As I wrote a week ago, there are only three ancient references to the “parabalani”. These were a group of men under the control of the patriarch of Alexandria in the 5th century AD, first under Cyril of Alexandria, and then under his successor, Dioscorus. They appear in 416 and 418 AD in the Theodosian legal code, as a bunch of men responsible for the care of the sick, but who are plainly engaged in thuggery and intimidation. The other reference is in the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when they are mentioned as intimidating the bishops at the robber-council of Ephesus in 449, under the direction of Dioscorus of Alexandria. Aside from this they are unknown.
Via Haas’ Alexandria in Late Antiquity, I learn of a further passage which may refer to the parabalani. It is again in the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, where a presbyter named Ischryion applies to have his complaint against Dioscorus heard. Haas writes as follows (p.237):
Their twin functions as hospital attendants and as strong-armed supporters is implied by the denunciation of Dioscorus delivered by the Alexandrian deacon Ischyrion at the third session of the Council of Chalcedon in 451-a neglected text in modern discussions of the parabalani. Ischyrion complained to the assembled bishops that Dioscorus “sent against me a contingent of ecclesiastics [phallaga ekklesiastiken], or to tell the truth a band of thieves, along with the deacon Peter, Harpocration and the priest Menas, in order to kill me.” Failmg in this attempt, Dioscorus reputedly dispatched Harpocration and his band against Ischyrion a second time. The persecuted deacon relates:
“I was locked up in a hospital for cripples [xeneoni ton lelobemenon], without being responsible for any crime toward anyone, even though as I have said no accusation had been cast against me. But even in this hospital Dioscorus again sent individuals to kill me, as all those know who were residing there.. . And this illegal imprisonment did not abate until I had promised, in the physlcal dlstress which I found myself, to leave very great Alexandria and to do other things which were dear to [Dioscorus’s] heart.”
The complaint of Ischyrion is long and rambling, but is indeed found in the Acts of Chalcedon.The reference to a hospital being used as a place to imprison the political enemies of the patriarch makes sense only if the hospital was run by a bunch of physically fit men totally loyal to the patriarch. This otherwise odd combination does fit the description of the parabalani very well.
Haas then goes on to the discuss the futile question – so dear to everyone who has mentioned the parabalani – of whether the parabalani were in clerical orders or not.
Why anybody cares is hard to understand. There is no evidence that they were.
Monks were not usually in orders, but certainly were involved in violence in Pachomian Egypt. In a modern Anglican church the sexton will not be a clergyman, but will be responsible for fixing stuff – and at one time, gravedigging – around the church. Churches often have groups of laymen attached to them, engaged in some charitable or church-related activity. No doubt it was the same in ancient Alexandria.
- Christopher Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity, John Hopkins (1997), p.237.↩