists that Christian hagiographical texts were established as an academic field of research with scientific methods. The Bollandists have been active since the early seventeenth century. As seen from the words of Hippolyte Delehaye (1859–1941), one of the representative Bollandists—“One must be able to classify the documents, to interpret them in accordance with their exact worth, to weigh the evidence, to estimate how much or little trust can be put in each one”5—the Bollandists’ efforts were focused on establishing historically accurate data about saints and the critical edition of each hagiographical text, sorting out the historical kernels from legends or fictional elements and the original accounts from later versions.6 Did the Bollandists’ emphasis on the historically credible depreciate the value of hagiographical texts as literature? Or did their scholarly observation on the restricted value for the historical reliability of hagiography vex Christian historians in using the texts?7 Based upon scrutiny of late antique Christian hagiography studies since the second half of the twentieth century, there is no simple answer. But there is one certain point which demonstrates the positive contribution the Bollandists made to the field. It was through later researchers’ engaging the Bollandists’ historical-critical achievements that more sophisticated readings ← 14 | 15 → of early hagiography in subsequent years could be produced, regardless of whether hagiographical texts were treated as literature or as sources for history.

A remarkable shift has occurred in the study of early hagiography, challenging the Bollandists’ rigid concern for authenticity, and also treating the hagiographical texts as precious and abundant sources of social history in late antiquity. In the view of Evelyne Patlagean, the Bollandists’ pioneering work in the positivist historical and literary approach to hagiography is no longer legitimate.8 This is because their rigid and limited method obstructs the way in which a hagiographical text can be considered as an organic whole. Patlagean argues that the complex totality of ancient society is represented from hagiography’s inherent interests. Thus, Patlagean suggests a structural analysis for understanding the hagiographical narrative’s totality and the common layers underlying each hagiographical text, a structural analysis which identifies the relationship between human beings and the late antique social world.9 From this view, hagiography is regarded as revealing the mood of the early hagiography’s times and naturally to contain a wealth of concrete information significant in social history, which serves the hagiographical structure itself.10

Patlagean’s work proved to be very influential in leading historians to consider hagiographical texts in late antiquity as useful sources. Soon after the article appeared, Peter Brown’s well-known article, The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity (1971), unprecedentedly demonstrated the competent use of early hagiography in the study of late antique social ← 15 | 16 → history.11 Inspired by Patlagean’s work and benefiting from the Bollandists’ achievement, particularly in using authentic texts of the early hagiographical corpus,12 Brown explored Syrian holy men’s socio-political prominence in their social context, as this was revealed in the hagiographical texts; in so doing, he utilized diverse academic disciplines, such as anthropological, sociological and archeological studies as tools to support his historical reading of hagiography.13 While Patlagean’s structural analysis of early hagiography proposed subjectivities defined religiously in their relationship with the world, the subjectivity of Brown’s holy man was innovatively defined in terms of his social function in the patronage system of late Roman society.14

It would not be unreasonable to say that one of the significant conditions for invigorating the study of female hagiographical texts regarding late antique Christian holy women from the early 1970s onward15 was the increasing attention in studies of late antique Christianity to various issues from social and cultural history beyond the traditional centrality of intellectual history, as demonstrated in the above work by Brown. The direct driving force, however, in stimulating studies of holy women in early hagiography was first of all the feminist historical concern to reconstruct women’s agency throughout late antique Christianity. ← 16 | 17 →

Indeed, fuelled by the “second wave of feminism”16 and Christian feminist scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century, a group of scholars in the field of Patristics, particularly in the 1970s to 1980s, were also active in rediscovering women’s activities and roles in Christian communities of late antiquity, which traditional Patristics has neglected.17 Other scholars of late antique Christianity who engaged more ardently in the feminist historical approach attempted to discuss and analyze the subordination and inequality which late antique Christian women faced as females as well as to highlight the leadership which the women exercised in the Christian communities.18 Those scholars of late antique Christianity pursued their interest in historical ← 17 | 18 → Christian women largely through the studies of literary sources. The sources are the surviving correspondence between writers like Jerome and John Chrysostom, and their female patrons and disciples (although none of the women’s letters survive), prosopographical monastic texts, such as Palladius’ Lausiac History, Theodoret’s History of the Monks of Syria, and the Apophthegmata Patrum, and the few works attributed to late antique Christian female authors19 as well as the Lives of late antique Christian women. Some late antique canonical sources, such as the Canons of Nicaea and Chalcedon and Apostolic Constitutions, concerning female deaconship and the order of widows in the Church were also scrutinized. Further, some theological treatises about women by patristic authors, such as Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, were investigated.

The Lives of holy women or female hagiography in late antique Christianity are the most substantial sources about women in that era, although there are much larger volumes of early Christian Lives of male saints.20 In order to understand the studies of female hagiography of recent decades, it is important to recognize that there has been another broad shift in the studies of late antique Christianity since the 1990s, beyond the earlier social history and the reconstructive approach, to the combination of literary theories and social theories in textual and historical analyses.21 Thus, recent scholarship of late antique Christianity has used discourse/rhetoric analysis and ideology ← 18 | 19 → critique inscribed in the text, and has given attention to the way the human self is constructed.22

In the study of late antique holy women’s Lives, the first stage of the shift toward focusing on the textual analysis from seeking the recovery of early Christian foremothers and their activities with more historical concerns was marked by exploring symbolic patterns of depiction of women by male hagiographers on the basis of their theological and didactic schemata. Hagiographic representation of women’s salvation in terms of paradox and reversal, hagiographic language and concepts of the “female man of God” and “becoming male”, and the hagiographic motif of transvestite women saints, and more fundamentally, hagiographic stereotypes of women’s carnality and sexual temptation were increasing focuses to be analyzed and scrutinized.23


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Female hagiography Ascetic monastcism Christian imperialism Interior piety Imperial ownership Jerusalem / Constantinople
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 206 p.

Biographical notes

Kyung-mee Jeon (Author)

Kyung-mee Jeon belongs to The Catholic Women’s Research Institute of Korea. She writes and gives lectures on Egyptian desert monasticism and on women in early Christianity. Her other area of interest is feminist and cultural readings of early Christian texts about religious practices.


Title: The Rhetoric of the Pious Empire and the Rhetoric of Flight from the World