“Parabalani” – an early order of male nurses? or Cyril’s “goon squad”?

The Watts book, City and School in late antique Athens and Alexandria, continues to offer interesting passages.  It’s a book to be read for the text, rather than the footnotes, although there are plenty of these.

We take up the story in Alexandria, after the murder of Hypatia in 415 by a gang of thugs acting under the direction of Cyril of Alexandria.  Orestes is the prefect.

From page 200:

The events immediately following Hypatia’s death are not clear. Orestes and the city councilors who had been working with Hypatia were obviously shocked by the murder. Lacking the lynch pin that held their party together, their opposition seems to have fallen apart. It has been suggested by C. Haas that Orestes had himself transferred after the attack. [187] This may be right. At any rate, he is not heard from again. It seems, however, that the Alexandrian council had become alarmed enough at the bishop’s conduct to send an embassy to Constantinople. This embassy apparently led to the passage of a law placing the parabalani, Cyril’s notorious goon squad, under the control of the prefect.[188] But it was only two years before this law was overturned and Cyril regained control of their ranks.[189] By the early 420s, Cyril had come to dominate the Alexandrian council completely. And the murder of Hypatia represented the turning point that led to this victory.

Although the killing of Hypatia had eliminated any effective opposition to Cyril’s regime, the brutality of the act soiled Cyril’s reputation for a long time. …

188. For this law see C. Th. 16.2.42.
189. Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity, 314-15.

But who or what are the parabalani?

We find out from a law preserved in the Theodosian code 16.2.43:

Parabolani, qui ad curanda debilium aegra corpora deputantur...

The parabolani, who are deputed to care for the suffering bodies of the sick…

There are in fact only three mentions of this group in antiquity.  Everything we know about them must be derived from this slender data base.  Fortunately we can quote them all here.

The first two are both in the Theodosian Code.  In fact there are two laws,16.2.42 and 43.  Here is the Pharr translation of both:

42. The same Augustuses to Monaxius, Praetorian Prefect.

Whereas, among other useless claims of the Alexandrian delegation,[122] this request also was written in their decrees, that the Most Reverend bishop should not allow certain persons [123] to depart from the City of Alexandria, and this claim was inserted in the petition of the delegation because of the terror of those who are called attendants of the sick,[124] (Quia inter cetera Alexandrinae legationis inutilia hoc etiam decretis scribtum est, ut reverentissimus episcopus de Alexandrina civitate aliquas . .. non exire, quod quidem terrore eorum, qui parabalani nuncupantur, legationi insertum est) it is the pleasure of Our Clemency that clerics shall have nothing to do with public affairs and with matters pertaining to the municipal council.

1. We further direct that the number of those who are called attendants of the sick[124] shall not be more than five hundred. Moreover, the wealthy and those who would purchase this office shall not be appointed, but the poor from the guilds, in proportion to the population of Alexandria, after their names have been submitted, of course, to the Respectable Augustal Prefect and through him referred to Your Magnificence.

2. We do not grant to the aforesaid attendants of the sick[124] liberty to attend any public spectacle whatever or to enter the meeting place of a municipal council, or a courtroom, unless, perchance, they should appeal to a judge separately in connection with their own cases and interests, when they sue someone in litigation or when they are themselves sued by another, or when they are syndics[125] appointed in a cause common to the entire group. The condition shall be observed that if anyone of them should violate the foregoing provisions, he shall be removed from the registers of the attendants of the sick and shall be subjected to due punishment, and he shall never return to the same office.

3. Furthermore, We grant to the Respectable Augustal Prefect the power to appoint successors to the deceased attendants of the sick, under the condition that is designated above.

Given on the third day before the kalends of October at Constantinople in the year of the seventh consulship of Theodosius Augustus and the consulship of Palladius. [September 29 (October 5), 416.][126]

122. Embodied in their petition to the Emperor, as stated in the decrees of their municipal council, 12, 12, n. 3.
123. M. suggests a lacuna; his emended text would read: should not allow from the City of Alexandria any . . . not to depart. As to the claim that was inserted in the petition of the delegation, because of the terror of those who are called attendants of the sick it is the pleasure of Our Clemency.
124. parabalani. See Du Cange, s.v. parabolani. Because of the nature of their work these clerics were possessed of a reckless disregard for personal danger. They were often religious fanatics and espoused the cause of the poor and oppressed. Thus they were potential sources of sedition, and the provisions of this law were designed to restrain them, 9, 40, 16; 16, 3, 1, n. 2.
125.  Legal representatives, official advocates.
126. 12, 12, 15.

The next law, from 418, two years later, also relates to the parabalani:

43. The same Augustuses to Monaxius, Praetorian Prefect.

We formerly directed that there should be five hundred attendants of the sick, who are assigned to care for the suffering bodies of the sick. But since We have learned that this number is insufficient at present, We command that six hundred instead of five hundred shall be established as the number. Thus, according to the judgment of the Most Reverend Bishop of the City of Alexandria, there shall be chosen for such responsibility six hundred attendants of the sick from among those who had been attendants formerly and who are experienced in the practice of healing, excluding, of course, dignitaries and decurions. Moreover, if anyone of the aforesaid attendants should be removed by the common lot of man, another shall be chosen in his place, according to the will of the aforesaid priest, excluding dignitaries and decurions. Thus, these six hundred men shall be subservient to the commands and regulations of the most reverend priest and shall continue under his supervision. The rest of the provisions included in the general rule of the law formerly issued with respect to the aforesaid attendants of the sick and their attendance at public spectacles and courts and all other matters, shall be observed, as has already been decreed.

Given on the third day before the nones of February at Constantinople in the year of the twelfth consulship of Honorius Augustus and the eighth consulship of Theodosius Augustus. [February 3, 418.]

We should note that both laws also appear in the legal Code of Justinian (529 AD), book 1, title 3 (de episcop.); 17, which is an abbreviated version of the first, and 18, which is the second.  Both are online here.  May we perhaps infer that the group still existed at that date?[1]

The third reference is in the minutes of the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD.  The minutes are discussing events at the “robber council” of 449 in Ephesus.  Cyril had been succeeded by Dioscorus as bishop of Alexandria.  As often happens, a wily and unscrupulous man who knew how to use violence for political ends was followed by a disciple of less political acuteness, and even greater violence.  Dioscorus intimidated the  bishops, and got what he wanted.  But within a year the emperor Theodosius II was dead; his successor Marcian was hostile; and at Chalcedon retribution was in the air. Here is the Liverpool University translation of the passage in the Acts, p.269.[2]

851. While this was being read, Basil the most devout bishop of Seleucia in Isauria said: ‘I do not need other witnesses. Through the blessed Bishop John, I asked my declaration to be corrected, because I feared you, most devout Dioscorus; for you then applied great pressure on us, partly external and partly in what you said. Armed soldiers burst into the church, and there were arrayed Barsaumas and his monks, parabalani, and a great miscellaneous mob. Let everyone testify on oath, let the Egyptian bishop Auxonius testify on oath, let Athanasius testify on oath, if I did not say, “No, lord, do not destroy the good repute of the whole world.”’

852. Dioscorus the most devout bishop of Alexandria said: ‘Did I coerce you?’

853. Basil the most devout bishop of Seleucia in Isauria said: ‘Yes, you drove us to such a murderous crime by means of the threats of the mob after the deposition of the blessed Flavian. From the way he is now disrupting the whole council you can guess what force he applied then, when he had control of everything, including the sentence. Six of them[312] are left, and yet he can throw us all into disarray.’

854. Dioscorus the most devout bishop of Alexandria said: ‘My notary Demetrianus is ready to prove that you asked him secretly to alter your statement.’

855. Basil the most devout bishop of Seleucia in Isauria said: ‘I ask your magnificence that each of the metropolitan bishops, those of Lycaonia, Phrygia, Perge and the others, come here and affirm on the gospels if, after the deposition of the blessed Flavian, when we were all downcast, some of us not daring to raise our voices and others slipping away, he did not rise up and stand on high, while he declared, “Look! If anyone refuses to sign, he has me to reckon with.” Let the lord Eusebius [of Ancyra] testify on oath if he did not run the risk of being deposed because he delayed his sentence for a short time.’

312. The reference appears to be to six attendants in Dioscorus’ suite.

The delicious description of the brutal Dioscorus as “most devout” is a mere piece of ecclesiasticism, like the use of words like “venerable”, and “reverend”, applied to clergy who are not necessarily either.

What do we learn from these three passages?

We learn that the parabalani were established to care for the sick. The first law (416 AD) shows that it was a designated “office”, which some might consider worth purchasing (so presumably in receipt of money or other benefits); but that in fact they were creating a “terror”, by invading theatres, councils and court-rooms.  It places them under the control of the city prefect, and limits their numbers. The second law (418 AD) places them back completely under the control of the bishop; namely good old, bad old Cyril of Alexandria.  The third account (449 AD) shows them being used for intimidation of council proceedings at the direction of the new bishop of Alexandria.

“Goon squad” seems an apposite name for the band.

Let’s finish with a few other bits of data, themselves not very indicative of anything.

The Greek word used in the Acts of Chalcedon is παραβαλανεῖς, which literally means bath-attendants. Sometimes it is given as παραβολᾶνοι, those who disregard their lives, as in attending those with communicable diseases.[3]

Joseph Bingham in Origenes Ecclesiasticae, 1834, reads the law 42 above as suggesting that the parabalani were clergy; because of the ban on clergy meddling in city administration.  However this is not necessarily the case.  The ban may refer to Cyril, not to the parabalani.

There is an article on the subject in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 2, p.1582.  This references two modern articles, both accessible online if you have JSTOR access.  But neither adds very much.[4]

It is really hard to like Cyril of Alexandria.  The mystery is why anybody would consider such a man a saint.

  1. [1]Wikipedia claims that a further law is found in the Code of Justinian, 1.2.4, but this is in error.  The title reads: The Same, to Nicenus, Praetorian Prefect. Let no more than nine hundred and fifty canons be appointed for the Church of this great City, and let no one have the power to add to their number, or to change it, or to substitute others for those who may die; and let none of those of this body who exceed the abovementioned number and have been appointed through patronage, and have been denied the right of innovation, claim those things which have been bestowed upon the Holy Church by way of honor, or as necessary privileges. Given at Eudoxiopolis, on the seventh of the Kalends of September, during the Consulate of Honorius, Consul for the eighth time, and Theodosius Junior, Consul for the third time, 409.
  2. [2]Joseph Bingham in Origenes Ecclesiasticae, Or, The Antiquities of the Christian Church, 1834, vol.. 1, p.302, gives the reference as “Con. Chalced. Act. i. tom. iv. p.252”.  Translation from The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, vol. 1, translated by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, 2005.  Translated Texts for Historians 45.
  3. [3]Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 2, p.1582, where the former is preferred.
  4. [4]A. Philipsborn, “La compagnie d’ambulanciers ‘parabalani’ d’Alexandrie”, Byzantion 20 (1950), 185-90. JSTOR.  W. Schubart, “Parabalani”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 40 (1954), 97-101.  JSTOR.

10 thoughts on ““Parabalani” – an early order of male nurses? or Cyril’s “goon squad”?

  1. Hi Roger,
    The meagre evidence suggests both – a group of monks who were engaged in caring for the sick as well as part time thugs. Their conduct of the Robber Council is notorious.

  2. I tend to see there are always two sides of the story. When Athanasius has been accused of similar accusations, it seems to me that the “winners of history” tend to share their versions. So, yea, I can still see why people can still venerate Cyril (and for my case Dioscorus).

    Sometimes, one can also ask why should one like John Chrysostom based on his writings, but his persecution and care for the poor and social reforms made him more likable (maybe better PR). But for anyone who has a history of being accused of violence, I wonder what their commentaries say about “loving thy enemies”. At this point, the history then becomes ambiguous. And Alexandria was not an easy place to begin with.

    Nevertheless, were there ignorant elements of the Egyptian monastic orders? Yes, that’s undeniable. To what extent were they encouraged in their violence and ignorance by the Pope of Alexandria? That still becomes debatable.

  3. Hi Mina,
    Dioscorus of Alexandria seems to have brought Egyptian monks to Ephesus in 449 with the intention of intimidating his enemies. Flavian, the unfortunate Patriarch of Constantinople, was beaten so badly by the monks that he died shortly afterwards.

  4. The Alexandrian patriarchs seem to have a reputation for such things. Bishops at the Council of Chalcedon accused Dioscorus of murdering Flavian, demanding the removal of “Dioscorus the murderer” (Διόσκορον τὸν φονέα ἔξω βάλε) from the council.

    However, an alternate reconstruction of the events of Ephesus II suggests that Flavian might have been killed by the imperial family. See Henry Chadwick’s “Exile and Death of Flavian of Constantinople,” in Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 6, No.1, (1955).

    All very interesting stuff!

  5. Very interesting indeed – many thanks for this!

    I just turned to the Internet Archive on the chance that I might run into an annotated edition of Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia, a historical novel I thoroughly enjoy – with no obvious luck, but – among 315 items that appeared when I searched for the name Hypatia – there is a scan of a 1908 doctoral dissertation, Die historischen Quellen zu Kingsleys Roman “Hypatia”, by Bernardus Merker, O.S. Aug.! Also, a 14-page article by His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, “Saint Cyril the Great of Alexandria and the Murder of Hypatia”, with a bibliography full of interesting-looking titles, the majority published between 1969 and 2004, various of which are discussed on the subject in the article. (There are also assorted German works of fiction about Hypatia of which I had never heard before…)

  6. J.O.

    Thank you for that. But further than this, there is actually proof that he was not even murdered and would write letters months after he was thought to have been dead. Fr. V.C. Samuel made note of this in his memorable work “The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined”, an understanding of the events surrounding Chalcedon from an Oriental Orthodox perspective:

    The death of Flavian, which occurred probably not long after his condemnation, was an event which elicited sympathy for the cause of Leo, particularly in Constantinople. Following the then prevailing custom, Flavian was taken into custody by the state soon after the verdict of deposition against him and he died subsequently.[184] This incident came to be interpreted in later times by the opponents of the council of 449 as having been caused by physical injuries inflicted on him at the council, though no such story was told at Chalcedon in 451.

    Footnote 184: [In agreement with H. Chadwick, Grillemier maintains that Flavian may have died in February 450 and not in August 449, and that ‘it would be quite possible that Anatolius had some hand in Flavian’s death’ (Christ in Christian Tradition, op. cit., p. 469, n. 1). From the point of view of this study, when exactly Flavian died is not important. What we should note is the question whether there is any basis for the allegation that Flavian was ill-treated at the council of 449, and that he died of injuries thus inflicted. It is a fact that the split in the Church following the council of Chalcedon drained so much of passion on both sides that the denunciation of either side by the other should be taken with much caution. As to the council of 449, it is only fair that no adverse comment which is not clearly established by the minutes of the council of Chalcedon should be deemed deserving any attention by impartial scholarship.]

    This comes to show that when you read history from the point of view of the victor (i.e. Chalcedonians, which includes Western scholarship from Catholics and Protestants), you take for granted the information that Dioscorus had a goon squad who beat and killed Flavian, whereas from our vantage point and from evidence of the minutes of Chalcedon, we find a different story.

    Plus, you have to wonder, how did Eusebius, Theodoret, and Ibas survive a beating, but Flavian die when they were all arrested together?

  7. Stefano and J.O.

    Forgive me if this is a double post, it seems when I hit post comment, it just disappeared:

    Let me share with you an excerpt (and a footnote) from Fr. V.C. Samuel’s monumental work “The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined”, a book written from the perspective of an anti-Chalcedonian:

    **************************************************
    The death of Flavian, which occurred probably not long after his condemnation, was an event which elicited sympathy for the cause of Leo, particularly in Constantinople. Following the then prevailing custom, Flavian was taken into custody by the state soon after the verdict of deposition against him and he died subsequently.[184] This incident came to be interpreted in later times by the opponents of the council of 449 as having been caused by physical injuries inflicted on him at the council, though no such story was told at Chalcedon in 451.

    Footnote 184: [In agreement with H. Chadwick, Grillemier maintains that Flavian may have died in February 450 and not in August 449, and that ‘it would be quite possible that Anatolius had some hand in Flavian’s death’ (Christ in Christian Tradition, op. cit., p. 469, n. 1). From the point of view of this study, when exactly Flavian died is not important. What we should note is the question whether there is any basis for the allegation that Flavian was ill-treated at the council of 449, and that he died of injuries thus inflicted. It is a fact that the split in the Church following the council of Chalcedon drained so much of passion on both sides that the denunciation o f either side by the other should be taken with much caution. As to the council of 449, it is only fair that no adverse comment which is not clearly established by the minutes of the council of Chalcedon should be deemed deserving any attention by impartial scholarship.]
    **************************************************

    History is written by the victor (i.e. Chalcedonians). Therefore, those who inherited the Chalcedonian version of events will take for granted some of the things said against Dioscorus. But I think one needs to take into account what did the “other side” think of the same issues against Dioscorus. Did you know that the anti-Chalcedonians also accused Pope Leo of being a murderer?

    At least I appreciate the consistency here, that Cyril gets a fair share of the condemnation Dioscorus does, whether or not one agrees with Cyril’s involvement of similar crimes.

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