A Tale of Two Melanias

By Elizabeth A. Castelli

The Washington Post reported today that Melania Trump has filed a lawsuit against the parent company of the Daily Mail, alleging that a story the paper published last summer damaged her ability “to establish ‘multimillion dollar business relationships’ during the years in which she would be ‘one of the most photographed women in the world,’” and thereby caused her brand—itself called ‘Melania’—to lose “significant value.” According to the Post, “The suit said the article had damaged her ‘unique, once in a lifetime opportunity’ to ‘launch a broad-based commercial brand.’” In other words, the lawsuit asserts that the story in the Mail is preventing Melania from accumulating massive amounts of material wealth.

Reading this story—about a wealthy Melania seeking to leverage her name into multi-million-dollar deals—put me in mind of another wealthy Melania, one who lived in the collapsing Roman Empire in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and whose Christian hagiography narrates a lifelong struggle with the soul-threatening adhesiveness of massive wealth.

Melania the Younger was an exceptionally wealthy member of the Roman senatorial family, the granddaughter of Melania the Elder, another super-wealthy Christian Roman aristocrat. The hagiographer Gerontius, writing over a decade after the younger Melania’s death, tells us that she was married at the age of fourteen to her seventeen-year-old cousin Pinianus. Yet, despite her early entry into the most domesticating of social institutions, Melania remained devoted in a single-minded fashion to the radical life of ascetical renunciation.

Just so, in a curious inversion of the familiar narrative trope where women marry in order to exchange sex for financial security, Melania the Younger offered her husband-cousin a rather different kind of bargain, namely:

“If, my lord, you consent to practice chastity along with me and live with me according to the law of continence, I contract with you as the lord and master of my life. If, however, this seems burdensome to you, and if you do not have the strength to bear the burning passion of youth, just look: I place before you all my possessions; hereafter you are master of them and may use them as you wish, if only you will leave my body free so that I may present it spotless, with my soul, to Christ on that fearsome day. For it is in this way that I shall fulfill my desire for God.”

In short, she offered him a marriage contract turned on its head—one in which she proposes to trade all of her financial wealth in exchange for no-sex. (As it happens, Pinianus ends up holding Melania’s sexual virtue in a sort of spiritual escrow for a time—an interesting detail, but just a diversion from the main thread of my narrative.)[1]

Most of the rest of Melania the Younger’s story revolves around her frustrating inability, despite great effort, to divest herself of all of her wealth. Indeed, she and her husband owned so many villas, estates, and properties all around the Roman Empire—Italy, Sicily, Africa, Spain, Britain, and beyond—that her hagiographer simply could not manage to catalogue them all. One of their houses in Rome was reportedly so expensive that no one in the Senate nor even the reigning empress could afford to buy it; eventually it was left in ashes after the barbarian invasions. They had better luck with some of their other properties, Gerontius tells us, disposing of them just in advance of the invasion of Alaric. But they owned yet still more real estate and other property—including slaves on their estate outside Rome, whom Melania and Pinianus sought to sell. (It apparently did not occur to them that a possible solution to the human property problem might have been simply to liberate their slaves. Alas.)

Melania’s and Pinianus’ project of material divestment was just one element of the broader goal of making themselves, Melania’s hagiographer asserts, “enemies to the confusions of the secular life.” Gerontius conjures a whole series of comic scenes—tips and bribes refused; Melania sneaking into the caves of desert hermits to hide gold coins there, but chased away by the ascetic solitaries who theatrically throw the coins back at her in disgust; and in a reprise of her money-for-no-sex inversion of the traditional marriage contract, Melania paying young men and women to renounce sexual pleasures and enter into the ascetical life.

Nevertheless, money and property adhered insistently to Melania, and even her assiduous efforts to divest of everything she owns earned her, according to her hagiographer, the taunts of the Devil: “What sort of place is this Kingdom of Heaven,” the evil one asks, “that it can be bought with so much money?”

Melania’s struggles to commit herself to the ascetical life (thereby renouncing the comforts of aristocratic domesticity) and to extract herself from the system of wealth and exchange that had entangled her from birth were both elements of her ascetical rejection of oikonomia (the law of the household, economy). This refusal is precisely what branded her with the sign of saintliness—a refusal of the prevailing systems of value and an insistent commitment to an otherworldly set of values.

This tale of two Melanias, two wealthy women living in times of declining empires, provides us with two distinct narratives about the anxieties that emerge in the space where marriage, virtue, political power and influence, money, and values intersect. One Melania worries over the dollars that might be getting away as a result of the sullying of her earthly brand. The other Melania worries over the troubling adhesiveness of wealth and the consequent dangers to her immortal soul. Both are tales of excess—one worldly, one otherworldly. I am sure it is just an accident that they share the same name.

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[1] NB: My longer study of Melania the Younger and the excesses of sanctity can be found in Elizabeth A. Castelli, “The Future of Sainthood,” in Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family, ed. Catherine M. Chin and Caroline T. Schroeder (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 271-282.

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Elizabeth A. Castelli is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College. She is the author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture-Making and the translator of the script for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s never-produced film, Saint Paul. She serves on the advisory board of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media and is a contributor to the Center’s online magazine,The Revealer: A Review of Religion and Media. She is currently working on a collection of essays on the theme of confession.

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