Fainting fits and their causes: a topos in two Middle Byzantine metaphraseis by Nicetas the Paphlagonian and Nicephorus Ouranos

by Dirk Krausmüller

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Byzantine metaphraseis of older hagiographical literature present modern scholars with a predicament: what is one to do with texts which do not add new episodes to the original stories and which are equally not used by their authors as vehicles of self-expression? This absence of immediately apparent “original” features is without doubt the main reason for the comparative neglect of these texts by modern scholars.1 Detailed comparisons between the contents of the paraphrases and their models remain a desideratum. In this article I will limit the analysis to one of the most distinctive features of Byzantine metaphraseis: the comments made by the authors on the narratives they found in their models.

The importance of such comments has been stressed by Elizabeth Fisher in a recent article on Michael Psellos as a theoretician and practitioner of hagiography.2 In his Encomium of Symeon Metaphrastes Psellos spelt out what he considered essential features for a hagiographical text to be appealing to a contemporary audience. One of these features is the incorporation into the narrative “of various specialised topics”.3 In her article Fisher shows that Psellos did indeed add such passages to his own metaphrasis of the Late Antique Life of Auxentius and gives as an example Psellos’ description of the disease elephantiasis for which he drew on Ancient medical texts.4

Psellos appears to have been unique in making explicit the rules that guided his hagiographical production. However, the practice of inserting set pieces into the narrative of a saint’s life is not an innovation made by Psellos. Comparison with older metaphraseis shows that by the eleventh century it was already well established. In this article I will discuss one such topic: the explanation of how emotional states can lead to unconsciousness. I will look at two hagiographical texts by two authors of the Middle Byzantine period: Nicetas the Paphlagonian and his metaphrasis (BHG 708) of the eighth-century Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius of Rome (BHG 707);5 and Nicephorus Ouranos and his metaphrasis (BHG 1689) of the seventh-century Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain which was probably composed by Arcadius of Cyprus (BHG 1690).6

The older of the two authors, the monk Nicetas the Paphlagonian, was a prominent figure during the reign of Emperor Leo VI (886-912) against whose fourth marriage he was fiercely opposed.7 He was a prolific writer. Most of his works were Encomia on apostles, martyrs and monastic saints.8However, he also wrote long hagiographical narratives: apart from the Life of Gregory of Agrigentum he composed a Life of Patriarch Ignatius and the Acts of the Apostle Andrew which is equally a metaphrasis of an older text.9

Nicephorus Ouranos was an aristocrat who served Emperor Basil II (976-1025) in various functions, finally becoming gouvernor of the province of Antioch on the Orontes.10 From his writings it appears that he was a deeply pious man.11 He imitated his mentor Symeon Metaphrastes by leading the life of a monk in the midst of wordly affairs.12 And like Symeon Metaphrastes, Nicephorus Ouranos was an author of hagiographical texts. Apart from the Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain he wrote a Passio of Theodore the Recruit which is also based on an older model.13

A look at the two metaphraseis of the Life of Gregory of Agrigentum and of the Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain confirms the observations made at the beginning of this article. Neither of the texts contains passages in which the authors speak about themselves in a way that goes beyond the repetition of well-worn topoi.14 As a consequence, we can no longer determine why Nicetas the Paphlagonian undertook his metaphrasis, be it to fulfil a liturgical need or to express his personal piety. As regards Nicephorus Ouranos, I have already mentioned that at one time he was gouvernor of Antioch. Thus, there can be no doubt that he visited the neighbouring Wondrous Mountain and Symeon’s monastery.15 However, in his metaphrasis he does not breathe a word of such a visit.16 Thus, all one can say is that both authors chose saints who, to judge by the extent of their dossiers, appear to have been quite popular in the tenth and eleventh centuries.17

Comparison with the original Lives shows that both authors subjected the text of their models to a thorough revision with the purpose of raising the stylistic level of the narratives.18 In this revision one must certainly see one of the main reasons why they undertook the task: they catered for an audience that since Late Antiquity had become more fastidious and was no longer content with unadorned narratives.19 It seems that their efforts met with the approval of their contemporaries. Despite its great length Nicephorus’ metaphrasis comes down to us in four manuscripts.20 And Nicetas’ text was later included in the Metaphrastic Menologium and consequently enjoyed a very wide distribution.21

Apart from this stylistic overhaul the modifications made by the two authors are quite limited. In both cases they chose to retain the literary genre of their models and did not turn the Lives into Encomia.22 On the whole, they followed the original sequence of episodes.23 Omissions do occur but are not extensive enough to change the character of the narratives.24 As a consequence, scholarly interest has focused on the models and the twometaphraseis have not been looked at as literary texts in their own right.25

However, the two texts are not devoid of original features. I shall now turn to the main topic of this article and discuss two descriptions of the link between excessive emotion and fainting. I shall begin with the Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius and the metaphrasis by Nicetas the Paphlagonian. As already pointed out, the basic features of the narrative are identical both in the original Life and in Nicetas’ metaphrasis: Following a divine calling, Gregory clandestinely leaves his home-town Agrigentum in the company of monks and goes to the Holy Land.26 While Gregory remains there, the monks travel back to Agrigentum where they are invited by the local bishop and by chance overhear the wailing of Gregory’s mother over her lost son.27 They then ask for the reason of her behaviour and are told about Gregory’s life and the circumstances of his disappearance.28 The leader of the monks, Mark, recognises Gregory from the story, discloses his knowledge of the saint and then gives an account of Gregory’s life in the Holy Land.29

In both texts then follows a description of the reaction of the listeners to this unexpected disclosure, first of the people in general and then of Gregory’s parents in particular. I will first juxtapose the description of the people’s reaction in Leontius’ text with the paraphrase in order to give a general idea of how Nicetas changed his model.

Leontius’ Life:

“And having heard, all the multitude of the people, men and women, lifting up their voices and stretching out their hands to heaven shouted the ‘Lord have mercy!’ with many tears.”

kai akousantes hapan to plètos tou laou andrôn te kai gunaikôn èran eis hupsos tèn fôrèn autôn kai tas cheiras eis ton ouranon ekpetasantes ekrazon to kurie eleèson meta dakruôn pollôn. 30

Nicetas’ metaphrasis:

“For all the multitude having been moved by the narrative as if by some bacchanal bound exceedingly sweetly and clap loudly and lift the voice, filling the air with shouting and, through the unexpectedness of the matter, thanking as well as glorifying the name of God. And thus the multitude, making the matter an opportunity for common rejoicing.”

to men gar plètos hapan hoia tini bakcheiai tèi diègèsei kekinèmenoi lian te skirtôsin hèdu kai mega krotousi kai tèn fônèn airousi boès te ton aera plèrountes kai tôi paradoxôi tou pragmatos eucharistountes hama kai to tou theou doxazontes onoma: kai houtô men to plèthos koinèn eufrosunèn to pragma poioumenoi.31

The differences in the treatment of this theme are striking. In the original Life the reaction of the people is described in short and formulaic statements. Nicetas’ metaphrasis is much more elaborate: it spells out and highlights several aspects which are only implied in his model. Whereas in the original the hearing of the story is immediately followed by gesticulating and shouting, Nicetas mentions the internal response which precedes these outer actions. Moreover, he supplies the reasons for such a behaviour: the “paradoxical” character of the story. And finally, to the shouting and clapping in his model he adds references to the movements of the bodies in general, introduces a learned comparison with “Bacchic” madness, and juxtaposes the reaction of the crowd with that of the parents in order to create a climax.

This elaboration is all the more remarkable for the fact that otherwise Nicetas considerably shortened the text of his model. It shows clearly the most distinctive feature of Nicetas’ paraphrase: his penchant for the emotional. This penchant is a common trait of hagiographical texts dating to the tenth century when stark narrative was no longer considered fashionable and the depiction of “emotions” through the use of rhetorical devices became the accepted norm.32

However, the interest of tenth-century hagiographers in emotions was not limited to their description: they were equally interested in the pathology of emotional crises. This will become obvious when we now turn to a comparison of the ways in which the parents’ reaction to the news about Gregory of Agrigentum is described.

Leontius’ Life:

“Chariton and his wife fell to the ground and lay on their faces like the dead. But the monk approached them and gripped them and helped them up.”

ho de Charitôn kai hè gunè autou pesontes chamai epi prosôpon ekeinto hôsei nekroi: proselthôn de ho monachos ekratèsen autous kai ègerein.33

Nicetas’ metaphrasis:

“But the parents of Gregory even almost got beside themselves through the excess of joy and half-dead fell to the earth. For just as lack of measure in sorrow can cause getting beside oneself thus no less also joy, and often danger has arisen from both. Then, having been helped up by Mark and barely having come to their senses, they disbelieved.”

hoi de ge tou Grègoriou pateres mikrou kai eis ekstasin tèi huperbolèi tès hèdonès hèkon kai hèmithnètes eis gèn katepipton: ekstatikon gar hôsper ametria lupès houtôs ouden hètton kai hèdonè kai kindunos pollakis ex amfoterôn epèlthen: eita pros tou Markou dianastantes kai molis heautôn genomenoi dièpistoun.34

Both texts tell the same story: the parents faint and are then helped up by the monk Mark. However, whereas in the original Life the fainting is simply stated and then the narrative immediately continues with the monk helping them up, Nicetas inserts between these two events an etiology of the parents’ reaction: it is explained as the effect of the excessive joy the parents felt about the news. In addition, Nicetas remarks that sorrow can have the same effect. This last comment is no longer immediately relevant to the narrative. With it Nicetas takes his audience away from the specific situation and makes them ponder about a “medical” condition in abstract terms.

In doing so he followed the conventions of hagiographical writing which were predominant at the time. This becomes evident when we now turn to the second metaphrasis, Nicephorus’ Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain.

The seventh-century Life of Symeon is characterised by a great number of healing miracles which are by and large retained in Nicephorus’metaphrasis.35 One of these stories which is found in both versions tells the story of a nobleman from Cappadocia with a festering wound. It runs along the lines which had been set down by the hagiographical tradition. Having been given up by the physicians he comes to Symeon and asks him to be healed. 36 The saint lets him come up to the top of the pillar and tells him that he is healed already. However, the man is so baffled that at first he does not notice the change until Symeon tells him to examine the diseased spot.37 When the man finally realises what has happened he experiences a violent physical reaction. I will again compare the description of this reaction in the original Life with that found in the metaphrasis.

Arcadius’ Life:

“And after having come to his senses and having received the words, having examined and having seen that the suffering had become invisible he was greatly troubled and he bent to fall down on the earth. And the bystanders grabbed him.”

kai en heautôi genomenos kai ton logon dexamenos ereunèsas kai idôn hoti afanes gegone to pathos autou ethroèthè megalôs k ai eklithè tou katapesein epi tèn gèn: kai epelabonto autou hoi parestôtes.38

Nicephorus’ metaphrasis:

“But when having entrusted the examination to his hand he realises that he is without suffering the swelling having been completely smoothed out so that nothing whatsoever indicates it, he is filled with dizziness and vertigo of the kind that is in keeping with nature: which not only an excess of sudden sorrow but also one of joy often naturally effects when through the unexpected nature of the matter it (sc. excess) has contracted the warmth of the heart and abandoned as dead the activities of the body. He then, having been astounded by the unexpectedness of the matter would almost have keeled over if some of those present had not held hands under him.”

hôs de tèi cheiri tèn ereunan epitrepsas egnô heauton apathè tou ogkou pantapasin hupoleanthentos hôs mèden ti oun episèmainein tou kata fusin iliggou plèroutai kai dinès: hoper ou lupès afnidiou monon alla kai charas huperbolè pollakis pefuke dran tôi adokètôi tou pragmatos to tès kardias thermon susteilasa kai nekras hôsper tou sômatos tas energeias apolipousa: ho men oun tôi tou pragmatos paradoxôi kataplageis oligou dein emelle peritrepein ei mè cheiras autôi tines tôn parontôn hupeschon.39

Again the Late Antique original is considerably extended in the Middle Byzantine metaphrasis: Whereas the seventh-century Life simply gives an account of what happened Nicephorus not only elaborates this account but also adds an analysis of the physiological processes that led to the fainting.

The similarities between the passages in Nicetas’ and in Nicephorus’ metaphraseis are obvious: the juxtaposition of the opposite emotions “sorrow (lupè)” and “joy (charan, hèdonè)”, the problem of “excess (huperbolè, ametria)” and the ensuing danger to the human being. Thus, there can be no doubt that both authors employed a common topos which was considered appropriate in this context.

Comparison between the two models shows that the man from Cappadocia and the bystanders in the Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain are engaged in a similar interaction as the parents of the saint and the monk Mark in the Life of Gregory of Agrigentum. This allows us to gain an insight into the craft of a metaphrastes: the mention of fainting in the model acts as the “trigger” for the insertion of the topos which the authors are likely to have memorised during their training.

In making a display of their medical knowledge both authors evidently attempted to arouse the interest of their sophisticated audiences in the same way as Elizabeth Fisher has shown Psellos to have done.40 However, there are also noticeable differences in their presentations of the topos. In this instance Nicephorus shows a greater interest in the more technical aspects of medical pathology when he speaks about the effect of emotions on the flow of blood in the body.

In conclusion, it can be said that while not interfering with the narratives of their models authors of Middle Byzantine metaphraseis nevertheless “updated” their texts and that one of the new features was the insertion of comments on the pathology of emotional states. These comments were clearly topical and part of the panoply which was at the service of all hagiographers who had had a training in rhetoric. In keeping with the tenets of imitation and emulation their aim was not to introduce new features but rather to give traditional features a new twist.


1 During the last decades scholars have tended to concentrate on the analysis of stylistic changes made by the authors when reworking their models. Cf. especially E. Schiffer, ‘Zur Umarbeitung rhetorischer Texte durch Symeon Metaphrastes’, Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 42 (1992), 143-155, and E. Schiffer, ‘Metaphrastic Lives and Earlier metaphráseis of Saints’ Lives’, Metaphrasis. Redactions and Audiences in Middle Byzantine Hagiography, ed. C. Hoegel (KULTs skriftseries No. 50, Oslo, 1996), 22-41. Such an approach yields many interesting insights. However, it does not solve the problem of establishing in what way the contents of these texts may have been relevant to the authors themselves and to their contemporary audiences.

2 E. Fisher, ‘Michael Psellos on the rhetoric of hagiography and the Life of St Auxentius’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 17 (1993), 43-55.

3 Fisher, ‘Michael Psellos on the rhetoric of hagiography’, 48-49.

4 Fisher, ‘Michael Psellos on the rhetoric of hagiography’, 54.

5 Nicetas the Paphlagonian, ‘Vita et conversatio S. Gregorii episcopi Agrigentini’, PG, 116, 189-261. In Migne this text is published as part of the Metaphrastic Menologium. However, the text also appears under Nicetas’ name. This allows the conclusion that Symeon inserted this text into his collection, cf. A. Ehrhard, Überlieferung und Bestand der hagiographischen und homiletischen Literatur der griechischen Kirche von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts. Erster Teil: Die Überlieferung. Vol. II (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, 51, Leipzig, 1938), 470, note 6. However, it must be stressed that without a critical edition it cannot be ruled out that Symeon introduced changes into Nicetas’ text. For Nicetas’ model, cf. Leontios Presbyteros von Rom, Das Leben des heiligen Gregorios von Agrigent. Kritische Ausgabe, Übersetzung und Kommentar von A. Berger (Berliner Byzantinistische Arbeiten, 60, Berlin, 1993), esp. 48-53 with a discussion of the eighth/ninth-century date of the Life.

6 Nicephorus’ version is edited as ‘Vita Symeonis stylitae iunioris in monte Mirabili’ in Acta Sanctorum, Maii, V (3rd edition, Paris, Rome, 1868), 310-397, and in PG, 86, 2987-3216. The original Life of Symeon has been edited by P. van den Ven, La vie ancienne de Syméon Stylite le Jeune, I:Introduction et texte grec (Subsidia hagiographica, 32, Brussels, 1962), cf. introduction, 121*-128* about the authorship of Arcadius and the resulting date to the first half of the seventh century. Recently doubts about the coherence of the text have been voiced by P. Speck, ‘Wunderheilige und Bilder. Zur Frage des Beginns der Bilderverehrung’, Varia, III, ed. W. Brandes, S. Kotzabassi, C. Ludwig, P. Speck (Poikila Byzantina, 11, Bonn, 1991), 163-247, esp. 165-193.

7 Nicetas is best known from the Life of Patriarch Euthymius, ed. P. Karlin-Hayter, Vita Euthymii Patriarchae CP. Text, Translation, Introduction and Commentary (Bibliothèque de Byzantion, 3, Brussels, 1970), c. 16, 105-106, and commentary on p. 219. Recently B. Flusin has edited a hagiographical fragment which may come from a Vita of Nicetas the Paphlagonian, cf. B. Flusin, ‘Un fragment inédit de la Vie d’Euthyme le Patriarche? II. Vie d’Euthyme ou Vie de Nicétas?’, Travaux et Mémoires, 10 (1987), 233-260.

8 On Nicetas’ Encomia, cf. Th. Antonopoulou, ‘Homiletic Activity in Constantinople Around 900’, Preacher and Audience. Studies in Early Christian and Byzantine Homiletics, ed. M. B. Cunningham and P. Allen (A New History of the Sermon, 1, Leiden, Boston, Cologne, 1998), 317-345, esp. 331-336, with a list of his writings.

9 The Life of Patriarch Ignatius was edited in PG, 105, 488-574. The “Deeds of the Apostle Andrew” were edited by M. Bonnet, ‘Acta Andreae apostoli cum laudatione contexta’, Analecta Bollandiana, 13 (1894), 309-352.

10 For an overview cf. E. McGeer, ‘Ouranos, Nikephoros’, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 3 (1991), 1544-1545. Nicephorus is first mentioned in 979 and appears to have died in the early years of the eleventh century. For his post as gouvernor of Antioch, cf. esp. Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art, III, ed. J. Nesbitt, N. Oikonomides (Washington, D. C.), 177, no. 99. 11: Nikephoros Ouranos, magistros and “master” of the Orient (X/XI c.), with bust of the virgin and invocation: Theotoke boèthei tôi sôi doulôi Nikèforôi magistrôi tôi kratounti tès Anatolès tôi Ouranôi. Nicephorus was the author of a treatise on Taktika, cf. E. McGeer, ‘Tradition and Reality in the Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 45 (1991), 139.

11 A strong sense of the own sinfulness is expressed in his “catanyctic alphabet”, ed. A. Papadopoulos-Kerameus, ‘Buzantina analekta, I: alfabètos Ouranou magistrou’, Byantinische Zeitschrift, 8 (1899), 66-70.

12 S. G. Mercati, ‘Versi di Niceforo Uranos in morte di Simeone Metafraste’, Analecta Bollandiana, 68 (1950), 126-134, esp. 131, v. 27: tropos monèrès en salôi tôn pragmatôn.

13 F. Halkin, ‘Un opuscule inconnu du magistre Nicéphore Ouranos (La Vie de S. Théodore le Conscrit), Analecta Bollandiana, 80 (1962), 308-324, text, 313-324, cf. the title, p. 313: marturion tou hagiou megalomarturos Theodôrou tou tèrônos suggrafen para Nikèforou magistrou tou Ouranou. ThePassio which is based on the eigth-century anonymous Vita, educatio et miracula of Theodore the Recruit (BHG 1764), was edited by H. Delehaye, Les légendes grecques des saints militaires (Paris, 1909), 183-201, app. V. Vita et miracula (1764).

14 However, it must be stressed that there are cases where authors do use hagiographical texts metaphraseis to present personal concerns. An example is the metaphrasis of the Life of Joseph the Hymnographer by John the Maistor, where the author uses the narrative to propound his view of the immediate retribution of the saints after death, cf. J. Gouillard, ‘Léthargie des âmes et culte des saints: un plaidoyer inédit de Jean diacre et maïstor’, Travaux et mémoires, 8 (1981), 171-186, esp. 180-181.

15 Cf. the comment by H. Delehaye, Les saints stylites (Subsidia hagiographica, 14, Brussels, 1923), lx: “Très peu de traits personnels sont à relever dans cette biographie.”

16 Delehaye, Les saints stylites, lx, assumed autopsy because of the reference to a special feast instituted by the saint, i. e. Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain by Nicephorus Ouranos, c. 115, PG, 86, 3093C: tautèn ho men dedôken entolèn tois episèmoterois tôn adelfôn hètis para tèi monèi kai eis deuro tèreitai. However, this is information that could have been got elsewhere. Another possible reference to local information equally turns out to be inconclusive. In keeping with the interests of the time Nicephorus explains the name Angulas: “After that … the enemy entered into one of the brothers … Isaurian by race, Angulas by name, which they say the lazy is called in the language of the Syrians, I do not know whether called that at the beginning which he became afterwards also through his deeds (or?) having changed the name through the deed later and having fitted the name in accordance with the deeds; having then entered into this one… the enemy stirs up … the whole brotherhood.” Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain by Nicephorus Ouranos, c. 132, PG, 86, 3108D: meta de tauta … ho echthros … hupoduetai tôn adelfôn hena … Isauron to genos Aggoulan tèn prosègorian ho tèi tôn Surôn glôttèi fasi ton oknèron onomazesthai ouk oida eite touto tèn archèn klèthenta ho meta tauta egegonei kai tois ergois (è?) tèn klèsin husteron tèi praxei metabalonta kai katallèlon tois ergois harmosamenon tèn prosègorian: touton toigaroun ho echthros hupodus pasan ektarattei … tèn adelfotèta. This elaboration is not yet found in the seventh-century Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain, ed. Van den Ven, I, c. 123, p. 103, ll. 1-3: meta tauta kinei ho Satanas Aggoulan tina Isauron hena tôn adelfôn kai ektarattei tèn adelfotèta. Taken at face value, it might suggest a knowledge of Syriac. However, as Professor S. Brock has pointed out to me this etymology has no basis in the Syriac language and was wholly made up by Nicephorus. Therefore it cannot be adduced as evidence for first-hand knowledge or access to independent information.

17 For a presentation and discussion of the hagiographical dossier on Gregory of Agrigentum, cf. Berger, Leontios von Rom, 128-140. Interest in theLife of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain for a long time seems to have been limited to his rôle as a witness for icon worship, cf. Speck, ‘Wunderheilige und Bilder’, 194-210. However, with the reconquest of Antioch the monastery returned to the Byzantine “ambit”, the pilgrimage flowered, and a spate of new texts was written (the earliest – and longest – of which seems to have been Nicephorus’ paraphrase). The majority of these texts were edited by J. Bompaire, ‘Abrégés de la vie de saint Syméon Stylite le Jeune’, Ellenika, 13 (1954), 71-110. Among the authors is a John Petrinos who may date to the eleventh to twelfth centuries, cf. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur, 638.

18 A comparison of Ouranos’ metaphrasis with the original Life shows that he limited himself to stylistic changes. The new elements are mostly transitions between the episodes, cf. e. g. c. 57, PG, 86, 3040A, and c. 102, 3081C, and interjections to highlight the miraculous (passim).

19 This change in taste was discussed by I. Sevcenko, ‘Levels of Style in Byzantine Prose’, Akten des XVI. Internationalen Byzantinistenkongresses, I/1 (Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 31. 1, 1981), 289-312, esp. 301-302 who based his argument on Michael Psellos, Oratio in sanctum Symeonem Metaphrastem, ed. E. Fisher, Opera Hagiographica, pp. 267-288.

20 Delehaye, Les saints stylites, lx, note, 1.

21 See above note 5.

22 Accordingly, in their prefaces they anncounce their intention to tell their stories in a chronological order. Nicetas the Paphlagonian states: “To me then it seems to be a very pleasurable matter and one worth the effort to write up his story from the beginning”, cf. Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Nicephorus the Paphlagonian, c. 1, PG, 116, 189A: emoi men oun hèdiston ti pragma dokei kai spoudès axion ton autou bion anôthen anagrapsasthai, and Nicephorus Ouranos gives an overview of the saint’s biography and then introduces the narrative with the phrase: “However, we must lead back the speech further to the beginning and present … of what kind of parents this kind of man was born”, cf. Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountainby Nicephorus Ouranos, c. 3, 2989B: dei de mikron anôterô ton logon anagagontas hoiôn ho toioutos efu goneôn … parastèsai. This is simply a more elaborate way of introducing a biographical narrative. In his other hagiographical writing, the Life of Theodore the Recruit Nicephorus Ouranos employs a formula which is more similar to the one used by Nicetas: “The speech shall go through this affairs from the beginning right from the birthpangs and the first hair”, cf. Life of Theodore the Recruit by Nicephorus Ouranos, ed. Halkin, c. 1, p. 313: kai ta kat’ auton anôthen ex autès ôdinos kai prôtès trichos ho logos diexietô. The key term in these texts is the adverb anôthen which signals to the audience that the subject matter will be presented in chronological fashion from birth to death.

23 Cf. Delehaye, Les saints stylites, lix-lx. I have not been able to consult E. Müller, Studien zu den Biographien des Styliten Symeon des Jüngeren(Aschaffenburg, 1914), who undertook a comparison of the two versions. For a summary of his observations, cf. H.-G. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich (Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, 12. 2. 1, Munich, 1959), 577: “Seine (sc. des Nikephoros) Arbeit is keine selbständige Leistung, sondern beruht in der Hauptsache auf dem Bios, der Arkadios von Kypros zugeschrieben wird.” As the editor Halkin demonstrated, the same is true for Nicephorus’ metaphrasis of the Vita, educatio et martyrium of Theodore the Recruit, cf. Halkin, ‘Un opuscule inconnu du magistre Nicéphore Ouranos’, p. 310, who juxtaposes two passages from Nicephorus’ text and the Vita, educatio et martyrium and then concludes that the Nicephorus’ text “est donc parallèle à toute la première moitié” of the text edited by Delehaye.

24 Berger, Leontios von Rom, 129, points to the omission in Nicetas’ paraphrase of lengthy speeches and prayers which means that Nicetas’ text is only three quarters of the length of the original Life. In Nicephorus’ paraphrase the shortening is most noticeable in the seemingly endless list of miracles at the end of the Life of Symeon: Between the story of the woman Theosebia, ed. Van den Ven, c. 243, pp. 217-218, which Nicephorus paraphrases in c. 245, p. 3209, and the passage that concludes the series of miracles and achieves the transition to the account of Symeon’s death, ed. Van den Ven, c. 254, pp. 220-221, which appears in Nicephorus’ text as c. 247, pp. 3212-3213, Nicephorus has retained only one miracle story, that of a lame man who gets carried to Symeon by a mule, ed. Van den Ven, c. 249, pp. 219-229, which is adapted in c. 246, pp. 3209-3212, whereas he leaves out two series of short descriptions of miracles which surround this one longer episode, ed. Van den Ven, cc. 244-248, pp. 218-21, and ed. Van den Ven, cc. 250-253, p. 220.

25 Berger, Leontios von Rom, 129, calls Nicetas’ text “eine durchgehende stilistische Überarbeitung” and specifies, 131: “”Seine Bearbeitung erstreckt sich neben der stilistischen Retusche … auf kleinere inhaltliche Korrekturen”, concluding: “Trotzdem folgt er (sc. der Text) aber dabei, obwohl er durchgehend neu formuliert ist, dem Original Satz für Satz.” In the case of the Life of Symeon the observation of a lack of originality led van den Ven to a negative judgement of the quality of the metaphrasis, cf. van den Ven’s statement in the introduction to his edition, Vie de Syméon, I, 11*: “la médiocre paraphrase de Nicéphore Ouranos”.

26 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius Presbyter, ed. Berger, c. 2, p. 44, l. 23 – c. 18, p. 164, l. 21. Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Nicetas the Paphlagonian, c. 2, p. 189B6 – c. 13, p. 205C10.

27 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius Presbyter, ed. Berger, c. 18, p. 164, l. 21 – c. 21, p. 167, l. 12. Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Nicetas the Paphlagonian, c. 13, p. 205C10 – c. 16, p. 209B8.

28 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius Presbyter, ed. Berger, c. 21, p. 167, l. 12 – p. 21, p. 169, l. 40. Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Nicetas the Paphlagonian, c. 17, p. 209B9 – c. 18, p. 212C3.

29 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius Presbyter, ed. Berger, c. 25, p. 161, l. 1 – c. 25, p. 174, l. 1. Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Nicetas the Paphlagonian, c. 19, p. 212C4 – c. 19, p. 213A10.

30 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius Presbyter, ed. Berger, c. 25, p. 174, ll. 1-3.

31 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Nicetas the Paphlagonian, c. 19, p. 213A10-B2.

32 Rosenqvist has studied this phenomenon in his comparison between the “original” ninth-century Life of Philaretus the Merciful and the tenth-century metaphrasis delta which he concludes with the statement that whereas the model was quite matter of fact “there is in d an obvious predelection (sic) for embedding actions in a sentimental mood that is completely alien to Nicetas’ original Life, … the tendency is striking and has a deep impact on the emotional temperature of the Life.” Cf. Rosenqvist, ‘Changing Styles and Changing Mentalities’, Metaphrasis. Redactions and Audiences in Middle Byzantine Hagiography, ed. C. Hoegel (KULTs skriftseries No. 50, Oslo, 1996), 50-51.

33 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Leontius Presbyter, ed. Berger, c. 26, p. 174, ll. 3-4; plus ll. 4-5.

34 Life of Gregory of Agrigentum by Nicetas the Paphlagonian, c. 20, PG, 116, p. 213B2-7; plus p. 213B8-9. With the phrase hèmithnètes eis gèn katepipton Nicetas alludes to katapesôn ge toi hèmithanès in IV Maccabees. Here one could argue that in his choice he was guided by the similarity between tas cheiras exeteinen eis ton ouranon … meta dakruôn in the context of this passage in IV Maccabees and the previous passage tas cheiras eis ton ouranon ekpetasantes … meta dakruôn pollôn in his model.

35 See above note 24.

36 Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain, ed. van den Ven, I, c. 168, p. 150, ll. 1-19. Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain by Nicephorus Ouranos, c. 180, p. 3152B8-3153A2.

37 Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain, ed. van den Ven, I, c. 168, p. 150, ll. 1-16. Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain by Nicephorus Ouranos, c. 180, p. 3151B8-D7.

38 Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain, ed. van den Ven, I, c. 168, p. 150, ll. 16-19.

39 Life of Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain by Nicephorus Ouranos, c. 180, PG, 86, 3152D7-3153A2.

40 I have not been able to identify the common model although there can be no doubt that such a model exists, cf. e. g. Galen’s treatise Ad Glauconem de medendi methodo, I, c. 15, ed. ed. C. G. Kühn, Claudii Galeni opera omnia, XI (Leipzig, 1826), 48-49: malista de presbutai paschousin auto to leipothumein kai hoi allôs astheneis: kai gar lupèthentes autôn polloi kai charentes kai thumôthentes eleipothumèsan. Like Nicetas and Nicephorus Galen here connects fainting with emotions like joy, sorrow and anger. Moreover, he lists as possible victims the “old” (like Gregory’s parents) and the “ill” (like the man from Cappadocia).

Published in print in Golden Horn, Volume 9 issue 1 (Winter 2001-2002)

Politics of silence and confrontation: Was there ever Byzantinism?

by Alexander Mirkovic *

There is almost universal consensus that the most important issue in the cultural history of the late Byzantine Empire was whether or not to bring about the union with the Western Church.1 The Byzantines identified the Western Church with the papacy, an institution represented by the official structure and defined by the universally accepted belief in a great universal creed. They negotiated the union of the Churches without realizing that the Christian body in the West was a conglomeration of local communities that could easily split apart from the official structure. The hope of the highest governmental echelons in Byzantium was that the promised military help in exchange for the union of Churches would bring badly needed military assistance. Even though we now know that the promised military help from the papacy was not and could not have been organized in time to save the failing state, it is a fact that all other political, social, and cultural issues are in one way or the other related to this decision facing Byzantine society. Finally, after the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantine Church rejected the union and was supported in that decision by the Ottoman sultans, but scholars still argue why the ecclesiastical union was rejected and about what the rejection has meant for the population and their cultural identity.

In our opinion some scholars today make the same kind of categorical mistake that the Byzantines made in their negotiation with the papacy. They assume that the Byzantine Church was also a monolith body united by a commonly shared tradition under the leadership of the patriarch and the emperor. For example, Steven Runciman summarized this point in an unambiguous manner: ‘The real bar to union was that Eastern and Western Christendom felt differently about religion, and it is difficult to debate about feelings.’2 What underlines this statement is the presupposition that the Orthodox Church, by and large, managed to unite Byzantine society behind itself on a level that the papacy was never able to accomplish. Runciman’s student Donald Nicol ventured further into defining the ‘feeling’ of Byzantine self-identity, which prevented them from becoming something else through the union of the Churches. He called it ‘Byzantinism’, a sense of spiritual identity that was nourished by an irrational belief in the interdependence of time and eternity, a sense of belonging to a theocratic society.’3 According to Nicol, this feeling of ‘Byzantinism’ is what the people were afraid to lose; it was not a sense of national identity, not their Hellenism, but this elusive feeling that Nicol identifies with belonging to the Orthodox Church.4 This feeling is a psychosomatic condition ‘revealed at its highest spiritual level in the sanctity of an anchorite or the mystical-corporeal vision of a Hesychast, revealed more commonly in the daily mysteries of sacraments of the Church, revealed above all and in lasting form in Byzantine art.’

How real was this feeling of ‘Byzantinism’ in the late period of the empire (1261-1453)? Did all share it? Who defined it? Was it just the Orthodox Church that shaped the feeling of Byzantine identity, as Runciman and Nicol believe, or were other factors involved? By looking at Byzantine attitudes toward self-identity we hope to achieve a better glimpse into the ‘glue’ that held this society together. We will look at various strata of Byzantine society, imperial court and bureaucracy, landed aristocracy, clergy, merchants and craftsmen, and finally the peasants. Our argument is that far from being united by religion, Byzantine society was divided over many issues, religious, cultural, economic, and social. The idea that the Orthodox Church somehow managed to unite all the factions of Byzantine society under its banner should be further scrutinized, and in our opinion rejected. Our argument is that the late Byzantine Empire was a deeply divided society, divided on the issues of religion, politics, culture, and economics. If ‘Byzantinism’ was a feeling that most of the Byzantines shared, we need to examine who shared this feeling so essential for the identity of the people. In other words, the question must be asked: was there ever a feeling of ‘Byzantinism’?

In the analysis of the feeling of identity we shall start with the question how the Byzantines felt about themselves and other peoples around them. Feeling of identity is a very fluid concept, first because feelings are fluid by nature and second because identity is a multi-layered concept. The sense of belonging to the Orthodox Church was an important factor, but not the exclusive and absolute factor. For most of the people in the Middle Ages, Christianity was the principal factor in defining their identity and there is nothing particularly Byzantine about that. What is peculiar is that Byzantines called themselves Romans because they lived under Roman law, even though they spoke a Hellenic language.5 However, they saw their neighbours in the East through Biblical lenses. The Turks are almost universally called either the sons of Agar (agarènoi), or the sons of Ishmael (ismaèlites). In the case of the Turks the alleged descent seems to be the reason for the name. In their interaction with the Muslims the Westerners followed the same practice. The Westerners are most often lumped under one category Franks (frankoi), probably with an intention to emphasize their barbaric origin.6 Latin is used interchangeably with Franks. Here law, language, and custom played the major role, not religion. Since the Franks were living under different laws, spoke a different language, and behaved in a different manner, they were a different nation. The Byzantines never called the Franks Catholics, because they knew their Creed well and were aware of its claim that there is only one universal (catholic) church.7

In this paper we shall consider the period between the occupation and the pillaging of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 and the final fall of the city to the Turks in 1453. With the arrival of the Crusaders, the Byzantines had to deal with the Westerners not only through diplomatic channels, but also directly with the Latin principalities in the Aegean. The turning point in the way Byzantines felt about the West seems to have been the signing of the ecclesiastical union with Rome at the council of Lyon in 1274. The union was signed to counter the planned invasion of the Empire by the king of Sicily, Charles of Anjou. The act of union was a brilliant political move by the emperor, because it directly undermined the power of the French in Sicily, but it came at a sizeable internal cost. A large segment of the Church was infuriated by the attempt of the emperors to force the union on it and began to work diligently against the union. Some clerics even claimed that they would ‘rather die than ever to Latinize’ (latinizoo – to follow the way of the Latins).8 George Metochites provides us with an excellent testimony on how divided Byzantine society was over the issue of the union. After returning from the signing, he was welcomed by the mob shouting: ‘You have become a Frank.’ In response George wonders: ‘Should we pro-unionists, simply because we favour union, be subjected to being called supporters of a foreign nation and not Roman patriots?’9 The polemics against the Latin-minded people (latinofrones) undertaken by the Church shows many characteristics of a nationalist movement, but it does show that society was united behind the movement.

Ironically, the power of the anti-Latin movement reached its peak at about the time when Constantinople was falling to the Turks in 1453. Grand-duke Lukas Notaras spoke for many when he commented on the fall of the city saying: ‘Better the Sultan’s turban in our midst than the Papal tiara.’10 Finally the Orthodox Church was able to obtain the support of a powerful central government even though the government that provided it was not the government of the Roman Emperor. The new conquerors put the Christians under the authority, both secular and religious, of the patriarch of Constantinople, establishing thereby a millet system.11 The head of the Church was responsible to the Ottoman government for the payment of taxes and internal security of the people under his rule. At first two such institutions were established, one for the ‘Rum’ (Romans) under the Rum patriarch who controlled all Greek and Slavic population, and the other for the Armenians under the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople. At that point, the Orthodox Church was able to gain full control of the Christian population, something that had not been possible under the rule of Christian emperors.

Having therefore delineated the chronological boundaries of this study we will begin our survey of the various strata of Byzantine society starting with the office of the emperor and moving down the ladder. Because of the prestige of his office, the emperor was theoretically able to set the agenda and try to influence the feelings of national unity of his subjects. The office had a long tradition of powerful imperial rhetoric on its disposal that could be used for various purposes. In the late period this was no longer possible, because the powerful and majestic image of the emperor was completely detached from reality. One example should suffice here to indicate how powerless the emperor was during the last century of Byzantium and how he was invoking the feeling of pity, not admiration. It comes from the English chronicler Adam Usk who describes the visit of the emperor Manuel II Palaiologos to London in 1400. The purpose of the visit was to seek financial assistance. This is how Usk describes his feelings about the emperor:

I thought within myself, what a grievous thing it was that this great Christian prince from the farther east should perforce be driven by unbelievers to visit the distant islands of the west. My God! What dost thou, ancient glory of Rome? Who would ever believe that thou shouldst sink to such depth of misery, that, although once seated on the throne of majesty, now thou hast no power to bring succor to the Christian faith.12

It is clear that Usk sees the emperor as just one of the princes and according to the measurement of the English hierarchy he would have the power of a baron. Nevertheless, Usk’s remarks show that there was a feeling of Christian solidarity overriding the minutiae of cultural and religious differences. The fact that several emperors traveled personally to the West pledging for support indicates that the Byzantines also shared this feeling of pan-Christian solidarity. While there is no doubt that unionist policy had a lot of opponents, the fact that Byzantine emperors were allowed to leave the capital and pledge to the Westerners to proclaim a crusade against the Turks shows that Byzantines were at least aware of the feelings of common Christian compassion, interests, and solidarity.13

The foreigners saw the reality of imperial power and the Byzantines were hard pressed to hide it. Holders of the imperial office were faced with a very difficult predicament. Their power was miniscule and was growing ever weaker. The emperor of the Romans had to be a good actor because the symbolism of the office retained the rhetoric from the days when the emperor was the ruler of the known universe. It did not take much before either enemies or friends would realize how hollow this Byzantine imperial rhetoric was. For example, Vasily I, the grand prince of Moscow, realizing how weak the emperor of the Romans was, wrote a disparaging letter about him. Since there was no other way to prove him wrong, patriarch Anthony of Constantinople wrote a response to Vasily I in 1395 arguing how different the imperial office was from any other ruler. With all the other vestiges of power gone, he presents the emperor as the guarantor of true faith throughout the universe. The letter is a piece of political propaganda, so that one wonders to what extent either side believed in the far fetched theory of religious supremacy of the sacred emperor of the Romans. It is a supreme example of Byzantine imperial rhetoric, which in this case has clearly the form of patriotic propaganda. It indicates that old rhetoric of universal empire could be easily adapted for new purposes:

The holy emperor is not like other rulers or governors of other regions. This is so because from the beginning the emperors established and confirmed the true faith in the entire inhabited world. They convoked ecumenical councils and confirmed and decreed the acceptance of the pronouncements of the divine and holy canons. … The Basileus is anointed with the great myrrh and is appointed basileus and autokratoor of the Romans and indeed of all Christians. … Therefore, my son, you are wrong to affirm that we have the church without an emperor, for it is impossible for Christians to have a church and no empire.14

Naturally, the patriarch tries to salvage the imperial office from being damaged and to hide his feeling of shame, but the Russian prince was just pointing to the obvious. Very soon the Church would find out that it could function without a Christian emperor and that in some cases a powerful Sultan would be more useful to it than a weak emperor still willing to mingle in ecclesiastical issues.

Strictly speaking the Byzantine Empire never had a noble class in a Western sense, a group of people who had hereditary possession of land including the right to dispense justice over its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the advent of the Crusaders in the area led to the fragmentation of the state and the rise of centrifugal tendencies.15 The establishment of the Palaiologoi dynasty signified the victory for the higher Byzantine nobility. Feudalism was a relatively new concept in Byzantium, but the process of fragmentation reached its climax from the fourteenth century onwards. The secular and ecclesiastical landlords enlarged their estates, added to the number of their paroikoi (serfs), demanded increasingly extensive privileges and were frequently granted complete immunity.16 For all practical purposes the Byzantine Empire had become a feudal state in the worst sense of the word, a private property of the imperial family, given in pieces to the other members of the same family. Nevertheless, the façade of traditional adherence to the idea of imperial unity had to be preserved. It was convenient to blame the West for the innovation and Western women in particular.

In 1253 Michael Palaiologos, who eventually became emperor, but at that time was just one of the Greek nobles, faced the possibility of undergoing an ordeal by fire. At the age of twenty-one he was accused of treason. Facing the local Greek ruler of Nicea he was ordered, rather than to undergo the regular trial, to prove his innocence by the ordeal of fire. Michael cleverly avoided the test by insisting that he would undergo the ordeal if the bishop would first grasp the hot iron by his own hand and hand it to the accused. The whole episode concludes with the moral message saying that ordeal by fire: ‘is not part of our Roman tradition or of our laws. The practice is barbarous and unknown to us.’17

A historian would conclude two things from this story. First that the Byzantine noble class was very much influenced by the Crusaders and attempted to follow their customs even to a point of imitating the ordeal by fire. Second, the story is also a rejection of that kind of imitation. One should not forget that George Acropolites, the author who recorded it, was writing a story about the youth of an emperor.18 Its purpose was not only to record an actual event, but also to show the superior character of its protagonist, a man who is able to face any challenge and win. The young man who outwitted the ordeal went on to take back Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261. The story portrays two very important responses of the Byzantine nobles to their encounter of the West. They were willing to accept many Latin customs, but on the surface they remained protectors of the Roman traditions.

Another example of the behaviour of aristocracy towards the West comes from Nicephorus Gregoras, a good friend of one of the most powerful Byzantine aristocrats and later emperor John Kantakouzenos.19 Gregoras attacks feudal practice of dividing the empire and blames the Latin-born empress for trampling on the Roman custom when she suggested that her sons receive a part of the empire as apanage:

Eirene, the wife of the Emperor Andronikos, a woman ambitious by nature, desired that her sons and her descendants inherit in perpetuity, as successors, the imperial rule of the Romans. Even more unusual, she desired, not according to the fashion of monarchy as the custom prevailing among the Romans since antiquity, but in conformity with Latin practice, that all of Andronikos’ sons divide the cities and provinces of the Romans among themselves, and that each son rule a portion, as if they were dividing a private inheritance and personal possession. She proposed this because she was by birth a Latin and, having learned of this innovation from them, she wished to introduce it among the Roman people.20

The emperor refused the request and Eirene retired to Thessalonica in indignation. She interpreted the gesture as favouritism toward the emperor’s son from the first marriage and died in Thessalonica in 1317. One has to wonder what was really going on in this case and how accurate was Gregoras’ description? The practice of dividing the territory had been long abandoned in the West, so it is inaccurate to believe that Eirene’s suggestion was exactly worded as Gregoras presents it. In any case the suggestion to divide the Empire was not the result of a Latin way of thinking, previously unknown to the Roman people. At this point in time the Byzantine Empire began to look like the Carolingian empire after the death of Louis the Pious. Andronikos II had to divide the empire with his grandson, Andronikos III, after he failed to win the civil war in 1321. The general who led the grandson’s forces was no other than John Kantakouzenos, who received the apanage in Thrace with the promise of general exemption from taxation.21

What the Byzantine nobles did when dealing with the West stood in sharp contrast to their words of the strongest opposition to the union of Churches. This make-believe behaviour became obvious during the controversy over what is known as Hesychasm, a mystical movement of the fourteenth century whose practitioners claimed to have seen the uncreated light of God. The practitioners of Hesychasm were monks, but the movement soon received a political dimension due to the fact that at the time there was a civil war going on. On the one side was the powerful aristocrat John Kantakouzenos. On the other side was the regency in Constantinople led by the empress Anna of Savoy, the widow of the late Andronikos III (1328-1341). During the civil war (1341-1348) Kantakouzenos skilfully used hesychasm and its popularity among the monks to gain considerable political advantage. This is not to say that all the adherents of Kantakouzenos were supporters of hesychasm. Some of them such as the noted historian Gregoras despised it. However, ‘the closer the link between the hesychasts and John Kantakouzenos, the more deeply the religious dispute became involved with the political conflict which was dividing the Empire into two hostile camps.’22 The reason for this kind of politicizing of a religious issue is that one of the regents to the young John VI Palaiologos was no other than the Patriarch John Kalekas (1334-1347).

Hesychasm is taken to be the soul of the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church the soul of Byzantine identity.23 The Eastern Church is defined as a church with a strong inclination toward mysticism in contrast to the Western Church that lacks such a strong inclination. What is overlooked is the fact that comparable mystical movements flourished in the West during the same time, the waning of the Middle Ages. The piety of the late medieval West was marked by a profound mystical bend, which perhaps surpassed in its depth and fervour all prior mystical movements.24 A possibility could be raised that instead of being a typically Byzantine phenomenon, hesychasm might have been a symptom of the waning Middle Ages in the East like the mysticism of Meister Eckhart is a symptom of the waning Middle Ages in the West.25 Naturally, there are subtle theological differences between fourteenth-century mystics in the East and the West.26 The goal of Eckhart’s mysticism was the eternal birth of God within the soul; the goal of hesychasm was the vision of uncreated light seen by the apostles on mount Tabor. While both have in common the desire to recreate the apostolic experience, the one is the re-enactment of Nativity, the other of Transfiguration. The possibility that appearance of two contemporaneous mystical movements might have been caused by similar social factors should not be dismissed, only because the one is Eastern and the other is Western.

Furthermore, not all Byzantines practiced and supported hesychasm. The opposition to the movement among the intellectuals is well documented.27Teachings of hesychasm were only accepted after a long and bitter struggle and after several councils and counter-councils. Gregory Palamas, the leader of the movement, was actually imprisoned during the civil war by the regency in Constantinople. It also seems that the opponents of hesychasm were not only to be found among the learned. The people of Thessalonica violently opposed the appointment of Palamas as the archbishop of the city because he was the supporter of John Kantakouzenos during the civil war of 1341-’47. The people of Thessalonica rebelled against Kantakouzenos in 1342 and were led by a group called Zealots. The rebellion bears resemblance with Italian urban conflict between popolo grosso and popolo minuto. It is clear that in Thessalonica some of the rebels were members of the guild of sailors.28 Kantakouzenos in his memoirs makes a special effort to undermine their religious sincerity and Orthodoxy, but still has to admit that ‘Seizing the cross from the holy sanctuary, they used it as a banner and said they were fighting under it.’ The picture of violent city rebels fighting, under the sign of the Cross, against the rival political and religious faction is certainly not the image coming from a culturally well integrated society united by the ‘irrational belief in the interdependence of time and eternity.’29

Recent investigation has shown that even during the late period, the Byzantine Empire functioned as an integral part of the international trade complex in the Eastern Mediterranean.30 Trade, of course, has very little to do with feelings, but the role the Byzantine landed nobility played in that trade reveals something about the prevailing state of mind. In spite of its often heated rhetoric against the West, the nobility was the most important customer for the Italian fine cloth. Historian Nicephorus Gregoras complained about young fashionable men who appeared in church on Sunday dressed in peculiar fashion with Italian dresses.31 Gregoras was a partisan of John Kantakouzenos during the civil war and could be accused of a bias. What is revealing is that Bessarion, one of the main proponents of the union of the Churches, agreed with Gregoras in his belief that the Byzantine aristocracy was spending substantial amounts of money on Italian clothing.32

Because of the lack of records, we cannot tell how the Byzantine lower strata, namely artisans, merchants, and most importantly peasants, felt about their own identity, as it relates to the theological issue of hesychasm and the overarching issue of the union of the Churches. For example, even in the most notable example of the Zealots’ rebellion, we do not know how the Zealots felt about the issue of self-identity in Byzantium. We know that aristocratic writers, such as John Kantakouzenos, found them abhorrent. Only the popular literature, written in demotic Greek, the language of the masses, not of the learned, can give us some idea about how the Byzantine popolo minuto felt about the popolo grosso. The picture that comes out of this literary genre does not support the idea of a society united by religious beliefs. The Byzantine animal fable called The Legend of the Respected Ass provides an illustration. The legend consists of a series of stories where a fox and a wolf are trying to outsmart an ass and devour him. The action of the narrative takes place on a ship facing a storm. After several failed attempts the fox and the wolf seem to have finally figured out a way to devour the ass. Because of the possibility of death in the storm, the fox and the wolf suggest that they all make confession to one another. The wolf confesses all his sins to the fox, which include devouring of cattle, sheep, and pigs. The fox absolves him from all his sins. When it is the fox’s turn to confess, the wolf returns the favour and absolves her from all her sins. Now it is the time for the ass to confess, and he admits to only one sin: he had once unlawfully munched a coltsfoot leaf. Both the fox and the wolf conclude that this is a sin punishable by death for which no absolution can be given and the confessors demand the death of the ass. Seemingly accepting his faith, the ass wants to give them his final gift, the magical powers hidden in his back hoof. In their greed, both the fox and the wolf rush to see the gift and are kicked off the ship by the ass. It is not difficult to recognize who is hidden behind this fable. The wolf represents the powerful Byzantine landed nobility; the fox stands for financial officers.33 The ass represents the small artisans and traders, people like those who rebelled in Thessalonica in 1342.

We will need to go back in time to fully understand how the Byzantine Church felt about the union of the Churches. Ever since the first act of union was signed at the council at Lyon in 1274, the church of the Byzantine Empire was divided over the issue of union with Rome and the issue evoked very strong feelings. What was more troubling was the fact that the same man who had taken over Constantinople from the Crusaders, Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282), also was the first to sign the union with Rome. The majority of clerics, especially monks, considered the opposition to the union as the most important issue for their own identity. The behaviour of the patriarch Athanasius I (1289-93 and again 1303-9) is indicative of the attempt of the Church to unify all strata in Byzantine society under the banner of Orthodoxy. Athanasius I did for the Eastern Church what pope Gregory VII did for the Western. By his persistent insistence that wrath of heaven would come upon the Byzantines because of their willingness to compromise in matters of faith, he made a lot of enemies. What the patriarch had in mind was, of course, the compromise with the Pope. Patriarch Athanasius responded with the self-imposed exile behind the monastic walls. The exile was broken when the emperor, Andronikos II (1282-1328), bent on his knees, came to implore the powerful monk to return to the patriarchal office. Refined Byzantine chroniclers did not fail to notice the humiliation of the emperor.34 The comparison with Canossa is hard to escape and it indicates a deep crisis of imperial government, which was going to be challenged not only by the Church, but also by powerful aristocracy.

The church was especially afraid of Latin women, because through their marriages they were able to sway their children and bring them closer to the Latin Church. Six out of ten emperors of the Palaiologoi dynasty married Western women.35 The fear among Orthodox churchmen was not just a product of their misogyny. It had some basis in reality. The tractate written by the French publicist Pierre Dubois suggests sending educated Latin girls to the East to marry important Greeks, especially clerics.36 Dubois laments Greek unwillingness to accept priestly celibacy and suggest a solution: ‘These wives, possessing this kind of education and believing in the articles of faith and sacrament of the Roman church, would then teach their own children and their husbands to accept the Roman faith.’37 It is however doubtful whether this strategy ever had much effect, because we know that at least at the imperial level the wives remained loyal to the religion of their husbands.

Anna of Savoy, a Western woman who married the emperor Andronikos III (1328-41), was considered to be one of the most dangerous for Byzantine self-identity. Anna was born a Catholic and in 1326 she was married to Andronikos III according to the Greek rite, the fact that caused some anxiety to the pope.38 Nobody ever asked her to ‘convert’ to Orthodoxy. It was simply assumed that she would follow her husband’s religion. After taking part in a civil war (1341-’47) as a regent of her young son, she was given the city of Thessalonica to rule. In around 1360 she retired to a Greek monastery in Thessalonica and died there in 1365 as nun Anastasia. Her adherence to Orthodoxy can hardly be questioned, yet chroniclers often blame her for her bad influence on the emperor. Nicephorus Gregoras describes how under her influence her husband began to take part in Western-style tournaments: ‘then even the emperor participated in such single combat so that at some time he was almost mortally wounded. For this reason he was counseled by the older men not to participate in such activities. For it was not proper for the emperor to be struck by his inferiors.’39 In this passage two conflicting views of imperial office are contrasted. The traditional view was that the emperor could not take part in physical combat, and he was counseled by ‘the older men’ not to participate. On the other hand, the emperor certainly enjoyed tournament games. One must wonder who were the older men who advised the emperor not to take part in the tournament held on the occasion of the birth of his first-born son and what faction they did represent.

The question of mixed marriage was especially emotional, because it often carried a stigma of ecclesiastical suspicion, and as time went by the suspicion increased. The legality of mixed marriage is not clear because Byzantine legislation does not address the issue. One would assume that there was no canonical impediment to intermarriage. However, the papacy often required Western nobility to seek its permission. Sometimes the price of disobedience was excommunication. David Nicol noted that eight out of eleven female members of Greek ruling families in the thirteenth century married either French or Italian husbands.40 While the mixed marriages might have caused some problems for the aristocracy, there were mixed marriages among the common people, especially in the Latin held areas of Greece. The children from those marriages were called ‘Gasmules’ and were quite often employed by the navy. This is how George Pachymeres describes that character of the children from mixed marriages, revealing some of what the Byzantines felt about the Latins: ‘The Gasmules, whom the Byzantine call two-raced, are born of Byzantine women to Italian men. They derive their zealousness in battle and prudence from the Byzantines and impetuosity and audacity from the Latins.’41

Among the educated civil servants and scholars there were a lot of men in favour of the union. In a letter to the pope in 1339 Barlaam of Calabria addresses the issue. Barlaam was a Byzantine ambassador and a great supporter of Western scholastic theology. He explains to the pope how it is easy to persuade the Byzantine educated elite to accept the union:

You have two means peacefully to realize the union. You can either convince the scholars, who in their turn will convince the people, or persuade both people and learned men at the same time. To convince the learned men is easy, since both they and you seek only the truth. But when the scholars return home they will be able to do absolutely nothing with the people. Some men will arise who will teach all exactly the opposite of what you will have defined.42

Demetrius Kydones is another example of an educated Byzantine civil servant who took genuine interest in the West. He learnt Latin from a Dominican friar residing in Constantinople and translated into Greek Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles. Kydones was an influential councilor at the court and began his study of Latin in order to be able to read without translation Western chancery documents.43 He was personally fascinated with Aquinas, especially because of his use of Aristotle, who was ‘one of our own’, but was also well aware that many would not share his passion. The following quotation describes who some of his friends in the imperial administration reacted to his efforts:

I would show it [the translation] to my friends who scoffed at me and did not believe that I had succeeded in this task. I, for my part, wanted to tell my friends what I believed was good and I brought to Greece many of those chapters, and when we had some leisure time I gave them to the emperor to read. He listened with pleasure and praised me for my efforts in this regard, affirming that there would accrue great profit from this book for the cause of the Greeks in the future.44

The passage indicates how rare and unappreciated was the knowledge of Latin even in the highest ranks of imperial administration.

Other educated officials urged the Byzantines to adopt Western technology in order to salvage the failing state before it was too late. Bessarion (1403-’72) was one of the most passionate proponents of the union of Greek and Latin Churches, but his correspondence shows a surprising absence of strong feelings that the question of union evoked among the many. During the course of negotiation he became convinced by Latin arguments and upon the fall of Constantinople he returned to Italy where the pope awarded him with the title of cardinal. In a letter written to the despot of Morea around 1444 he reveals his interest in the matters of outdated Byzantine technology.

I heard that the Peloponnesos, especially the area around Sparta itself, is full of iron metal and that it is lacking men who know how to extract it and to construct weapons and other things… These four skills, my excellent lord, engineering, iron-working, weapons manufacture, and naval architecture are needed and useful to those who wish to prosper. Send four or eight young men here to the West, together with appropriate means – and let not many know about this – so that when they return to Greece they can pass on the knowledge to other Greeks.45

It is fascinating to compare Bessarion’s very practical advice with the theological wrangling that went on in Byzantium over the issue of union. The anti-unionist side most often quoted Scripture to prove that God will help only those who keep the true faith. The anti-unionists also combined a nationalistic argument with a religious one. The phrase began to circulate that those who were in favour of union had forsaken ‘the tradition handed down from their fathers’ (patroparadoton). The striking contrast between the two sides is only indicative of the divisions in the Byzantine society, especially among the intellectuals.

Not all intellectuals shared pro-Western feelings. George of Trebizond was born in Crete, spent a large part of his life in Italy, and finally joined the Turkish sultan Mohammed II some years before the fall of Constantinople. In a letter written to the sultan, he contemplates the possibilities of a joint Greco-Turkish empire.46 After explaining to the sultan that Christianity and Islam are not that different and blaming the Jews for misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims, he concludes that when Orthodox Christianity and Islam join forces under the aegis of Mohammed II, all empires in history would appear small in comparison to this great achievement. George’s problem was that the Turkish sultan did not need consent from Orthodox Christians to proceed with the enlargement of the Ottoman Empire.

There is some evidence that the imperial government had occasionally attempted to forge a bond with the artisan middle class, the bond that was essential for the success of the national monarchies in the West and for the prosperity of European cities during the high Middle Ages. For example, the emperor John Vatatzes (1221-’54) issued an edict during the Latin occupation of the capital that forbade the Byzantines to buy clothing from foreign weavers. Instead, he ordered that only clothing produced ‘by the hands of Roman weavers’ is used.47 The move indicates a feeling of national pride, but the feeling never took hold and the later emperors did not pursue the policy further.

It is a common place for contemporary Greek chroniclers to write about the hatred of the local population toward Venetian and Genoese merchants. Aristocrats, such as Nicephorus Gregoras, complained that the imperial government was not very favourable toward local Greek merchants, because it openly favoured Venetians and Genoese.48 The reality might have been very different, because there was a great interaction in business affairs between Greek and Italian merchants, even though Italians dominated Byzantine commerce.49 In spite of occasional outbursts of Orthodox patriotism, Greek merchants adopted many Italian business practices and at time became partners in Italians’ commercial ventures, even when the emperors prohibited such partnerships.50 They used the same procedures and business practices. In Constantinople one found the comenda and thecolleganza, which were arrangements between merchants and financial backers. ‘Nationalism and strong feelings gave way when business was at issue,’ writes Oikonomides in his recent assessment of Byzantine merchants and craftsmen.51 Small Greek merchant colonies existed in both Venice and Genoa even though most of Greek merchant enterprise was limited to local shipping, because their Italian competitors closed the Western market to them. There is still a lot of research to be done in this area, but the indications are that Byzantine merchants were far from being extinct in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.52

The status of ethnic minorities could also shed further light on how intense were the feelings of ethnic identity, especially because the Jews and the Armenians belonged mainly to the artisan and merchant class that the central government was so concerned with. The case of the Jews is quite indicative. The emperors inherited the situation where according to Roman law the rights of the Jewish community needed to be respected. Throughout Byzantine history it was the imperial office that initiated the persecution of the Jews. Around the sixth century, Jews had been denied the right to teach in state universities, to serve in the army, to work for the government, or to hold public office, with the occasional exception of the burdensome decurionate.53 It was the Church that actually saw itself as the legitimate defender of the Jews when they were faced with an edict of forced conversion. This is not to say that the Church did not favour ‘honest’ conversions of the Jews to Christianity. The Church saw itself as a foe of Judaism, but as a defender of individual Jews in case of forced conversions. In the later period, these roles were reversed. Under the Palaiologoi dynasty, it was the imperial government that sought to present itself as the defender of the Jews. The Church, by this time increasingly in the hands of monks, increased its attacks on the ‘dark forces’ that threatened the Orthodox civilization including Judaism.54 The fact that the imperial administration was willing to change its long-standing policy and seek help from the Jews indicates that it was desperately seeking for allies within the crumbling Byzantine society. The policy seems to have worked with the Jews. Unlike the case of the Arab invasions in the seventh century, when most of the Jews openly sided with the Arabs, upon the fall of Constantinople, a Jewish rabbi composed a lament in the style of Jeremiah.55

The letter written circa 1310 by Patriarch Athanasius I (already mentioned above) describes and objects to the privileges given to Jewish artisans and merchants by the emperor Andronikos II. It shows deep dissatisfaction with the ruler’s policy. Written at the time when the Ottoman Turks were already conquering parts of Asia Minor, the letter clearly reveals the most fanatical aspects of the patriarch’s character. Using biblical quotations the patriarch identifies the emperor with wobbling Jewish kings who sought the help of men instead of the help from God in the face of Assyrian danger. He further continues the comparison with the good kings of the Old Testament and point to their clear policies toward idolatry. The wrath of God will fall on the empire because we ‘allow the presence of the deicidal synagogue in the midst of the faithful.’ After leveling the accusation of allowing idolatry, the patriarch, true to his personal style of disingenuous exaggeration, continues to lament the poor condition of Christians in the empire, ‘who do not dare to speak for their faith’, because they fear the power wielded by the Jewish population. Speaking about a certain government official, he says: ‘through gifts, Kokalas [an official] allowed them [the Jews] great power.’56 In order to express his dissatisfaction with the government policy toward the Jews, the patriarch was willing to use any means necessary.

The official imperial position can be discerned from the letter of Andronikos II to the Venetian Doge dated 1319-’20. In the letter intended to settle a dispute between Venetian Jews and Byzantine Jews the emperor says: ‘Regarding the Jews, we respond thus, that our Jews (nostri Judei) are a legitimate possession of the Empire, and for that reason an allotted place is given to them for their dwelling in which they can live and practice their own skills, paying to the Empire that which is ordered them.’57 He continues to say that the incoming Jews from Venice, who decided to settle in the Empire, should follow the same regulations and afterwards describe further details of trade regulations binding for Byzantine Jewish skin and fur producers and merchants. Since these kinds of exchanges are not unique, it is safe to conclude that with regard to the Jews, the Byzantine emperors followed a relatively tolerant policy, because they had a vested economic interest in doing so.

In sum, when we take a look at Byzantine society and analyze how it felt about its own identity we arrive at a picture of a divided society. ‘Byzantinism’, ‘the myth that Byzantine society united behind the Orthodox Church in search for a theocratic state on earth’ should be further examined and in all probability rejected. Most of the Byzantines did not spend their time in contemplation of the uncreated light of God. In fact, the factional strive was so highly developed that it is hard to speak even of one culturally united Byzantine society. The conflict was not between the East and the West. The disagreement was between various factions within Byzantine society, not between the powerful Latin influence and the ethereal feeling of Byzantinism. Byzantine nobles were vocal in their opposition to the Westerners, yet found no problems with marrying Western women and adopting many of the Western practices. Craftsmen and artisans profited greatly from their commerce with Italian cities, but were quite resentful of the privileges that the Italians were able to obtain from the emperors. Yet, their resentment of the landed nobility who prevented their rise to prominence was probably greater that the resentment felt toward successful Italian merchants, who were, after all, their partners. Byzantine monks spoke in one voice in their opposition to the ecclesiastical union and Latin theology, but many of the leading intellectuals found Latin theology appealing. Outside forces, Latins and Turks, served as catalysts to make the differences within Byzantium more apparent, they did not create them. Marxist historians have pointed to the divisions in late Byzantine society and attributed them to the class struggle between the landed nobility and peasants.58 Their interpretation should be rejected because it was inaccurate and simplistic. Not every conflict is class struggle. We believe that the time has come to re-examine the divisions within the late Byzantine society by looking at other kinds of conflicts: between the cities and the countryside, supporters and opponents of the union of Churches, nobles and merchants, men and women, monks and scholars, and so on. Should we not have another look at the assortment of under-evaluated conflicts brewing in the peaceful and mystical society defined habitually by the spirituality of some of its members?


* University of South Florida.

1 We are aware that the Western Church in pre-Reformation Europe was not a monolith body sharing a uniform belief in a great universal creed. The Western Church was rather a body made up of an infinite multiplicity of local communities that could easily, under pressure, split apart from the official structure. The point advanced here is that the Byzantines perceived the Western Church to be a monolith body. See: Henry Kamen, Early Modern European Society (London: Routledge, 2000), 55.

2 Steven Runciman, Great Church in Captivity (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), 85. A somewhat different view is expressed by Geanakoplos who believes that Byzantium and the West were essentially sibling Christian cultures that underwent several phases of interaction. See: Deno John Geanakoplos,Interaction of the ‘Sibling’ Byzantine and Western Cultures (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976).

3 Donald M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium (Cambridge: CUP, 1979), 130.

4 Runciman and Nicol write in direct opposition to many modern Greek historians who argue that the origins of Greek feeling of a national consciousness could be traced back to the Byzantine period. Voyatzidis, for example, suggests that many of the forms of the political and cultural expression of modern Greece are essentially derivative of Byzantine Hellenism. For a review of Greek historians on the issue see: Apostolos E. Vacalopoulos, Origins of the Greek Nation: The Byzantine Period 1204-1461 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1970), 27-45. Paul Magdalino brings the review of scholarship up to date in Paul Magdalino, ‘Hellenism and Nationalism in Byzantium’ in Paul Magdalino,Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Byzantium (Brookfield, Vermont: Grower, 1991), 1-29. In addition to Runciman and Nicol, Magdalino points also to Cyril Mango, Byzantium and its Image (London, 1984).

5 The Jews living within the empire were considered Romans, because they were Roman citizens, subject to the Roman law, even though they were clearly second-class citizens. See: Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985).

6 Only in some official documents can one notice the distinctions between Italians, Germans, Catalans, and Franks. The West responded in kind by calling the Easterners Greeks (Graeci) rather than Romani. See: Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 33.

7 Catholic as a word is a direct transliteration of the Greek word katholikhè, which is used in the Greek Creed and means general, universal. The Modern Greek dictionary designates that one of the meanings of this word defines could define a person belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, but there is no evidence that the word was used in than sense during the medieval period. See: D. N. Stavropoulos, Oxford Greek-English Dictionary(Oxford: OUP, 1988).

8 Bishop Dositheos of Monembasia at the council of Florence in 1438-9. J. Gill (ed.) Quae supersunt actorum Graecorum concilii Florentini (Roma, 1953) vol. 2, 399.

9 Deno Geanakoplos, Interaction of the Sibling Byzantine and Western Cultures, 46.

10 The fifteenth-century historian Doukas attributes the remark to the grand-duke, who was the head of the non-existent Byzantine fleet. See: Doukas,Istoria Turco-Byzantina, ed. V. Grecu (Bucharest, 1958), 329. English translation by H. J. Magoulias, Doukas: Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks (Detroit, 1975).

11 Millet is a self-governing community in the Ottoman state, governed by its own laws, and placed under the religious leader.

12 Adam Usk, Chronicon A.D. 1377-1421 (London: H. Frowde, 1904), 219-20.

13 Ostrogorsky claims that there was always an influential circle in Constantinople who favoured the unionist policy. It is hard to tell to what extent the sense of Christian solidarity was spread outside of the capital. G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 562.

14 Letter of Patriarch Anthony, from F. Miklosich and I. Müller (eds.), Acta et Diplomata Graeca Medii Aevi (Vienna, 1862), vol. 2. 190-91. Translation in Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 143.

15 It is not absolutely correct to assume that the Crusaders introduced feudalism to Byzantium. The thematic system was already failing in the early eleventh century and was slowly augmented by land grants in return for military service. At first these land grants were not hereditary. On Byzantine feudalism see: A. P. Kazhdan and A. W. Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985).

16 George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 481-82.

17 Deno John Geanakoplos, Interaction of the Sibling Byzantine and Western Cultures (New Heaven and London: Yale University Press, 1976), 146.

18 George Acropolites, Opera, ed. A. Heisenberg (Leipzig, 1903), 1:98.

19 The father of John Kantakouzenos was given the lands of Morea in Peloponnese by the emperor Andronikos II in 1308. He governed those lands until his early death in 1316. See: G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 497.

20 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I. Bekker and L. Schopen (Bonn, 1829-1855), vol. 1, 233-34.

21 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I. Bekker and L. Schopen, vol. 1, 319, 14.

22 G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 514.

23 David M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium, 130.

24 David Herlihy, Medieval Culture and Society (Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1993), 347.

25 Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 264-67.

26 The difference is also that Pope John XXII condemned the mysticism of Meister Eckhart in 1329. Gregory Palamas, the most eloquent spokesman for hesychasm, was declared orthodox and eventually saint, after substantial wrangling back and forth.

27 John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas (London: Faith Press, 1964).

28 Geoorgios Christopoulos ed., Historia tou Hellènikou Ethnous, tomos TH, Buzantinos Hellènismos (Athèna, 1980), 156.

29 David M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium, 130.

30 Grain was the most important land product traded by the Byzantines. We see a steady decline in grain production due to Ottoman conquest and civil conflicts. For example in 1350 Thessalonica was unable to feed itself due to the Serbian siege and Venice provided supplies of grain. Angeliki E. Laiou-Thomadakis, ‘The Byzantine Economy in the Mediterranean Trade System’, in: Dumbarton Oaks Papers (1980-81), 34-35, 178.

31 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I Bekker and L Schopen (Bonn, 1829), vol. 3, 555-56.

32 Angeliki E. Laiou-Thomadakis, ‘The Byzantine Economy in the Mediterranean Trade System’, in: Dumbarton Oaks Papers (1980-81), 34-35, 186.

33 H. W. Haussig, A History of Byzantine Civilization (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 376.

34 Gregoras describes the emperor as a man with a bit in his mouth being led like a horse by the patriarch. Gregoras, Romaike Historia, I, 258-9.

35 Angeliki E. Laiou-Thomadakis, ‘The Byzantine Economy in the Mediterranean Trade System’, in: Dumbarton Oaks Papers (1980-81), 34-35, 178.

36 Deno John Geanakoplos, Byzantium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 376.

37 Pierre Dubois, De recuperatione terre sancte, ed. V. Langlois in Collection de textes pour servir à l’étude de l’histoire (Paris, 1891), ch. 61, 51-52.

38 Donald M. Nicol, The Byzantine Lady: Ten Portraits (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 91.

39 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina historia, ed. I. Bekker and L, Schopen (Bonn, 1829), vol. I, 482. Translation in Geneakoplos, Byzantium, 323.

40 David Nicol, ‘Mixed marriages in Byzantium in the thirteenth century’, in: C. W. Dugmore and C. Duggan (eds.) Studies in Church History I (London, 1964), 160-72.

41 George Pachymeres, De Michaele et Andronico Palaeologis, ed. I. Bekker (Bonn, 1835), vol. 1, p. 309. Translation in: Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 305.

42 From Migne Patrologia Graeca, vol. 151, cols. 1332. Translated by D. Geanakoplos, ‘Byzantium and the Crusades’, in K. Setton, A History of the Crusades (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), 55-56.

43 D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 378.

44 G. Mercati, (Studi e testi, no. 56), Notizie di Procoro e Demetrio Cidone (Vatican, 1931), 362-63. Translated by M. Varouxakis and D. Geanakoplos.

45 From ‘Letter of Bessarion to the Despot of the Morea Constantine Palaeologus (c. 1444)’ in S. Lambros, ed., Neos Hellenomnemon (Athens, 1906), vol. 3, 43-44. Translation in: D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 379.

46 D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 384.

47 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I. Bekker and L. Schopen, vol. 1, 43.

48 The policy of favouritism started with the bull issued in 1082 by emperor Alexius I Comnenus giving the Venetians right to trade in all maritime cities of the empire and releasing them from the payment of any custom duties. When Venice led the Crusaders to take the city of Constantinople, the emperors tried to play the Genoese against the Venetians. In 1261 similar privileges were granted to the Genoese, in return for their help against the Venetians.

49 D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 292.

50 As seen from the account book of Giacomo Badoer, the Venetian businessman who settled in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, Greco-Latin business partnerships were very common. See: U. Dorini, Il libro dei conti di Gracomo Badoer Constantinopli 1436-1440 (Roma, 1956).

51 Nicolas Oikonomides, ‘Entrepreneurs’, in: Guglielmo Cavallo, The Byzantines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 168.

52 Nicolas Oikonomides, ‘Entrepreneurs’, 167.

53 Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 11.

54 Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 10.

55 There is something ironic in the situation were the commander of the city fleet welcomes the fall of the city to the Turks while a Jewish rabbi laments it. One of the verses actually says: ‘My loins are filled with anguish. Who gave up Israel to the robbers?’ See: Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 342.

56 The letter can be found in patriarchal correspondence collected in Migne, Patrologia Graeca 142, col. 512. The translation is from Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 242. The patriarch also levels a similar charge on Armenian artisans and merchants.

57 G. M. Thomas ed., Diplomatarium Veneto-Levantinum (Venice, 1880-’99), I, 143-43. Translation in: Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 244.

58 The main vehicle for the exposition of the Marxist-materialistic view of Byzantine history was Vizantiiskii Vremennik, a periodical started in 1947 by the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the former USSR.

Published in print in Golden Horn Volume 8, issue 2 (spring 2001)

A warrior with a ‘Danish axe’ in a Byzantine ivory panel

Gouden Hoorn 8,1 (2000): Peter Beatson

by Peter Beatson *

The Schnütgen Museum in the Romanesque church of St. Cäcilien houses the religious treasures of Cologne.1 It contains a small selection of Byzantine arts, including an ivory plaque dated to the tenth or eleventh century (Figure 1):

Picture of Figure 1. Ivory plaque, Byzantine 10-11th centuries. Schnütgen Museum, Cologne (inv. no. B-6). Actual size about 5 cm. Photo credit: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln. With thanks to the Schnütgen Museum.

Figure 1. Ivory plaque, Byzantine 10-11th centuries. Schnütgen Museum, Cologne (inv. no. B-6). Actual size about 5 cm. Photo credit: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln. With thanks to the Schnütgen Museum.

Warrior with Danish axe

The flat panel once decorated an object such as a casket, fastened by six pegs for which holes remain. The sturdy figure of a warrior, holding an axe and a sword, fills and partly intrudes onto the frame. A short inscription appears in the upper left corner, but is unfortunately illegible, even identifying it as Greek or Latin seems impossible.

Though the semi-nude warrior seems inspired by an Antique model like so many similar ivories of the late tenth century, the armaments are contemporary to the creation of the piece. Most interestingly, they are alien to the eastern Mediterranean area. With its broad blade and man-high handle, the axe is very similar to a Scandinavian style of the late Viking age, the so-called ‘Dane-axe’ most familiarly rendered in the hands of Anglo-Saxon huscarls on the Bayeux ‘Tapestry’ – Petersen’s Type M.2 The sword is also of interest, with its short plain cross and heavy semicircular pommel (Petersen Type X)3, it is typical of widespread northwestern European styles around 1000 AD.

Could a Constantinopolitan artist of this time have seen such a foreigner, and copied his distinctive weapons, and if so, why? Under treaties with the Kievan state dating as early as 911 AD4, Russian troops were allowed to enter the Byzantine army, and their presence is attested in strategic manuals after the mid-tenth century.5 The professional troops of the Princes of Kiev at this time were largely Scandinavian (in Rus’ they were known as Varangians). By the later eleventh century at least, the Varangians in Byzantium had become well known for their heavy iron axes (a common appellation was Greek pelekophori, ‘axe-bearers’).6

A large Russian force was stationed around Constantinople while Basil II was preparing to counter the rebel Bardas Phokas in 988-989 AD. Given that the Rus’ had besieged the capital itself twice,7 and their last raids into the Empire had occurred just less than twenty years before, their armed presence may have been of great interest and not a little apprehension to the inhabitants.8

The figure appears to be bare-chested, but lack of dress is not unusual among warrior ivories of this general type, so this factor need not be considered to bear on the possibilities outlined above. He wears loose drawers or possibly a ‘kilt’ gathered around the waist – underwear such as this is rarely depicted but may best be seen in images of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastea, such as an ivory icon held in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin.9 His thighs and knees are possibly also bare, his shins and feet clad in either puttees plus shoes, or high boots.

In many ways Byzantine art was consciously backward looking, with a cultivated taste for ancient Hellenic and Roman styles. Warriors in Byzantine ivories are usually descended from two sets of Late Antique models – the Biblical story of Joshua, or the mythological war of Dionysus with India.10 These (especially the latter) can contain representations of naked or semi-naked warriors, but they normally wear only a chlamys (cloak), not pants or drawers, so the exact inspiration for this plaque remains obscure. In the conservative milieu of the metropolitan workshops artists drew on earlier archetypes, not current fashions.11 The ‘bare chest’ might therefore be a muscled cuirass in the Antique fashion, with a fancy petaled border at the waist, worn over a tunic with a flaring skirt.12 There are, however, no trace of markings at the neck, or at the shoulder or wrist to indicate upper body armour or clothing, though it might be that such extra details were painted in, as most, if not all, ivories were originally brightly coloured.13

There remains a possibility that the ivory itself was produced in the West, that is, by a carver of one of the Ottonian (Holy Roman Empire) schools. Can this piece be accepted as Byzantine? The clumsy posture, blocky musculature, and ill-proportioned limbs distinguish this plaque from the finest Byzantine ivories of the so-called “Macedonian Renaissance”, but may be recognised in other works, such as an icon of the Nativity in the British Museum,14 which also matches in the style in which the hair is rendered. Though the background is deeply cut, the figure is flatly modeled, this has been noted in some other casket panels of the period.15


* Post Box 3003 Marrickville NSW 2204, Australia. Email – chrisandpeter[@]ozemail.com.au

1 Cäcilienstraße 29, D-50667 Köln (Cologne) Germany. Web site: http://www.museenkoeln.de

2 J. Petersen, De norske vikingesværd, Kristiania 1919.

3 Petersen, ibid.

4 Anon., Russian primary chronicle, translated S.H. Cross and O.P. Sherbowitz-Taylor, The Russian primary chronicle: Laurentian text, Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1973, p. 68.

5 For example, Anonymous book on tactics (De re militari), c. 995 AD, text and translation in: G.T. Dennis, Three Byzantine military treatises. Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae, vol. 25, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985.

6 For example, Nikephoros Bryennios (late 11th c.), History, text and translation of P. Gautier, Nicéphore Bryennios: Histoire, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae, vol. 9, Brussels: Byzantion, 1975, p. 216-217 and others.

7 860 and 941AD. The Rus’ attack of 907, unrecorded in Greek sources, is probably fictional. S. Franklin and J. Shepard, The emergence of Rus: 750-1200, New York: Longman, 1996, p. 103-107.

8 A. Poppe, ‘The political background to the baptism of Rus: Byzantine-Russian relations between 986-989’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30, 1976, p.197-242. For evidence of tension among the citizens, see particularly p. 216-217.

9 Dosogne (Ed.) Splendeur de Byzance, Brussels, 1982, p.110, where D. Gaborit-Chopin attributes it to a Constantinopolitan workshop, c. 1000 AD, but notes that others have dated this piece much later – 12th or 14th century.

10 According to Weitzmann. K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and early mediaeval antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, vol. 3: ivories and steatites, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1972, p. 50-52.

11 Weaponry seems to be among the few items where art often reflects contemporary usage, perhaps because it had little effect on the ‘recognition value’ of the characters depicted.

12 For example, compare an ivory plaque of a standing warrior in Antique muscled cuirass, tenth century, in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, illustrated in Weitzmann, op. cit., cat. no. 21. pl. 22.

13 C.L. Connor, The color of ivory: polychromy on Byzantine ivories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

14 British Museum, Dept. of Medieval and Later Antiquities, inv. no. 85,8-4,4 (tenth century). Illustrated in O.M. Dalton, Catalogue of the ivory carvings of the early Christian era, London, 1909, pl.12; and E. Kitzinger, Early medieval art, (2nd. ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983, fig. 24.

15 Weitzmann, op. cit., p. 49.

Published in print in Golden Horn Vol. 8, issue 1 (2000)

Metal-workers, agriculturists, acrobats, military-people and fortune-tellers Roma (Gypsies) in and around the Byzantine empire

by Karin White

The Roma have no book, no promised land or great founders.1 Thus we are led to believe that the Roma have no history. In popular belief their past is shrouded by mystery, their origin and sojourns are obscure. Academic interest mostly is limited to certain aspects, like public policy, ritual, kinship, philology, while historians show very little interest in Rom history. There are exceptions, of course, like Donald Kenrick, or Ian Hancock and Mateo Maximoff, themselves Roma.

Is the lack of interest in Roma history a direct result of the absence of any historic evidence, considering the high level of illiteracy among the Roma? Clearly, the answer is no. There is a wealth of documented evidence for Rom history, which provides us with insight into a past marked by persecution, exploitation and scape- goating.2 Why then has so little research been carried out in the field of Rom history? There is a saying in Romani: ‘He who wants to enslave you will never tell you about your forefathers’. Indeed, the Gypsies have been the most enslaved and persecuted people in our history, yet little is made known about their ordeals to the general public. For how could we continue to persecute them and use them as scape-goats, if we were not ignorant of their past?

Puxon writes: ‘The history of the Romani people is a story of relentless persecution. From the Middle Ages to the present day, they have been the target of racial discrimination and outright genocide’.3

Yet, hardly ever is the public informed of the Rom slavery in Rumania, which was only abolished 150 years ago, the half million Roma killed during the holocaust, or the centuries of torture, murder and persecution following the Roma’s arrival in Western Europe.

Instead, the image of the Roma has been mostly formed by the popular press, which is a main contributor to their stereotyping, portraying them as either asocial criminals or romantic and exotic nomads. The majority of Western non-Rom population thinks of the Roma as a intrinsically nomadic people, which has always been at variance with the rest of the population, especially with the rural farming communities. This view has already been successfully challenged by scholars like Ian Hancock. Although the four- hundred years of slavery in Rumania constituted enforced settlement, today the majority of Roma are settled, often voluntarily. Among them we find artists, politicians, business-people, factory workers, farmers, academics, in short the full spectrum of occupations. The nomadic life-style, which Roma in the past adhered to seemed to have been more imposed than voluntary. Western documentation starting in the late thirteenth century confirms that Roma were hardly ever allowed to settle, and the dark strangers from the East were frequently associated with the Turkish invaders, their strange clothes and customs associated with witch-craft, their other-ness making for the perfect scape-goat.

However, little attention has been paid to the Roma’s long sojourn in Byzantium and in the Byzantine-Venetian colonies. In the whole of documented Roma history this sojourn compares quite favourably, and I argue, that the Roma as an ethnic group were not persecuted in Byzantium, as far as we know.

Originating in India, the Roma came to Byzantium via Persia in the eleventh century. It is very possible to connect them with a people called Zott, who are mentioned by Arab historians. The Zott were Indian migrants to Persia, who worked as mercenary soldiers, merchants, musicians, palace guards, farmers and buffalo-keepers. Their migration took place both voluntary and by force. At least on three occasions the Zott were sent to Antioch on the Mediterranean coast; in 669, around 710 and in 720. The resettlement aimed to add to the military strength of the area, and apparently also to protect Antioch from lions of whom the Zott’s buffaloes were not afraid. The capture of Antioch put the Zott under Byzantine rule, and it is assumed that some of them made their way from Antioch to Crete4. In any case, in 1323 the monk Symeon Symeonis more than likely describes Roma in Crete, when he writes: ‘There we also saw a race outside the city asserting themselves to be of the family of Chaym.5 They rarely or never stop in one place beyond thirty days but always wander and flee as if accursed by God, and after the thirtieth day they remove themselves from field to field with their oblong tents, black and low, and from cave to cave.’6 Even earlier, in the tenth century, Leo Diaconos writes about Cretans who are fortune-telling and roving.

However, finding themselves in the Byzantine empire, the Roma’s next move seemed to have led them to Constantinople. An eleventh century text from Mt Athos, The Life of Saint George the Athonit, tells us that in 1050 Emperor Constantine Monomachos complained about wild animals, who were destroying the game in the imperial park of Philopation. He employed ‘a Samaritan people, descendants of Simeon the Magician, named Adsincani, who were renowned sorcerers and villains’. They left at various places pieces of meat over which they had spoken a spell and which killed the beasts. The emperor was very impressed and asked for the Adsincani to perform their magic in his presence. The Adsincani repeated their magic as requested, but St George stepped forward and, before the beast in question could devour the meat, made the sign of the cross over it, and the animal survived. This impressed the emperor even more than the Adsincani’s trick and he declared: ‘as long as this holy man stands near me I shall not fear either the sorcerers or their deadly poison.’7

The image of Roma in control of wild animals is not unusual. Later in history we find among the Roma the Ursari, the bear-leaders, and also the snake-charmers. Furthermore, as mentioned above, earlier on the Zott in Antioch were said to have kept the lions in check. The text also portrays the first Roma in Constantinople as magicians. This, too, is a quite common perception of Roma, in the past as well as today. Marcel Mauss observes: ‘All unsettled tribes who live among a settled population are considered as sorcerers. This is still in our time the case with the Gypsies, and also of many wandering castes in India’. The text refers to the Adsincani, which is the Latin version of Atsinganoi, the main Byzantine term applied to Roma, of which we know versions like Tsinganoi, Cingane, Zigar, Zigeuner. Other names also were common, like Aigyptoi, which indicated their presumed connection with Egypt, either as place of their origin or because of the Roma’s practise of magic. The idea of Roma as sorcerers also plays a part in the apparent confusion between the Atzinganoi (the Roma), and the Athinganoi, a ninth century heretical sect, who had been accused of practising magic and fortune-telling. In the second half of the twelfth century Balsamon comments on canon 61 from the council in Trullo, which punishes fortune- telling, and the display of animals with six years excommunication.8 In another commentary Balsamon writes about ventriloquists and wizards.9 In both commentaries he names the Athinganoi as the culprits who engage in these offensive activities. However, we can assume that the Athinganoi mentioned by Balsomon are the Roma, since the heretical sect hardly was an issue during Balsomon’s times. Furthermore, in the beginning of the thirteenth century Athanasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote a circular letter to instruct the clergy not to let their people associate with the Athinganoi, because ‘they teach devilish things’.10 This is the last time we can find the term Athinganoi, which we assume describes Roma. In the fourteenth century Joseph Bryennios complains about people associating with magicians, soothsayers and Atzinganoi (the Roma),11 while a hundred years later a nomocanon threatens with excommunication those, who consult the Aiguptissa12.

However, if we are looking for evidence for the persecution of Roma in the Byzantine empire and the Venetian colonies, we have to stop here. For no other documents can be found in the sources to prove a negative attitude towards the Roma.

On the other hand, Nikephoras Gregoras supplies us with a wonderful description of Roma acrobats in early fourteenth century Constantinople: ‘During this time we saw in Constantinople a transient group of people, not less than twenty in number, versed in certain acts of jugglery….they came originally from Egypt….And the arts they performed were stupendous and full of wonder.’ Nikephoros stresses that ‘they had nothing to do with magic, but were products of an adroit nature, trained for a long time in the practice of such works’. Then comes a lengthy description of performances which include acts on tight rope, trapeze, horses, balancing acts and the performance of dances. Nikephoros stresses the length of training these performances involved, and the danger involved. He expresses a sentiment of respect and admiration for these acrobats and shows them performing a trade rather than a spectacle13.

It is quite possible that Roma also established themselves in the guilds in Constantinople, which still existed as late as the second half of the fifteenth century, since we have evidence for the participation of Roma in the guilds of Ottoman Constantinople under Murat IV in the first half of the seventeenth century. According to Evliya, a Turkish scholar and traveller, they appeared in the guilds as leaders of bears, horse-dealers and rich merchants, musicians, dancing boys and Buza-makers.14

From Constantinople the Roma spread to the Greek mainland. In 1415 Mazaris writes in his imaginary letter Sojourn of Mazaris in Hades,15 that ‘in the Peloponnese live numerous nations, of which it is not easy nor very necessary to retrace the boundaries, but every ear can easily distinguish them by language, and here are the most notable of them: Lacedaemonians, Italians, Peloponnesians, Slavs, Illyrians, Egyptians and Jews.’ Since there is no evidence of Egyptians having settled in the Peloponnese, the Egyptians can be understood as Roma speaking their own language.

In the Peloponnese the majority of Roma seemed to have preferred to settle in the Venetian territories, finding more stability there than in the rest of the Peloponnese. The seaport of Modon had a Rom suburb in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Situated half way from Venice to Jaffa, it was a welcome stopping place for pilgrims to the holy land. It is from these pilgrims that we get some of the liveliest descriptions of the contemporary Roma, who, we may assume, surely got their share from the Modon tourist trade, and it may have been this lively coming and going of travellers which attracted them to Modon in particular. It may even have been their acquaintance with pilgrims at Modon and other places, which led them to adopt that guise when they arrived later in the West.

In 1383 Frescobaldi, a traveller to the Holy Land, believes the Roma of Modon to be penitents doing penance for their sins.16 Later, in 1483, Bernhard von Breydenbach, a German traveller to Jerusalem, mentions 300 reed covered huts outside Modon, ‘in which dwell certain poor folk like Ethiopians, black and unshapely….the Gippen who are called Gypsies…nothing but spies and thieves, who claim to come from Egypt when they are in Germany; but it is all a lie, ……. called Saracens in Germany ….. in reality natives of Gyppe, near Modon, and spies and traitors.’17 This statement reflects the perception of Roma in medieval Germany, where they were suspected of being spies for the Turks, due to their exotic looks and the fact that they always moved before the advancing Turks. Also in the second half of the fifteenth century a German pilgrim describes these Roma in the suburb of Modon as ‘Albanians’, known in German countries as ‘Egyptians and heathens’.18 This may be an indication that the Roma settled in the Peleponnese at the same time as the Albanians.

Apart from living off the tourist trade, the Roma of Modon were practising smith craft. Dieter von Schachen, who visited Modon in 1491, writes: ‘At Modon, outside the city on the hill by the wall there are many miserable little huts, where Gypsies, so-called in Germany, dwell, very poor people and generally all smiths. They sit down on the ground for their work and have a pit made in the earth in which they keep the fire and if the man or woman has a pair of bellows in his hands, they are quite contented, blow with the bellows, a miserably poor thing that is beyond description, and make a great number of nails and very well.’19

Almost one and a half centuries earlier we know of Roma, Zingarie, dependants of the monastery of Michael and Gabriel, whose yearly tax consisted of fourty horse-shoes.20

A fourteenth century Byzantine ballad, The Philosophy of a Drunkard, mentions the Rom, who sees in the sun ‘nothing else but a hoop to make a cauldron with’,21 and from an account of the celebrations which took place at the circumcision of Sultan Mehmet’s son in 1582 we learn that smith-craft was one of the main occupations of Roma in the Balkans.22

However, the Roma also settled in other parts of the Peleponnese, for example in Nauplion. According to a Venetian document dated 12 August 1444, they were an organised group under a drungarius acinganorum, a military leader with the name Johannes Cinganus (John the Gypsy). The document mentions privileges granted to John and his ancestors.23

Various documents show that in Corfu by the second half of the fourteenth century the Roma formed an independent fief, the feudum acinganorum, which existed until the end of feudalism in Corfu in the nineteenth century. The documentation shows that the Roma in Corfu were a settled community and an important and established part of the economy.24

It appears that before the end of the fourteenth century the Roma had established themselves widely throughout the Balkan provinces. From 1362 on Roma are mentioned in Ragusan registers, as Egyptians (Egiptius), Egiupach, Jegupach, Cinganus, Cingalus, and Azinganus. Looking at the evidence from Ragusa a picture emerges of Roma occupying the lower social strata together with other Ragusans. They lived in suburbs and worked mainly as traders, but also as servants, musicians, inn-keepers, cobblers, millers or smiths. They were not singled out as ethnic group nor persecuted. They were free people, were allowed to settle and treated equally to others of their social strata. 25

It appears that the Roma in the Byzantine Empire, in the Venetian colonies, in Ragusa and in early Ottoman Constantinople were not persecuted as an ethnic group, and that they were allowed to settle, which they did quite happily. The canons and commentaries mentioned above do try and act against certain activities connected with Roma, e.g. fortune-telling, but they are not directed against an ethnic group as such, but against activities perceived contrary to orthodox teaching. So we find the Roma mostly at the lower end of the social strata, but an integrated part of the economy, as smiths, traders, musicians, agriculturists or military people. Always adjusting and adapting to whatever society, economy and culture they found themselves in, the Roma at the same time maintained a distinct identity and language up to this very day.

Looking at this considerable period of Rom history we have to question strongly the common assumption that the Roma are intrinsically nomadic and have always been excluded by so-called ‘settled’ populations owing to their different life style and lack of positive economic contributions to society. On the contrary, the evidence shows that the Roma had found their economic niches through-out their stay in the Byzantine empire, the Venetian colonies and Ragusa, and in the latter they seem to have been a fully integrated part of society. Furthermore, the Roma’s economic contribution in Rumania was of such importance, that they were enslaved there for over three-hundred years.26 Although we have evidence of nomadic Roma, we find many of them settled in the Byzantine empire, Ragusa and the Venetian colonies, as well as in Ottoman Constantinople. It was only when the Roma came as dark skinned strangers to the West of Europe that they were perceived as a threat, due to their ‘other-ness’ and due to the danger their skills may have been to a flourishing and rigid guild-system. In the multi-ethnic Byzantine empire however, where at the Roma’s arrival the guilds still existed, but were in decline,27 there was more tolerance and space for ethnic minorities like the Roma.


1 Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing, New York, 1995.

2 To the concept of scape-goating, s. Declan Quigley ‘Scape-goats: the killing of kings and ordinary people’, JRAS, June 2000 (forthcoming).

3 G. Puxon, Roma: Europe’s Gypsies, London, 1987, 12.

4 S. J. de Goeje, Mémoire sur les migrations des Tsiganes à travers l’Asie, Leiden, 1903; however, his argument has been criticised in J. Sampson, ‘On the Origin and Early Migrations of the Gypsies’, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd ser., 2, 1923.

5 This is the only instance when the name ‘Chaym’ is used for Rom. It has been translated previously as ‘Ham’.

6 in P. Girolamo Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-Bibliographica, della Terra Santa e dell’Oriente Francescano, Tomo III, 1919, 254-255.

7 P. Peeters, ‘Histoire monastiques géorgiennes’, Analecta Bollandiana, 36-37, 1917-19.

8 G. A. Rhalles and M. Potles, Suntagma toon theioon hieroon kanonoon, II, Athens, 1852.

9 ibid.

10 Vat. Gr. 2219, f.120.

11 Koukoules, Buzantinoon Bios kai politismos, I, pt. 2, Athens, 1948, 137.

12 A. Pavlov, Nomokanon pri bol’ som Trebnikê, Moscow, 1897.

13 Nikephoros Gregoras, Jan Louis van Dieten Rhomäische Geschichte II, 58-60.

14 Evliya Efendi, tr. Von Hammer, Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, in the seventh century, 1850.

15 in Elissen, Analecten der mittel- und neugriechischen Literatur, 1860.

16 Viaggio di Lionardo di Noccolo Frescobaldi in Egitto, e in Terra Santa 1383, Rome 1818.

17 Hugh Wm. Davies ed., Bernhard von Breydenbach and his journey to the Holy Land 1483-4, reprint, Utrecht 1968.

18 Ludwig Conrady ed., Vier Rheinische Palaestina-Pilgerschriften des XIV. XV. und XVI. Jahrhunderts, Wiesbaden, 1882.

19 R. Röhricht und H. Meisner, Deutsche Pilgerreisen nach dem Heiligen Lande, Berlin 1880.

20 Helmut Wilsdorf, ‘Zigeuner auf den karpato-balkanischen Bergrevieren – montanethnographische Aspekte, Abhandlungen und Berichte des staatlichen Museums für Völkerkunde, Dresden, 1984.

21 Anon. Philosophy of a Drunkard, Sp. Lampros, 1904.

22 Hans Lewenklaw von Amelbeurn, Neuwe Chronica Türckischer Nation, Frankfurt am Main, 1590.

23 Avogaria di Comun, Numero Generale 3649, Raspe 1442-1458.

24 S. Lampros, Athens 1882 and A. Andreades, Athens 1914.

25 Djurdjica Petrovic, Gypsies in Medieval Ragusa, Belgrade, 1976.

26 N. Gheorghe ‘Origin of Roma’s Slavery in the Rumanian Principalities’, Roma, 1983, Vol.7, 12-27; also P. N. Panaitescu ‘The Gypsies in Wallachia and Moldavia: A Chapter of Economic History’, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (3rd S.), 1941, Vol. 20, 58-72.

27 To the Byzantine Guilds s. Speros Vryonis, ‘Byzantine demokratia and the guilds in the eleventh century’, DOP 17, 1963; Nicolas Oikonomidès,Documents et études sur les institutions de Byzance 7e-15e s., London, 1976.

Published in print in Golden Horn Volume 7 issue 2 (winter 1999-2000)

The Vita of St. Ephrem the Syrian (1)

The Vita of St. Ephrem the Syrian1

by Edip Aydın

St. Ephrem the Syrian, known as ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’ is undoubtedly the greatest poet and theologian that the Syrian Church ever produced. In the words of Dr. Murray, he is ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.’2

St. Ephrem was not only a well-known figure in the Syriac-speaking world but also had a great reputation in the Greek East as well as the Latin West. Within the patristic age itself Ephrem’s reputation as a holy man, poet and a noteworthy theologian was widely known far beyond his Syrian homeland. Less than fifty years after Ephrem’s death ‘Palladius included a notice of him among the ascetic saints whose memory he celebrated in the Lausiac History. Sozomen the historian celebrated Ephraem’s memory as a popular ecclesiastical writer, some of whose works had been translated into Greek even during his lifetime. St. Jerome recognized Ephraem’s theological genius in a Greek translation he read of a book by Ephraem on the Holy Spirit. And toward the end of the fifth century, Gennadius of Marseilles called attention to Ephraem as a composer of metrical psalms.’3

The testimonies to the great popularity of St. Ephrem throughout the medieval Christian world all refer to works in Greek. Although Sozomen the historian testifies that Ephrem’s works were translated during the saint’s lifetime, the scholars today have come to recognize that there is only a spiritual affinity between the writers of the works ascribed to St. Ephrem in Greek and those attributed to him in Syriac. Moreover, in the hagiographical tradition, an examination of the Greek and Syriac sources for the saint’s life gives us two different images of St. Ephrem. This is also reflected in the iconographical tradition. For the sake of convenience Dr. Griffith styles these two different depicted characters of the saint as ‘icon of Ephrem Byzantinus’ and the portrait of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’.4

The ‘icon of Ephrem Byzantinus’ is the product of the writers in the Greco-Syrian monastic communities of the fifth and sixth centuries. They transmitted the works of St. Ephrem in Greek as well as Syriac, and they even composed new hymns and homilies in Ephrem’s style and ascribed them to him. Also, they composed the Syriac Vita of St. Ephrem and a Syriac work called the Testament of St. Ephrem, which is also attributed to him. These two works are the primary sources for the literary icon of Ephrem Byzantinus.5

In the Vita, Ephrem is depicted as a monk living in a cave on the mountain near Edessa. He only leaves his cave shortly before his death to supervise relief efforts in Edessa during a severe famine. Incidentally, he is said to have composed some madroshe (doctrinal hymns) and memre (verse homilies) in Syriac, to overcome the heresy of Bar Daysan (154-222), a native of Edessa. In this account, to ensure the authenticity of his monastic lifestyle, Ephrem is said to have visited St. Bishoi (Pisoes) in the Egyptian Desert. Even today a visitor to Deyr al-Suryan monastery in Wadi al-Natron is shown a tree claimed to have been planted by St. Ephrem during his visit there. The Vita also tells of his visit to St. Basil of Caesarea in order to guarantee his orthodoxy for the Imperial Church. He flees priestly ordination at Basil’s hands, in good monastic style, though he accepts the office of the diaconate. Parallel to this account, the Testament of St. Ephrem reflects the world-view of a monastic hero, a desert solitary whose stories John of Ephesus may have told. According to Dr. Griffith, ‘This literary, or verbal icon, in fact must lie behind the best-known artistic presentation of St. Ephraem, the composition known as the ‘Dormition of Ephraem Syrus’, in which Ephrem’s body, lying on a funeral slab, surrounded by mourners, is the focal point of a tableau made of other scenes from a cycle of hermits, stylites and recluses.’6 Examples of this are to be found both in the Vatican gallery and the Monastery of Dokherias on Mount Athos. This is a perfect presentation of the profile of ‘Ephraem Byzantinus’.

In the portrait of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’ on the other hand, which is the recovery of Ephrem’s genuine works in Syriac and other texts in Syriac, ‘we find no mention whatsoever of any monastic tendencies, but instead only an overwhelmingly and entirely consistent picture of Ephrem as teacher and caretaker of the souls of the flock and even as a friend and advisor to his bishops.’7 Ephrem was born in 303 to Christian parents (Hymns Against Heresies 26.10), in or around Nisibis and received baptism in his youth (Hymns on Virginity 37.10.1-4). He became a ‘teacher’ (malpana) and a poet who for the majority of his almost seventy years, served the bishops of Nisibis namely Jacob, Babu and Vologeses (Hymns on Nisibis 13-21), as a catechist, biblical exegete, and liturgical composer. When Rome handed over Nisibis to Persia in 363, Ephrem was forced to leave the town and move some hundred miles west to Edessa where he served Abraham, the bishop of Edessa, for the last ten years of his life in the same capacity. He died in 373. St. Ephrem was certainly not a monk; but as an unmarried man he was probably a ‘single’ person (ihidaya) dedicated to the service of God.8

Ephrem refers to himself as a ‘herdsman'(‘alana), a member of the shepherd-bishop’s pastoral staff. At the end of his Hymns Against the Heresies Ephrem wrote of himself, saying:

O Lord, may the works of your herdsman (‘alana)
not be negated.
I will not then have troubled your sheep,
but as far as I was able,
I will have kept the wolves away from them,
and I will have built, as far as I was capable,
Enclosures of madrashe
for the lambs of your flock.

I will have made a disciple
of the simple and unlearned man,
And I will have given him a strong hold
on the herdsmen’s (‘alone) staff,
the healers’ medicine,
and the disputants’ armor.9

This is all that Ephrem is telling us about his role and position in the Church. It is probable that he was a deacon but there is no early Syriac text that identifies him as such. The word (‘alana) translated as ‘herdsman’ is very difficult to define precisely. Most often it is interpreted in relation to the Greek tradition simply as a term meaning deacon. But the normal Syriac word for deacon is mshamshono. As Dr. Matthews has noted, the term (‘alana) ‘is often used to denote a disciple in relation to his master, most significantly, after the pattern of that of Elisha to Elijah. Though in this instance, the term expresses Ephrem’s relationship to God, it is this very same relationship of Ephrem to his bishops’.10 What inspired the Syriac writers to celebrate Ephrem as a teacher par excellence was the fame of his teaching and that of the holiness of his life. The same also led the hagiographers in the Greek-speaking world, and those under their influence, to fashion the image of Ephrem Byzantinus.11


In the iconographic tradition the way St. Ephrem is portrayed is not all that different from the literary or verbal icon of the saint himself. In iconography, as in the case of hagiography, one may classify the icons into two different types. The first type of icons is largely based on his Vita that developed in Greco-Syrian monastic circles. The other type is that which depicts St. Ephrem closer to the image that emerges from his authentic writings and other texts in Syriac. Especially some modern Syriac icons attempt to portray him in this way. The former may correspond to what Dr. Griffith has termed the ‘icon of Ephrem Byzantinus’, and the latter to what he named the portrait of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’ in his writing about the images of Ephrem. For the sake of convenience, one may classify the extant iconographic images of St. Ephrem as follows:

  • Icons that fall under the type ‘Ephrem Byzantinus’:
    • St. Ephrem in monastic habit. (The modern icon that covers Kathleen McVey’s book, Ephrem the Syrian Hymns, in the Classics of Western Spirituality series).
    • ‘Dormition of Ephrem Syrus’ in which St. Ephrem’s body is lying on a funeral slab and surrounded by mourners. (See John R. Martin, ‘The Death of Ephraim in Byzantine and Early Italian Painting,’ The Art Bulletin 33 (1951), pp. 217-225).
    • St. Ephrem featured with a scroll and vine. (Based on the Vita, 14, 15).
  • Icons that may fall under the type of ‘Ephrem the Syrus’:
    • St. Ephrem as a deacon. (He is depicted in liturgical vestments holding a thurifer in his hand. An original type of this icon today adorns the wall of St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Diyarbekõr, Turkey).
    • St. Ephrem with St. Basil. This is the earliest surviving icon portraying St. Ephrem in a rather appropriate way. (Illustrated in K. A. Manafis (ed.), Sinai: Treasures of the Monastery of St. Catherine (Athens, 1990), p. 145).
    • St. Ephrem the ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’. (The modern icon of St. Ephrem that came out recently from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria).

Liturgical Material

In the area of liturgical tradition for the feast of St. Ephrem, Dr. Brock has published a very good article.12 His study, for reasons of practicality, is confined to the printed editions of the Hudra and Panqitho (hymnodies or liturgical books for the yearly cycle of prayers for Sundays and feastdays in the Syriac Church). Hudra is used in the East Syrian and Panqitho in the West Syrian Churches. Here, I shall closely follow Brock’s observations and incorporate a great deal from him.

St. Ephrem is commemorated both in Eastern and Western Syrian tradition. In the Church of the East his commemoration feast, along with other Syriac teachers falls on Friday of the fifth week after Epiphany. The printed Hudra offers little that is very specific: Ephrem (along with Narsai) is celebrated as a teacher who ‘interpreted and illuminated the Scripture’, and who ‘quenched and rendered ineffective the sects of the erroneous heretics’. Ephrem is compared to a ‘skilled doctor who blended the insights of the Scriptures for the healing of the sick world’s ill’. Furthermore, we read in the Hudra that Ephrem ‘became a fountain and caused life to flow for the whole world.’

In the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the feast of St. Ephrem (together with St. Theodore) is commemorated on Saturday of the first week of Great Lent. One of the striking features of the liturgical texts commemorating the saint is the considerable use made of memro (metrical homily) on Ephrem by Jacob of Serugh.13 This is either direct quotation from the memra or in a rephrased prose form. The direct quotations comprise couplets 21-29 and 148-162 of Amar’s recent edition of the memra. These include a couplet (152) which specifically refers to Ephrem’s role in instructing the women. The couplet reads: ‘This man introduced women to doctrinal disputes; with (their) soft tones he was victorious in the battle against all heresies.’ Further material that is derived from the memro is found primarily in Sedro (a long discourse that usually follows a Premion in the book ofHusoyo, the Syriac liturgical book of propitiatory prayers) which features in the commemoration feast for 28 January (Syrian Catholic only) and on Saturday of the first week of Lent in the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Naturally, the influence of the sixth century Vita is also reflected in several passages, such as ‘God caused Ephrem to pass from paganism and brought him to true faith.’ Also, the anecdote concerning the scroll and vine (Vita 14-15) feature here. The scroll is an indirect comparison of Ephrem’s divine inspiration with Ezekiel’s consuming of a scroll (Ezekiel 3: 1-3). There are also references to Ephrem’s ascetic life on the mountains of Edessa (based on 13 of the Vita) which talk of ‘the fragrance of (Ephrem’s) life of mourning’ (riho d-‘abiluta). There is also a madrosho (doctrinal poem in stanzaic form) on Ephrem that says he was sent to Edessa to combat the heresies of Mani, Marcion and Armianos, son of Bar Daisan. Also from the Vita are a few references to the meeting with St. Basil. There are also many other references from the Vita that feature in the liturgical texts of the feast. Finally, the Mosul edition of the Panqitho contains one of the supposedly autobiographical texts ascribed to St. Ephrem, a Sogitho (dialogue poem) beginning with ‘How often have I hungered…’ This Sogitho is also to be found in the current hymnal book of the Syrian Orthodox Church titled: Zmirotho d-Ito,Songs of the Church, and is chanted at the Divine Liturgy commemorating the feast of the saint that falls on Saturday during the first week of Lent.

The West Syriac liturgical tradition for the commemoration feast of St. Ephrem as we have seen above, draws on a variety of sources, primarily on Jacob of Serugh’s memro on St. Ephrem and the Vita. As Dr. Brock has concluded, ‘The result, not surprisingly, is that no consistent portrait is offered of the saint who is being commemorated.’14

Regarding the transformations that have taken place in the Syriac tradition with the portrait of St. Ephrem, Dr. Brock offers a good explanation. He says: ‘Perhaps all that the fifth -and sixth- century biographers wanted to do was to present the saint in modern guise, to make him relevant to their own context.’15 Dr. Griffith, further illustrating this point, states: ‘It was not that the Syriac-speaking monks in the Greco-Syrian communities of east Byzantium were deliberately trying to conceal St. Ephraem’s true identity behind an Evagrian mask. Rather, their intention was doubtless to praise the virtues of their most famous holy man, in the newly popular Byzantine idiom of asceticism in which the citizens of fifth and sixth-century Edessa were desperate to claim a place of pride for themselves and for their city. So it was that in popular piety Ephraem, the bishop’s man, became St. Ephraem, the model Byzantine monk, the deacon of Edessa.’16

Some Concluding Remarks

By way of a conclusion, I would like to say that St. Ephrem’s memre and madrashe, the homilies and hymns, became central to both East and West Syrian liturgical tradition, and his works have played a decisive role and influenced all aspects of Syrian ecclesiastical life. His fame as a hymnodist and ascetic spread to all branches of the Church. And today, thanks above all to the late Dom Edmund Beck’s editions of St. Ephrem’s genuine works, and the work of other prominent scholars in the field, there is a universal appeal to St. Ephrem. He has become a spiritual Father for the whole Church.


Amar, Joseph P., The Syriac Vita Tradition of Ephrem the Syrian, Ph.D. Diss., The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1988.

Amar, Joseph P. (Ed.), A metrical Homily on Mar Ephrem by Mar Jacob of Sarug, Turnhout, 1995 (Patrologia Orientalis 47, fasc. 1, no. 209).

Beck, Edmund, Des Heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen contra Haereses, Louvain, 1957 (CSCO, vol. 169-170; Script. Syr. 76-77).


1 This is a paper for a class of Hagiology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Crestwood, NY, 1999.

2 Robert Murray, ‘Ephrem Syrus’, Catholic Dictionary of Theology, vol. II, London, 1967, pp. 220-223.

3 Sidney Griffith, ‘Images of Ephraem: the Syrian Holy Man and his Church’, Traditio, (1989-1990), p. 7.

4 Sidney Griffith, ‘A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church: the Universal Appeal of St. Ephraem the Syrian’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, vol. 1 (1998) no. 2, §5 http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/vol1No2/HV1N2Griffith.html.

5 Idem, §6. See also Joseph P. Amar, The Syriac Vita tradition of Ephrem the Syrian (Ph.D. Dissertation, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1988).

6 Ibid. §7.

7 Edward G. Matthews, Jr., ‘The Vita Tradition of Ephrem the Syrian, the Deacon of Edessa’, Diakonia 22, (1988-1989), p. 26.

8 On the significance of this title see Sidney Griffith, ‘Asceticism in the Church of Syria: the Hermeneutics of Early Syrian Monasticism’, Vincent L. Wimbush & Richard Valantasis (eds.), Asceticism, New York, 1995, pp. 220-245.

9 Edmund Beck, Ephrem des Syrers Hymnen contra Haereses, Louvain, 1957 (CSCO, vol. 169-170; Scr. Syr. 76-77), vol. 169, 56: 10 & 11, pp. 211-212. Quoted by Sidney Griffith, ‘A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church…’, §8.

10 Edward G. Matthews, Jr., ‘The Vita Tradition of Ephrem…’, p. 28.

11 Cf. Sidney Griffith, ‘A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church….’, §9.

12 Sebastian Brock, ‘St. Ephrem in the Eyes of Later Syriac Liturgical Tradition’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, vol. 2, (1999), no. 1.

13 See Joseph P. Amar, A Metrical Homily on Mar Ephrem by Mar Jacob of Sarug, Patrologia Orientalis 47, fasc. 1, no. 209, Turnhout, 1995. [Critical edition of the Syriac text with translation and introduction].

14 Sebastian Brock, ‘St. Ephrem in the Eyes of the Later Syriac Liturgical Tradition’, § 23.

15 Idem, § 24.

16 Sidney Griffith, ‘Images of Ephraem…’, pp. 32-33.

Published in print in Golden Horn Volume 7 issue 2 (winter 1999-2000)

Der Kirchenbau und die innere Ausstattung in der Syrisch-Orthodoxen Kirche: eine Zusammenfassung

Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

Der Kirchenbau und die innere Ausstattung in der Syrisch-Orthodoxen Kirche
eine Zusammenfassung*

von Gabriel Rabo


Über den Bau und die innere Ausstattung der syrischen Kirchen berichten ab dem 3. Jh. als älteste Quellen die Didascalia Apostolorum, die Klementinische und Jakobos’ Liturgie.1 Die älteste bisher bekannte syrische Kirche wurde in Edessa in der um 550 entstandenen Edessanischen Chronik bezeugt. Diese “große Kirche (haiklo) der Christen” dürfte im Jahre 201 AD durch die Fluten des Flusses Daison beschädigt worden sein.2 Weitere früher erbaute Kirchen werden nach der syrischen Literatur in Mesopotamien erwähnt: eine in Ktesiphon gegründet durch Mari, einen Schüler von Addai, und zwei in Arbela aus der ersten Hälfte des 2. Jhs. und aus der Zeit zwischen 165-181.3 Die große Kirche’ (Mor Ja ‘qub?) in Nisibis dürfte wohl am Anfang des 4. Jhs. durch den Bischof Ja ‘qub von Nisibis (+338) erbaut worden sein.4 Archäologisch bewiesen sind ein christlicher Kultbau aus der zweiten Hälfte des 3. Jhs. in Dura-Europos am Euphrat und die älteste bis jetzt sicher datierte Kirche in Antiochien aus dem Jahre 372.5

Eine syrische Kirche ist meistens langgestreckt, nach Osten gerichtet und wird vom Bischof mit Myron konsekriert. Der Kirchenraum ist in drei wesentliche Teile gegliedert:

Der Altarraum (bet-qudshe oder qdush-qudshin, sanctum sanctorum) hat drei Fenster, die die Dreifaltigkeit symbolisieren, und trennt sich mit bis zu drei Treppen und einem Vorhang (setro) vom Chor- bzw. Gemeinderaum ab. In der Mitte befindet sich der Altar (foturo oder fotur haye, Tisch des Lebens, madbho, Schlacht[ort], und trunus thronos, Thron) aus wertvollem Holz oder Stein auf vier Säulen. Darauf steht eine Kuppel mit Sternchen als Sinnbild des Himmels und dem Bild einer Taube als Symbol für den Hl. Geist. Die heutige Form der Altarfront wird mit einem Trauben- und Weinstockbaum dekoriert, dort hängen die zwei liturgischen Fächer (marouhoto), das Ganze wird mit einem kleinen Vorhang (setro) zu bestimmten Zeiten verhüllt. Auf dem Altartisch liegt die Altartafel (tablito), auf die der Kelch und die Patenne bei der Feier der Eucharistie gelegt wird. Vor dem Altar gibt es eine Altarstufe, die nur vom Zelebranten betreten werden darf. Im Altarraum rechts befindet sich der Thron des Bischofs, in der Mitte des königlichen Tors (taro o malkoyo) das sakrale Buch, das Evangelium, das auf dem Evangeliarpult (gogulto) liegt. Rechts und links befinden sich die Geheimaltäre (gnize).

Der zweite Teil des Kircheninnenraums ist der Chorraum (qestrumo, katastrooma), der sich wiederum durch eine Stufe vom Kirchenschiff abtrennt. Rechts und links stehen die Chorpulte (gude), auf denen die Diakone gemeinsam die Stundengebete singen, und im Osten – vor dem königlichen Tor – das Absolutionspult (gudo d-husoyo), wo auch das Weihrauchfaß (firmo, pureion) hängt. Die Einführung der Chöre im syrischen Westen geht nach der syrischen Tradition auf Ignatius von Antiochien (+117) zurück, im syrischen Osten mit zwei Chören auf Shem’un Bar Sabo’e (+343).6 Vor dem königlichen Tor hängt ebenfalls die sogenannte qandilo (kandèla) mit weiteren kleineren Öllampen, die – seit dem 4. Jh. in Anlehnung an Ex 27, 20-22 – ausschließlich Olivenöl als Opfergabe der Gläubigen verbrennen soll.7 Auf der südlichen Seite des Chorraums liegt das mit einem Vorhang verhüllte Baptisterium (bet ma mudito).

Der dritte Hauptteil ist das Kirchenschiff (haiklo), das in Ost- und Westteil durch eine Holzbarriere – bekannt seit der Apostolischen Konstitution und Johannes Chrysostomus (+407) – für Männer und Frauen geteilt ist.8 Das Kirchenschiff hat drei Eingänge im Süden, Norden und Westen als Symbol für die Dreifaltigkeit. In der Mitte des Kirchenschiffes stand urprünglich das Bema (bima, bèma) für den Prediger, das heute in den syrischen Kirchen nicht mehr vorhanden ist. Eine Narthex oder ein Atrium mit einem Brunnen gibt es ebenfalls für gottesdienstliche Zwecke. Eine Kirchenglocke war auch von Anfang an von großer Bedeutung.9

Der Kirchenbau und die innere Ausstattung der syrischen Kirchen haben ohne Zweifel ältesten christlichen Ursprung, deren Vorbild auf die alttestamentlichen und altkirchlichen Traditionen zurückzuführen ist. Bei eventuellen archäologischen Vorhaben im sehr früh christianisierten Raum Edessa und Tur ‘Abdin dürften neue interessante Erkenntnisse über die Kirchenbauten gewonnen werden.

Church construction and -interiors in the Syrian Orthodox Church: a summary*

The earliest Syrian Orthodox church mentioned in the Edessene Chronicle was damaged in 201. Several other Syriac churches are known to have been built in the second and third centuries.

A Syrian Orthodox church is rectangular, pointed to the east and it is consacrated by a bishop with myrrh. The church is divided into three essential parts:

The altarspace (bet-qudshe/qdush-qudshin), which is closed off from the rest by a veil and steps, containing the altar with a dome, decorated with stars and a dove (symbolizing heaven and the Holy Spirit), the Holy Gospel in the middle, and the bishop’s throne om the right, and hidden altars (gnize) on the left and right. This space has three windows, in accordance with the Holy Trinity.

The choral space (qestrumo), divided from the ship by steps. The choir of deacons sits on the left and righthand side, and on the east side the pulpit for Absolution, and the incensory. In front of the gate of the altar space, oil lamps containing olive oil (in accordance with Ex. 27, 20-21) are hung. At the southern end of the choral space the baptistery (bet ma ‘mudito) is placed behind a veil.

The ship, which has three entries in accordance with the Holy Trinity: south, north, west. It is divided into west-side and east-side for for men and women. The bema for the priest used to be placed here, but it is not anymore in use.

The construction and interior of the Syriac churches originate most possibly in Old Testamental and ancient ecclesiastical traditions, and in planning archaeological surveys in the area of Edessa and Tur ‘Abdin, new interesting insights about church construction can be gained.


* Dies ist eine Zusammenfassung des Vortrags, der auf dem 27. Deutschen Orientalistentag am 2.10.1998 in Bonn gehalten wurde. Sie wurde auch im Supplement der Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft (ZDMG), [1999], aufgenommen. Sehe auch: http://www.gwdg.de/~grabo/sok/kirchenbau.html

1 Funk, F. X., Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum, Paderborn 1905, Torino (2) 1979, 1, 159 ff; Die Klementinische Liturgie, Hg. von Hans Lietzmann, Bonn 1910; ‘The Greek Anaphora of St. James’, in: Brightman, F. E., Liturgies Eastern and Western, 1, Oxford 1896, 31-68.

2 Vgl. Chronica Minora, ed. Guidi, I., (CSCO 1), Louvain 1907, 1 f; Edessanische Chronik, in: Assemani, J. S., (Bibliotheca Orientalis Clemento-Vaticana, Bd 1), Roma 1719, 387 ff.

3 Vgl. Barhebräus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, Bd. 3, ed. Abbeloos & Lamy, Paris/Louvain, 1877, 17 f; Saka, I., Suryoyuto: haimonuto wa-mdinoyuto, The History of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Bd. 5, Damascus 1986, 16.

4 Vgl. Barhebräus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, Bd. 3, 31.

5 Vgl. Brandenburg, H., ‘Kirchenbau I’, in: Theologische Realenzyklopädie 18, Berlin 1989, 422; Schneider, A. M., Liturgie und Kirchenbau in Syrien, Göttingen 1949, 56.

6 Vgl. Saka, I., Suryoyuto: haimonuto wa-mdinoyuto, 22, Barhebräus, Chronicon ecclesiasticum, Bd. 3, 33.

7 Vgl. Braun, J., Das christliche Altargerät in seinem Sein und seiner Entwicklung, München 1932, 601.

8 Vgl. Saka, I., Fu oq qurobo, Bagdad 1977, 21; Schneider, Liturgie und Kirchenbau in Syrien, 49.

9 Mehr über die innere Ausstattung einer syrischen Kirche und ihre Symbolik: Jean de Dara, Le de Oblatione, ed. Sader, J., (CSCO 308 ; Syr 132), Louvain, 1970; Mu e Bar Kipho, Fu oq (a)roz qurbono, Hg. von Iwannis Ephrem Bilgic, Mardin 1957; Dionysius Bar Salibi, Expositio Liturgiae, ed. Labourt, H., (CSCO 13), Louvain, 1955.

* See also: http://www.gwdg.de/~grabo/sok/kirchenbau.html

Dating John of Carpathus to the 6th century: A textual parallel between his Capita hortatoria and the Pandectes of Antiochus of St. Sabas

Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

by Dirk Krausmüller

John of Carpathus is the author of two religious texts, the Capita hortatoria and the Capita theologica et gnostica.1 Consisting of short statements about various spiritual topics which are arranged in a seemingly random fashion, these texts belong to the literary genre of “centuries”. The first one focusses on “practical” themes and envisages beginners as readers for whom it provides guidance in their fight against demons and passions whereas the second is more “theoretical” and addresses philosophical questions for the benefit of a highly educated and spiritually advanced readership.2

Despite the growing interest in Eastern spirituality the teachings of John of Carpathus have not been given much attention by scholars. The last in-depth analysis was undertaken by M. Th. Disdier in an article which was published in two instalments in 1932 and 1940/1942.3 Since then John’s appearance in secondary literature has been confined to dictionaries and handbooks.4 One of the reasons for this comparative neglect may be that the dating of John’s life has remained extremely vague and that it has therefore been impossible to interpret his writings within a clearly defined context. The only certain terminus post quem that has been established so far is the year 400 since the “century” as literary genre was only invented by Evagrius Ponticus in the late 4th century. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that John’s texts betray a strong dependence on Evagrian concepts.5 This has led to the surmise that they belong to the early, pre-Byzantine period of Eastern spirituality.6 Unfortunately, however, no proof has been found to substantiate this impression. John is not referred to by other authors before the 9th century when patriarch Photius mentions him in his Bibliotheca so that the year 800 must be regarded as the first incontrovertible terminus ante quem.7 Apart from this, only one further attempt has been made to date the author of the two “centuries”. It has been suggested that he might be identical with the bishop of Carpathus by the name of John who participated in the synod of 680/81.8 Although this has been reiterated by all scholars who have addressed the question it is evident that the mere identity of the very common Christian name cannot be regarded as proof that we are dealing with the same person.9 As a consequence, even in the most recent secondary literature John of Carpathus is still dated to the time between the 5th and the 8th century.10

The purpose of this article is to introduce new evidence through which this long timespan can be considerably narrowed. The argument will be based on a comparison between John’s Capita hortatoria and the Pandectes scripturae sacrae of Antiochus Strategius.11 Antiochus was a monk of St. Sabas who lived through the Persian occupation of Palestine which followed the conquest of Jerusalem in 614.12 During that time he compiled the Pandectes as a concise guidebook for monks in 130 chapters.13 Each chapter consists of a string of quotations from the Bible which are interspersed with borrowings from earlier spiritual texts as De oratione and De octo malignis spiritibus by Evagrius Ponticus (Ps-Nilus) and the Centuria gnostica by Diadochus of Photice.14 It must, however, be stressed that the list of Antiochus’ sources cannot be considered comprehensive since no systematic comparison with other texts has been undertaken so far.15 Therefore it is not surprising that a juxtaposition of the following two passages reveals a further textual parallel.

In homilia 22 of the Pandectes we read under the heading “On rashness” (peri propeteias):

The law says: ‘If they have testified against him and he does not kill him he shall pay.’ Sometimes at a party the vainglorious thought leaps forward and wants to speak when it is not the right time. The good thoughts beg you to destroy the thought that is fond of silly talk; if you do not destroy him in silence but allow him to come forward then you will pay the debt having been given over by the judgement either to a great sin. For when someone who is rash in word or in deeds is also confused he also very much likes to give laws.

Fèsin ho nomos: ean oosin diamemarturèmenoi autooi kai mè afanisèi auton apotisei: estin hote en sumposiooi prospèdai ho kenodoxos logismos lalèsai boulomenos para ton kairon: diamarturountai se hoi agathoi logismoi afanisai ton filofluaron logismon: ean toinun mè afanisès auton en sioopèi alla parachooreis auton proelthein tote loipon apotiseis to oflèma è hamartiai megalèi hupo tès dikès paradotheis: hotan gar propetès en logooi è en pragmasin echei kai to tholeron hèdista de kai thesmothetein thelei. 16

And this is what is found in the 59th chapter of the Capita hortatoria of John of Carpathus:

The law says: ‘But if they have testified against him and he does not kill him he shall pay.’ Sometimes at a party the vainglorious thought leaps forward and wants to speak when it is not the right time. The angelic thoughts beg you to destroy the thought that is fond of silly and untimely talk; if you do not destroy him through good silence but allow him to come forward to the outside having become puffed up with vanity then you will pay the debt having been given over by the judgement either to a great sin or to some heavy physical pains or to vehement attacks by brothers or to the punishment in the world to come. For we shall be brought to account for an idle and vainglorious speech because of our uneducated tongue. Therefore we must guard our tongue soberly.

Fèsin ho nomos: ean de oosi memarturèmenoi autooi kai mè afanisèi auton apotisei: estin hote en sumposiooi propèdai ho kenodoxos logismos lalèsai boulomenos para ton kairon diamarturontai de soi hoi aggelikoi logismoi afanisai ton filofluaron kai akairon logismon: ean toinun mè afanisès auton tèi agathèi sioopèi alla parachoorèsèi autooi proelthein eis to exoo hupochaunootheis tooi tufooi tote loipon apotiseis to oflèma è hamartiai megalèi hupo tès dikès paradotheis è bareiais tisin odunais soomatikais è stibarais adelfoon proskrousesin è tèi kata ton mellonta aioona timooriai: kai gar huper argou kai kenodoxou logou logon apotisomen dia tèn tès gloossès apaideusian: dio dei tèn gloottan hèmoon nèfontoos fulattein. 17

It is obvious that the two passages are almost identical. Before attempting an explanation, however, it is necessary to make a few remarks about the meaning of this very condensed statement. It contains a warning against garrulity at meetings and its dire consequences. This is expressed in the form of an allegorical interpretation of a regulation in Exodus where it is stipulated what should be done in case an ox butts with his horns and thus kills another ox. In the last part of this regulation we read: “If the ox has become known as one that butts before yesterday and the day before yesterday and they have borne witness to his owner and he does not kill him he shall pay an ox for an ox.”18 In the interpretation the ox from Exodus is identified with the “demonic” kenodoxos logismos, the owner of the ox with the monk, and those who inform the owner about the true character of the ox before he can wreak havoc with the agathoi or aggelikoi logismoi.

This having been said, we can now address the question of how the two passages are related to one another. There are three possibilities to account for the striking similarity between them: first that John borrowed from Anthony; second that Anthony borrowed from John; and third that both borrowed from a common source.

Against the first of these possibilities one can point out that the highly educated author of the Capita hortatoria is not very likely to have quoted from a mere compilation of older texts like the Pandectes. This reasoning can be substantiated by a detailed comparison of the two versions. Such a comparison shows that there are a number of words and phrases in John’s version which are not found in Antiochus’ text.19 Especially interesting is the result of an analysis of the last section that both authors have in common. There the readers are confronted with the disastrous consequences of giving in to the vainglorious urge. John lists four points which are linked through “either … or … or … or …” (èèèè). Of these four points only the first one appears in the Pandectes. Nevertheless, in Antiochus’ text we also find “either …” (è …) at the beginning. Thus, it is evident that Antiochus used a source in which there was also at least one more consequence listed. When he adapted this source he cut off the last part of the sentence without bothering to delete the now meaningless “either” as well. This is very much in keeping with the often mechanical way in which compilers of florilegia treated their sources. Therefore, one can conclude that John’s text represents a more complete version of this sentence. Moreover, the next sentence in John’s version which is altogether missing in the Pandectes is also very likely to have been an integral part of the original text as the interpretation of Exodus is continued there.20

While it has thus been comparatively easy to exclude that John directly borrowed from Antiochus it is much more difficult to decide between the two remaining possibilities. This is due to the fact that the teachings presented in John’s “centuries” are not original in the modern sense but reflect traditional concepts. So one can e. g. point out that whereas in the Pandectes we find the non-descript hoi agathoi logismoi John speaks of hoi aggelikoi logismoi and that this is in keeping with the important rôle accorded to the angels throughout the Capita hortatoria.21 This does, however, not prove that John is responsible for the composition of the 59th chapter since aggelikos logismos is a term which he inherited from Evagrius.22

This impasse can only be overcome when one considers the passage in its entirety. The exhortation to guard one’s tongue during gatherings of monks already appears in the extant “practical” writings of Evagrius Ponticus. The relevant passages in Evagrius, however, are very short and therefore cannot have been the direct source for John’s elaborate treatment of the question.23 Much closer parallels are found in later texts, so e. g. in the Climax and especially in the Capita theologica et oeconomica of Maximus Confessor where we read: “He who rashly interrupts the listening of speeches in a meeting obviously suffers from love of glory.”24

What sets John’s chapter apart from even this last text, however, is that the teaching is presented as an interpretation of a Biblical verse. This use of allegorical exegesis is typical for the Capita hortatoria where we find many examples of it.25 Since in Late Antique spiritual literature there does not seem to exist a parallel for the use of Exodus 21, 36 to illustrate the dangers of “rashness” it seems likely that it is an innovation of John.26 If this is the case, we can conclude that in the decade after 614 Antiochus already made direct use of the Capita hortatoria and that John must have written before this date.

To establish a corresponding terminus post quem for John of Carpathus we must turn to his second “century”, the Capita theologica et gnostica. There he polemicizes against the belief that the world is coeternal with God.27 His polemic is phrased in a philosophical language which sports technical terms like sunhuparchein, asunuparktos and sunaidios.28 This topic and the concomitant terminology do not belong to the traditional stock of themes found in “centuries”. I am aware of only one other example, the Capita de Charitate of Maximus Confessor, which date to the 7th century.29 Both John and Maximus adapted the arguments developed in Christian treatises against the pagan teaching that the world is uncreated.30 This debate is known to have started only at the end of the 5th century when Zacharias Scholasticus composed his dialogue “Ammonius” against the Neoplatonic philosopher of the same name.31 Therefore it can be excluded that John of Carpathus wrote his Capita theologica et gnostica before this date.

Thus, we can conclude that the quotation of the 59th chapter of the Capita hortatoria in the Pandectes of Antiochus of St. Sabas and the polemic against the belief in the coeternity of God and the world in the Capita theologica et gnostica establishes the 6th century as the date for the composition of the “centuries” of John of Carpathus.


1 I. Capita hortatoria ad monachos in India (CPG, III, 7855), ed. Filokalia toon hieroon nèptikoon suneranistheisa para toon hagioon kai theoforoon pateroon, 1 (Athens, 3rd ed., 1957); and PG, 85, 1837-1860.

II. Capita theologica et gnostica (CPG, III, 7856), ed. D. Balfour, M. Cunningham, A Supplement to the Philocalia. The Second Century of Saint John of Karpathos (Brookline, Mass., 1994); and Latin in PG, 85, 811-826.

Both texts were also edited in an unpublished thesis by D. Ossieur, Tekstuitgave van de capita paraklètika en de capita askètika van Johannes Carpathius, met inleiding en tekstkritische aantekeningen (Diss. Gent, 1973).

A French translation of the Capita hortatoria is found in Héchysius de Batos, Chapitres sur la vigilance; Jean Carpathios, Chapitres d’exhortation et Discours ascétique, intr. and tr. J. Tournaille (Philocalie, 3, Abbaye de Bellefontaine, Bégrolles-en-Mauge, 1982).

2 This is in keeping with the tradition of spiritual writing instituted by Evagrius Ponticus. Cf. the succession of Evagrius’ writings with the Practical Treatise for beginners, the Gnostic for teachers, and the Gnostic Chapters for those interested in the theoretical foundation of his system, cf. Évagre le Pontique, Traité pratique ou Le Moine, vol. 1, intr. A. Gouillaumont, C. Gouillaumont (SC, 170, Paris, 1971), 31-32. For a short description of the two texts, cf. H.-G. Beck, Kirche und Theologische Literatur im Byzantinischen Reich (Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, XII, 2, 1, Munich, 1959), 452.

3 M. Th. Disdier, ‘Jean de Carpathos, l’homme, l’oeuvre, la doctrine spirituelle’, Échos d’Orient, 31 (1932) 284-303; 39 (1940/42) 290-311. Unfortunately, the second part of this article has not been accessible to me.

4 Beck, Kirche und Theologische Literatur, 359, 452; L. Petit, ‘Jean de Carpathos’, Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, 8 (1950), 753-754; D. Stiernon, ‘Jean de Karpathos’, Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 8 (1974), 589-592; A. Kazhdan, ‘John of Karpathos’, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 2 (1991), 1065; A. De Nicola, ‘John of Carpathus, Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 1 (1992), 444; R. Aubert, ‘Jean de Carpathos’, Dictionnarie d’Histoire et de Géographie Ecclésiastiques, 27 (1997), 1378-1379.

5 Cf. Beck, Kirche und Theologische Literatur, 359: “Man darf von seinen Zenturien keine große Originalität verlangen; die Grundlinien liegen seit langem fest. Das Schema … ist das euagrianische.” Cf. also the almost identical statement in Stiernon’s article in DSp, 8, 590: “… on n’y trouve rien de très original et ce qu’elle possède de meilleur lui vient sans doute d’Évagre le Pontique.”

6 According to Stiernon, DSp, 8, 590, “la spiritualité de Jean rend un son archaïque et reflète en général la pensée ascétique prébyzantine.”

7 Photius, Bibliotheca, cod. 201, cf. Bibliothèque, vol. 3, ed. and tr. R. Henri (Paris, 1960). The manuscript tradition begins in the 9th century. A list of the manuscripts is found in Didier, ‘Jean de Carpathos’, EO, 31 (1932) 291-293; additional manuscripts in the article of Stiernon in DSp, 8, 590.

8 Cf. the lists of participants in J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 11 (Florence, 1759ff.), 653e, 693c.

9 Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur, 452: “Ob er identisch ist mit jenem Bischof Joannes von Karpathos, der auf der Synode von 680 anzutreffen ist, ist völlig ungesichert.” Nevertheless, elsewhere Beck seems to accept this date since he speaks of an “euagrianisch temperierte Mystik der dunklen byzantinischen Jahrhunderte”, cf. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur, 359. Cf. also Kazhdan in ODB, 2 (1992), 1065, who seems to consider the identification likely.

10 Cf. Aubert’s article in DHGE, 27 (1997), 1378-1379.

11 Pandectes scripturae sacrae (CPG, III, 7843), ed. PG, 89, 1421-1856. For a short characterization of author and work, cf. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur, 449-450. Cf. also J. Gribomont, ‘Antiochus Strategius’, Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 1 (1992), 52.

12 Antiochus wrote an eyewitness account of this conquest; cf. Antiochus Strategius, La prise de Jérusalem par les Perses en 614, tr. G. Garitte (CSCO, 203, Scriptores Iberici, 12, Louvain, 1960).

13 G. Bardy, ‘Antiochus’, Dictionnarie de Spiritualité, 1 (1936), 701-702. In recent years scholarly interest in Antiochus seems to have waned. O. Paolo, ‘La sanzione del poeta. Antioco di S. Saba e un nuovo carme di Arsenio di Pantelleria’, Byzantinoslavica, 49 (1988), 1-22, does not refer to the Pandectes.

14 S. Haidacher, ‘Nilus-Exzerpte im Pandektes des Antiochus’, Revue Bénédictine, 22 (1905), 244-250, identification of quotations from De oratione and De octo spiritibus malignis. These are, however, rather quotations from Evagrius; cf. Gribomont’s article in Encyclopedia, 1, 52. J. Kirchmeyer, ‘Une source d’Antiochus de Saint-Sabas (Pandectes 127-128)’, OCP, 28 (1962), 418-421, identification of Diadochus of Photice, Centuria, c. 12, 14, 67, 100. These are, however, not the only quotations which have been identified; cf. the quotations from early Fathers listed in Bardy’s article in DSp, 1, 701-702, including Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Hermas (with a list of parallels).

15 Cf. Gribomont’s article in Encyclopedia, 1, 52.

16 Pandectes, hom. 22, PG, 89, 1501A1-9; then follow quotations from the bible beginning with Proverbia 28, 26. It must be stressed that the text in PG is no critical edition and that its reliability is not beyond doubt.

17 Filokalia toon hieroon nèptikoon, 288.

18 Exodus 21, 36: ean de gnoorizètai ho tauros hoti keratistès estin pro tès echthes kai pro tès tritès èmeras kai diamemarturèmenoi oosin tooi kuriooi autou kai mè afanisèi auton apoteisei tauron anti taurou.

19 Cf. ton filofluaron kai akairon logismon in J vs. ton filofluaron logismon in A; tèi agathèi sioopèi in J vs. en sioopèi in A; proelthein in A vs. proelthein eis to exoo in J. Moreover, the following explanation hupochaunootheis tooi tufooi given by J is completely missing in A. Cf. also the variant readings like propèdai in J vs. prospèdai in A and (parachoorèseis) autooi in J vs. auton in A. On the other hand, A has diamemarturèmenoi as in Exodus whereas J has only the simplex.

20 This is evident from the verb apotisomen. Antiochus has a completely different conclusion to his introduction of his homilia which serves as transition to the following Biblical quotations. Here Kirchmeyer’s observations regarding the way Antiochus quotes Diadochus may give an explanation. Kirchmeyer could show that Antiochus combined passages taken from different contexts in a way that they appear to be a whole. Thus, the last part may well have been taken from some other source. Cf. Kirchmeyer, ‘Une source’, 421, on “la méthode de travail d’Antiochus”: “Abrégeant ou paraphrasant à son gré Antiochus adapte plus qu’il ne copie.” Already Bardy in DSp, 1, 701, had pointed out that the Pandectes is not a florilegium in the strict sense as the Antiochus changes and rearranges his sources.

21 Cf. c. 28, Filokalia, 282; c. 66, Filokalia, 290; c. 67, Filokalia, 290.

22 Cf. e. g. Evagrius (Ps.-Nilus), De diversis malignis cogitationibus, c. 7, PG, 79, 1209A: toon aggelikoon logismoon kai toon anthroopinoon kai toon ek daimonoon tèn diaforan ….

23 Cf. Tractatus ad Eulogium, c. 26, PG, 79, 1125C, with a warning against the akairos gloossa, and Ad Monachos, c. 94, ed. H. Gressmann, Nonnenspiegel und Mönchsspiegel des Euagrios Pontikos (TU, 39, 4, Leipzig, 1913), 161, with an admonition regarding the fulakè tès gloossès.

24 Maximus Confessor, Capita theologica et oeconomica, I, 27, PG, 91, 1093AB: ho en sunedriooi logoon akroasin propetoos anakoptoon ouk elathe filodoxian nosoon. Cf. the analysis of the sources for Maximus’ chapters in H. U. von Balthasar, Kosmische Liturgie. Das Weltbild Maximus’ des Bekenners (Einsiedeln, Trier, 1988), 576, who has not been able to identify the source for I, 27.

Cf. also John of Sinai, Climax, gradus 22: peri tès polumorfou kenodoxias, PG, 88, 953CD: epesèmènato tis toon horan dunamenoon kai diègeito blepoon: otiper, fèsin, en sunedriooi mou kathèmenou elèluthotes hoi tès kenodoxias kai tès huperèfanias daimones … kai ho men (sc. kenodoxos) enutte mou tèn pleuran … protrepomenos me legein tina theoorian è ergasian hèn pepoièka.

25 Other examples for allegorical interpretations are found in chapter 27, Filokalia, 281-282, cf. Judges 6-7; in chapter 65, Filokalia, 289-290, cf. Judges 16, 26 (in combination with Isaiah 7, 6); in chapter 88, Filokalia, p. 292, cf. Numeri 3, 41, 45; in chapter 87, Filokalia, 294, with reference to the trooglodutai; and in chapter 93, Filokalia, 295, cf. Amos 2, 9.

Equally significant is the comparative length of chapter 59 since as a rule John’s chapters are longer than those of Evagrius or Marcus or even Maximus.

26 Apart from the extant Greek writings of Evagrius Ponticus, the “centuries” of Maximus Confessor, and gradus 22 of the Climax, I have checked the Opuscula I and II of Marcus Eremita, PG, 65, 905-965 and the Centuria of Diadochus of Photice, cf. Oeuvres spirituelles, intr., ed. and tr. É. des Places (SC, 5ter, Paris, 1966), where the topic of silence and outspokenness is discussed esp. in c. 70, 130. Cf. also the passage about the guarding of one’s tongue in the 4th instruction of Dorotheus of Gaza, cf. Oeuvres spirituelles, intr., ed. and tr. L. Regnault, J. de Préville (SC, 92, Paris, 1963), §§ 52-55, 232-238. Of course, the fragmentary state of preservation of the Late Antique spiritual literature makes it impossible to conclude with certainty that John of Carpathus made use of an older source.

27 In some manuscripts the title of this text is “Chapters about the uncreated one and the created ones etc.”: kefalaia peri agenètou kai genètoon ktl., cf. Beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur, 452.

28 The topic is discussed in the chapters 2, 3, 4, and 17; cf. A Supplement to the Philocalia, ed. D. Balfour, M. Cunningham; and the Latin translation in PG, 85, 811-813, 815.

29 Maximus Confessor, Capita de Charitate, IV, PG, 90, 1049A: tines fasi sunuparchein ex aidiou tooi theooi ta dèmiourgèmata … sunaidia tooi dèmiourgooi. The theme is, however, not addressed in other spiritual texts of the 7th century, e. g. not in the Centuriae of Thalassius the Libyan, PG, 91, 1427-1490.

30 The most famous example is the long treatise “About the eternity of the world” which was composed in 529 by the Christian philosopher John Philoponus in order to refute the arguments in favour of the coeternity of God and world brought forward by Proclus Diadochus, the head of the Athenian academy, in the previous century. Cf. Johannes Philoponus, De aeternitate mundi, ed. H. Rabe (Leipzig, 1899). For the date cf. R. Sorabji, ‘John Philoponus’, Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science, ed. R. Sorabji (London, 1987), 38-40.

31 Zacharias Scholasticus, Dialexis hoti ou sunaidios tooi theooi ho kosmos alla dèmiourgèma autou tugchanei on ap’ archès chronikès arxamenon, PG, 85, 1011-1144. At about the same time the Christian sophist Aeneas of Gaza addressed this question in his dialogue Theophrastus, PG, 85, 871-1004, esp. 964-965.

A female role model among religious women: Domnika Hegoumena*

Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

A female role model among religious women: Domnika Hegoumena*
by Annabelle Parker

In making a comparison between women who have become role models for other women, it is difficult to say which characteristics are similar and which ones different, and we can ask ourselves what we are trying to retrieve for kind of information. In what way does it help us to analyse role models, and thus those women and maybe men who followed these models. If it is so, that it explains a development in female religious experience, then it is worthwhile. I will study one woman in this paper, so that later on her life and the many other lives of female religious role models, or spiritual guides, may tell us about what was important for women in Late Antiquity and later periods.

I have chosen to focus on Domnika, because she deserves our attention, having been buried in obscurity for so long.

The Vita Domnicae as a historical text

First, let’s look at the ‘historical’ Domnika: Domnika Hegoumena is a Greek saint who lived during the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) in the 4th century. Her Life is to be found in several manuscripts containing Menologiae, on 8th of January. 1 I have used the text edited by Theophilus Johannes in 1884.2 Luckily, a new edition is under way, (by Maria Alexiou) because it is in need of revision. Maybe a new look can clarify the obscurities that one finds in encyclopedias, when researching this text…

For instance: the question “where did Domnika come from?” Will bring up some meddled answers, for which we need to study the manuscripts:

According to the existing edition, Domnika comes originally from Rome (ch. 3), although an article in Bibliotheca Sanctorum wants us to believe she originates from Cartagena.3 It could well be that in other manuscripts than the one(s) used by Theophilus Johannes (Mark. 25), the words tou apo tès Hispanias to genos katagontos in chapter 3 were interpreted as meaning: from Cartagena. But here, this information is given about emperor Theodosius, mentioned in the sentence above, who, as we know from Socrates Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History: “This person [Theodosius] was descended from a noble family in Spain.”4

In a Greek encyclopedia 5 we find an item on Domnína (or: Domniki), (8th jan.) in which Domnika’s story is told but it is stressed that she lived under Theodosius II (408-450) and not under Theodosius I. Also it is mentioned that Domnína originates from Cartagena, which corresponds with the article in Bibliotheca Sanctorum.

Then after some other items, follows the Monastery of Holy Domnínes (or: Domnikes). This, a double monastery erected by 2 women from Rome, and the Monastery which Domnika erected, named after the Prophet Zecheriah, are discussed and reduced to monasteries that existed on paper, but maybe not in reality. But apart from this, in discussing Domnika’s monastery and the chapel in name of the Prophet Zecheriah, this author (S.G.P.) discusses how Domnika did live in Theodosius the Great’s time. So the encyclopedia contradicts itself. Unless there are 2 very similar saints, called Domnína and Domnika, who are intertwined.6 The information about these monasteries in Constantinople was probably taken from a 15th century work entitled De Aedificiis or peri ktismatoon tès Koonstantinoupoleoos, by George Kodoni.7 R. Janin writes more thoroughly about the monastery of the Domnikes, or Domnines and the chapel of Zecheriah, that are difficult to localize. Also, in Theodosius the Great’s time, there were apparently only 2 monasteries built, not for women, but for men: that of Dalmatius and of Dius, around 382 and later.8 Janin suggests that the legendary story of Domnika was used to give one of these monastery a worthy history. But he is sure a monastery with a church dedicated to te prophet Zecheriah existed.

In the text of Domnika’s life we find a mention of a contemporary Constantinopolitan, Daniel the Stylite (409-493).9 In this Life we find in chapter 64 a mention of the chapel of St. Zecheriah in Catabolus, the Harbour. In Domnika’s Life the monastery, which is built with the help of Bishop Nectarius (381-397) in a remote place in or near Constantinople, is actually built as an ‘euktèrion’, a chapel, so could this chapel of St. Zecheriah be the same as Domnika’s? It must have been erected before 395, when Theodosius I died, whose death Domnika predicted. The reader can conclude that the author has written this Life much later than the time of Theodosius the Great, because the emperors Zeno and Basiliskus (474-491 and 475-476) are mentioned.

Domnika’s saintly life

At an early age, Domnika learned to read or recite the Bible (Ch. 2). She decided to choose to lead the life of an ascetic. She went to the harbour in Rome, and a boarded a ship for Alexandria. After suffering a heavy storm, she reaches Alexandria, and comes to a prisonbuilding, where she finds 4 virgins, who are not (yet) christian, but who are virtuous heathen. She manages to convert them, and through her prayers, the locks on the doors break open, and they are free. They all go to a ship that is bound for Constantinople, and during this crossing they again suffer storms. In Constantinople, they are greeted by Bishop Nektarius, who had foreseen the arrival of Domnika in a dream. They are taken to the church, and there, the 4 virgins are baptized. The emperor, Theodosius the Great, himself comes to visit her, and many other people come to receive her blessings.

Domnika decides to build a chapel near Constantinople, because she cannot take the pressure of the bad demons who are afflicted by her being there. So with the help of the bishop and the emperor, the Zecheriah-chapel is built, and she wants the ceremony of inauguration to take place at 24th in stead of 29th January, because she foresees a disaster on that day. This disaster is not mentioned after this., although it is suggested by Gédéon in 1899, that in 388 troubles with the Arians mighr have been the disaster Domnika was hinting at.10

In her residence at that chapel, she cures the ill, and also those who are mentally ill. She then hears from an Angel that Theodosius is going to die. In chapter 14 and 15, Domnika’s situation is compared to that of Daniel the Stylite, who had to descend from his pillar (ch. 72-73) to reason against Basiliskus, who had thrown Zeno off the throne for 20 months, and who favored the anti-Chalkedonian, ‘monophysite’ current. Domnika has to go to the empress (whose name is not given), to advice her and bring salvation upon her. Domnika sends her ‘second’, Dorothea, one of the virgins who were baptised, but she is refused entrance by the empress. The empress dies shortly after Dorothea predicts she will never be deigned worthy of entering the church.

Domnika herself foresees her own death, and arranges that Dorothea take over the monastery or convent and everything that she has built up. She offers a prayer, lasting most of chapter 16. After her death, Domnika appears in the sky, and the whole population of the monastery sees her amongst other saints, clothed in bridal suit.

At a great fire (maybe the one of 465? Also mentioned in Daniel the Stylite’s Life), they see a woman, standing next to the Prophet Zecheriah, and they are holding off the flames from the buildings. Later on, a woman who approaches the monastery, is posessed of an evil spirit. This spirit is tormented by the late Domnika, who chases him away.

Domnika as a female role model

In this text, clearly, Domnika is characterized as a leading figure, with a lot of power. Many people, men and women, up to the emperor, came to see her.

For the girls in the prison, Domnika represented a person who was very much in touch with God, through her strong belief, and they wanted to copy her life. Domnika gave direction to the lives of these women. It was not her femininity that was their primary example, because in the text there is not much hint of her as a woman. She does not for instance encounter specific boundaries for women, as a planned marriage, or evil thoughts. And if one changed the name of Domnika into Domnikus, one would not see much difference.11 It is most of all what she did that makes Domnika a role model.

Speaking of Role Models, it is noticable, that our heroine, Domnika, herself chooses a man, the prophet Zecheriah, as role model for her. The chapel she builds is named after him, because she received prophecies herself by imitating him (ch. 9).


* Summary of a paper given at the 13th International Conference on Patristic Studies 16-21 August, 1999.

1 See: Bertocchi, Pietro, ‘Domnica, egumena di Constantinopoli, Giorgio, chozibita, ed. Emiliano, santi’, in Bibliotheca Sanctorum, T. iv, p. 762, [1964].

2 Mnèmeia hagiologika nun prooton hupo (hieroiakonou) Theofilou Iooannou, Benetia, 1884, p. 268: Bios kai thaumata tès hosias mètros hèmoon Domnikès.

3 Idem.

4 Socrates Scholasticus: Ecclesiastical History: A history of the Church in seven books (306-445), transl. from the Greek, London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1844, p. 366: Bk. 5, Ch. 2.

5 Thrèskeutikè kai èthikè egklopaideia, 5e Tomos, Athinai, 1964, column 162.

6 F. Halkin in Bibliotheca Hagiographicorum Graecorum mentions 3 types of Vita and 1 epitome: see BHG 562. There is another Domnína, mentioned in the Historia Religiosa or History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoretus of Cyrrhus (393-458). Here, Domnína is a saint who lived around 444 in a hut by her mother’s house, somewhere in the province of Cyr, and who posessed the Gift of Tears. See: Theodoret de Cyr: Histoire des Moines de Syrie, ed. Pierre Canivet et Alice Leroy-Molinghen, 2 tomes: S.C. 234 and 257, Paris, 1979, T.2, Caput xxx.

7 Georgii Codoni / Geoorgiou tou Koodinou: ‘peri ktismatoon tès Koonstantinoupoleoos’ (Saec. XV, anni 1400-1462), in: Migne PG 157, Kol. 605.

8 R. Janin: La Géographie ecclésiastique de l’Empire Byzantin, Iière partie: Le siège de Constantinople et le Patriarchat Oecuménique, T.III: Les églises et les monastères, 2ième éd., Paris, 1969, p. 100-101. He uses M. I. Gédéon’s book: Buzantinon heortologion, Constantinople, 1899, which I have been unable to study.

9 An English translation of this Life is: ‘St. Daniel the Stylite’, in: Three Byzantine Saints, by Elizabeth Dawes and Norman H. Baynes, Crestwood, 1977.

10 See R. Janin: La Géographie ecclésiastique de l’Empire Byzantin, p. 100.

11 With thanks to Dirk Krausmüller for pointing this out to me.

God or angels as impersonators of saints: A belief and its contexts in the “Refutation” of Eustratius of Constantinople and in the writings of Anastasius of Sinai

Volume 6, issue 2 (winter 1998-1999)

by Dirk Krausmüller

In his article “L’ombre d’un doute” G. Dagron has challenged the view that the end of Late Antiquity was an “age of saints”.1 He has argued that the hagiographical literature of the 6th and 7th centuries presents a partisan view which tends to gloss over the considerable opposition against a pivotal role of saints in society. Clear signs of such an opposition can be found in the collections of Questions and Answers dating to that period. In this article I shall discuss one of the points to which Dagron has drawn attention.

In the answer to Quaestio no. 19 of the collection of Anastasius of Sinai we find the statement that “all visions of the saints in the churches and at the tombs are effected through holy angels”.2 This theory also appears in a more developed form in the answer to Quaestio no. 26 of a collection attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria where we are told that “the overshadowings and visions in the churches and at the tombs of the saints do not happen through the souls of the saints but through angels who change their shapes into the appearances of the saints”.3 The authors of the Questions and Answers were, however, not the first to express this view. Dagron has pointed out that a strikingly similar theory is already found in the late 6th century when it is attacked by the Constantinopolitan priest Eustratius in his “Refutation of those who say that the souls of men are not active after the separation from their bodies etc.”.4 In the preface to this treatise Eustratius describes the theory of his adversaries as follows: “When the souls of the saints appear to certain people they do not appear in their substance or own being but a divine power taking on their shapes gives the impression that the souls of the saints are active.”5

While the purpose of this theory is obviously to exclude an involvement of dead saints in the affairs of the living the argument is curiously oblique for the apparitions are accepted as real and simply explained in a different way. This is especially interesting since it would not have been impossible to deny their reality, as a passage in the writings of Maximus the Confessor (+662) clearly shows. At the beginning of the 8th letter to John of Cyzicus, Maximus confesses to the “yearning” he has felt for the addressee ever since he met him for the first time and then goes on to say: “Having been deemed worthy to have this yearning for you most holy one from the beginning I seem to see you always being present and to sense you conversing with me. … And I for one am convinced that my memory does not merely imagine you most holy one but that I sense you as being truly present”.6 Although in the end he thus stresses the reality of John’s presence, it is worth noting that Maximus at first considers the alternative explanation that his “yearning” might have induced his own imagination to conjure up John’s image based on the memory of a previous contact with him. We only need to replace this with the previous seeing of an icon to get an explanation which could well be used to reduce the apparitions of saints to mere figments of the mind.

A look at the remainder of this passage shows its relevance to our topic even more clearly. Maximus explains that he feels assured of the reality of John’s presence because it drives away his sinful thoughts.7 This idea is then restated in the following way: “For the effective power which is in you according to the grace of God drives away the molesting demons and thus gives a most clear sign for your presence”.8 Thus Maximus presents himself as a possessed man whose demons are expelled by the apparition of a saint. By using this image to express that his sinful thoughts leave him he clearly indicates that the experience of the miraculous healings at the shrines of the saints provides the background for this whole passage.

When Maximus bases his belief in the reality of John’s presence on the “real” effects it has on him he does, however, also give a clue why the authors of the Questions and Answers and the adversaries of Eustratius did not conclude that the visions were merely imagined. Obviously the beneficient effects of the apparitions of saints were something so widely agreed that they could not simply be negated but had to be explained in a different way.9

But what did these authors gain by substituting a divine force or angels for the saints? A passage in Eustratius’ “Refutation” shows that by introducing a divine power as actor his adversaries wanted to safeguard that all “supernatural” activity on earth comes directly from God. Having stated his own position that the saints themselves appear to the faithful Eustratius turns to his adversaries: “You who object will certainly say that it is the power of God which acts.” To this he replies: “And I agree! For who is so stupid not to think thus?”10 Then he deduces from God’s promise to “glorify those who glorify me” that the souls of the saints must be active and that therefore “God who has been glorified by them and glorifies them makes visible the souls of the saints to those who are in need of their help when it pleases him.”11 Eustratius constructs his argument in a way that God remains the sole actor and the saints are little more than his instruments who carry out his will through their apparitions. While Eustratius’ presentation serves its purpose to show that in the end there is no contradiction between the two models it must, however, be stressed that it does not correspond to the beliefs held by most of his contemporaries. As is amply testified in hagiographical literature the faithful experienced the saints as independent actors whom they expected to interact with God. When Eustratius deviates from this predominant view the obvious explanation is that he thus tried to prevent the objection of his adversaries that the activity of saints could lead to an infringement on the divine will.

In the Questions and Answers the angels take the place of the divine power of Eustratius’ adversaries as impersonators of the saints. Again we need to determine in what it is that the role of the saints as representatives of a distant God differs from that of the angels. The souls of the saints appear with and act through their own bodies and are therefore clearly distinguished from God. In the case of the angels, on the other hand, there is no link between appearance and “self” which means that they remain anonymous and therefore cannot be perceived as individual actors apart from God. This explains why angels are in fact dispensable elements in the discourse and why the concepts of “angels changing their shapes into the appearances of the saints” found in the Questions and Answers and of “a divine power taking on the shapes (sc. of the saints)” used by the adversaries of Eustratius are in the end interchangeable.

The link with God is further stressed when the angels are said to appear “through the command of God”.12 One could object that Eustratius had made the same point about the saints but in the case of the angels it clearly coincides with the beliefs held by the contemporaries. An episode from the Miracles of Cyrus and John by Sophronius of Jerusalem (+638) is especially instructive for an understanding of the different roles of angels and saints.13 The hero of this story is a fervent worshipper of the saints by the name of George. “When the limits of the life were reached George … departed from this life. And he saw the angels taking him and leading him away and Cyrus and John meeting them and asking them to give them the old man as a favour. The angels said that they could not do this since they served the divine command according to fixed rules; they said, however, that they would wait for their entreaty of God and for his second ruling. Having received this answer the martyrs turned to their entreaty and bent their knees to God and asked him to give them the venerator as a gift. And while they did this a voice came down from heaven and commanded to give the old man to the martyrs and fixed twenty more years in this life.”14

What we find here are two radically different concepts of the transmission of power. The angels are mere instruments of God’s will which they cannot change so that it is pointless for men to influence them in their favour.15 The saints, on the other hand, appear as real intermediaries who can negotiate the reversal of a decision.

There can be no doubt that this scene exactly mirrors the social experience of Sophronius and his contemporaries. The angels correspond to the representatives of the central administration who carry out its regulations in the provinces. The saints, on the other hand, are clearly not “regular” officials entrusted with standard tasks but rather correspond to local notables who are not directly dependent on the emperor and who can use their influence in favour of their clients when need arises.

Although the final decision is made by God, Sophronius’ account shows an initial discrepancy between the will of the saints and that of God which is then overcome through negotiation. By replacing the saints with angels the authors of the Questions and Answers could exclude this discrepancy.16 And the same aim was achieved even more effectively by the adversaries of Eustratius who by reducing all apparitions to a divine power completely eliminated all intermediaries. This means that while they are accepted as reality the negotiations of the faithful with the saints who appear to them are nevertheless deprived of their function and thus have lost all their meaning.

It must, however, be stressed that this is only one possible explanation for the belief in the impersonation of saints by angels or a divine power. In the last part of this article I shall return to this question and show that there could well be other reasons for holding this belief.

The adversaries of Eustratius and the authors of the Questions and Answers could only hope to convince others when they managed to disprove the obvious explanation that it is the saints themselves who appear to the faithful. Dagron has already remarked that they used the theory of the “sleep of the soul” for this purpose. His first case in point are the adversaries of Eustratius. I shall now give the full quotation of the passage from the preface of the treatise which I have already quoted partially at the beginning of the article:

“They insist on saying that after the departure from this life and the withdrawal of the souls from the bodies the souls themselves also remain inactive, be they holy or otherwise. Thus when the souls of the saints appear to certain people they do not appear in their substance or own being, as they say, but a divine power taking on a shape gives the impression that the souls of the saints are active. For those are in some place and can never show themselves to certain people in this life after the departure from the body”.17

This summary shows that Eustratius’ adversaries presented their views as a coherent system in which a radically “anti-Platonic” anthropology based on the interdependence of body and soul led to a denial of the posthumous activity of human souls and therefore necessitated the hypothesis that a divine power takes on the shape of saints as an alternative explanation to account for the apparitions of saints after their death.

Anastasius’ answer to Quaestio no. 19, on the other hand, presents us with a rather different case. According to Dagron his treatment of the topic is virtually identical with that of the adversaries of Eustratius. And indeed before stating that “all visions of the saints in the churches and at the tombs are effected through holy angels” Anastasius has attempted to prove that after death the soul is in a comatose state.18 He observes that even in life the faculties of the soul cannot function when the respective organs are maimed and that a fortiori the soul is completely incapable of functioning after its separation from the body.19 This shows his interest in questions of “natural history” which has been stressed by Dagron.20

When we look more closely at Anastasius’ answer to Quaestio no. 19 we see, however, one important difference. After having developed the theory of the sleep of the soul and before turning to the hypothesis that angels impersonate saints, Anastasius inserts a passage in which he restricts the posthumous inactivity to those who have died as sinners whereas he expresses the opinion that those souls who have acquired the Holy Spirit during their life-times are illuminated by Him and thus enabled to feel joy and praise God and intercede for each other.21 One can argue that this does not disprove his previous teaching about the sleep of the soul since the activity of the saintly souls does not originate in their self-movement but comes from the Holy Spirit as an outside force.

Regardless of the explanation, however, the admission that the saints are active after death has the consequence that the sleep of the soul cannot be used as an explanation for the following hypothesis that angels are responsible for the apparitions of saints.22 Anastasius must have felt the deficiency of his reasoning on the basis of the sleep of the souls for he then adds further arguments to shore up his belief. First he objects that a bodily appearance of saints is impossible since the resurrection of the flesh has not yet taken place.23 Then he states that the souls of the saints are circumscribed so that they cannot appear at the same time in different places.24 These arguments have in common that they are not dependent on the belief in a sleep of the soul. The former simply denies the visibility of dead saints but not necessarily their activity.25 And the latter does not even exclude the actual presence of the soul of the saint in one of these simultaneous apparitions.26 Anastasius thus falls back to a second and even to a third line of defense.27

The most likely explanation for this chaos is that Anastasius’ answer to Quaestio no. 19 ultimately goes back to a source containing an argument which was more or less identical with that of Eustratius’ adversaries and that the stringency of this argument was then destroyed by limiting the conclusion that all souls are inactive “be they holy or otherwise” to the souls of sinners alone. Otherwise it cannot be explained why Anastasius should have presented the now obviously unrelated theories of the sleep of the souls and of the angels as impersonators of saints in the same context. The phrase “as it seems to me” implies that Anastasius himself was responsible for this change.28

Despite the superficial similarity of the argument there is therefore a huge difference between the adversaries of Eustratius and Anastasius. For the former the belief that a divine power impersonates saints is the sign of a strong opposition against the saints whose role is completely negated through the stress on their posthumous inactivity.29 Anastasius, on the other hand, shows no principal opposition to an active afterlife of the saints let alone hostility towards them as a privileged group.30 As a consequence the close parallel we have drawn between the function of the divine power and that of the angels as eliminating the intermediate level between God and the living can only be said to apply to Anastasius’ source but not necessarily to Anastasius himself.

This leaves us with a serious problem. When the wish to do away with the saints could not have motivated him anymore why did he so doggedly adhere to the belief that angels impersonate saints despite the obvious weakness of his reasoning? It may, however, be that we are not asking the right question. While it is true that Anastasius uses a coherent argument of the kind proposed by Eustratius’ adversaries as starting point one cannot simply assume that logical coherence had the same importance for him. For a proper understanding of Anastasius’ intentions we need to compare his argument in Quaestio no. 19 with his treatment of other themes in his Questions and Answers. A good example is the controversy about whether the lifespans of men are predetermined by God or not. There are clear indications that Anastasius adheres to the theory that the term of life is fixed once and for all and can in fact be deduced from certain signs.31 This fits in well with his interest in natural history and the stress on the regularity of natural processes which has been pointed out by Dagron.32 But these statements are found in the context of an “abstract” discussion about the different types of prophecy. In those questions where he is expressly asked about the term of life, on the other hand, we find an outright denial that it could be predetermined by God or known by men.33 But here the explanation is of a radically different type. Anastasius points out that men would then only be repentent right before their death and thus argues with the bad effects such a predetermination and foreknowledge would have on the human character. This shows clearly that Anastasius’ “scientific” or “abstract” reasoning could well be at odds with his practical interests as a spiritual father and that in the end the latter would carry the day. So we are entitled to look for an explanation of the theory of the impersonation of saints by angels quite apart from the concomitant anthropology.

Bearing this in mind we can now return to Anastasius in order to find a satisfactory answer. A look at the parts of Quaestio no. 19 which we have not yet interpreted shows that the belief in the posthumous activity of the souls of the saints is not just a stray element found in an otherwise coherent context. At the beginning of his answer Anastasius establishes a parallel between God and the human soul as being created “in the image of God”.34He first lists apophatic predications of the divine essence like unknowable, untouchable etc. and states that they also apply to the essence of the soul.35 Then he turns to the operations of God and points out that God who is himself invisible shows his activities through his creation and that the soul mirrors him insofar as it is also invisible in itself but shows its activities through the body.36 This provides him with the starting-point for the subsequent development of the theme of the sleep of the soul for his next step is to conclude that the soul becomes inactive once its visible activities are made impossible through the loss of the body. This transition is, however, extremely awkward. Whereas up to this point Anastasius has striven to establish an exact parallel between God and the soul he now draws a conclusion which only applies to the soul without giving an explanation why without the creation God should not be equally inactive.

This muddle is caused by the fact that Anastasius here shifts from one belief system to another. The parallel between God and creation on the one hand and soul and body on the other has its place in an anthropology which stresses the closeness of the soul with God and presupposes that just as God does not need the world to be active the soul is not in need of the body. It was, however, completely rejected by those who adhered to the theory of a posthumous inactivity of the souls. In fact, a stress on the utter difference between God and all his creatures could be called the distinctive mark of their argument. This is especially obvious in Maximus’ 6th letter to John of Cyzicus where he points to this parallel in a refutation of this latter anthropology avowing that otherwise the soul could no longer be called “image of God” and ridiculing the fear of his adversaries that drawing such a parallel would amount to blasphemy.37

This shows that it would be too simple to conclude that Anastasius wrecks an otherwise straightforward argument through his wish to safeguard the activity of dead saints. One can equally argue that the theory of the sleep of the soul is the dysfunctional element in Anastasius’ argument. There are indications that Anastasius himself came to see it this way in the end. The image-relation between God and soul was a pet topic of his to which he returned in his first speech about the kat’ eikona.38 In this speech the hypothesis of the inactivity of the soul after its separation from the body also reappears. Here it is, however, attributed to a fictitious adversary and then refuted.39 Anastasius starts his argument by saying “that the soul as being in the image and likeness of God shows its invisible faculties through visible matter”.40 This corresponds exactly to the parallel he had drawn between God and the soul in his Questions and Answers but now he no longer concludes from this observation that the soul cannot be active without the body. Instead he says that “even when it is separated (sc. from the body) the soul which is pure according to nature and which is then found more perceptive and more spiritual and simple and unencumbered and bright in its substance can in a truer sense be called in the image and likeness of God”.41 When he now links the activity of the soul to its substance he constructs an exact parallel with God whose substance is equally self-sufficient and not dependent on the world. This can only mean that the implications of his argument in the Questions and Answers had finally dawned on him and that he had now changed it to avoid possible misunderstandings.42

The analogy between God and the soul, however, only demands that the soul is as perceptive without the body as it has been with it whereas Anastasius now says that the soul will then be even more perceptive. This shows that he has run the whole gamut from an “Aristotelian” to a diametrically opposed “Platonic” anthropology where the body is regarded as an encumbrance of the self-moved soul.43 At first sight, this looks like a tremendous change. The very fact, however, that these belief systems did not inspire a life-long allegiance in Anastasius suggests that for him they had lost the power to organize a stable symbolic universe.44 One can wonder whether this is simply the freak of an individual or whether it is not rather the sign of a general disintregation of traditional belief systems in the 7th century. This is, however, a question which cannot be addressed in this article.

Considering these changes it comes as a surprise that at the end of his speech on the kat’ eikona Anastasius restates his belief that the souls of the saints do not have contact with the living after the separation from their bodies. It goes without saying that this belief can in no way be explained by a Platonic anthropology. Anastasius’ explanation is therefore based on a completely different reasoning. Now he argues that being sent back to earth is a menial task which befits “servant spirits” like the angels but not the souls of the saints which are “master spirits” created in the image of a God who has then hypostatically united himself with this image.45

What Anastasius rejects here is the idea that the dead saints could be instrumentalized by God in his dealings with the living. When he presents the inability to communicate as the sign of a privileged position this sounds less odd when one remembers what the saints had to endure on their missions to the faithful. I shall only give one example from the Life of Sabas by Cyrill of Scythopolis (+ca. 558): A deacon who has lost money goes to the church of St. Theodore where he stays for many days expecting an apparition. When the saint finally comes the deacon complains that he has wasted so much time with praying and has not been helped. The saint then justifies himself by telling the deacon that he has had another task to see to and finally gives the information required.46 This shows clearly that the saints were believed to be constantly travelling from one church to another in order to satisfy the wishes of the living.47

The Late Antique collections of miracles give many more examples for the trivial matters saints have to deal with and the often crude attempts of the faithful to manipulate them in their favour. So it is not surprising that we find authors who worried about the role of the saints in these interactions. In his sermon on the martyr Leontius patriarch Severus of Antioch (+538) clearly shows the reservations he had regarding the stories of miracles which he narrated.48 He explained them with the condescension of the martyr who adapted to the level of insight of those who benefitted from his appearances and stated that to the perfect he reveals hidden things, to the middle ones he appears in a middle way, and “to those who have imperfect dispositions he condescends and amuses himself with prodigies as with small children”.49 Severus speaks about the “amusement” felt by the martyr but this lowering of one’s own level could also cause a keen feeling of pain. This is clearly expressed by Maximus in a passage of his Ambigua where he says that the inner state of the perfect shines through the body “so that those who are in need of some help may receive it from those who can give it” which obviously refers to miracles.50 The perfect himself, on the other hand, does not gain anything by his actions so that it comes as no surprise when Maximus exclaims at the end: “If only there was nobody in need of receiving benefits … and everyone was self-sufficient!”51 A similar statement we find in his Gnostic Chapters where Maximus first interprets Abraham’s travels from the “Land of the Chaldeans” via “Mesopotamia” to the “Promised Land” as the stages of “passionate life”, “middle condition” and “state full of all goods” which one has to go through to become a saint.52 In the next chapter he points out that some of the saints were taken into the Babylonian captivity thus going the opposite way and then states that “none of the saints appears to go down to Babylonia out of his free will” and that if some let themselves be carried away with the people “through force” they did this only because of the salvation of those who needed their guidance.53 These highly ambiguous passages present us with an image of the saints as social climbers who regard the help for their inferiors as an almost intolerable burden and feel a strong tension between their social obligations and the wish to enjoy the status they have achieved.

Anastasius’ belief in the impersonation of saints by angels could therefore be explained as a radical solution to that problem for it liberates the saints from unwelcome tasks and at the same time allows for a help of others through the substitution of angels. This is all the more likely as Anastasius himself acted as a spiritual guide which may have made him dread an equally burdened afterlife. This helps us to modify Dagron’s conclusion. Far from being opposed to the concept of the “saints” as a special and privileged group Anastasius tried to safeguard this concept against the encroachments of the “non-saints”.54

The barefaced egotism of the faithful is all too apparent in those texts which defend the active role of the saints. Under the reign of Leo VI (886-912) the quaestor Anastasius ho Traulo” wrote an encomium of St. Agathonicus which ends with an exhortation to his audience not to be confused by those who attribute the apparitions of saints to the angels.55 There we find the following argument: “Even if they are without their own body which has been put down through death they wait on the creator with the angels and are (also) not doubted to perform angelic ministrations”.56 What Anastasius ho Traulo” has in mind is obviously a very similar argument to the one set out by Anastasius of Sinai in his speech on the kat’ eikona and he counters it by making the saints “like angels”. This reasoning shows clearly that the concerns of Anastasius of Sinai are completely alien to him. From the beginning he has exclusively argued from the perspective of those “who are in need of help” whereas the point of view of the saints in all this is not considered at all.57

Summing up we can say that the adversaries of Eustratius deduced their belief that a divine power impersonates the saints from the theory of the sleep of the souls and thus integrated it into a coherent cosmology which was openly hostile to the saints as a privileged group. This was, however, not necessarily the case as the example of Anastasius of Sinai shows. Anastasius held the similar belief that angels appear in the shape of saints but he did not derive it from a specific anthropology be it “Aristotelian” as in his Questions and Answers or “Platonic” as in his speech on the kat’ eikona. Moreover, when he denied the saints their personal contacts with the faithful his motive was not hostility towards them but rather the wish to liberate them from an onerous task.


1 G. Dagron, “L’ombre d’un doute: L’hagiographie en question, VIe – XIe siècle”, DOP 46 (1992), 59-68.

2 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestiones et responsiones, no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 717C: pasai hai optasiai hai ginomenai en tois naois è sorois toon hagioon di’ hagioon angeloon epitelountai. Cf. M. Richard, Les véritables “Questions et réponses” d’ Anastase le Sinaïte. Bulletin de l’IRHT 15 (1967-1968), 39-56. [= Opera minora 3. Turnhout-Louvain 1977, no. 64.

3 Ps-Athanasius, Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem, no. 26, PG 28, 613B: hai en tois naois kai sorois toon hagioon ginomenai episkiaseis kai optasiai ou dia toon psuchoon toon hagioon ginontai alla di’ angeloon metaschematizomenoon eis to eidos toon hagioon.

4 Cf. Dagron, L’ombre d’un doute, 64. Cf. J. Darrouzès, Art. Eustrate de Cple. DSp 4 (1960), 1718-1719. This long treatise was partly edited by Leo Allatius, De utriusque ecclesiae … perpetua in dogmate de purgatorio consensione. Rom 1655, 336-580. Since I had no access to this book I am quoting from the Codex Vaticanus graecus 511, foll. 151-204, on which Allatius’ edition is based, cf. fol. 151: logos anatreptikos pros tous legontas mè energein tas toon anthroopoon psuchas meta ten diazeuxin heautoon soomatoon, ktl.

5 Codex Vaticanus graecus 511, fol. 152r: kan oun fainoontai tisin hai toon hagioon psuchai kat’ ousian è huparxin idian … fainontai; dunamis de tis theia schematizomene psuchas hagioon energousas deiknusin.

6 Maximus Confessor, Epistulae, no. 8, PG 90, 441A1-2, 7-10: touton ton pothon ap’ arches pros tous hagiootatous humas echein axiootheis aei parontas horan dokoo kai dialegomenoon aisthanesthai …. kai peithomai ge mè psiloos ten mnèmèn fantazesthai tous hagiootatous humas alla parontoon alèthoos epaisthanesthai ….

7 Maximus, Epistulae, no. 8, PG 90, 441A5-6: humas parontas … kai pantas tous en emoi dusoodeis logismous apelaunontas.

8 Maximus, Epistulae, no. 8, PG 90, 441A10-14: …. to ginomenon plèroforian akribè tès humoon parousias poioumenos; hè gar en humin kata charin theou drastèrios dunamis hama tèi mnèvmèi tous diochlountas apelaunousa daimonas safestatèn tès humoon parousias parechetai dèloosin.

9 One must not forget that the proof used by Maximus had been used by Christian authors for centuries, cf. below note 31.

10 Codex Vaticanus graecus 511, fol. 158v: ereite oun pantoos hoi antilegontes hoos hè tou theou dunamis estin hè energousa; sumfèmi kagoo; tís gar houtoo tugchanei abelteros hoos mè houtoo fronei.

11 Codex Vaticanus graecus 511, fol. 158v: legei gar hoti tous doxazontas me doxasoo; poos oun doxazei mè energousoon toon psuchoon … toon doxasantoon auton hagioon …. ho doxastheis hup’ autoon theos kai doxazoon autous hotan autooi areskèi emfaneis toon hagioon kathistèsi ta psuchas tois chrèizousi thès autoon boètheias.

12 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 717C: … di’ epitropès theou ….

13 Los Thaumata de Sofronio. Contribucion al estudio de la Incubatio Cristiana (Manuales y anejos de “Emerita” 31), ed. Natalio Fernandez Marcos. Madrid 1975.

14 Los Thaumata de Sofronio, miraculum 51, ed. Marcos, c. 11, 364: Geoorgios … toon horoon tès zooès plèroothentoon tès parousès zooès ekdedèmèken; kai tous angelous horai labontas auton kai apagonta kai kuron autois kai iooannèn sunantoontas tous marturas, kai charizesthai autois ton presbutèn presbeuontas, hoper poiein elegon hai dunameis mè dunasthai, theiooi de thespismati kata tropon douleuousai; menein d’ autoon tèn pros theon hiketeian apèngellon, kai deuteran autou prosdechesthai keleusin. tautèn labontes hoi martures tèn apokrisin, pros hiketeian etreponto, kai pros theon ta gonata klinantes, doorèthènai autois ton latrèn edeonto; kai touto poiountoon, ap’ ouranou foonè katefereto, didonai prostattousa tois martusi ton presbuteron, kai chronous eikosi en sarki diorizousa.

15 Cf. L&S s. v. kata tropon “according to custom”.

16 It must be stressed, however, that “angel” is not a monolithic category and that angels like Michael can well appear as individuals with a definite personality and history who then act as intercessors like the saints.

17 Codex Vaticanus graecus 511, fol. 152r: diischurizontai legontes hoti meta tèn tou biou toude metastasin kai tèn toon psuchoon apo toon soomatoon anachoorèsin anenergètous menousi kai autai hai psuchai eite hagiai eite alloos poos huparchousin; kan oun fainoontai tisin hai toon hagioon psuchai kat’ ousian è huparxin idian hoos autoi fasin ou fainontai; dunamis de tis theia schèmatizomenè psuchas hagioon energousas deiknusin; ekeinai gar en tini topooi eisi mèdepote dunamenoi meta tèn tou soomatos ekdèmian en tooide tooi biooi tisin emfanizein.

18 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 717C: pasai hai optasiai hai ginomenai en tois naois è sorois toon hagioon di’ hagioon angeloon epitelountai.

19 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 717A12-B14.

20 Cf. Dagron, “L’ombre d’un doute”, 61-63. Anastasius does, however, also list biblical passages in favour of his theory “so that nobody may think that we invent medical mythologies”, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 720A1-2: kai hina mè doxoosi tinas iatrikas hèmas muthologias anaplattein. A comparison with the Questions and Answers attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria is instructive for there biblical quotations are the only kind of proof, Ps-Athanasius, Quaestio no. 26, PG 28, 613B. This shows that the theory of a sleep of the souls was not necessarily based on “scientific” reasoning and that regarding this point Dagron’s conclusion only applies to Anastasius of Sinai. His two other points of alternative explanations for diseases and for miracles cannot be discussed here.

21 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, B14-C5.

22 That this is the case shows a comparison with patriarch Methodius in the 9th century who held an identical view of the afterlife but nevertheless accepted the apparitions of saints. Cf. his Life of Euthymius of Sardes, c. 44, ed. J. Gouillard, “La vie d’Euthyme de Sardes (+831), une oeuvre du patriarche Méthode”, TM 10 (1987), 83.

23 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 717C6-13.

24 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 717C13-D5.

25 The argument is, moreover, rather weak for Anastasius does not consider let alone explain why unlike the angels human souls should not be capable of taking on shapes which are not “real” bodies. A century earlier Eustratius had already suggested a solution for this problem by saying that the saints can be their own image-bearers. Cf. G. Dagron, “Holy Images and Likeness”, DOP 45 (1991), 23-33.

26 Such a distinction was actually made by patriarch Methodius in the 9th century. Cf. his scholion on the Passio S. Marinae, ed. H. Usener, Festschrift zur fünften Säcularfeier der Carl-Ruprechts-Universität in Heidelberg. Bonn, 1886, p. 53, ll. 4-5.

27 This is obvious from the phrase with which Anastasius introduces his last argument: ei de antilegein nomizeis. So it is not surprising when in the Questions and Answers attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria we find a further desintegration of this flawed argument. Here the sleep of the soul and the explanation for the apparitions are presented in two successive chapters so that the two steps of the argument are completely disjointed and the only remaining reason for depriving the saints of their contact with the living is the hypothesis of the circumscription of the souls, Ps-Athanasius, Quaestio no. 25, PG 28, 613A, Quaestio no. 26, PG 28, 613B.

28 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89 (= no. 19), PG 89, 717C2: emoi dokei.

29 Moreover, this is not the only deduction they made from the theory of the sleep of the souls for they also used it to explain away the efficacy of the prayers of the living for dead sinners. Most of Eustratius’ treatise is, in fact, devoted to a proof of the efficacy of the prayers for the dead. Thus, their hostility against the saints as a privileged group of dead who are able to alleviate the lot of the living is just a facet of a general attempt to sever all bonds between the living and the dead. The adversaries of Eustratius appear as moral rigorists who obviously considered all forms of solidarity as corrupting and as potentially directed against God and therefore developed the concept of an atomized society. Their position needs to be discussed in greater detail which cannot be done in this article.

30 Cf. his other statements about the afterlife in his Questions and Answers where he expresses the belief that the disembodied soul of a saint is not only active but can even see this world. Cf. e. g. Quaestio no. 91, 724B.

31 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 20, PG 89, 521A9-13: hoi akathartoi daimones … thanatous anthroopoon (sc. heuriskousin); esti gar sussèma tina entethenta hupo tès pronoias tooi anthroopinooi soomati malista en tais opsesin autou kai pro pollou chronou kai pro bracheos hoos fasin hoi tèn iatrikèn epistèmèn leptoos kai akriboos epanèirèmenoi.

32 Dagron, “L’ombre d’un doute”, 63, concludes that the attitudes found in the Questions and Answers show “une réaction concertée” against the contemporary triumph of hagiography and as a rethinking of faith after the Arab conquest “en balisant le domaine légitime de la science profane”.

33 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 21, 532C3-4: ei proginooskousin tou’o polla atopa emellon diaprattesthai.

34 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89, PG 89, 716C3-8.

35 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89, PG 89, 716C8-717A1.

36 Anastasius of Sinai, Quaestio no. 89, PG 89, 717A1-12.

37 Maximus Confessor, Epistulae, no. 6, PG 90, 429B-D.

38 Anastasius Sinaita, Sermones duo in constitutionem hominis secundum imaginem Dei necnon opuscula adversus monotheletas. Ed. K.-H. Uthemann (Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca 12). Turnhout-Löwen 1985.

39 Anastasius Sinaita, Sermones duo, ed. Uthemann, I, c. 5, 29: ei de legeis moi hoti ouden kath’ heautèn energei hè psuchè chooris tou soomatos.

40 Anastasius Sinaita, Sermones duo, ed. Uthemann, I, c. 5, 29: èdè touto kai hèmeis proeirèkamen (this refers back to I, 2, p. 27) hoti kai en toutooi kat’ eikona kai homoioosin theou ousa, dia tès hulès tès horoomenès tas aoratous autès deiknusi dunameis.

41 Anastasius Sinaita, Sermones duo, ed. Uthemann, I, c. 5, 29: plèn hoti kai choorizomenè tou soomatos hè kata fusin kathara psuchè, hè ousiai tote malista dioratikootera kai pneumatikootera kai haplè kai aparenochlètos kai footeinotera heuriskomenè, kat’ eikona kai homoioosin theou alèthesteroos dunatai prosagoreuesthai.

42 This is makes it likely that Anastasius wrote the speech after the QA for it is hardly conceivable that he replaced the sound argument presented here by a flawed one in the QA.

43 Cf. especially the key term aparenochlètos.

44 The almost playful treatment of these topics which is especially obvious in Anastasius’ development of the image-theme points into the same direction.

45 Anastasius Sinaita, Sermones duo, ed. Uthemann, I, c. 6, 30-31: hothen hoos theotimètos hèmoon hè psuchè oude apostelletai heis diakonian meta tèn apallagèn tou soomatos, kathoos hoi angeloi apostellontai; epeidè ekeina men eisi leitourgika ègoun doulika pneumata, hai de toon hagioon malista psuchai kat’eikona theou despotika pneumata … ei gar èlattootai ho anthroopos meta tèn parakoèn brachu ti par’ angelous hoos thnètos gegonoos, all’ homoos tetimètai polu ti par’ angelous dia tès tou theou logou en autooi kath’ hupostasin henooseoos.

46 Cf. the Life of Sabas, c. 78; E. Schwartz, Kyrillos von Skythopolis. Leipzig 1939, 184-185.

47 This belief would have been shared by Anastasius who as we have seen believed in the circumscription of the soul.

48 Homélie XXVII: Sur le saint martyr Léonce, Les Homélies Cathedrales de Sévère d’Antioche. Traduction syriaque de Jacques d’Édesse, publiée et traduite par M. Brière et F. Graffin. Homélies XXV à XXXI. (PO 36, 4) Turnhout 1974, pp. 559-573.

49 Severus, Homily XXVII, eds. Brière, Graffin, p. 567, ll. 1-8: “… et à ceux qui ont des dispositions imparfaites il condescend et s’amuse avec des prodiges, comme avec de tout petits enfants”.

50 Maximus Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1108C: ef’ ooi … tous deomenous epikourias tinos hupo toon dunamenoon tuchein. The second point which does not concern us here is that the saint thus presents others with a model for imitation. As in Severus this is linked to condescension for the saint becomes everything to everyone thus representing on his level the workings of divine providence.

51 Maximus, Ambigua, PG 91, 1108C: hoos eige mèdeis èn ho eu pathein deomenos … auton hekaston arkein eautooi.

52 Maximus, Capita Theologica et Oeconomica, II, 48; PG 90, 1145C: ho empathès bios … ho epamfoterizoon tois enantiois tropos … hè pantos agathou peplèroomenè katastasis.

53 Maximus, Capita Theologica et Oeconomica, II, 49; PG 90, 1145CD: sèmeiooteon hoos oudeis toon hagioon ekousioos fainetai katelthoon eis tèn Babuloonian … ei de tines autoon kata bian ekei tooi laooi sunapèchthèsan nooumen dia toutoon tous mè proègoumenoos alla kata peristasin sootèrias heneken toon chrèizontoon cheiragoogias afentas ton hupsèloteron tès gnooseoos logon ….

54 After all, a saint is not the sum of the demands society makes on him but has his own voice. This is a point which has been neglected by P. Brown!

55 G. van Hoof, “Encomium in s. Agathonicum Nicomediensem martyrem”. AB 5 (1886) 369-415. Cf. S. Pétridès, Art. Anastase 73: Anastase le Bègue. DHGE 2 (1914), 1477, who points to a letter which Anastasius sent to Leo Choerosphactes in the year 907.

56 Anastasius, Encomium, ed. van Hoof, c. 16, 414, ll. 11-14: ei gar kai dicha tou oikeiou soomatos eisin apamfiasthentos toutou tooi thanatooi alla met’ angeloon tooi ktistèi paristamenoi angelikas leitourgias apotelein ouk amfiballontai. The remainder of his argument is made up of a refutation of the argument of circumscription.

57 Anastasius, Encomium, ed. van Hoof, c. 16, p. 414, l. 6: tois epikourias deomenois; cf. Maximus’ expression tous deomenous epikourias tinos quoted above note 50.

The uses of the Varangian Guard

by Timothy Dawson

In the year 987 Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent a force of six thousand men to aid the emperor of the Romaioi Basil II against the usurper, Bardas Phocas. In an army that had a thousand-year history of using foreign levies and mercenaries this force earned itself an unique place. Its survivors became the nucleus of the imperial bodyguard which became known as the Varangian Guard. The Varangian Guard had a reputation as en elite fighting force, but in a nation which was the most prosperous and militarily sophisticated in the world at the time the unit may be seen to have had uses perhaps surpassing the military ones.

This essay will concentrate on the heyday of the Guard from its founding to 1204; for while there is evidence for some survival of the unit in name after the Fourth Crusade,1 it is, as Sigfus Blondal put it, no more than “the ghost of the regiment”,2 a purely ceremonial entity with nothing like the prestige or military effectiveness of the earlier period.

Despite their fearsome reputation the “Varangians of the City” probably saw much less action than the army as a whole. Their duty was to stand behind the Emperor, and since he usually had many able generals to conduct ordinary campaigns and was often content to use them,3 they would only leave the City for those major enterprises of attack or defence that the Emperor oversaw personally. Even then they might not actually take part in the fighting, as is evidenced by John II’s initial refusal to “waste his Treasures” at the battle of Beroë even in the face of imminent stalemate or defeat.4

A task of the Varangian Guard in barracks at Constantinople was civil policing. Their character as foreign mercenaries untainted by the political and religious passions that stirred the local population and solely loyal to the Emperor must have made them especially useful in performing such risky and delicate tasks as arresting, imprisoning and punishing people who held some religious or aristocratic standing and who might otherwise have been able to work on sympathies existing in native troops.

The regiment probably also had a dampening effect on court intrigue, making it less likely to erupt into open revolt. The evidence for this is limited, but the Alexiad reveals that the Guard was a major consideration in Alexios’ strategy in his rebellion once underway,5 and it is a reasonable inference to conclude that the Guard’s existence and character would have made him think very carefully before he took military steps. The Varangians were almost always uncompromisingly loyal to the incumbent Emperor. The exceptions to this occur in situations manifesting a combination of popular discontent, Varangian disaffection, and the presence of a highly legitimate replacement. The clearest example of this was the overthrow of Michael V in 1042, wherein the Guard became the spearhead of widespread discontent caused by Michael’s policies and attempts to purge the upper bureaucracy and the royal family. In this uprising the Guard reinstated the Dowager Empress Zoe, whom Michael had stripped of her position and consigned to a monastery on false charges of treason. The final punishment of blinding was inflicted by the Varangian Commander, Harald Sigurdsson, later as King of Norway to become known as the “Stern-ruler” (Hardrada). This episode does not entirely paint the regiment as pillars of virtue, because one major cause of its ire was the imprisonment of Harald and two close associates on the probably justified charges of misappropriation of imperial booty and tax-farming.6 The prodigious quantities of loot that Harald sent home and took with him when he returned to Norway themselves became legendary.7 Returning to the original topic, episodes such as that of the succession of Constantine VIII show that the Guard valued legitimate succession in the western manner almost as much as simple encumbancy.8

The uses of the Varangian Guard had another less tangible side. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries it became an important pillar of imperial ideology. Byzantine chroniclers make much of the warriors having come from what were to them the farthest edges of the world lured by far-flung tales of the glory of New Rome and its ruler. The depictions of the Varangians’ imposing stature and combative prowess were undoubtedly true, but even their truth was probably somewhat a matter of contrivance. To enter the regiment it was necessary to purchase a position for a substantial sum of gold. Hence an aspiring Varangian had to have been successful enough to have made the perilous journey to the Great City with cash in hand, and is likely then to have had to pass some kind of selection criteria designed to maintain the quality of the company, with the unsuccessful applicants being shunted off to the provincial varangian regiments.

The influx of Saxons in the wake of the Norman Conquest, and those who followed in later centuries, was especially useful to the propagandists. Anna Comnena 9 in the late eleventh century and Cinnamus 10 and others in the twelfth were able to hark back in a fanciful fashion to Britain’s time as a Roman province and imply a continuity of fealty there.

Curiously Norse sources almost seem willing to accede to Byzantine political theory, explicitly conceding the Emperor of Constantinople a higher status than local rulers. Even if they do not profess any notional fealty, an echo of the Oecumenical Empire and the Family of Kings was plainly heard in Scandia.11

For propaganda purposes it was desirable that the Emperor’s elite should manifest some piety reflecting the sacrality of the Purple. The common image of Viking adventurers is that of heathen raiders despoiling monasteries and churches in the British isles, Neustria and Aquitaine, but the kingdoms of the North had all been thoroughly christianised by the first decade of the eleventh century. The original force of Varangians may well itself have been mostly Christian, since its despatch to Constantinople had been part of the manoeuvring that saw Vladimir receive the Byzantine Princess Anna as wife, and more, in exchange for imposing Christianity on the Principality of Kiev.12 The Varangian Guard had the distinction of its own churches, something not associated with other military units in the empire. The earliest of these seems to have been set up early in the eleventh century, but got caught in the crossfire of the struggle between Patriarch and Pope and closed in 1052.13 More is known of its successor, which was established not far from Hagia Sophia. In familiar fashion it was built in fulfilment of a supplicatory vow that was supposed to have turned the tide of the battle of Beroë. Norse sources say that this church was dedicated to Saint Olaf Haraldsson, and that his sword hung above the altar,14 but more reliable accounts indicate that it was dedicated in typical Byzantine manner to the Theotokos, Mary.15

Thus far I have dealt with the uses of the Varangian Guard to the Emperor, but the existence of the Guard was useful to other monarchs as well. I have already referred to the wealth Harald Hardrada obtained during his sojourn in Byzantium. The largesse and ostentation that this permitted him did much to acquire and strengthen his rule.16 Besides that, his time in the Guard became a major part in his royal mythology. King Harald’s Saga contains a number of common folk-motif stories along with the more factual accounts. These tales are known to predate Harald’s period in the East, and scholars have surmised that these tales were brought back by Harald’s companions and incorporated into his mythology within his lifetime.17 I have mentioned the hierarchy of kings embraced in Norse literature, and King Harald’s Saga and other treatments of his life make much use of the transferred glory of the Basileus by exaggerating his position and the favour in which he was held.

A similar use is made of reflected imperial glory in the story of King Eric of Denmark who passed through Constantinople on pilgrimage. He is said to have gained high favour and lavish gifts from the Emperor for his wise and humble advice to members of the Guard.18

There are two other examples of how the Varangian Guard was invoke to posthumously glorify rulers, enhance the sacrality of kingships and add lustre to national folklores. I have already referred to the cult of Saint Olaf. The thirteenth-century saga writer Snorri Sturlusson gives a long account of the events that turned the tide battle of Beroë, and especially of the miracles worked by Olaf’s sword which brought his sanctity to the notice of the Emperor.19 Snorri draws on a source not far removed in time from the battle, but the religious aspects of the tale are not corroborated in other sources, Norse or Greek, there is not record of any sword having hung above the altar of any church in the City. It seems certain that this is a hagiographical concoction.

The other example of the Saga of Saint Edward the Confessor, a much debated composition 20 originating in Iceland in its surviving example, and probably dating from the fourteenth century but perhaps earlier. This is a partisan account of events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England, which includes a tale of a mass migration of Saxons to Byzantium, some to settle on the Black Sea and others to join the Varangian Guard. Many of the events are confirmed by other evidence, but the Saga falls clearly into the genre of Saxon mythology that have given us such familiar stories and Robin Hood and Ivanhoe.

The Varangian Guard was thus more than a military bulwark for the Byzantine Emperor, and formed an element of the ideological foundations for rulers East and West, and grist for the mills of national folklores.


1 For example in the fourteenth century court ceremony manual of Pseudo-Kodinos. Jean Verpeaux Pseudo-Kodinos: Traitédes Offices, Paris, 1966 p. 179, 183, 184 and further.

2 Sigfus Blondal, The Varangians of Byzantium revised by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge, 1978 Chapter 7.

3 The exception which might be cited amongst the Comneni, Alexios I, John II and Manual I, have had their exploits somewhat exaggerated byclassicising biographers who felt compelled to depict them in a similar light to the heros of ancient Greek literature.

4 Snorri Snorrasson’s account cited in Blondal (n. 2 above) p. 149.

5 Anna Comnena, Alexiad, translated by E.R.A. Sewter, Harmondsworth, 1985 p. 95f.

6 Blondal (n. 2 above) p.77-87.

7 Ibid. p. 78 and H.R. Ellis Davidson The Viking Road to Byzantium London, 1976 p.226-8.

8 Blondal (n. 2 above) p.113.

9 Alexiad (n. 5 above) p. 95.

10 Quoted in Blondal (n. 2 above) p. 150.

11 King Eric’s position is depicted as lower in Eirics drapa by Magnus Skeggjason, quoted in Blondal, p. 134. Numerous references confirm it for example the “Great King” of Thjodolf Arnorsson’s Sexstefja (Blondal,p. 93) and especially “Lord of Kings” in Einar Skularsson’s Geisli (Blondal, p.186). Thorvald Kodransson’s Thattr gives a tributary position to Kiev (Blondal, p.198).

12 Blondal, p. 44 and Ellis Davidson, p. 179f.

13 Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, Cambridge, 1977, p.106-7.

14 Blondal, p.148ff

15 Ibid., p.185.

16 Ellis Davidson (n. 7 above) p. 227.

17 Ibid., p. 214ff and Blondal, p. 71.

18 Blondal (n. 1 above) p. 132ff.

19 Ibid., p. 148ff.

20 Cf. Leslie Rogers “Anglo-Saxons and Icelanders in Byzantium”, in Byzantine Papers, Canberra, 1981.