Holy Men as a Window into Late Antique Religion

The Late Antique period is characterised by the changes that took place within it. Though including continuous themes and ideas from past ages, at least in a religious view, late antiquity saw the formation and evolution of the three Abrahamic religions, specifically Christianity and Judaism before the year 700. Along with that comes the rise of monasticism where the lives of monks, saints, and stylites are held to great importance, their lives characterising what people valued and how understandings of religion and values spread. Therefore, studying holy men in late antiquity allows us to study not only the evolution of religion itself but how people understood and digested religion within their communities, and the function which God and religion played within society through the holy man. The holy man encapsulates what religion and a relationship with God was to a contemporary person, which is a glimpse into the past which is highly valued by historians. 

            The key writer on this subject  is Peter Brown who wrote,  The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity (1971) which moved the representation and study of holy men in the period from traditional views from Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to a view where holy men were perceived as a ‘swarm of fanatics, incapable of fear, or reason, or humanity’. As stated by Howe, the ‘accomplishment of The Rise and Function was to move to center stage the ‘holy man’ and to claim positive social functions for him’.

This follows  the views of Brown, with the holy man being at the centre of late antique society and being the primary link between common men and religion. The support for holy men from contemporary society is vital to the understanding and study of late antique religion. The faith of an unattainable deity being entrusted to a human man just like the believer is a significant take on the contemporary understanding of humanity and religion. It could be argued that the holy man made religion tangible, thus the study of the rise of the holy man and his function within society in expanding the understanding of religion in his followers is of great importance historically and should not be disregarded. 

            Many academics have characterised what it was to be a holy man in this period and  one common factor which is linked to such a person is the authority that he held within his community. ‘The holy man was the supreme fixer’, reputations of holy men as ‘healer, intercessort, magician and resolver of disputes for an entire region’ are well documented through letters and records, some of which will be analysed later in this article. Such reputations were ‘a form of power in late roman society’. This power and reputation enforces the importance of the holy man in late antique society and how fundamental he was to communities. 

Throughout his works Brown focuses on how the usefulness of the holy man stemmed from his ability to resolve social issues. This shows that Brown takes a largely functionalist viewpoint, which is the strongest argument to be made about the holy man. It is quite difficult to study religion in this period without analysing the workings of a religious society. In most cases, this analysis will show that saints, monks, stylites or simply ‘holy men’ were foundational to how people not only understood but interacted with religion. Arguments stating that too much attention has been given to the rise of holy men must not address the significance they had in society, or at least disregard the functioning relationships surrounding religion. 

It is important to note that most religious relationships at this time were founded upon the common person relating and interacting with holy men in their community who then interacted with God, or God worked through rather than a direct relationship with God themselves. Brown describes holy men as ‘icons’ who bring the holy into the world, ‘a hinge person mediating between God and man’. Therefore, if we are to give less attention to the rise of the holy man we are to give less attention to religion in the late antique period as a whole. No other factor, such as religious scrolls or conversions of emperors can give as rich of an understanding of religion of the masses in this period as the holy man can. To the average late roman, ‘the divine would have been brought to earth not so much by relics, by bishops, or even by the emperor himself as by the holy man.’ Thus, the holy man must be analysed to gain an understanding of the common man’s religious experience.

There are many contemporary documents that record acts of holy men, views of them and miracles that occurred. Brown himself looks at multiple sources, one of which he analyses are the diaries and letters of Cyril of Schythopolis. Brown states that men wondering ‘can a man be saved’ often found themselves joining monastic communities centred around the holy man in Syria and Palestine. Perhaps more commonly referred to sources are the letters of Simeon Stylite, which are readily available, translated and accessible. In these letters, responsibilities of holy men are highlighted as well as proof of their position in society as many powerful religious people wrote to them seeking advice. Scholars seem to agree that the holy man was a major figure in the running of communities, ‘he was called upon to offer advice, to mediate, to arbitrate, or to provide protection’ this does not only apply to individuals in the community but also to religious councils and people in power. For example, Simeon and other holy men sent letters by request to either approve or disapprove the council of Chalcedon, ‘For, on the receipt of the letters of your worthiness, I admired the zeal and piety of our sovereign, beloved of God, which he manifested and still manifests towards the holy fathers and their unshaken faith’. Letters such as these highlight the characteristics and morals that were considered important especially in religion at the time, even with religious changes taking place the idea of ‘unshaken faith’ is held at the upmost importance. Without close study of holy men, it is more likely that this would have only been inferred from general religious understandings rather than documents between religious authorities confirming such beliefs. Another letter from the same period writes ‘To our Spiritual Brother in Christ; adorned with graces illustrious and divine; zealous for the orthodox faith of the fathers, which we have learned from prophets, apostles, and saints… from the mean and weak sinner, Simeon, who stands upon the pillar near the village Telnesi; great and exceeding peace in the Lord’. Highlighting that holy men taught the faith and religious morals to his local people, and was held in authority for his connection with the Lord through his monastic behaviours. These documents emphasise ‘the ‘spiritual family’ to which the holy man was not only an exemplar but in which he was a member’. Here, Rapp describes the position of the holy man excellently. Thus, reinforcing the view that if historians wish to analyse religious understandings of the era, holy men are exemplary members of community spiritual families, teaching and sharing beliefs and expectations. It has even been argued that the holy man defined the collective presentation of Christian salvation.

Overall, holy men held a vital role in the functioning of community based on shared beliefs and religious values. Religion in this period cannot be studied without close examination of the holy man, specifically following the work of Peter Brown. Late antique society had long been dominated by violence articulated as demonic, thus ‘the holy man was very necessary’ for the functioning and stability of that society. The holy man was not only contemporarily fundamental to the stability of society, the teaching and understanding of religion and a means by which to connect to God he is also central to the modern historian’s ability to study religion in the late antique period and provides a wonderfully useful basis to comprehend how religion in the era functioned on a mass level.

 Written By: Holly Palmer


Primary Sources 

·      Cyril of Scythopolis, Vita Euthymii, ed. E. Schwartz, Kyrillos von Skythopolis (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1939)

·       Pearse, Roger. Trans. The Letters of Simeon the Stylite. Ipswich, UK, 2007  [Online] Available at: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/simeon_stylites_letters_01_trans.htm

Secondary Sources

·       Ashbrook Harvey, Sarah. “The Stylite’s Liturgy: Ritual and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6/3 (1998): 523-539

·       Ashkenazi, Jakob. “Holy Man versus Monk—Village and Monastery in the Late Antique Levant: Between Hagiography and Archaeology” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 57 (2014) 745-765 http://www.academia.edu/9300334/Holy_Man_versus_Monk_Village_and_Monastery_in_the_Late_Antique_Levant_Between_Hagiography_and_Archaeology

·       Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.” The Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80-101. doi:10.2307/300008. 

·       Frankfurter, David T. M. “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria.” Vigiliae Christianae 44, no. 2 (1990): 168-98. doi:10.2307/1584330.

·       Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

·       Howard-Johnston, James; Howard, Paul Antony. (Ed.) The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Essayson the Contribution of Peter Brown. (2002) Oxford University Press.

·       Howe. John. “Revisiting the Holy Man.” The Catholic Historical Review 86, no. 4 (2000): 640-44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25025821.

·       Rapp, Claudia. “‘For Next to God, You Are My Salvation’: Reflection on the Rise of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.” In The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages:  Essays on the Contribution of Peter Brown, ed. J. Howard-Johnston and P.A. Hayward (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999): 63-82