Idols “subjected to popular derision” at Antioch?

The next statement by Cyril Mango on the subject of the destruction of pagan statues in the lives of the saints is as follows:

At about the same time idols were subjected to popular derision by being hung in the streets of Antioch.

The reference is to the Vita S. Symeonis junioris, the Life of Simeon Stylites the Younger, d. 592, BHG 1689,[1] in the Acta Sanctorum, May, vol. 5, p.371B.  The work is very long, in 259 chapters.  Anyway, let’s have a look at this text in the Acta version also.

That item is online, and may be found here.  It all concerns the actions of a certain Amantius, “judex severus” (=”a severe judge”), who was sent to the East by Justinian to administer punishment to various groups.

And so it was predicted by Symeon; they had not interceded for four months when a certain man named Amantius [b], greatly concerned in the rule of the East, came to Antioch.  He was a literary man, capable in government, strong in reasoning, constant in mind, liberal in mind, and primarily most studious of justice.  He acted as much on behalf of virtue as against iniquity, and in both cases with the utmost zeal.  Previously when he came to Antioch, he both put down iniquity in the East as much as he could in a similar way, and also more acutely with an sharp sword among those who held positions of authority.  So that fear and trembling invaded everyone, when he was approaching: not only men who were nothing and malevolent, but also those for whom life had conjoined probity and good morals might feel dread, so terrible was his presence.

174.  Here he arrested and imprisoned many of the pagans and atheists and those dedicated to observing the aspects and conjunctions of the stars,  and indeed many standing against the divine providence, and especially carefully sought out the most illustrious.  Moreover he collected all their books, from which they drew out false wisdom and novel ideas contrary to the truth; nor those alone, but likewise all the idols, in which they trusted as in the gods.  They had made for themselves idols of silver, obviously, and of gold, and they had worshipped those which they had made with their own fingers, as was spoken by Hosea and Isaiah the prophets (Hos. 8:4, Is.2:8).  And from the books he started a not inconsiderable fire, throwing them in the flames in the middle of the forum.  But he openly demonstrated the impotence and imbecillity of the idols, hanging them up at the cross-roads and in the main streets, proving that they were no more significant than they seemed to be, i.e. works of hand and art; nothing more than the artificers had wanted them to be, so again I shall make use of the words of the prophets.  Also a man, whom some time previously had appeared to Simeon in a vision,  was standing in the presence of the Governor, called in for investigation; but a certain monk, very like Simeon, seized him from the threat of a justice made mild, when the Governor was called away.

The events recounted belong to 555-6, when Justinian sent Amantius to suppress the Samaritan revolt in Palestine, and then to suppress non-conformists in Antioch, some of whom were labelled as “pagans”.[2]

Update: I have just discovered a long translation from the Life online!  It’s somewhat different, but probably from a better text than that of the Latin translation in the Acta Sanctorum — I have no details on the transmission of the text.  It may be found in A.D. Lee, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook, Routledge, 2013, 135-136:

7.2 Persecution of pagans in sixth-century Antioch: Life of the Younger St Symeon the Stylite 161, 164

The younger Symeon was a holy man who lived on one of the mountains near Antioch (521—92), and the modern editor of his biography considers it to have been written by one of Symeon’s disciples. Although this episode, probably from 555, is couched in high-flown language, the official at the centre of the investigations, Amantius, is known from an independent source which describes his involvement in the suppression of a Samaritan revolt (John Malalas Chronicle p. 487), and suppression of paganism is certainly a general feature of the emperor Justinian’s religious policies, as is book-burning (Maas 1992: ch. 5). Further reading: Trombley 1994: 182-95.

(161) Within a four month period of the holy man predicting all these events, that official arrived. His name was Amantius, and before coming to the city of Antioch, he destroyed many of the unrighteous found en route, so that men shuddered with fear at his countenance. For everywhere he suppressed all evil-doing whether in word or deed, inflicting punishment, including death, on those who had gone astray, so that from then on even those living a blameless life feared his presence. For he removed, as much as was possible throughout the east, all quarrelling, all injustice, all violence, and all wrongdoing. When this had happened, God showed his servant another vision, which he reported to us: ‘A decision has come from God against the pagans (Hellenes) and heretics (heterodoxoi), that this official will reveal the idolatrous errors of the atheists and gather together all their books and burn them.’ When he had foreseen these things and reported them, zeal for God took a hold of that official and after investigating, he found that the majority of the leaders of the city and many of its inhabitants were preoccupied with paganism (hellenismos), Manichaeism, astrological practices, automatism, and other hateful heresies. He arrested them and pur them in prison, and after gathering together all of their books — a huge number — he burned them in the middle of the stadium. He brought our their idols with their polluted accoutrements and hung them along the streets of the city, and their wealth was expended on numerous fines. … (164) … Then the judge took his seat on the tribunal and subjected to special punishments some of them, who had confessed to having committed many terrible crimes on account of their ungodliness; some he ordered to do service in the hospices, while others, who called themselves clerics, he sent to receive instruction in monasteries; still others he sent off into exile, while some he condemned to death. But by imperial command, the majority of them, who pleaded ignorance as an excuse and promised to repent, he released without further investigation. And so it came about that after being corrected, everyone was dispersed and none of them remained in prison, with the exception of one who had caused many disturbances during times of public unrest, on account of which he deserved punishment. So it was an appropriate time to recall the judgements of God and to sing the praises of his inexpressible benevolence towards us.

Few of us will read this account without a shudder.  Such trials and punishments for wrong thinking are a sign of a decaying state.  The fondness of the Byzantines for religious persecution was a feature of their state as long as they retained any vestige of power.  Nothing in the account above is inconsistent with the policies of Justinian towards paganism or heresy.

I don’t know how historical this life is; but on the face of it, we do have clear evidence of Mango’s “derision”; although, if they were made of silver and gold, I suspect that they were not left unattended!

3 thoughts on “Idols “subjected to popular derision” at Antioch?

  1. Given that the account admits that even the blameless feared this Amantius, it sounds like one should praise God that He gives people a lot more leeway in life than Amantius did!

    OTOH, it certainly doesn’t sound like anything that Roman law would have supported by itself. So I think the real secret of how he was able to be quite that high-handed was the huge fines.

  2. Law seems to fade from 200 on. The last jurists are all murdered. How much law there really was in Justinian’s realm might be questioned. But then again Antioch was in emergency measures at the time after the Persian invasion … perhaps that has a bearing.

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