When the emperor Constantine officially accepted Christianity as a legal religion in 313 CE, bishops gained new administrative roles alongside an increase in converts. How did this new cultural force influence the Roman family? Scholars have previously discussed the Roman family as an empire-wide construct, using the writings of the late antique bishops—also called the Church Fathers—as evidence for the family without stressing the writers’ diverse geographical situations. This dissertation investigates bishops’ discussions of women in families within their local communities. By analyzing the sermons and letters of bishops from different parts of the fourth-century Roman Empire, the project illuminates the discourses between bishop and audience that shaped early Christian thoughts on women. It contextualizes each bishop’s writings through the cultural background of their audience, using documentary evidence when available.
By identifying each bishop’s motivation for writing or preaching, my analysis reveals the audience’s distinct concerns about the family. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote to the parents of consecrated virgins, women who took a vow of lifelong celibacy to devote themselves to God. He advised the parents how to raise their holy daughters, thus attempting to exert influence in private households. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa wrote about the women in their family to legitimize their authority in Cappadocia in Asia Minor. John Chrysostom’s injunctions to married women demonstrate his anxiety over the influence that wealthy widows exerted over his church in Antioch. Ambrose of Milan’s discussion of brothers and sisters in the Italian upper classes reveals his attempt to advertise the ascetic life as a foundation for lasting sibling affection. Augustine of Hippo criticized married couples for allowing female slaves to usurp the roles of Roman matrons, thereby disrupting marital harmony.
This dissertation concludes that the bishops formed their ideas about women and families in direct response to the local congregations that they served. The particular issues that they addressed reveal how the foundational texts of the Church Fathers arose from historically-grounded problems to which bishops were responding as part of their pastoral duties for particular communities.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Virgin Daughters in Athanasius’ Alexandria 19
Chapter 2: Widows, Mothers, and the Cappadocian Fathers 51
Chapter 3: Wives-Turned-Widows in Chrysostom’s Antioch 82
Chapter 4: Virgin Sisters in Ambrose’s Milan 111
Chapter 5: Slave Women in Augustine’s Africa 143
About this Dissertation
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