Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City
by Derek Krueger
University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and
pp. xvi + 196.
Department of Classics & Archaeology,
University of Melbourne,
Leontius purports to tell the life of a certain holy man, Symeon, who, in the late 6th century, after spending some 29 years of what for a holy man was a fairly conventional near-solitary life in the desert near the Dead Sea, abandoned his companion John and moved to Emesa where, through feigning madness and upseting conventional mores by his scandalous behaviour, he was able to save many souls in his own idiosyncratic manner. K's short book provides the first monograph study of Leontius's Life in English as well as the first English translation. On both scores this makes it a welcome addition to the excellent 'Transformation of the Classical Heritage' series, which, under Peter Brown's editorship, has so enlivened and widened the study of Late Antiquity with 25 monographs in the last 20 years. K's book is well written, lively, independent, scholarly and based on judicious use of a very wide range of modern material. If I am not always convinced by him, I am never sure that he is wrong.
Leontius' Life has been recognized for some time as an important text. First of all it is our earliest full account of a 'Holy Fool', and ever since Peter Brown's 'The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity' (JRS 61 1971) the holy man has been a major feature of the study of Late Antiquity. But Leontius' Life has also been used as key literary evidence, where there is a paucity of such evidence, in what has been the single most examined phenomenon of Late Antique studies in the last decade or so, the transformation of Syria in the early seventh century. K's study certainly challenges the use made of Leontius' Life in both areas. He sees Leontius' Life as a literary fiction, independent of the real Symeon the Holy Fool, if such a person ever existed, and he argues that it reflects conditions not of Syria but of 7th century Cyprus, criticizing (ch.2 p.21) those who have used it for evidence of 7th- century Syria such as Mark Whittow, whose 'Ruling the Late Roman and early Byzantine city: a Continuous History' in Past and Present 129 (1990), 3-29, has already become influential.
The concept of the Holy Fool seems quite foreign to the Classical world and fair evidence of the transformation that had taken place in Late Antiquity. Still the first part of the Life appears conventional enough for a Saint. It tells of two respectable, comfortably-off young Syrians, Symeon and John, who, on their way home after meeting in Jerusalem are guided by divine intervention to a monastery near the Jordan where they become monks for two years and then spend the next 29 years in the desert near the Dead Sea in a dull narrative full of prayers, visions and platitudinous acts of piety. But the narrative changes dramatically when Symeon returns to the secular world. For some unexplained reason he turns up at Emesa, which he enters dragging a dead dog behind him. He then devotes the rest of his life to upseting all the conventions not merely of sanctity but even of ordinary Christian behaviour. Most notably he walks about naked, farts and defacates in public, associates with prostitutes, eats vast quantities of food during fasts (such as Lent), disrupts a church service by throwing nuts at the congregation's females, uses the women's bath, devours his employer's stock of beans (lupines) instead of selling it, eats raw meat and so on. All this is, of course, a pretended madness during which he is 'able to convert heretics, Jews, prostitutes, and actors to Chalcedonian Christianity and improve the moral life of the city as whole' (K. p.20). Unlike the early section we have here a vastly entertaining narrative, written in a Greek markedly more colloquial and less rhetorical than the first section.
What does this tell us? The whole text is a problem. The notion of the Holy Fool is most studied in the Life of Andrew the Fool, which is usually attributed to the tenth century although a 7th- century date has its distinguished adherents including Cyril Mango and John Haldon. Our Life certainly belongs to the 7th century, since we know something of its author, Leontius, who also wrote a Life of St John the Almsgiver, which has also survived, and a Life of St Spyridon, a Dialogue against the Jews and various Homilies. On Leontius' hagiographic technique the best study to date has been by Cyril Mango, 'A Byzantine Hagiographer at Work: Leontios of Neapolis', in Byzanz und der Westen, ed. I. Hutter (Vienna, 1984), 25-41. Leontius refers to Symeon as a young man in the reign of Justinian (or Justin in some manuscripts) but this seems to refer to the later part of the reign (or that of Justin II) since the main part of the Life takes place in the reign of Maurice. Evagrius, writing at the end of the sixth century, also, however, refers to a holy Symeon who pretended to be mad in public (Eccl. Hist. 4.34) and who appears to be well advanced in years by the middle of Justinian's reign. Evagrius includes in his account three stories of which two are also recorded by Leontius while the third refers to an earthquake which can be dated from the evidence of Malalas to 551, so it is really rather difficult, despite K, not to identify Leontius' Symeon with Evagrius' Symeon who is certainly intended to be a real person. The identification also has led Mango to argue that Leontius has misdated Symeon, which, Mango suggests, is a deliberate ploy by Leontius, writing in the mid-7th. century, to allow him to claim that his main source is the oral testimony of one of Symeon's contemporaries, which would scarcely have been possible if Symeon belonged to the mid-6th century or earlier. Mango concluded on the basis of this and other inconsistencies that (a) Leontius was not a reliable historian; (b) that Leontius was the real author of only the dull introductory section while the account of Symeon as a Holy Fool in Emesa is based not on an oral source but is plagiarized from a paterikon which Mango defines as a 'a collection of disconnected anecdotes, a type of composition which was very popular at the time' (Mango p.30); (c) that the dull introduction is Leontius' invention ('pure verbiage") to give the story a proper beginning.
K rejects Mango completely but not entirely convincingly. His basic position is that 'Leontius's text is loosely based on a brief description of a certain Symeon of Emesa in Evagrius Scholasticus's Ecclesiastical History, but that the Life of Symeon should be treated as entirely the work of Leontius' (K.p.4) and that Leontius' Life is not meant to be historical but is a literary fiction. This may be so and it enables K to evade most of Mango's criticisms of Leontius, but it is difficult to believe that Leontius did not want his audience to identify his Symeon with that of Evagrius. A basic (and necessary) tenet of K's whole argument is that Leontius is highly educated and is writing for a sophisticated 7th- century Cypriot audience, who surely should then be expected (at least by Leontius himself) to know well a recent major Ecclesiastical History. On smaller details K challenges Mango's definition of paterikon (p.25 n.22), though without meeting Mango's main point about possible plagiarism from a written source. Here K in fact suggests that Leontius was admitting a written source and perhaps 'never intended to pass off John's testimony as something he received orally' (p.24), although K does maintain that Leontius 'does claim to have had access to an eyewitness account' (p.23). K. also states that Evagrius' use of such a source is 'an unlikely proposition since Evagrius (HE 4.34) tells us that he knows of no such document.' Here K is less than frank. In fact Evagrius says that a separate treatise is needed to cover Symeon's other activities and says nothing at all about whether there is or is not such a source available to him, although fairly obviously Evagrius must have had some source for these other actvities which he decided not to include in the Ecclesiastical History. Although K really does not seem to discuss Evagrius' version adequately, his obvious defence would be that it is not relevant since, for K, Leontius' version is an independent fiction. On dates K simply suggests with some reason (pp.25-9) that Mango's dates are insecure, though K also weakly offers that Leontius' confusion 'is best explained by suggesting that Leontius never reworked the version we now have' (p.29).
K is mainly concerned with the study of the Life as literature. Here too he both challenges the received view and has much to offer of his own. His general review of Symeon and Late Antique Historiography (ch.3) is excellent in showing how the Life of Symeon actually does conform with common hagiographical patterns and how Leontius is able to defend and exploit Symeon's shamelessness by showing his true asceticism. K also suggests that Leontius did not entirely convince his audience since the later traditions managed to excise some of Symeon's excesses in order to concentrate on his miracles. That poses the question of what system of values was Leontius trying to communicate, which leads to K's chapter 4 on Holy Fools and Secret Saints. This likewise is an excellent study which among other things reveals the prevalence of forms of strange behaviour, particularly of feigned madness, in Late Antique hagiography and the affinity of this with ascetic piety (p.62), and provides also an account of the development of the term 'salos', showing that it did not always refer to a holy fool.
It is, however, the next two chapters (5 and 6), which contain the most novel aspect of K's work. In these chapters (Diogenes in Late Antiquity; Symeon and the Cynics) K argues persuasively that Leontius' Symeon has close ties with Diogenes the Cynic. This is central to K's study, because it is a necessary part of his theory that we are dealing with a fictional figure invented out of the literary tradition rather than with the study of a real holy man. As K points out, others have noticed apparent parallels, but (with the exception of Ernst Benz in 1938) have rejected their significance largely because it seemed inconceivable that a holy man could be lnked with so crude and antisocial a pagan figure as Diogenes. K first in chapter 5 examines the influence of Diogenes in Late Antiquity, pointing out that both pagans and Christians made considerable use of him in a complicated way, finding both virtue and vice in Diogenes' strange behaviour. What is significant for K is that Diogenes was so important in the school and rhetorical tradition, and so can be assumed to be part of the mental furniture of an educated man like Leontius. K points out that traditions about Diogenes were preserved in rhetorical exercises, and shows that these were prevalent in Byzantine literature throughtout the Byzantine era. K also shows that the Cynic way of life continued to have a powerful appeal in the 5th century, but it was the rhetorical tradition which guaranteed familiarity with Diogenes in the 7th cent.; that Leontius had had such a rhetorical training; and thus that the rhetorical tradition was still alive and well in 7th- century Cyprus. Then in chapter 6 (Symeon and the Cynics) K, after first drawing attention to Symeon's dead dog (kyon, genitive kynos) as a pun on Cynic, runs through the various parallels in outrageous behaviour between Symeon and Diogenes (defecation in public, eating raw meat and lupines, assumed madness) before returning to the dead dog as an emblem of the Cynics. K's argument here is compelling, though perhaps weakened by the fact that the Cynic influence only applies to the second half of the Life. In chapter 7 (Symeon in Emesa, Jesus in Jerusalem) K suggests that Leontius 'constructs a convergence between the message implicit in Cynicism and the teachings of Christ' (p.128), with Christ, like Symeon and Diogenes being concerned about the challenges to virtue in urban life. This leads K to conclude by asking 'what then is the significance of Leontius' construction of Symeon as an alter Diogenes as well as an alter Christus (p.127) and finding the answer in the 'meaning Diogenes continued to embody in Late Antique culture', which K sees as best revealed by the emperor Julian who not only found nothing strange in Diogenes' jesting but recognized Diogenes' role in purifying cities through an emphasis on those virtues which were 'exemplified in the chreiai taught in the schools and cited repeatedly by Christian writers into the seventh century' (p.128).
This is a substantial contribution but K overplays his treatment of the city. His sub-title is 'Leontius 'Life' and the Late Antique city'. Essentially he is not interested in the evidence for the physical city or its economy, the questions which have so concerned archaeologists and historians of late, although he implies that he is. He really just has one sentence (p.10, n.20 that his 'informal survey of Late Roman cities in Cyprus conducted in the spring of 1993 confirmed that Cypriot town planning conformed in a general way to patterns familiar from other regions'). This is hardly adequate given his sub-title, but otherwise he has nothing on this after the opening chapter. Rather he draws attention to the strength of Cypriot literature in the 7th century, pointing out that this literature is still highly influenced by classical rhetoric, which in turn, being dependent on a flourishing educational system, must in turn reflect a flourishing economy, and thus that Cyprus was not subject to the recession that affected so much of 7th-century Byzantium. Here, however, at best his contribution simply substantiates rather than conflicts with recent views of Byzantine literacy in the 7th century. For instance Averil Cameron has drawn attention in several studies to the extent of literary evidence from the 7th century, noting that literary activity was widespread but was theological in character rather than secular.
K's translation of Leontius seems reliable and reads well and will be much appreciated. There is an extensive bibliography. The whole work is clearly a worthy contribution to the study of Late Antiquity.
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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 7 - May 1997 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 1320-3606