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Sophrosyne as a Virtue of Ascetic Women in Late Antiquity

Anysia Metrakos

UC Berkeley

Gregory of Nazianzus’ (d. 390 AD) funerary oration for his sister Gorgonia (Oration 8) praises her as a woman of incomparable sophrosyne, possessing the modesty, temperance, and devotion to husband and home that defined the ideal wife in antiquity. As the first Christian hagiographical text in praise of a woman, Gregory’s oration crafted a model of the pious Christian matron, marrying the Greco-Roman virtue of sophrosyne with Christian asceticism (Burrus, 2006; Elm, 2006). In hagiographies of the later fourth-sixth centuries AD, sophrosyne remained the principle virtue for married Christian women, however this term took on new meaning by the mid-fifth century, becoming a descriptor of ascetic women who rejected the traditional role of the wife, mother and housekeeper, preferring instead to make lives for themselves outside of the home and apart from their husbands and children.

This paper examines the ways in which notions of feminine sophrosyne were upheld and reimagined by Late Antique hagiographers in their narratives on Christian ascetic matrons. The first part of the paper explores Gorgonia’s embodiment of the Greco-Roman ideal of feminine sophrosyne in the fourth century AD. From the archaic period onward, Greek literature defined feminine virtue as staying cloistered within the home, speaking little, and not causing grief to one’s husband, and by the fifth century BC, the word sophrosyne was used to define these domestic virtues (North, 1977). While the definition of sophrosyne as a virtue of men changed over time, taking on different shades of meaning from Homer to the Church Fathers, feminine sophrosyne remained remarkably consistent for over a millennium, as evidenced by a wealth of inscriptions and texts praising “good” women throughout Greek literature (Kaibel, 1878; Lattimore, 1948; Vérilhac, 1985). In Late Antiquity, the same cultural expectations and meanings associated with feminine sophrosyne in antiquity were still being maintained in epitaphs, encomia, letters, and sermons. However, by the early fifth century, an increased emphasis on chastity shifted the hierarchy of virtues for Christian women; continence was often regarded as the primary path to salvation, even for the married (Harper, 2013), and by the mid-fifth century, sophrosyne largely took on that meaning in ascetic discourse.

The second part of the paper narrows in on a few examples of sophrosyne in the fifth and sixth century hagiographies of married female ascetics. These women, such as Melania the Younger (d. 439) or Matrona of Perge (d. c. 510), were visible and vocal in society and known rejectors of their previous lives as aristocratic matrons (Vita Melaniae Iuniores, BHG 1241; Vita Matronae, BHG 1221). Their virtues closely mirror Gorgonia’s, except in one major aspect: these women chose not to remain at home and serve their families; their sophrosyne reflects to their desire to put off their husbands and to live in chastity. I argue that for the ascetic matron in Late Antique hagiography, sophrosyne was powerful praise that referred to her intended state of continence while also harkening back to traditional Greco-Roman models of feminine virtue.

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Pagans and Christians

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