Alternate Name:
Macrina the Younger
Birth Date:
Death Date:
379 or 380
Birthplace is unknown.
Location of Work:
Basil the Elder
Emmelia (d. 370 or 371). When Emmelia was pregnant with Macrina, she dreamed that a man appeared to her and called the child NULL. Gregory interpreted this as a sign of Macrina's holiness (Life of St. Macrina, 962C).
Macrina was betrothed at age 12, but her fiance died in 340 before they could marry. After this, although she recieved many other offers of marriage, she chose to remain a virgin for life (Life of St. Macrina, 964C).
Other Family:

Macrina was the eldest of 10 brothers and sisters, 9 of whom survived past infancy. Her brothers included Basil (329-379), bishop of Caesarea, Gregory (335-394), bishop of Nyssa and author of Macrina's life, and Peter (340-391), bishop of Sebaste.

Macrina the Elder was Macrina's grandmother and the woman for whom Macrina was named. Macrina the Elder was a Christian during the persecutions of the late third and early fourth centuries (Life of St. Macrina, 960C).


Gregory, in Life of St. Macrina, claims that Macrina was educated at home by her mother, as typical of fourth-century women. Emmelia taught her daughter to read using the scriptures, rather than reading Greek poetry which was commonly used in education at the time. Macrina particularly liked the Wisdom of Solomon and the Psalms (962C-D).

However, in the De anima et resurrectione, Gregory portrays a Macrina well-acquainted with traditional pagan learning. It is unclear whether this text reflects Macrina's or Gregory's education, but it suggests that the chasm between pagan and Christian learning portrayed in the Life of St. Macrina may not accurately reflect Macrina's education and that Macrina probably read classical Greek texts during her studies at home (The Cappadocian Fathers. Women and Ecclesiastical Politics, 170).

Social Status:

Macrina belonged to a wealthy family, but it is not clear whether they were members of the senatorial elite of the Roman Empire. Her father Basil was a local leader but was not well-known outside of Pontus. The family owned property in three Asian provinces.


After Macrina's fiance died, she began to live her life as a virgin dedicated to God. In this way, she merged two exclusive concepts: the unmarried girl and the widow. She remained living at home but began to pray regularly. She recited the psalms at regular intervals, engaged in manual labor, and began to bake her mother's bread. In this way, she humbled herself before those around her by engaging in work reserved for slaves (Virgins of God : the making of asceticism in late antiquity, 44-46).

After Basil the Elder died, Emmelia along with three of her children- Macrina, Peter, and Naucratius- moved from Neocaesarea to live in their country estate at Anessi. There, Macrina set up a monastery for women. Since her brothers also practiced an ascetic lifestyle while living on the property, it is likely that the female and male communities had regular interaction. Naucratius soon moved elsewhere on the family's property to live in an all male community, but Peter continued to live in his mother's house until he became bishop in 380 (Virgins of God : the making of asceticism in late antiquity, 78-83, 97).

When Naucratius died in 357 in a hunting accident, Macrina encouraged Emmelia to join Macrina in her ascetic lifestyle. They gave away all of their luxuries and shared in the same lifestyle as their maids (Life of St. Macrina, 970C-972B).

At this point, Macrina appears to have assumed the role of head of household, managing her mother's estate and manumitting all their slaves. Some slaves likely stayed in Macrina's house and joined her community. Around 357, virgins began to gather around Macrina and Emmelia and an ascetic community emerged. In 368 and 369, when Cappadocia and Pontus experienced bouts of famine, Macrina adopted orphan girls into her community. In addition, wealthy women, such as Vetiana and the deaconess Lampadion joined the community (Virgins of God : the making of asceticism in late antiquity, 83-95).

As the community grew, its members established a hierarchical structure. Melania was recognized as the founder and she acted as the sole and final authority in all matters. Lampadion presided over the community, thus acting as a second in command to Melania. The decision to join the community was personal; there was no public ceremony or vow which defined membership in the community. The women wore distinct clothing and continued with a routine of prayer and manual labor (Virgins of God : the making of asceticism in late antiquity, 96-102).

In the meanwhile, after Naucratius' death, Macrina's brother Basil moved into Naucratius' small and rustic monastery. During his time living as an ascetic, he wrote The ascetic works of Saint Basil. Although he never mentions Macrina or her community in this work, he likely had frequent contact with Macrina and she was influential in developing his ideas about female monastic life (Virgins of God : the making of asceticism in late antiquity, 102-104).

Gregory of Nyssa's Life of St. Macrina offers a detailed picture of female monasticism in its earliest stage. Here, monastic and ascetic movement drew on the networks and resources of the biological family. Cohabitation involved mixing biological kinship, patronage, and ownership, but also shared the common goal of ascetic practice (Approaching the Holy Household). The biological family did not exist as an impediment to ascetic practice, but rather Gregory portrays Macrina as an example of the ideal spiritualization of the biological family. Macrina's family was transformed in its embrace of asceticism to a family where kinship bonds aided its members on their path towards salvation ("From the womb of the church": Monastic families).

Ecclesiastical Relationships:

Macrina's three brothers were bishops (see "Other Family"). Basil was close friends with Gregory (329-389), bishop of Nazianzus and archbishop of Constantinople, and he likely formed part of Melania's family's inner circle. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus were some of the foremost theologians and leaders in the fourth-century Byzantine church.

Feast Day:
July 19

Emmelia, Melania's mother, placed the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in their family chapel, which was approximately 8 stades from their house. After Emmelia's home was turned into a monastery, this chapel possibly acted as the worship space for the monks and nuns living there.

Literary Works:

Melania's brother, Gregory of Nyssa, wrote Vita sanctae Macrinae and De anima et resurrectione, which are our main sources of information about Melania's life.

In De anima et resurrectione, Gregory describes the philosophical dialogue which he shared with Macrina on her deathbed. He portrays Macrina as a Socratic figure who encourages Gregory to overcome his fear of death. In the dialogue, Gregory's suffering is transformed into insight on the nature of the soul and immortality.

Gregory set down Vita sanctae Macrinae in the form of a letter, addressed to the monk Olympius, but the text far exceeds the length of a letter. The life most closely reflects two genres: Greek philosophical biography and legends of the martyrs. Gregory depicts a capable woman with strong character. The fact that Melania's life was written by an individual who knew her so well makes it an invaluable source for understanding one of the earliest women to live a monastic life.

Manuscript sources:
Dina Boero