Hidden women of history: Olympias, who took on an emperor, dodged a second marriage and fought for her faith

A formidable woman born in the second half of the fourth century and widowed at around 17, Olympias was not afraid to advocate for herself – or her friends.

A sad fact about the early Christian period is that very few texts written by women survive. Olympias was well educated and acquainted with bishops and even the emperor. We know she wrote letters to some of these men, but only the men’s letters to her remain.

There are stories about her life as well, and some about her monastery and her bodily remains after her death, but most of these were also written by men. Nevertheless, these sources can give us insight into the life of a formidable woman who opposed the emperor and fought for her way of life and her faith.

When she was widowed, according to an anonymous Life of Olympias, the emperor Theodosius tried to marry her off to a relative of his named Elpidius. Her extensive wealth – she owned property all over the empire including palaces in Constantinople – made her quite a catch.

But Olympias refused, apparently declaring

if the Lord Jesus Christ had wanted me to live with a man, he would not have taken away my first husband.

She told the emperor she wanted to live a celibate life as a monastic rather than marry again.

When Olympias refused to marry Elpidius, the emperor Theodosius commanded the prefect of the city, Clementius, be guardian of all her possessions until Olympias turned 30.

The Life gives Olympias a pithy reply in which she says she is glad to be relieved from the burden of her wealth and begs Clementius to distribute her wealth to the poor and the churches.

A few years later, Theodosius relented when he saw how dedicated Olympias was to the ascetic life, restoring her fortune. This enabled Olympias to establish a monastery or holy house for women in Constantinople.

Although she died in exile, Olympias was a significant figure who fought against the mould women were supposed to fit into, supporting a lot of people along the way.

Source: Hidden women of history: Olympias, who took on an emperor, dodged a second marriage and fought for her faith

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