Broken noses, crosses on the forehead – the fate of statues at the end of antiquity

I saw today a truly remarkable statement which I thought that I would share with you.

From the sixth century BC through the fourth century AD, sculpture had been created and destroyed, stolen and repositioned, but always prominently displayed and used in the context of Corinthian religion, economic activity, and urban life. Yet from about the fifth century, creation of new work dropped off rapidly, preceded by a decline in technical ability and availability of raw materials, and closely followed by the defacement and then destruction of most of what existed in public and private contexts. Between the fifth and tenth centuries, the only new sculpture created at Corinth was in the form of architectural members or Christian reliefs for church decoration, while ancient sculpture of “pagan” or “secular” significance alike was steadily marked with crosses, defaced, cut up, reused, or melted down. This new attitude to sculpture was a fundamental change of Late Antiquity, as individually and collectively people both ceased to create new sculpture, and undertook the actual physical destruction of most of what existed.

This late antique change in attitude to sculpture happened all across the Roman Empire, and led both individuals and groups to behave toward the sculpted environment in new and hostile ways.[1]

This astonished me.  Suddenly statues were hardly erected, except perhaps for a few official ones.  Even these might well have a Chi-Rho on the top of the head, out of sight but “making the statue safe”.

The destruction of statues by smashing the nose (or more) is well-known to us.  Indeed it continued into early modern times, much to the mortification of excavators in 1901 where a workman, uncovering a small head of Aphrodite, promptly “battered the head”!  This apparently happened “frequently” in early modern Greece.[2]

There is also the practice of “cross marking”.  Greek crosses, with even sized members, tend to indicate post-Late Antiquity damage.   But this is relatively rare, compared to the quantity of sculpture that survives.

I found a number of examples at an anti-Christian hate site here.  Brown’s paper references a number of the items, which reinforces the point about rarity.

First a head of Aphrodite from the Agora at Athens, with crosses on forehead and chin.

Next, a statue of Germanicus:

A statue of Livia:

A statue of Augustus, from Ephesus, in the Ephesus Museum:

Also from Ephesus but unidentified:

A final one from “Turkey”:

All of these, note, are of people, not of deities.

Why smash the nose?  I believe the answer to this may be found in hagiographical literature, where statues may be possessed by demons, or else talismans for magical purposes.  There is a chain of references to follow, in order to get to the primary sources, but this is for another day.

But I incidentally came across a Jewish source, the Mishna, discussing how to nullify an idol:

“How does one nullify it?”

[If | he has cut off the tip of its ear, the tip of its nose, the tip of its finger, if he battered it, even though he did not break off [any part of] it—he has nullified it.

[If] he spit in its face, urinated in front of it, scraped it, threw excrement at it, lo, this does not constitute an act of nullification” (m. `Abod. Zar. 4:5 [Neusner 1988: 668]). [3]

No doubt this thinking was pretty general.

The chains of references are a bit long in the above volumes.  We could use some better presentation of the evidence on this.

  1. [1]Amelia R. Brown, “Crosses, noses, walls and wells: Christianity and the fate of sculpture in late antique Corinth”, in: Troels M Kristensen, Lea Stirling (eds),The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Responses and Practices, Michigan 2016, 150 f.; p.151.
  2. [2]Brown, p.168-169.
  3. [3]Via William G. Dever, Confronting the Past: Archaeological and Historical Essays on Ancient Israel, 2006, p.11.

The brass statue of Justinian in Constantinople

One of the sights of Constantinople before the Ottoman conquest was the colossal equestrian statue of Justinian, standing in the Forum Augusteum, atop a 100 foot-tall pillar outside the senate house.  The statue faced east and was widely thought to have magical powers to repel invaders from that direction.

At Robert Bedrosian’s site I have found a treasure-trove of articles about Byzantium.  One of these, on ancient statues in medieval Constantinople,[1] contains a fascinating portrait of the statue:

One of the oldest was the equestrian statue which Justinian set up of himself ; it is described by Codinos. The horse was on the top of a column, and the emperor held in his left hand the ball and cross, signifying his universal dominion over the earth by the power of the faith of the cross.[2]

“The right hand,” says Codinos, “he has stretched out towards the east, signifying that the Persians should halt and not come over to the land of the Greeks, crying by means of the repelling gesture of his uplifted hand,’Stay, ye Persians, and do not advance, for it will not be to your good ‘.”

The idea is as old as the time of Justinian himself, for it is found in the contemporary historian Procopios, who says that the statue, “was riding, as I think, against the Persians.” The gesture of his right hand was to forbid the advance of the eastern barbarians.[30]

The latest notice of this statue we owe to Bertrandon de la Broquiere who saw it in 1432 ; by his time the Persians had been superseded by the Saracen holders of Jerusalem, and he says that the figure has “le
bras droit tendu et la main ouverte devers la Turquie et le chemin de Jherusalem par terre, en segne que tout celluy pays jusques en Jherusalem luy souloit estre obeyssant.”[31]

It was destroyed about 1525, shortly before the visit to the city of Gyllius, who saw fragments of it of gigantic size “carried into the melting Houses where they cast their Ordnance.”[32]

[29] Codinos, 28.
[30] Procopios, De Aedificiis, 182, especially lines 14 and 20. The idea spread to Europe and is found in John of Hildesheim, edition quoted, p. 274, and also in Arabic authors: Qazwini in the thirteenth century says that there were two opinions, and some said that the hand held a talisman to keep off enemies, and others that on the ball was written, “I own the world as long as this ball is in my hand” (J. Marquart, Osteurop. und ostasiatische Streifzuge (1903), p. 221). Harun ibn Yahya in the ninth century thought that the right hand was beckoning people to come to Constantinople (ibid. p. 220). An old drawing of this statue connected with the name of Cyriac of Ancona was found by Dothier in the library of the Seraglio. It has often been reproduced, and may be seen in Rev. des etudes grecques, vol. ix. p. 84.
[31] Bertrandon de la Broquiere, Le Voyage d’Outremer, publie par Ch. Scheffer (1892), P. 159.
[32] Gyllius, The Antiquities of Constantinople (translated) (1729), p. 129.

I did try to locate that drawing.  But this is harder than it might be.  Thanks to AWOL, I learn that REG is online here.  But this does not go back so far as vol. 9. list the volumes here, and vol. 9 (1896) is here.  Unfortunately page 84 is missing!  The Gallica collection of microfilms is here; but the series is incomplete and does not include the relevant parts of vol. 9.

I did find a drawing at Wikimedia Commons, however, which looks like a modern redrawing.  Note the inscription “THEODOSI”, suggesting – inevitably – reuse of an older statue by Justinian:

The volume of Gyllius – Pierre Gilles – is accessible online, however, and his description is worth hearing:

Chap. XVII. Of the forum called the Augustaeum, of the pillar of Theodosius, and Justinian, and the Senate-house.

Procopius writes that the forum which was formerly called the Augustaeum was surrounded with pillars and was situated before the imperial palace. Not only the forum is at present quite defaced, but the very name of it is lost, and the whole ground where it stood is built upon. The palace is entirely in ruins, yet I collect from the pedestal of a pillar of Justinian lately standing, but now removed by the Turks, which Procopius says was built by Justinian in the Augustaeum, and Zonaras in the court before the Church of Sophia, that the Augustaeum stood where there is now a fountain, at the west end of the Church of St. Sophia. Suidas says, that Justinian, after he had built the Church of St. Sophia, cleansed the court, and paved it with marble, and that it was formerly called the Forum Augustaeum; and adds, that he erected his own statue there. Procopius writes, “That there was a certain forum facing the Senate House, which was called by the citizens the Augustaeum; where are seven stones, so cemented together in a quadranglular manner, and are so contracted one within another, the upper within the lower stone, that a man may conveniently sit down upon every projecture of them.”

I was more induced to give this account from Procopius of the pedestal because I do not find it in his printed works. Upon the top of it, says he, there’s erected a large pillar, composed of many stones covered with brass, which did at once both strength and adorn them. The plates of brass did not reflect so strong a lustre as pure gold, yet was it, in value, little inferior to silver.

On the top of the pillar was set a large horse in brass, facing the east, which indeed afforded a noble prospect. He seemed to be in a marching posture, and struggling for speed.  His near foot before was curvated, as though he would paw the ground; his off foot was fixed to the pedestal, and his hind feet were so contracted, as though he was prepared to be gone.  Upon the horse was placed the statue of the emperor: it was made of brass, large like a colossus, dessed in a warlike habit like Achilles, with sandals on his feet, and armed with a coat of mail, and a shining helmet.  He looked eastward, and seemed to be marching against the Persians.  In his left hand he bore a globe, devised to signify his universal power over the whole world.  On the top of it was fixed a cross, to which he attributed all his successes in war, and his accession to the imperial dignity. His right hand was stretched to the east, and by pointing his fingers, he seemed to forbid the barbarous nations to approach nearer, but to stand off at their peril.

Tzetzes, in his “Various History”, describes what kind of helmet he had upon his head. “The Persians,” says he, “generally wore a turban upon the head.  When the Romans obtained any victory over them, they plundered them of their turbans, which they placed upon their own heads. These are,” says he, “of the same shape with that with which the statue of Justinian, erected upon a large pillar, is crowned.”  Cedrenus relates that Justinian held the globe in his silver hand.

Zonaras writes that Justinian, in the seventeenth year of his reign, set up this pillar, in the same place where formerly had stood another pillar of Theodosius the Great, bearing his statue in Silver, made at the expense of his son Arcadius, which weighed 7,400 pounds. When Justinian had demolished the statue and the pillar, he stripped it of a vast quantity of lead, of which he made pipes for aqueducts, which brought the water into the city. This ill-treatment of Theodosius by Justinian was revenged upon him by the barbarians; for they used his pillar in the same manner, and stripped it of the statue, the horse, and the brass with which it was covered, so that it was only a bare column for some years.

About thirty years ago the whole shaft was taken down to the pedestal, and that, about a year since, was demolished down to the base, from whence I observed a spring to spout up with pipes, into a large cistern. At present there stands in the same place a water-house, and the pipes are enlarged.

I lately saw the equestrian statue of Justinian, erected upon the pillar which stood here, and which had been preserved a long time in the imperial precinct, carried into the melting houses where they cast their ordinance. Among the fragments were the leg of Justinian, which exceeded my height, and his nose, which was above 9 inches long. I dared not measure the horse’s legs, as they lay upon the ground, but privately measured one of the hoofs and found it to be 9 inches in height.

An article by J. Raby references Ottoman sources, to show that the statue was taken down by 1456.[2]  This also gives a copy of the drawing, and indicates its present location: Ms. Budapest, University library 35, fol.144v, which is a miscellaneous manuscript.

  1. [1]R. M. Dawkins, “Ancient Statues in Mediaeval Constantinople”, Folklore 35 (1924), pp. 209-248. Download here: Ancient Statues in Mediaeval Constantinople. File size: 3.6 MB.
  2. [2]J. Raby, “Mehmed the Conqueror and the Equestrian Statue of the Augustaion”. Illinois Classical Studies 12 (1987), 305–313.

Some ancient statues taken to Constantinople under Constantius and Theosodius II

Cyril Mango’s excellent article on the fate of ancient statues in Byzantium[1] tells us:

The importation of statues into Constantinople greatly diminished, but did not entirely cease, after the reign of Constantine. Individual statues were apparently brought in under Constantius II,[15] Valentinian,[16] and Theodosius II.[17]

The references given are to a publication, the Scriptores Originum Constantinopolitarum, published in two volumes in Leipzig, 1901 and 1907, ed. Preger.  These are to be found at, here and here, but … they are in Greek only.  Not even a Latin translation is given.

Fortunately a shy mention in the preface indicates that a great deal of the material may be found in the Patrologia Graeca 157, col. 615 f.  The volume has a useful list of contents on col. 1259, which helps with  navigation.

The statues brought in under Constantius II are noted as follows (col. 720-1):

Of the statue of Zeus set up in the Hippodrome.

Many statues were sent from Iconium to Constantinople, one of which number was the Zeus which is in the Hippodrome.

Of the four gilded horses in the Hippodrome.

The four gilded horses, located on the upper side of the Hippdrome, were brought from the island of Chios when Theodosius the Younger was reigning.

Of the statues of Perseus and Andromeda.

From the city of Iconium mentioned earlier, a statue of Perseus and of princess Andromeda, who, as legend has it, and is also given by some as history, … (there follows a version of the legend of Perseus) …  There (at Iconium) first Perseus and then Andromeda died, and their statues were erected above the gate of the city.  In that place there were many sacrifices peformed by Decius, Diocletian and Maximian, and in the same place many saints received martyrdom.  And so the statues of Perseus and Andromeda were brought, it is said, when Constantius was reigning, after the church of Antioch had been purified.

This includes the references to Constantius and Theodosius II. The four horses from Chios are those now in Venice on the roof of St. Mark’s.

However I have been unable to locate in the PG the reference give by Mango to a statue named Perichytes and one of a donkey, brought in under Valentinian:

A statue called Perichytes as well as one of a donkey, both in the Hippodrome: ibid., I, p. 64, # 64; II, p. 192f., # 82. The Perichytes was nude except for a loincloth, and wore a helmet; it was stolen by western merchants some time between 935 and 959: Vita S. Lucae Stylitae, ed. A. Vogt, Analecta Bollandiana, XXXVIII (1909), p. 39f.; ed. F. Vanderstuyf, Patrol. Orient., XI (1915), p. 1o7 ff. For other instances of the theft of statues, see Script. orig. CP. I, p. 50 (under Theodosius II); II. p. 253, # 112 (under Caesar Bardas)..

I don’t know how reliable this source is, tho, as a guide to the monuments of Constantinople.  I have seen it attributed to a George Codinus, who may have lived in the 15th century, but drew on some 9th century inventory; but even this is doubtful.  The text itself makes many references to earlier writers, used as sources.  It might be interesting to find out!

UPDATE: I find a Bonn edition of Codinus, which contains a similar (but not identical) text here.

UPDATE: A correspondent has kindly alerted me that Averil Cameron has translated and commented on the text given in the PG, the Parastaseis syntomoi Chronikai (lit. Brief historical notes, = Scriptores originum Constantinopolitarum I, ed. Preger, p. 19-73).  Cameron adds that Preger demonstrated that the text could not be by Codinus, but was 10th century.  She adds that Bekker’s edition in the Bonn corpus (CSHB, 1843) and the reprint in the PG 157 are both unreliable and should be avoided.[2]  Unfortunately Preger printed no translation of any sort, and Cameron’s translation is inaccessible, so, for the general public like myself, it is PG or nothing.  So be a little wary of what I have given above.

There is a cluster of related texts, all giving descriptions of Constantinople and collectively known as the Patria.  My correspondent also tells me that the main work in French on the Patria is Dagron, Constantinople imaginaire, Paris, 1984; and that, in the Parastaseis, the Perichytes (= one that pours round) may be found in the note at the foot of page 61 of Preger’s edition.   My thanks to him for these useful details.

  1. [1]Cyril Mango, “Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 17 (1963), pp. 53+55-75. Online here.
  2. [2]Averil Cameron, Constantinople in the Early Eighth Century, Leiden:Brill, 1984. Google Preview. See p.4, n.15.

Melting down the statues in Constantinople in 1204

Looting the tombs of the emperors was one thing.  Choniates goes on with yet more examples of cultural vandalism.  The fate of statues, many obviously from ancient times, was the furnace, to be turned into coins.[1]

Because they were in want of money (for the barbarians are unable to sate their love of riches), they covetously eyed the bronze statues and consigned these to the flames. The brazen Hera standing in the Forum of Constantine was cast into a smelting furnace and minted into coins; her head could barely be carted off to the Great Palace by four yokes of oxen. Paris Alexander, standing with Aphrodite and handing to her the golden apple of Discord, was thrown down from his pedestal and cast on top of Hera.

Who, having laid his eyes on the four-sided bronze mechanical device rising up to a height nearly equal to that of the tallest columns which have been set up in many places throughout the City, did not wonder at the intricacy of its ornamentation? Every melodious bird, warbling its springtime tunes, was carved upon it; the tasks of husbandmen, the pipes and milk pails, and the bleating sheep and bounding lambs were depicted. The wide-spread sea and schools of fish were to be seen, some caught and others shown breaking out of the nets to swim free again in the deep. There were the Erotes, shown in pairs and groups of three; innocent of clothing but armed with apples, they shook with sweet laughter as they threw these or were pelted by them. This four-sided monument terminated in a point like a pyramid, and above was suspended a female figure which turned with the first blowings of the wind, whence it was called Anemodoulion [Wind Servant].

Nonetheless, they gave over this most beautiful work to the smelters, as well as an equestrian statue of heroic form and admirable size that stood on the trapezium-shaped base in the Forum of the Bull. Some maintained that it was of Joshua, son of Nave, conjecturing that his hand was pointed towards the sun as it sank in the west, commanding it to stand still upon Gabaon. The majority were of the opinion that it was Bellerophontes, born and bred in the Peloponnesos, mounted on Pegasos; the horse was unbridled, as was Pegasos, who, according to tradition, ran freely over the plains, spurning every rider, for he could both fly through the air and race over the land. But there was an ancient tradition which came down to us and which was in the mouths of all, that under this horse’s front left hoof there was buried the image of a man which, as it had been handed down to some, was of a certain Venetian; others claimed that it was of a member of some other Western nation not allied with the Romans, or that it was of a Bulgarian. As the attempt was often made to secure the hoof, the statue beneath was completely covered over and hidden from sight. When the horse was broken into pieces and committed to the flames, together with the rider, the statue was found buried beneath the horse’s hoof; it was dressed in the kind of cloak that is woven from sheep’s wool. Showing little concern over what was said about it, the Latins cast it also into the fire.

These barbarians, haters of the beautiful, did not allow the statues standing in the Hippodrome and other marvelous works of art to escape destruction, but all were made into coins. Thus great things were exchanged for small ones, those works fashioned at huge expense were converted into worthless copper coins.

Also overturned was Herakles, mighty in his mightiness, begotten in a triple night and placed in a basket for his crib; the lion’s skin which was thrown over him looked terrifying even in bronze, almost as though it might give out a roar and frighten the helpless populace standing nearby. Herakles sat without quiver on his back, or bow in his hands, or the club before him, but with his right foot as well as his right hand extended as far as possible. He rested his left elbow on his left leg bent at the knee; deeply despondent and bewailing his misfortunes, he held his inclined head at rest in his palm, vexed by the labors which Eurystheus had designated, not out of urgency, but from envy, puffed up by the excess of fate. He was thick in the chest and broad in the shoulders, with curly hair; fat in the buttocks, strong in the arms, he was an incomparable masterpiece fashioned from first to last by the hands of Lysimachos [2] and portrayed in the magnitude which the artist must have attributed to the real Herakles; the statue was so large that it took a cord the size of a man’s belt to go round the thumb, and the shin was the size of a man.

They who separated manliness from the correspondent virtues and claimed it for themselves did not allow this magnificent Herakles to remain intact, and they were responsible for much more destruction.

Together with Herakles they pulled down the ass, heavy-laden and braying as it moved along, and the ass driver following behind. These figures had been set up by Caesar Augustus at Actium (which is Nikopolis in Hellas) because when going out at night to reconnoiter Antony’s troops, he met up with a man driving an ass, and on inquiring who he was and where he was going, he was told, “I am Nikon and my ass is Nikan-dros, and I am proceeding to the camp of Caesar.”

Nor, of a truth, did they keep their hands off the hyena and the she-wolf which had suckled Romulus and Romos [Remus]; for a few copper coins they delivered over the nation’s ancient and venerable monuments and cast these into the smelting furnace. This was also the fate of the man wrestling with a lion, and of the Nile horse whose posterior terminated in a spiniferous and scaly tail, and of the elephant waving its proboscis. They did the same to the Sphinxes that are comely women in the front and horrible beasts in their hind parts, that move on foot in a most bizarre manner and are nimbly borne aloft on their wings, rivaling the great-winged birds; and [the same] to the unbridled, snorting horse with ears erect, playful and docile as it pranced; and to the ancient Skylla depicted leaning forward as she leaped into Odysseus’ ships and devoured many of his companions: in female form down to the waist, huge-breasted and full of savagery, and below the waist divided into beasts of prey.

There was set up in the Hippodrome a bronze eagle, the novel device of Apollonios of Tyana, a brilliant instrument of his magic. Once, while visiting among the Byzantines, he was entreated to bring them relief from the snake bites that plagued them. Resorting to those lewd rituals whose celebrants are the demons and all those who pay special honor to their secret rites, he set up on a column an eagle, the sight of which gave pleasure to onlookers and persuaded any who delighted in its aspect to stay on like those held spellbound by the sound of the Sirens’ song. His wings were aflap as though attempting flight, while a coiled snake clutched in his claws prevented its being carried aloft by striking out at the winged extremities of his body. But the venomous creature accomplished nothing, for, transfixed by the sharp claws, its attack was smothered, and it appeared to be drowsy rather than ready to give battle to the bird by clinging to his wings. While the snake breathed its last and expired with its venom unspent, the eagle exulted and, all but screeching out his victory song, hastened to lift up the serpent and bore it aloft to leave no doubt as to the outcome by the flashing of his eyes and the serpent’s mortification. It was said that the very sight of the snake uncoiled and incapable of delivering a deadly bite frightened away, by its example, the remaining serpents in Byzantion, convincing them to curl up and fill their holes. This eagle’s likeness was remarkable, not only because of what we have said but also because the twelve segments marked off in lines along the wings most clearly showed the hour of the day to those who looked upon it with understanding when the sun’s rays were not obscured by clouds.

What of the white-armed, beautiful-ankled, and long-necked Helen, who mustered the entire host of the Hellenes and overthrew Troy, whence she sailed to the Nile and, after a long absence, returned to the abodes of the Laconians? Was she able to placate the implacable? Was she able to soften those men whose hearts were made of iron? On the contrary! She who had enslaved every onlooker with her beauty was wholly unable to achieve this, even though she was appareled ornately; though fashioned of bronze, she appeared as fresh as the morning dew, anointed with the moistness of erotic love on her garment, veil, diadem, and braid of hair. Her vesture was finer than spider webs, and the veil was cunningly wrought in its place; the diadem of gold and precious stones which bound the forehead was radiant, and the braid of hair that extended down to her knees, flowing down and blowing in the breeze, was bound tightly in the back with a hair band. The lips were like flower cups, slightly parted as though she were about to speak; the graceful smile, at once greeting the spectator, filled him with delight; her flashing eyes, her arched eyebrows, and the shapeliness of the rest of her body were such that they cannot be described in words and depicted for future generations.

O Helen, Tyndareus’s daughter, the very essence of loveliness, offshoot of Erotes, ward of Aphrodite, nature’s most perfect gift, contested prize of Trojans and Hellenes, where is your drug granted you by Thon’s wife which banishes pain and sorrow and brings forgetfulness of every ill? Where are your irresistible love charms? Why did you not make use of these now as you did long ago? But I suspect that the Fates had foreordained that you should succumb to the flame’s fervor so that your image should no longer enflame spectators with sexual passions. It was said that these Aeneadae condemned you to the flames as retribution for Troy’s having been laid waste by the firebrand because of your scandalous amours. But the gold-madness of these men does not allow me to conceive and utter such a thing, for that madness was the reason why rare and excellent works of art everywhere were given over to total destruction. Nor can I speak of their frequent selling and sending away of their women for a few coins while they attended the gambling tables and were engrossed at draughts all day long, or, being eager to engage, not in acts of prudent courage, but in irrational and mad assaults against one another, they donned the arms of Ares and set up as the prize of victory all their belongings, even their wedded wives, because of whom they heard themselves called fathers of children, and even that great treasure which others find difficult to sacrifice—the soul, for whose salvation men are eager to do anything. After all, how could one expect to find among these unlettered barbarians who are wholly ignorant of their ABCs, the ability to read and knowledge of those epic verses sung of you:

“Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans
should for such a woman long time suffer woes;
wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon.”[3]

The following should also be recounted. There was set up on a pedestal a woman youthful in form and appearance and in the prime of life, her hair bound in the back and curled along both sides of the forehead; she was not raised up out of reach but could be touched by those who put out their hands. The right hand of this figure, with no underlying support, held in its palm a man mounted on a horse which was poised on one leg more easily than another would have clasped a wine cup. The rider was robust in body and encased in a coat of mail, with greaves on both legs, and he fiercely breathed out war; while the horse pricked up its ears as though in response to the war trumpet. With neck held high, it was fierce in countenance, the eyes betraying its eagerness to charge forth; the legs were raised high in the air, exhibiting warlike agitation.

Next to this figure, very close to the eastern turn of the four-horse chariot course called Rousion [Red], statues of charioteers were set up with inscriptions of their chariot-driving skill; by the mere disposition of their hands, they exhorted the charioteers, as they approached the turning post, not to relax the reins but to hold the horses in check and to use the goad continuously and more forcefully, so that, as they wheeled round the turning post in close quarters, they should compel their rival, even though his horses were faster and he a skilled competitor, to drive on the outside of the turn and come in last.

  1. [1]Choniates, 648-654; translation, p.357-361.
  2. [2]Actually Lysippos.
  3. [3]Illiad 3, 156-8.

When the emperor Constans looted Rome of all its statues in 663

Cyril Mango’s article on the fate of ancient statues in the middle ages continues:

It is, however, recorded that Constans II, during his infamous residence in Rome (663), despoiled that city of its ancient bronze ornaments, including even the copper roof tiles of the Pantheon, with a view to having them transferred to Constantinople. The loot was conveyed to Syracuse, but never reached its destination: it fell instead into the hands of the Arabs.

He adds in the note that “We are not told specifically what the ancient ornaments of bronze were, but it is reasonable to assume that they included statues.”

The reference for these events is to Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards, book 5, chapters 11-13 (PL95, cols 602 and 604):

XI.  But the emperor Constans, when he found that he could accomplish nothing against the Langobards, directed all the threats of his cruelty against his own followers, that is, the Romans. He left Naples and proceeded to Rome.  At the sixth mile-stone from the city, pope Vitalian came to meet him with his priests and the Roman people. And when the emperor had come to the threshold of St. Peter he offered there a pallium woven with gold; and remaining at Rome twelve days he pulled down everything that in ancient times had been made of metal for the ornament of the city, to such an extent that he even stripped off the roof of the church of the blessed Mary which at one time was called the Pantheon, and had been founded in honor of all the gods and was now by the consent of the former rulers the place of all the martyrs; and he took away from there the bronze tiles and sent them with all the other ornaments to Constantinople. Then the emperor returned to Naples, and proceeded by the land route to the city of Regium (Reggio) ; and having entered Sicily during the seventh indiction he dwelt in Syracuse and put such afflictions upon the people—the inhabitants and land owners of Calabria, Sicily, Africa, and Sardinia – as were never heard of before, so that even wives were separated from their husbands and children from their parents. The people of these regions also endured many other and unheard of things so that the hope of life did not remain to any one. For even the sacred vessels and the treasures of the holy churches of God were carried away by the imperial command and by the avarice of the Greeks. And the emperor remained in Sicily from the seventh to the twelfth indiction, but at last he suffered the punishment of such great iniquities and while he was in the bath he was put to death by his own servants.

XII.  When the emperor Constantine was killed at Syracuse, Mecetius (Mezezius) seized the sovereignty in Sicily, but without the consent of the army of the East.  The soldiers of Italy, others throughout Istria, others through the territories of Campania and others from the regions of Africa and Sardinia came to Syracuse against him and deprived him of life. And many of his judges were brought to Constantinople beheaded and with them in like manner the head of the false emperor was also carried off.

XIII. The nation of the Saracens that had already spread through Alexandria and Egypt, hearing these things, came suddenly with many ships, invaded Sicily, entered Syracuse and made a great slaughter of the people – a few only escaping with difficulty who had fled to the strongest fortresses and the mountain ranges – and they carried off also great booty and all that art work in brass and different materials which the emperor Constantine had taken away from Rome; and thus they returned to Alexandria.

I had always understand that the loot had been lost in a shipwreck, so it is interesting to learn different.  No doubt they were all melted down by the barbarous Arabs for their metal value.

The translator adds a note about the mention that wives were separated by the tax-gatherers from their families; to the effect that they were sold into slavery by the former, in order to pay the taxes demanded.


More from Mango on ancient statues in Byzantium

I’m still looking at Cyril Mango’s marvellous paper on the fate of ancient statues in medieval Byzantium[1], and looking up references from it.  I learn something from every one of these.

The last few posts concerned references to Christians smashing pagan statues:

The deliberate assembling of ancient statues in Constantinople constitutes something of a paradox. We must not forget that paganism was very much of a live issue, not only in the fourth century, but until about the year 600.  Statues of pagan divinities were, of course, an essential part in the celebration of pagan rites. The lives of the saints are full of references to the destruction of pagan statues. A few examples must suffice.

After which Mango (my first post is here) gives the three examples we have already looked at: the Life of S. Porphyry of Gaza, the Life of Severus of Antioch, the Acts of S. Abramius, and the Life of S. Symeon Stylites the Younger (on which I shall have more to say in a future post).

Mango then goes on to say:

These are a few examples chosen at random. We must also remember that, whereas some Christian thinkers rightly believed that the idols were inanimate, the general opinion prevalent at the time-as we have seen from the incident at Gaza-was that they were inhabited by maleficent demons.[7]

7. Conversely, in the eyes of fourth-century Neoplatonists, idols were animated with divine presence: see E. R. Dodds, “Theurgy and its Relationship to Neoplatonism,” Journal of Roman Studies, XXXVII (1947), p.63 f.

The Dodds article is in JSTOR and is itself a fascinating work, although full of untranslated Greek.  I’m not quite certain that it entirely endorses Mango’s view: for, rather than the “general opinion”, Dodds discusses magical statues and statuettes.  The context of this is theurgy — magic designed to compel the gods to grant favours by rituals — so some of the statues are indeed of pagan deities.  But we’re not really discussing the same thing.

The details given about the infection of Neo-Platonism by theurgy are fascinating, all the same.  Plotinus may have stoutly rejected all the hocus-pocus of magic and theurgy; but his disciple, Porphyry, admitted some of it, and Iamblichus far more, to the point of rejecting reason.  Dodds quotes a fascinating passage from the latter’s De mysteriis, introducing it thus:

The de mysteriis is a manifesto of irrationalism, an assertion that the road to salvation is found not in reason but in ritual:

‘It is not thought that links the theurgists with the gods: else what should hinder theoretical philosophers from enjoying theurgic union with them? The case is not so. Theurgic union is attained only by the efficacy of the unspeakable acts performed in the appropriate manner, acts which are beyond all comprehension, and by the potency of the unutterable symbols which are comprehended only by the gods . . . Without intellectual effort on our part the tokens by their own virtue accomplish their proper work.’ (de myst. 96, 13 Parthey).

To the discouraged minds of fourth-century pagans such a message offered a seductive comfort. The ‘theoretical philosophers’ had now been arguing for some nine centuries, and what had come of it? Only a visibly declining culture, and the creeping growth of that Christian atheotes which was too plainly sucking the life-blood of Hellenism.

Such an attitude among such pagans would explain much of the fate of the later Neo-Platonists in Athens.  In the 5th century Proclus himself saw ‘Hecatic’ visions and was “great at rain-making”.  No wonder Justinian felt a strong urge to close down the philosophical schools, if they were training magicians!

But let’s return to what Dodds says about statues.

Of these two branches of theurgy, the first appears to have been known as telestikh/, and to have been concerned mainly with the consecrating (telei=n, Procl. in Tim. III, 6, 13), and animating of magic statues in order to obtain oracles from them.

Then follows a quote from Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus III, 155, 18, referencing symbola; and further references given but not quoted from the Theol. Plat. I, 28, p.70; and In Tim. I, 51, 25; III, 6, 12 f.; In Crat. 19, 12.

Proclus gives a list of magical herbs, stones, animals and scents which are usable for various purposes.  Each god has  a “sympathetic” representative in the animal, vegetable and mineral world, which either is or contains a symbolon of its divine cause, and is therefore connected to it by sympatheia (references to Proclus in the CMAG VI, 148 f. and 151 f. is given).  Indeed the same idea underlies the practice of making effigies of people as a way to cast spells upon them, or indeed to stick pins in them, in voodoo.  The symbola were placed inside the hollow statue, so that they were known only to the spell-caster.

The 3rd century theurgists do not originate this idea, of course.  The idea is instead based on Egyptian religion, diffusing ideas into the syncretic Graeco-Roman world.

This contained the idea of producing statues, inside which the souls of demons might be trapped by means of these kinds of gems, herbs, etc.

The late Hermetic dialogue, To Asclepius III, 24, may be referenced here:

Trismegistos: [I mean their] statues, O Asclepius, … statues, ensouled with sense, and filled with spirit, which work such mighty and such [strange] results,—statues which can foresee what is to come, and which perchance can prophesy, foretelling things by dreams and many other ways,—[statues] that take their strength away from men, or cure their sorrow, if they do so deserve.

And 37:

2. Since, then, our earliest progenitors were in great error,—seeing they had no rational faith about the Gods, and that they paid no heed unto their cult and holy worship,—they chanced upon an art whereby they made Gods [for themselves].

To this invention they conjoined a power that suited it, [derived] from cosmic nature; and blending these together, since souls they could not make, [they set about] evoking daimons’ souls or those of angels; [and thus] attached them to their sacred images and holy mysteries, so that the statues should, by means of these, possess the powers of doing good and the reverse.

Apparently receipes for constructing such statues are to be found among the magical papyri.  They appear in the Roman world in the 1st century AD and onwards.

But the real promoter of the idea is Iamblichus, who perhaps saw a way to defuse the Christian argument that idols are merely lumps of wood and stone.  He asserts ‘that idols are divine and filled with divine presence’.  His disciples did more, so Dodds tells us:

His disciples habitually sought omens from the statues, and were not slow to contribute apithana of their own: Maximus makes a statue of Hecate laugh and causes the torches in her hands to light up automatically;[95] Heraiscus has so sensitive an intuition that he can at once distinguish the ‘animate’ from the ‘inanimate’ statue by the sensations it gives him.[96]

95. Eunapius, Vit. Soph. 475.
96. The Suda under that name.

All this degenerate paganism must have shaped the attitude of the Christians of the same period towards statuary.  It is likely enough that a statue by Phidias or Praxiteles could be readily distinguished even by the simplest from a magical statue or talisman.

But then again you didn’t have to be a pagan to create a magical statue.  Magic outlived paganism.  Statues standing in the streets of Antioch and Constantinople in the middle ages were sometimes supposed to be talismans, protecting the city against snakes and the like.  Often they were supposed to be the work of Apollonius of Tyana, or some other ancient magician, by then legendary.

It is in this way, perhaps, through the activities of the theurgists in late antiquity, that statues of the pagan gods can be thought of as containing demons; or of being magical in nature; and eventually of becoming protective talismans, rather than pagan idols.

  1. [1]Cyril Mango, Antique statuary and the Byzantine beholder, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17, 1963, p.53+55-75.  Online here.

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!


More idols overthrown, this time by St Abramius

The next reference in Mango’s article to idol-smashing is the following:

In the middle of the sixth century we hear of St. Abramius destroying pagan idols near Lampsacus on the Hellespont, in a village that was totally pagan.

The reference is to the Acta Sanctorum, the Acts SS, Abramii et Mariae, March, vol. 2, p.933.  This is online here.

The reference appears to be to chapter 8.  I’m afraid my Greek isn’t up to doing this in the brief time that I have available, but I see from the marginal Latin that he comes to a pagan village, builds a church, “idola evertiti” — overturns the idols, and… does something that the online text does not make clear, as I can’t read the text.

Anyone like to translate chapter 8 for us?

UPDATE: It is actually chapter 1 part 8.  From the Latin (see comments below) it reads:

8.  Where, when the blessed Abramius gathered them, he prayed in the way of the Lord, saying: “Most blessed and best Lord, have mercy on my imbecility, and send your grace to my help, so that it may glorify your holy name.” But coming to the town, he saw everyone there to be passionately held prisoner by the insanity of idolatry.  So he wept bitterly, sighing, and raising his eyes to heaven said, “You, Lord, who alone are free from all sin, likewise alone are full of mercy, and alone are clement and benevolent, may you not despise the works of your hands.” And quickly he sent a proclamation to the city to some of his dearest friends, to send money to him from their remaining patrimony.  When he had received it, within a few days he built a church, in which assiduously he offered prayer to God, and so prayed with many tears and said, “Gather, o Lord, your scattered people and lead them to this temple: illuminate their eyes and minds, let them know that you alone are God so that the worship of images may be repudiated. When he had finished this prayer, he immediately went out of the church, rushed to the pagan temple, where he destroyed their abominations and dragged down the images with his own hands and overthrew them.  When those pagans found out, like so many wild beasts the bumpkins attacked him, and having been injured with many blows he fled from the town.

I don’t feel any great faith that this is a historical account.  What part of it could not have been written by any monk at any time during the middle ages?


Ancient Egyptian idols destroyed in the life of Severus of Antioch

Here is another statement from Mango’s article:

At the end of the fifth century a great number of idols, salvaged from the temple of Isis at Memphis, were concealed in a house behind a false wall. But their presence was detected by the Christians.  The statues were loaded on twenty camels and taken to Alexandria where they were exposed to public ridicule and destroyed.

The reference is to the Life of Severus of Antioch, by Zacharias Rhetor (d. 553), published in the Patrologia Orientalis II (1903), p.27-37.[1]  Originally composed in Greek, it survives only in Syriac.  The last date in it is 512 AD, as it finishes before the events of the patriarchate of Severus.  I’ve turned the French translation from the PO into English, and I have found that it is a very interesting read indeed.

Some introduction to the context is necessary.

The scene is set in Alexandria in the late 5th century.  The emperor Zeno is on the throne, and Peter Mongus is the (monophysite) patriarch of Alexandria.  The intellectual life of the city is lively, and the city is full of students.  Many of the teachers are Christians, and there are plenty of zealous young men actively interested in the controversies of the day, and doing church work.  These call themselves the Philoponoi — the “lovers of work”.  But circles of pagan teachers such as Horapollon are still teaching in Alexandria, even though paganism is officially illegal and has been for a century.  Some of these pagans are in touch with a temple and oracle of Isis at nearby Menouthis.  Students come from all parts of the Eastern Roman Empire to study.  There is also a (monophysite) monastery at Enaton, headed by a certain Salomon.  The Pachomian monasteries are Chalcedonian, and there is one at Tabennesiote.

Paralios of Aphrodisias in Caria is one of these students who have come to Alexandria to get an education.  He is a pagan, but has a brother who has gone into the Enaton monastery, and taken the name of “Athanasius”, where he works with a fellow monk and former sophist named Stephen.  But Paralios has been instructed by his family to have no contact with Athanasius.  He attends the lectures of Horapollon and Asclepiodotus; and then sneaks out to talk to Athanasius, and the shrewd Stephen.  The latter plants doubts in his mind about paganism.  For a while Paralios shuttles between the two camps.  He visits Menouthis and listens to the oracle; and then hears criticism of the stupidity and superstition of paganism at Enaton.

He learns from Asclepiodotos of a pagan miracle; that the latter has had a child, even though his wife is too old.  Stephen pointedly asks whether or not the sterile wife is also nursing the child.  Paralios’ investigation suggests that the child is actually a fraud; the illegitimate son of one of the Isis priestesses.  For his pains, he gets beaten up.  The Christian students are outraged, and there are disturbances.  The uproar is so great as to cause the monophysite monks at Enaton and the Chalcedonian Tabennesiote monks to make common cause against the pagans.

Now read on.  The speaker is Zacharias himself.

*    *    *    *   *    *   *    *

At the news of these facts, the great Stephen called us to Enaton, at the Convent of Salomon. He asked Paralios, if he could reveal the pagan idols hidden at Menouthis. Paralios said that he would reveal them, that he would hand over the altar, and prove the sacrifices that they had dared do. Thereupon, we decided once again, with the most illustrious Salomon, to go and make known these things to the Bishop Peter. Once there, Paralios promised before Peter to reveal the idols, the altar and the sacrifices, and to make known the priest of the idolatrous error. The high priest of God, Peter, then gave us some members of the clergy and invited by letter those who lived in the convent called “of the Tabennesiotes”, located at Canopus, to help us eradicate and overturn the demonic gods of the heathen.

After praying, as was right, we went to Menouthis and came to a house which was totally covered with pagan inscriptions (hieroglyphics).  In one corner the wall was double.  Behind this wall, the idols were hidden.  A narrow entrance in the form of a window led into it, and this is how the priest went in to conduct the sacrifices.  Hoping that our search would lead to nothing, helpers of the priestess who lived in this house – they were indeed aware of the uprising that had taken place in the town – had filled up the mouth of the entrance with stones and lime.  In addition, so that the recent nature of the masonry might not be observed, and so that we would not discover the ruse and the artifice, they placed a cabinet full of incense and popana (?) in front of the place, and above that they suspended a lamp which was kept burning until daylight.  The result was that Paralios was initially a little troubled and embarassed, not knowing what had happened to the entrance, in the form of a window.  However, not without difficulty, he discovered the ruse.  He then made the sign of the cross, took down the lamp, moved the cabinet aside and revealed the entrance which was blocked at that moment with stones, by recent masonry work.  He then asked the Tabennesiotes who were accompanying us to help, to bring an axe; then he ordered one of them to open what had been freshly constructed and to make the original aspect (of the opening) appear.  The Tabennesiote then entered.  When he saw the multitude of idols, and the altar covered with blood, he cried out in Egyptian, “There is only one God!”, meaning by this that the error of polytheism must be extirpated.  First he handed us the idol of Kronos, which was entirely filled with blood; then all the other idols of the demons, then a varied collection of idols of every species, including dogs, cats, monkeys, crocodiles, and reptiles; because in the past the Egyptians worshipped also these animals.  He also handed us the rebel dragon.  His idol was of wood, and it seems to me that those who worshipped this serpent, or rather that the latter wanted to be worshipped in this way, recalled the rebellion of the first creatures, who did so by the wood (tree) on the advice of the serpent.  It was said that these idols had been removed from the temple of Isis at Memphis by the priest of that period when it was realised that paganism had lost its strength and was abolished.   They had been hidden, as we have said.   It was hoped – a vain and futile hope – that they would not be discovered.

We gave to the flames, in Menouthis itself, those of the idols which, because of their high antiquity, were already largely deteriorated.

The inhabitants who lived in the town thought, under the influence of the demons who possessed them, that it was impossible for them to go on living if any outrage was inflicted on the idols; they believed that they would die on the spot.  So we wanted to show them by the facts that all the power of the pagan gods and the demons was broken and abolished since the coming and incarnation of the Messiah, the Word of God, who voluntarily suffered for us on the cross, in order to destroy every adverse power; for He said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven, and I have given you the power to trample underfoot serpents and scorpions and all the power of the enemy.”  And it was for this reason that we gave one part of the idols to the flames.  As for the other idols, we made an inventory of those that were of brass, and that were made with a certain ingenious art, as well as those which were of marble, of every form, without forgetting the brazen altar and the wooden dragon.  Then we sent this description to the city, to Peter the patriarch of our Lord Jesus Christ, and asked him to tell us what to do.

Those who passed for Christians at Menouthis, and those who were part of the clergy of the church of the town, were, with the sole exception of their priest, quite weak in their faith, to the point that they were enslaved to the gold that the pagans gave them so that they would not prevent the latter offering sacrifices to idols.  Evening arrived on the day on which we had done these things, and it was necessary to guard the idols, once the inventory had been made, so that they were not stolen, but they (the weak Christians) declared that they believed that they would suffer some kind of diabolical harassment in guarding them (the idols), and took the view that it was for us to guard them.  On their side the pagans living at Menouthis thought and said that we would infallibly die during the night.  The priest, seeing the fear of the Christians and the clergy – he was a good and faithful man, who adorned the virtues of the monastic life, as well as those of old age, and whose way of life was simple – led us, after he had given us a meal, into one of the chambers of the church, where the idols had been placed.  He said to us, “At this point I despise the idols, and trample them underfoot, and inflict every outrage upon them, not thinking in any way that these are anything.”  Then he prayed for us, and invited us to guard the idols throughout the night, without fear.  “He himself,” he said, “would be, as usual, occupied with the service of God.”

We spent the whole night guarding the idols.  We sang, “Let all those be ashamed who love the works of sculpture, and trust in their idols”, (Ps. 96:7) and then, “The gods of the nations are demons; but the Lord is the creator of the heavens,” (Ps. 95:5) and then, “The idols of the nations are of silver and gold, a work of the hands of men. They have a mouth and do not speak ….”,(Ps. 113:12-13)  as well as the words that follow and are like them.

In the morning, when we got up, we found the pagans astonished to see us still alive.  So greatly was the worship of certain demons and the error rooted in them!  We then ran once more with our Tabennesiote monks to the house where the idols had been found and where the sacrifices had taken place and we demolished it from top to bottom.  This was indeed the order of the archbishop.

Sunday arrived, the day when our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the tomb and broke the power of death.  All the people of Alexandria, at the hour of the celebration of the office, made thousands of imprecations against Horapollon, and shouted that he should no longer be called Horapollon but Psychapollon, i.e. “He who loses souls”.  Hesychios, who is admirable for his virtues (it was he that told me these things; at the time he was the leader of the Philoponoi, but now he is a priest), had stirred up everyone to zeal, with the help of Menas, who we mentioned earlier and whom it seemed right to leave in the town.   The patriarch of God in his sermon made known to everyone the description of the idols which we had sent, in which were indicated the material of which they were made and the number of idols that had been found.  Thereupon the people were inflamed, carried all the idols of the gods of the pagans, whether in the baths or in the houses, placed them in a heap and set fire to them.

A few days later we returned to the city (Alexandria).  Together with the idols, we also brought their (the pagans’) priest with us.  In fact it had been possible, with the help of God, to capture him also.  Twenty camels were loaded by us with the various idols, although we had already burned some of them at Menouthis, as we have said.  We brought them into the centre of the city, following the order which we had received from the great Peter.  The latter immediately summoned around him, before the prefect of Egypt, the commanders of the regiments of soldiers, and all those who held senior office, as well as the senate, the important people, and the owners (= the “possessors”) of the city.  When he sat down with them, he had the priest of the idols brought in, and ordered him to stand in a raised place.  Then, after the idols had been uncovered, he began to question him.  He asked him what this idolatry meant, which was exercised on a material without a soul, and ordered him to give the names of all the demons and say what was the cause of the form of each of them.  At this time all the people had rushed in to see what was happening.  He listened to what was said, and then laughed at the disgraceful deeds of the gods of the pagans whom the priest had made known.  When the brazen altar and the wooden dragon had arrived, the priest confessed to the sacrifices which he had dared to carry out, and said that the wooden dragon was the one who deceived Eve.  He believed this, he said, by tradition from the first priests.  He said that the pagans worshipped the dragon.  This was therefore given to the fire at the same time as the other idols.  One could then hear, somehow, all the people shout, “Here is Dionysos, the hermaphrodite god! Here is Kronos who hates infants! Here is Zeus, the adulterer and seducer of young people! This one is Athena, the virgin who loves war; that one Artemis the huntress and enemy of strangers.  Ares, that demon there, makes wars, and Apollo, that’s the one who kills lots of people.  Aphrodite, she presides over prostitution.  There are also some who have taken care to run away.  As for Dionysus, he protects drunkenness.  And see, among these idols the rebel dragon is also found!  Among their number there are again dogs and monkeys, and, in addition, families of cats; for these too were gods of the Egyptians.”  The people also laughed at the other idols.

If some of them had hands and feet, he [someone else is now speaking; presumably there is a lacuna] broke them and cried out jokingly in the language of the country, “Their gods don’t have any karoumtitin (?).  Look at Isis, who has come to wash them!”  Then he overwhelmed the pagans in a host of jokes of this kind, and praised Zeno, of pious end [this phrase seems out of place], who held at that period the sceptre of the empire, he praised Peter, the great patriarch, as well as the notables of the city who were sitting with him.  Then everyone retired, praising God on the subject of the destruction of the error of the demons and the worship of idols.  As for the priest of the pagan turpitude, it was ordered that he should be held for a more detailed investigation.

After these events, the great Stephen, remembering the fable of the sterile woman and the supposed child, and thinking what a great liar Asclepiodotos was, was worried in case the latter deceived people in Asia with his nonsense.  Also the great Salomon secretly advised the archbishop to order that a court record of the depositions be drawn up by the defensor of the city, so that he could ask that the priest be interrogated on the subject of the child.  This was done, and the priest confessed to all the things we have mentioned, because it is from him that we learned this.  When the imposture of Asclepiotodos was known to everyone, the illustrious Stephen decided along with the great Peter to address a synodal letter to Nonnos, the bishop of Aphrodisias, in which he made known to him all the machinations of the pagans that the priest, during his interrogation, had put in writing (?) on the subject of the supposed child, and in which he was exhorted to reveal to all the history of this fable.  But this synodal letter was never received.  He who was charged to carry it, at been, on his arrival in Caria, corrupted by a bribe, as we learned later.  In consequence the pagans of Aphrodisias believed for some time that the history of this fable was true, until the judge Adrastos took an interest – he was a pious man, who was the scholasticos of the country – and took care to bring from Alexandria to Caria, with the help of the prefect of Egypt at that time, a copy of the court record concerning this fable.

After he had offered an exploit of this kind to God, Paralios received the baptism of redemption, when Easter arrived, at the same time as many pagans, who had been full of zeal for idolatry until their old age, and had served the perverse demons for a long time.  With them also was baptised the admirable Urbanus, who today in this imperial city is a teacher of Latin grammar, and Isidore of Lesbos, brother of Zenodotos whom I mentioned earlier, as well as many others.  …

UPDATE: I find that Google Translate makes a very decent effort at translating the French text.  Have a look at it here.  You have to use your mind a bit, but you will still get a lot out of it.

UPDATE2: There is a complete English translation of this work available: The Life of Severus by Zachariah of Mytilene, tr. Lena Ambjörn, Gorgias (2008), 134p.  Amazon here.  It seems that the text itself was first published by J.Spanuth (ed.): Zacharias Rhetor: Das Leben des Severus von Antiochen in syrischer Uebersetzung, Gottingen (1893); and edited again and translated into French by F. Nau in ROC4 (1899), p.343-353, 544-571, and ROC 5 (1900), p.74-98.  The text is preserved only in Ms. Sachau 321, no. 26 in the catalogue of the Berlin mss., p.94.  The ms. dates from 741 AD, as a scribal note on fol. 173v tells us; the ms. was written by the priest and stylite Theudas (? Theodosius?) of the monastery of Psilta at the time when Stephanus was Abbot, i.e. A. Gr. 1052, which is 741 AD.

  1. [1]Edited by M.-A. Kugener.  The PO2 volume is online here; the French translation in it has been digitised by Marc Szwajcer at here.  There are emendations by E.W.Brooks in the JTS 5 (1904) p.369 f.  An English translation of portions of the Life, with commentary, can be found in R. A. Darling Young, “Zacharias: The Life of Severus” in Ascetic behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: a sourcebook, ed. V. L. Wimbush, Fortress Press (1990), p.312-28.  For an overview of the social context see Frank R. Trombley’s excellent work, Hellenic Religion and Christianization c.370-529, 2 vols, Brill (2001), Vol. 2, p.1 f. Preview here.  Also Peter Brown, Power and persuasion in late antiquity: Towards a Christian empire, Wisconsin (1992), p.130. See also Christopher Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict, JHU (2006), p.187, who makes the interesting point (p.188) that, judging from the rise of biblical names in tax rolls, only 10% of the countryside remained pagan by 400 AD. There is an article, Elżbieta Szabat, The ‘great persecutions’ of pagans in 5th century Alexandria. Palamedes 7 (2012), 155-176.  Here if you have a subscription.

Mark the Deacon on the destruction of the statue of Aphrodite

Following my last post, I find that the Life of Porphyry of Gaza, by Mark the Deacon, is online.  Mango states (p.56):

At Gaza there stood in the center of town a nude statue of Aphrodite which was the object of great veneration, especially on the part of women. When, in 402, Bishop Porphyry, surrounded by Christians bearing crosses, approached this statue, “the demon who inhabited the statue, being unable to contemplate the terrible sign, departed from the marble with great tumult, and, as he did so, he threw the statue down and broke it into many pieces.” We may doubt that the collapse of the statue was altogether spontaneous.

The text is here and reads (slightly modernised):

59. But when we came into the city, in the place that is called the Four Ways, there was a statue of marble which they said was a statue of Aphrodite; and it was upon a base of stone, and the form of the statue was of a woman, naked, and having all her shame uncovered. And all they of the city did honour to the statue, especially the women, kindling lamps and burning incense. For they reported concerning it that it gave answers in dreams unto those who wished to make trial of marriage, but they deceived each other, speaking falsely. And often, being bidden by the demon to make a contract of marriage, they were so unfortunate that they ended up in divorce, or lived together in an evil way. These things we learned from those who turned aside from error and acknowledged the truth.

60. But some of the idolaters also, being unable to bear the calamity of the grievous marriages to which they had been led by the bidding of the demon of Aphrodite, were indignant and confessed the deceit. For that is what the demons do: deceive and say nothing at all that is true; for it is not in them to know for sure, but by guesses they delude and win over the people who are enslaved to them. For how can they speak truly who are fallen away from the truth? Even if they happen to prophesy something correctly, it is by chance that this happens, even as among men it often happens that one foretells concerning a matter and by chance it happens. When therefore they foretell the event correctly by accident, seeing that this is only seldom, we marvel; but though they continually get it wrong, of this we are silent. Thus much concerning demons and their error.

61. Now when we had come out of the ship into the city, as has been said, when we came to the place where was this idol of Aphrodite (but the Christians were carrying the precious wood of Christ, that is to say the figure of the Cross), the demon that dwelt in the statue beholding and being unable to suffer the sight of the sign which was being carried, came forth out of the marble with great confusion and cast down the statue itself and broke it into many pieces. And it happened that two men of the idolaters were standing beside the base on which the statue stood, and when it fell, it split the head of the one in two, and for the other it broke his shoulder and wrist. For they were both standing and mocking at the holy multitude.

62. And many of the Greeks when they beheld the sign which had come to pass, believed, and mingled with the lay­folk and entered with them into the holy church which is called Peace. …

Mango’s suggestion that Porphyry and his followers actually vandalised the statue is a little odd; surely it defeats the point of the story?