An important 6th c. historical witness: notes on the ‘Life’ of Symeon Stylites the Younger

In a preceding post I quoted from two different versions of the Saint’s Life of S. Symeon Stylites the Younger (521-592).  I have now obtained photocopies of much of Van den Ven’s edition, and I think a summary might be of general use.[1]


The following manuscripts exist.

  • A = Codex Athous Lavra B 71 (catal. 191), s.XI or XII.  Parchment.  Single column.  370 folios; the Life is on f.1-151v, the rest including the Life of S. Martha (his mother), 30 of his sermons, and some liturgical pieces in honour of both saints.  Written by 2 scribes. Little ornamentation.  Titles and initials in red; the Life is divided into 259 chapters, with chapter numbers in the margin in the original hand.  46 numbered quaternions.
  • S = Codex Sabaiticus 108, now at the Greek patriarchate in Jerusalem with the other Mar Saba mss.  End of s. X.  Parchment.  202 folios, the Life is on f.3-164v, followed by the Life of Martha, and then a vision of a monk of the abbey of S. Symeon on the Wonderful Mountain, to which the ms. belonged in the 12th c.  Originally the ms. only contained the two Lives, as the quaternion numbering shows, although most of this, being at the edge of the page, has been cut off.  There are 3 colophons.  Written in a single column in minuscule.  The 259 chapters are numbered in the margin in capitals, mostly in red ink.  The titles are in capitals with an ornamental band above them.
  • B = Codex Barrocianus 240, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  s.XII.  Parchment.  Contains a menologion for the month of May.  268 folios.  Written in 2 columns by a monk, Ignatius, who left a subscription on f.268v.  The Life is on f.175-258v.  The chapter numbering, written in the margin in uncial letters, is identical to A and S, except that chapter 256 is divided into two, giving 260 chapters.
  • M = Codex Monacensis gr. 366.  s.X. Parchment. Like B, a menologion for May.  243 folios.  The Life is on f.112-214.  Ehrhard believed that it was written at the Studios monastery in Constantinople; it seems to have later belonged to the Xenophon monastery on Mt. Athos.  Divided into only 240 chapters, usually by a second scribe who only added marginalia to the text.
  • P = Codex Parisinus gr. 1459. s.XI. 101 folios.  Written in 2 columns in a rounded minuscule.  30 quaternions.  Contains only the Life, mutilated at both ends; the ms. seems to have been a menologion like others, as the quaternion numbering suggests.  Chapter numbering is identical to A, S, and B.
  • V = Codex Athous Vatopedi 84 (once 79).  s.IX. Parchment, 272 f.  Also a menologion, for May-August.  Written in an early minuscule.  The Life is on f.83v-98v but very incomplete.  It has a title in uncials.  Not divided into chapters.
  • L = Codex Lesbiensis Leimon. 43.  s.XII-XIII.  Paper.  271 f. Two columns. A menologion for May and June.  The Life is on f.103-204.  Not divided into chapters.  Copied at the monastery of St. John the Prodromos of Petra, at Constantinople.
  • J = Codex Patmiacus 257. s.XII.  261 f. Menologion for May. Two columns. The Life is on f.145v-196.  Not divided into chapters.
  • Codex Athous Esphigmenou 105. s.XVIII. Paper. 287f. After various homilies, f.69-160v are the Life of S.Symeon; f.161-191v are the Life of S. Martha; f.192-287 are the 30 homilies of Symeon.  Ehrhard believes that it was copied from A.  Negligently copied, but showing some of the special readings of A.  258 chapters.

These nine manuscripts are the survivors of a much larger number, as attested by the many later derivative Lives, the (probably 8th century) Georgian translation, quotations in John Damascene, in the Acts of the 2nd council of Nicaea in 787 and liturgical texts.  But the text offered by these mss. is sound and can be confirmed by some 8th century quotations and the translation into Georgian.

Two groups appear: AS and BMP. The relationship of the first two is particularly close, and, when they agree, of great value, although they also have many faults in common.

A long verbatim extract of the text from chapter 158 appear in John Damascene’s 3rd discourse on images,[2] composed ca. 726-30 AD (although in the ms. used by John Damascene the chapter was numbered 132).  A second long extract from chapter 118 was read at the 2nd council of Nicaea in 787 by the deacon Cosmas from a copy of the Life given to the council by Joseph, Hegoumen of the monastery of Heraclea.[3]

A paraphrase of the Life exists, by Nicephoros Ouranos, of almost equal length to the original.[4]  It was published in 1685 in the Acta Sanctorum for May, vol. 5, by the Bollandist Janninck.  He used ms. B.14 (s.XI) of the library of Vallicellane.  There are many other copies, which have never been studied: Berlin. gr. Fol. 17 (s.XI), Bodleian Clark 44 (s.XII-XIII), Bodleian Rawlinson Auct. G 199 (1141 AD), Athos Dionysiou 143 (1632-3), Athos Iviron 424 (s.XVI), Moscow 15 (Vlad. 381) (1023 AD).  The author is named in the title in the Vallicellane and Oxford mss.: Nicephoros Ouranous, magistros of Antioch.  He was chamberlain of Basil II, and was sent to Baghdad by the emperor in 980 AD, where he was imprisoned by the Sultan Adoud-ad-Dawla.  He was permitted to return to Constantinople in December 986, and appointed magistros and commander of the soldiers in the east.  In the latter role he defeated the Bulgars at the battle of Sperchios.  At the end of 999 AD he became governor or duke of Antioch, and was still there in 1006 when he put down an Arab revolt.  He was also a literary figure, and the author of a Tactica.[5]  His paraphrase adds specific detail which the original had left vague.  In particular he gives details about Amantius, his predecessor as governor of Antioch which are entirely absent from the original.  He also uses much more elaborate language than the relatively simple contemporary Greek of the original.  Some of the faults of A and S also turn up in Nicephorus Ouranous’ paraphrase, suggesting that the latter had access to a manuscript of a similar parentage, probably from Antioch.

Three short abridgements of the Life also exist.

There is no trace of a Syriac, Armenian or Arabic translation of the Life, but a Georgian translation does exist.  The Life records that Georgians made the journey to see the Saint, even in his own lifetime.  The translation was published in 1918.[6]  It was based on ms. Tiflis A 105 (1697 AD), and A 177 (s.XVIII).  Other mss. exist, much more ancient, which were not used: Sinai Georgian 46 (before 987 AD, when it was rebound); Patriarchal library of Jerusalem 33 (s.XIII-XIV).  From the age of the Sinai ms., the Georgian translation must predate the year 950.

The author of the Life is not named in any of the manuscripts.  When John Damascene gives the extract from chapter 158, the title names the author as Arcadios, archbishop of Constantia in Cyprus (still alive in 638, and died).  The same passage (as well as the other) was read at the council of Nicaea II in 787, but without the title.  Chronology is against the identification: the author states that he became a disciple of Symeon at the time when the patriarch Ephrem of Antioch died.[7]  This took place in 545 AD; and if the author was Arcadios, and was only 15 at the time, he would have been at least 108 years old by 638 AD, when he is recorded by Anastasius the Sinaite as being in a fortress near Constantia.[8]  Van den Ven concludes that in reality the Life is anonymous.  The author was a contemporary of Symeon, as he tells us.  There is some evidence of the use of written sources; and in chapter 71, we learn that he has become a disciple of Symeon’s.  Prior to that point, the text consists of narratives of visions and other material, perhaps transmitted orally.  It is notable that the Life contains little mention of contemporary politics after the accession of Tiberius II (in 578 AD, chapter 211), but much before then.  The rest of the Life is a description of the miracles of the saint, and a brief account of his last moments.  The author, therefore, is silent about a great deal in the last 15 years of the Saint’s life.

The original text of the Life only became known in 1894, when some extracts were edited by A. Papadopoulos-Kerameus.  The publication of a critical edition was begun by Paul van den Ven of Louvain in 1913, but only actually appeared in 1962.

There is more to say, but I think we’ll leave that for a subsequent post now.

  1. [1]Paul van den Ven, La vie ancienne de S. Symeon Stylite le Jeune, 2 vols, Brussels, 1962-4.
  2. [2]PG 94, col.1393.
  3. [3]Hardouin, Concilia IV, 217-24; Mansi, Concilia XIII, p.73-80.  The monastery is otherwise unknown.
  4. [4]BHG3 1690.
  5. [5]Cedrenus, ed. Bonn, p.454, 9.  Various modern references are given by Van den Ven.
  6. [6]Monumenta hagiographica georgica, pars prima, Keimena, t. 1, Tiflis, 1918, p.215-340.
  7. [7]Life, ch. 7.
  8. [8]F. Nau, Les recits inedits du moine Anastase, Revue de l’Institut catholique de Paris, 1902, p.57 (French translation); Greek text published in Oriens Christianus 3 (1903), p.69, from ms. Paris gr. 1596.

2 thoughts on “An important 6th c. historical witness: notes on the ‘Life’ of Symeon Stylites the Younger

  1. Greetings,

    We are publishing a monograph on the Byzantine teaching of the trials of the soul at the hour of death and am very interested in finding the A = Codex Athous Lavra B 71 (catal. 191), s.XI or XII. Parchment. Single column. 370 folios; the Life is on f.1-151v,
    specifically his 30 sermons.One of which has this above-mentioned teaching. It is paraphrase in the Slavonic Prologue.
    I was unable to find a printed edition of the above codex online; perhaps there is none extant. Could you direct me to find a digital scan of the above codex?

    Thank you very much for your time,
    Fr Symeon
    St Anthony’s Monastery
    Florence AZ

  2. Dear Fr Symeon,

    I’m afraid that I don’t know whether there is a digital scan of that manuscript available. Is it perhaps possible to email someone at Mount Athos and ask? Failing that … perhaps you could travel to the Holy Mountain and have a look!

    Yours sincerely,

    Roger Pearse

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