ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fourth Century

Section 5: A New Christian Culture of Monks and Martyrs

Steven Muhlberger



Conflict within the imperial Roman church did not prevent Christianity from spreading, either to new countries such as Ethiopia or Caucasian Georgia, or within regions where it had long been present, such as Gaul, Spain, or northern Iraq. Christianity also created within itself forms of worship and organization that characterized it throughout the Middle Ages. The two most important developments were the cult of the saints and their relics, and the monastic style of life. Neither was quite an innovation, but during the century they became central parts of the life of the churches. Not everyone was comfortable with this. Educated pagans denounced the cult of relics as a gruesome superstition, and monasticism as life-hating fanaticism, a rejection of the best aspects of civilization. Some members of settled Christian communities had their doubts about the new piety and the extraordinary demands it made. But both trends were very powerful, appealing both to ordinary Christians and their most determined leaders. For them, monks and relics were tangible expressions of the truths of their religion, adopting a monastic life and venerating the saints appropriate responses to the nature of the universe. From this time on, the spread of monks and relics was the spread of Christianity, and vice-versa. To understand the Middle Ages, we must come to an understanding of what was happening in the fourth century; if possible, a sympathetic understanding.

Let us begin with the monks. From the beginning, it had been common for serious Christians to take special measures to avoid the sinful life of the world. Some of their neighbors' habits -- such as taking concubines or attending gladiatorial games -- were obviously sinful for all Christians. But the really pious might do more to set themselves apart. They would adopt an ascetic discipline -- restrict their diets, wear the simplest of clothes, foreswear sexuality altogether. From earliest times, Christians had respected widows who did not remarry and married couples who lived together in prayer and chastity, thus devoting their lives to preparation for eternity. But except perhaps in Syria, where there had always been communities and individual hermits devoted to strict asceticism, most of this renunciation of the world took place within an urban context, and within established congregations. It was a civilized, philosophical method of preparing for eternal life.

At the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth, a more radical rejection of the world expressed itself simultaneously in a number of places. In North Africa, where even bishops rejected imperial patronage as a source of corruption, country people in the name of Christianity denounced the entire structure of civilized society as a device of the devil. Some did not hesitate to take up arms against their landlords and the imperial authorities. Peaceful rejections of the world were more common and more influential. The Syrian deserts provided shelters for more hermits than ever before, men who abstained from all social contact and every comfort, even fire, in an effort to lead an angelic life, untouched by the world. In Egypt, men and women in unprecedented numbers gave up normal life in a bid to gain heaven.

These movements, peaceful or violent, may be seen as a Christian expression of rural discontents as the Gospel finally began to move from cities to the countryside. When rural Christians were taught that salvation meant turning one's back on the distractions of the world, they tended to draw absolute conclusions. The world as it existed was not a hospitable place for the small farmer or landless laborer. The entire structure of urban civilization rested on the backs of the lesser countrypeople. The grain and oil they produced fed the cities and the armies, the rents they paid were the basis of urban fortunes, and their taxes were the crucial element of imperial finance. They were often called away from their own crops and animals to do forced labor on someone else's property, or to move supplies for the government postal service. Generally uneducated and without access to political power of any sort, they were at the mercy of officials, landlords, moneylenders, and patrons who protected them from the other three.

This had always been the case, but it was perhaps more true in the fourth century, when the Roman emperors were making great demands for funds and service. Even in the prosperous provinces -- perhaps there moreso than elsewhere -- it was commonplace for those without hope to run away from their holdings, their obligations, and their families even if it meant a life of near-starvation in the desert. Those without hope were not necessarily the poorest. The struggle to make it in a harshly competitive world, or just to gain some scrap of security, might seem too much for any man -- or woman. Women, whose one respectable role was as wife and mother, might feel even more trapped than their brothers.

The Gospel spoke directly to such people. It gave religious sanction to their feelings and to their revolts. Here, according to Athanasius, is how the most famous (though not the first) of the monks, Antony of Egypt, and his less famous sister, fled from the world in about A.D. 270:

The death of his parents, when he was eighteen and twenty years old, left him with the responsibility of a very young sister, as well as of their home. [About six months later, thinking about the simple life of the apostles,] he entered [his local] church. It happened that the Gospel was then being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man: "If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."...Antony left the church at once and gave to the villagers the property he had received from his parents -- there were three hundred acres, fertile and very beautiful -- so that he and his sister might not be in any way encumbered by it.
For both, this was the first step in a career of renunciation. Antony's unnamed sister found a quiet refuge with a group of like-minded women, -- a reminder that neither was a pioneer -- and disappears from the story. Antony took a more spectacular road: he fled to the desert, never far away for any Egyptian, and spent seventy-five years storing up "treasure in heaven" through a life of self-denial.

Antony's goal was to shed all earthly encumbrances: not just property and responsibility, but the desires that made one a slave to transient things. He thought of his enemies in this quest as being not so much his own appetites, but the evil demons who stirred them up. The demons reminded him "of his property, anxiety about his sister, intimacy with his kindred, greed for money and for power, the manifold enjoyment of food and the other pleasures of life." Neither these nor "filthy thoughts," nor alluring visions of women, nor illusory beasts threatening his life turned him aside. After struggling for many years, Antony reached a psychological or spiritual plateau from which he was, with God's help, invulnerable to temptation. He was a changed man, a friend of God, a status obvious to other people.

As a friend of God, Antony was a valuable neighbor. For those concerned about the next life, he was the best of guides. He reminded Christians of the simple virtues, virtues perhaps less evident now that Christianity was conquering -- and adapting to -- the world. He showed the true religion as a philosophy of action, not of learning, accessible not just to those with fancy Greek educations, but to also to unlearned men whose language was, like Antony's, the Coptic of the countryside.

For others, knowing a friend of God provided immediate and tangible benefits. Heaven had given Antony the power to heal the sick. Athanasius's biography of Antony records, for instance, how the parents of an unnamed girl from Busiris came to the famous monk for help. The daughter had "a dreadfully offensive disease. The discharge from her eyes, nose and ears fell to the ground and immmediately turned to worms, and her body was paralyzed and her eyes were crossed." When after a long journey the parents approached Antony and began to explain their problem, they found that he Antony already knew all about their daughter's illness. He refused to promise anything, since healing came from the Savior, but said, "Go, if she is not dead, you will find her cured." Of course she was cured. The parents had correctly judged that the Lord would do extraordinary things for a true man of God.

Antony was part of a generation of holy people who popularized asceticism as the epitome of the Christian life, as the best way to become a "friend of God." At precisely the same time, martyrs and their relics began to take a far more prominent place in Christian thinking and worship. For martyrs, too, were friends of God, closer friends than monks were, but friends for much the same reason. Monks gave up normal life, its pleasures and anxieties, for the sake of their faith in God and in hopes of eternal reward. Martyrs had given up life itself, often in terrible torment, for precisely the same reason. A monk might imitate the apostles or even the angels. The martyr had imitated Jesus himself.

The Christians of Constantine's time had just been through a shocking persecution. Though the dangers and opportunities of martyrdom ended in 312, those who had died were not forgotten. The miraculous victory of the faith reflected well on them, and contact with martyrs was increasingly sought out. Perhaps suprisingly from our point of view, the martyr's power was as available as the monk's. The martyr was both in heaven with God and still present below. The bodies, bones and blood of those who had suffered were not just dead evidence of that suffering. They were living gates between the everyday world and the eternal realm. By contact with tombs and relics of the martyrs, one could seek their protection or aid. As human beings, the martyrs would understand the troubles of mortals better than most. As friends of God, they were in a position to help, much as a judge or a senator with the ear of an emperor might help one caught in the merciless imperial legal system. Eulalia, a Spanish twelve-year-old who defied Diocletian's decrees, was simply an inconvenient and unruly teenager to the officials who tortured her to death at Mérida in 303; in the new era, she was a power in the universe, whose influence and justice far exceeded that exercised by those who killed her

. Thus one great appeal of martyrs and monks for the Christians was that they were unselfish protectors in a world where no one could do without a patron. They were also figures around whom Christian communities could be built.

The monastic calling is at first glance a very selfish one -- monk (Greek monachos) means "alone." But monks were Christians, and could not avoid the obligation to spread the good news of Jesus. Antony in his later years was surrounded by willing students of his perfection. Other leaders not only taught but organized their followers. It was the will of heaven: an angel told the monk Hor, "You shall become a great nation, and many shall believe in you, and through you shall thousands find salvation." The figure of thousands was no exaggeration. Early in the century, the Egyptian monk Pachomius headed a monastery of hundreds of monks, a veritable town divided into specialized groups of potters, matmakers, and other artisans, all governed by a written rule and the authority of their abbot (Egyptian abba, "father"). This was just the beginning of the Pachomian movement. Eight other monasteries were set up by Pachomius. At the end of the century, a gathering of monks to honor the dead Pachomius numbered 50,000. Monks, who began by setting themselves apart from the world, quickly became successful colonizers of that world. The monasteries of the future would infiltrate Christian cities where cities existed, and replace them where they did not, or were failing.

The influence of monasteries was not restricted to recruiting new hermits or coenobites (monks who lived in monasteries). These uneducated laymen created a new standard by which the clerical leadership of the church was judged, and a established a new goal for people who had only read or heard about their feats. Men who had entered the clergy as they might any respectable and lucrative career often resented this. Yet activist bishops saw monks as dedicated allies in the battle to Christianize society. Soon enough, priests and bishops were being drawn from the monasteries -- monasteries that now held men of birth and education and ambition, who saw the ascetic life as the challenge most worthy of their talents. In the course of the fourth century, monks went from being recluses to being a new kind of social leader. This transformation was seldom available to women who became nuns, since women could not be priests or bishops. Most holy women were relegated to a much less public role. As we shall see in a moment, however, there were some notable exceptions.

The cult of the martyrs, too, had a great effect in reminding members of the triumphant church to be a Christian was something special. Cities that had martyrs adopted them as spiritual patrons: Mérida forgot its ancient civic deities and became the city of Eulalia. Cities that had none imported relics from Rome or somewhere else that had a surplus.

The alliance between bishops and ascetics had its parallel in an alliance between bishops and martyrs. It would have hardly been possible to stem the enthusiasm for the martyr cult. The challenge was to control it, for the benefit of the church. So bishops became the interpreters of the martyrs. Which martyrs were real martyrs? Which miracles were true, and which frauds or demonic deceits? What was the meaning of a miracle? What should a person who had benefited from one do next with his or her life? When bishops established themselves as authorities on these questions, their power in their congregations was much enhanced.

A similar drama was being played out from the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea. In Rouen, Bishop Victricius paraded his newly-obtained relics through the streets to introduce the concept of saintly intercession into the lightly-Christianized northwest, cheered on by a crowd of monks, virgins and ascetic widows and married couples. In Tours, Bishop Martin was establishing a reputation as the greatest western ascetic at the same time as he destroyed rural pagan shrines. In Rome, the bishops were taking control of the catacombs which held, it was believed, innumerable martyrs. In Syria, stylites, hermits who lived on stone pillars became the most respected spiritual leaders. In Armenia, Christians remembered the martyred nuns Rhipsime and Gaiane and their first bishop, Gregory the Illuminator, as the causes of their conversion, and looked upon monks as their intellectual leaders.

By the end of the fourth century, the role of living or dead saints as intercessors between ordinary Christians and God was well established. Around them, a new society was being built.


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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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