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Sozomenos (ca 443 AD)

by John Wijngaards

This author was a contemporary of St. John Chrysostom and St. Olympias, and he had direct access to primary witnesses. In his History of the Church he narrates the turbulent events surrounding John’s expulsion from Constantinople, and the persecution of John’s followers. Of great value is his acceptance of ordained women deacons as a normal feature of Church life.

Book 8, ch. 9. The enmity of the clergy against John [Chrysostom] was greatly increased by Serapion, his archdeacon. This man was an Egyptian, naturally given to anger, and always ready to insult his opponents. The feelings of hostility were further fostered by the advice which John gave to Olympias. Olympias who hailed from an elevated noble family, became a widow as a young woman. Because she was admirably educated in accordance with ecclesiastical law, [Archbishop] Nectarios had ordained her a deacon [διακονον ’εχειροτονησε]. John noticed that she liberally shared of her wealth with anyone who approached her. He also saw that she despised everything but the service of God, so he said to her: “I applaud your good intentions, but I would like you to know that those who aspire to the perfection of virtue according to God, ought to distribute their wealth with prudence. You, however, have been pouring gifts on the rich, which is as useless as if you had thrown these things into the sea. Do you not realise that you have voluntarily, for the sake of God, dedicated all your possessions to the relief of the poor? You ought, therefore, to regard your wealth as belonging to your Master, and to remember that you have to account for its distribution. If you take my advice, regulate your donations according to the needs of those who ask for help. Then you will be able to increase the effectiveness of your generosity, and your mercy and most zealous care will be rewarded by God.”[1]

Book 8, ch. 24. Olympias the deacon [‘η διακονος] manifested her strength of character during this time of upheaval [when St. Chrystostom had been exiled and the Hagia Sophia was set on fire by his followers]. She was dragged before the tribunal, and interrogated by the prefect [of the city, Optatus] as to her motives in setting fire to the church. She replied: “My past life ought to avert all suspicion from me, for I have devoted my large property to the restoration of the temples of God.” The prefect alleged that he was well acquainted with her past course of life. “If that is the case”, she replied, “why do you not take the place of the accuser and let someone else judge both of us?” Since the accusation against her could not be substantiated with proofs, the prefect found that he had no ground on which he could justly blame her. So he lessened the charge and began to speak as if he was anxious to give her good advice. He found fault with her, he said, and with the other women, because they refused communion with his [newly appointed] bishop [Arsacius, whom John’s followers considered a schismatic usurper]. “There is still time to repent”, he said, “and so to change your own situation.” All the [other women] deferred to the advice of the prefect out of fear, but Olympias gave this answer: “It is not just that, after having been publicly calumniated, without having had anything proved against me in court, I should be obliged to clear myself of charges totally unconnected with the accusation in question. Let me rather take counsel concerning the original accusation that has been preferred against me. For even if you resort to unlawful compulsion, I will not hold communion with those from whom I have, in conscience, to keep a distance, nor will I consent to anything that is not lawful to the pious.” When the prefect found that he could not prevail upon her to hold communion with Arsacius, he dismissed her in order that she might consult her lawyers. On another occasion, however, he again sent for her and condemned her to pay a heavy fine, for he imagined that by this means she would be compelled to change her mind. But she totally disregarded the loss of her property, and left Constantinople for Cyzicus.

The priest Tigrius was about the same period stripped of his clothes, scourged on the back, bound hand and foot, and stretched on the rack. He was a non-Greek by race, and celibate, but not by birth. He had originally been a slave in the house of a man in authority, and on account of his faithful services had obtained his freedom. He was afterwards ordained a priest [χειροτονηθησε πρεσβυτερος], and was distinguished by his moderation and meekness of disposition, and by his charity towards strangers and the poor. Such were the [shocking] events that happened in Constantinople at the time.[2]


1. Sozomenos, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. R. Hussey, Oxford, Oxford 1860, vol. II, p.812.
2. Sozomenos, Historia Ecclesiastica, p.859.