Models of Devotion?: The Rhetoric of Ambivalence and Admonition in Late Antique and Early Christian Discourse

June-Ann Greeley, Sacred Heart University


The concept of motherhood in late antique Roman and the concomitant early Christian societies was rife with ambiguity and a certain degree of permeability. In late antique society, becoming and being a mother was the obligation of being a woman. While that attitude did not change with the advent of Christianity, many of the church fathers privileged virginity as a status superior to and more sanctified than the more traditionally female roles as wife and mother. Such teachings created an impossible conflict for Christian women who were already married or who were already mothers before or in the process of their conversions to the Christian faith. Moreover, the rhetoric of the Church Fathers concerning the Virgin Mary as a model of motherhood and its rhetorical tradition of referencing the Christian ecclesial institution as “Holy Mother Church confused the concept of ‘motherhood’ even more. This chapter addresses some of those confounding complexities and interrogates the purported “liberation” of Christian women from their traditional role as mother as motherhood became associated with spiritual rather than physical relationships, and men as exemplars for spiritual parenting.