Competitive Christians on poles


The Roman emperor Constantine (above) caused a counterintuitive problem for early Christians.

By converting to Christianity and making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in about 313 AD, Constantine made it impossible for early Christians to be either confessors or martyrs.

  1. To be a confessor meant to acknowledge openly to the Roman bureaucracy that you were a Christian. This carried the risk of martyrdom.
  2. To be a martyr then meant actually going through with the process and dying for your faith.

Why was this a problem?

Because these were the two main ways in which early Christians competed for religious kudos — and those Christians were (are?) a competitive bunch. Both confessing and martyrdom constituted a sort of second baptism and suggested spiritual excellence.

Being martyred, in particular, was surprisingly difficult, since the Romans (with rare exceptions, as under Diocletian) did not actually want to kill anybody because of religion. Historians have recovered trial transcripts that show how eager the Roman administrators were to accommodate Christians. The administrator might ask the confessor whether he might, please, consider a small sacrifice — not to any pagan gods but merely to the Emperor. No? OK, how about a pinch of incense just to acknowledge the Emperor? No? OK, how about….

But when the Roman Empire officially became Christian, this form of Christian achievement came to a complete and screeching halt.

Christians had to find some other way to excel….

(What follows is based on Lecture 5 of Philip Daileader’s excellent course on the Early Middle Ages.)

The first monk

In perhaps the strangest psychological twist in human history, the most competitive Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries AD responded by, in effect, martyring themselves (ie, attacking their own bodies).

Perhaps the most famous to do so was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. Early in his career, when it was still possible, he tried and failed to get himself martyred in Alexandria. When that didn’t work, he went far into the desert to live as a hermit.

He was, in Greek, a Monakhos, a lonely one (as in mono, one; and of course monk).

He ate nothing, slept little, did everything to punish the human senses. (No sex ever, it goes without saying.) When that made him delirious, he imagined that demons and Satan himself attacked him, but he despatched them heroically. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of that cheerful anecdote:

Word of Anthony’s self-torture got out, and other Christians traveled to the desert to see him. Anthony, of course, wanted to be a Monakhos, so he moved further into the desert to lose his groupies. Eventually, he gave up and accepted that his followers were going to live together in the desert near him, in a sort of … monastery (not that lonely anymore, obviously).

Anthony’s fame soon spread west and throughout the Roman Empire. The reason was that a man named Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and a publisher with a sense of Zeitgeist, wrote a book called Life of Saint Anthony, describing what Anthony got up to in the desert.

From the book’s title, you notice that Anthony is now a “saint”. And thus a new genre is born: the hagiography. (Greek hagio = saint, as in Hagia Sophia; graphe = writing.)

To put this in contemporary perspective, Life of Saint Anthony was the Eat, Pray, Love of the late Roman Empire. Everybody suddenly wanted to try it out…

Grazers, fools and stylites

The result was a competitive free-for-all, as Christians tried to one-up each other in search of spiritual kudos.

  • The Grazers, for example, ate only grass and shoots and chained themselves up as barnyard animals.
  • The Holy Fools behaved as though they were insane, or tried to be insane. The most famous of them once paraded into the women’s bathhouse and disrobed, at which point the women, suspecting that he might be less foolish than he pretended, beat and ejected him.
  • The Stylites lived on top of pillars (Greek stylos) or poles.

The most famous Stylite, named Simeon (above) and also sainted before long, lived on top of his pole for some 40 years. (He reminds me of some tree sitters in Berkeley that I wrote about in The Economist once.) People sent food up to him via ladders and pulleys and presumably received and disposed of Simeon’s detritus by the same method.

Simeon became a tourist spectacle. Crowds watched from below as he performed painful exercises. He once touched his feet with his head 1,244 times in succession.


Let’s sit back for a moment, perhaps with a glass of sensual Cabernet Sauvignon and a cavalier mindset, and reflect.

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know that I have a recurring Diogenes fantasy. Diogenes was the guy in classical Greece who lived in a barrel like a dog (the first “cynic”).

But Diogenes did that to be free, not to compete with other barrel-dwellers. He was an eccentric.

You may also recall that I admire Patanjali and his contemporary, the Buddha. Many yogis and Buddhists also (then as now) practice asceticism.

But, like Diogenes, they also do so in search of freedom. (The Sanskrit word for this kind of freedom is moksha, which is achieved at the highest stage of yoga, which is called kaivalya or detachment.)

For them, asceticism is a way to reclaim our peace of mind from the oppressive push and pull of our desires (appetite, lust, jealousy, et cetera). It is a path toward clarity, serenity and humility.

Somehow, this kind of freedom seems not to have factored as a motivation for the pole-sitting Christians.

A seconds difference:

Christianity soon turned lifelong asceticism and total chastity into a virtue.

By contrast, asceticism in antiquity and in Eastern philosophy was a temporary effort, practiced at a certain stage of life.

Vestal Virgin

The Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome, for example, were expected to remain chaste while serving the goddess of the hearth (Roman Vesta or Greek Hestia). But only until they were 30! Then they were expected to do the natural and healthy thing, which was to get married and start a family.

Hindus and yogis first make a living, marry and have sex, start a family, and then, at the end of life, withdraw into asceticism to contemplate the absurdity of it all. (This is called sannyasa, and it is the last of the life stages, or asrama.)

So, asceticism has a place in many spiritual traditions.

But what were these early Christians up to? Were their stunts not huge ego trips?

Worse, did they not begin what Nietzsche would later consider the ultimate perversion of nature — by slandering every one of nature’s instincts to be evil? Were they not fundamentally … sick?

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