Between the mid and late 4th century A.D., seemingly out of nowhere, scores of Rome's aristocratic women began casting away their beautiful garments and breaking off their engagements to pursue the celibate life (Sivan 1993: 92). Previously, almost all women of that social rank had married and born heirs to their senatorial husbands -- with the exception of six Vestal Virgins, who came from a wide range of social classes and opted into perpetual virginity for the benefit of the Roman state (Takacs 2008: 26, 43, 82).
Since time immemorial, Roman aristocratic women's marriages had been inextricably linked with their families' honor. It was primarily through these unions and their resulting heirs that patricians consolidated their wealth from generation to generation. Yet, by the end of the century, this obdurate batch of Christians had pressed through their families' initial opposition to make ascetic life an acceptable vocation for the upper class woman to pursue.
Granted, these gains may seem small by modern standards. Even consecrated virgins usually remained under their fathers' control. Marriages arranged without a daughter's input still would have been the norm. As wealthy women gained this new potential vocation, thousands of female slaves would have been raised in a world offering them no good options, if anyone bothered to raise them at all.
But Rome was not built in a day, nor were the rights of its women. In a milieu of exploitative social systems, it is reassuring to find women that Rome deemed worthy of some spiritual cultivation.
In my own time, comforted by the many rights and privileges I am afforded in contrast with my predecessors, I think a great deal about the implications of the college degree I will soon hold. More than anything, I find myself pausing to delight in the twenty years I have spent in school.
To quote Stanley Hauerwas, "[Education] is an extraordinary gift. In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study."
What a beautiful thing it is to learn! The technologies we have created for preserving our thoughts and actions provide evidence for complex, interesting, and occasionally even uplifting narratives -- like this story of skyrocketing asceticism among Rome's elite women.
Furthermore, education is a beautiful thing that makes its students more beautiful in turn. A steady diet of essays has curbed my sentences into tighter, more accurate phrasings. My many reading assignments have taught me to pierce through the noise and ascertain just what another human being has on his or her mind. Frequent study of the past has augmented my capacity for empathy. Loving specifically -- a city plan, a playwright, a poem -- helps me love humanity writ large in a far less theoretical manner. I am more fit to serve the world after this quarter of a life spent in study than I can imagine myself to have been otherwise.
It is not mine to pursue the joys of the academy much longer, and I am eager to put myself to good use. Nevertheless, I will miss these women and look forward to when next we meet.
There are beautiful things in this world, all over it. In the dust of papyri and in the stars of the sky. If you are able, discover it thoroughly. May study be the worship you render to the Creator of all things.