Preferred Citation: Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Leontius and his Sources

2. Leontius and his Sources

The Life of Symeon the Fool begins with a complex prologue in which Leontius suggests some of his motives in writing (pp. 121–23) and concludes with an epilogue in which Leontius reflects on the parenetic significance of the saint’s life he has just related (pp. 169–70). The main body of the text divides into two sections, vastly differing in style. The first section (pp. 124–45) is written in a style often syntactically complex and heavily rhetorical, including long speeches which reflect the language of church sermons and the formulae of prayer.[1] In it, Leontius provides a chronology of Symeon’s career before his arrival in Emesa in Syria. He narrates how Symeon left his native Edessa to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, how he and his friend John first entered a monastery in the Jordan and later lived as hermits, grazing in the desert like sheep. Twenty-nine years later, after achieving a state of spiritual perfection, Symeon left the desert for Emesa, in order to devote himself to saving the souls of the urban laity.

The second half of the Life (pp. 145–69) is a collection of anecdotes, written in a colloquial style with a marvelously rich vocabulary which probably reflects the spoken language of Leontius’s seventh-century Cyprus.[2] Here Leontius gives an account of Symeon’s conduct in Emesa in a series of thirty-one brief episodes. From the moment he entered the city, dragging a dead dog behind him, Symeon pretended to be crazy. He disrupted a church service by throwing nuts at the women parishioners. He walked naked through the streets on the way to the public baths, and he used the women’s bathhouse. Yet through his insane ravings he was able to convert heretics, Jews, prostitutes, and actors to Chalcedonian Christianity and improve the moral life of the city as a whole. As Leontius writes, “Through his inventiveness, he nearly put an end to sinning in the whole city” (p. 162).

The Life of Symeon the Fool is the product of a single author, Leontius of Neapolis. Nevertheless, scholars have put forth differing theories concerning Leontius’s sources for Symeon and his use of these sources, attempting to determine how he assembled them or redacted them. There are also problems concerning a possible earlier version of the text. Cyril Mango has argued that Leontius is responsible only for the first half of the Life of Symeon, and that he merely copied the second half of the Life from a preexistent text supposedly composed in Emesa in the 560s, based on oral traditions about the saint.[3] This chapter seeks to sort out the evidence concerning Leontius’s possible direct literary sources and earlier versions of the text. We cannot deny that Leontius had access to a variety of oral traditions about Symeon, or that in composing his work he drew heavily on folkloric forms. These borrowings, however, cannot be documented, since such traditions are not preserved.

The central issue for those scholars who have considered Leontius’s relationship to and use of possible sources is the “sudden change [in style] in the midst of the narrative” which Mango declared was “unparalleled,” leading him to argue that in compiling his narrative, Leontius had done “a pretty careless job.”[4] Festugière, on the other hand, attempted to resolve the discrepancy in styles by asserting that Leontius had composed the entire work himself and had conceived of the work as a unified entity.[5] Shifts in level of language are quite common in Byzantine saints’ lives, as in Byzantine literature generally.[6] Moreover, attempts to correlate “high levels” of language with educated audiences and “low levels” of language with less-educated audiences are generally unconvincing. The differing character of the two halves of the Life of Symeon deserves to be reexamined; I shall here review previous discussions on the composition of the Life of Symeon and propose some solutions which I believe will assist us in understanding the author and his text.

As I have suggested, we should regard the historical Symeon as elusive. In a similar manner, we should not expect the Emesa which Leontius creates in the text to resemble a given historical city. Emesa’s archeological record preserves little from Late Antiquity, and thus it is difficult to assess the degree to which details of the topography represented in the Life of Symeon conform to a specific town plan.[7] Leontius’s native Neapolis presents a similar problem. The Life of Symeon is full of details about economic and social life, as has been recognized by social historians. Leontius’s “Emesa” has a main gate, a church, a bathhouse, a theater, a few taverns and workshops, a colonnade, and an agora, but these features suggest little more than a generic Late Antique city. The city which Leontius invents may bear greatest resemblance to the city with which he and his audience were most familiar, and townsfolk represented in the text may even be local types. In any case, we should not be tempted to use the Life of Symeon as reliable evidence for urban conditions in sixth-century Syria.[8] The Life’s portrait of vibrant urban life is commensurate with the relative prosperity of Cyprus in the first half of the seventh century discussed above.[9] The burden of proof, it seems, rests with those who would argue that this text reflects life in an era and a place other than that in which it was produced.[10]

A “historical” Symeon should probably be dated, as Festugière and Mango have dated him, to the reign of Justinian. The only account of Symeon other than Leontius’s Life of Symeon the Fool which we possess is found in Evagrius Scholasticus’s Ecclesiastical History, written at Antioch during the last decade of the sixth century. Evagrius presents Symeon in his discussion of events during the reign of Justinian. Dating Symeon to this period necessarily creates problems for those seeking historical accuracy in the Life of Symeon. The earthquake which Symeon predicts in Evagrius’s account can apparently be identified as the quake which struck Phoenice Maritima in 551.[11] Leontius, however, claims that Symeon predicted an earthquake during the reign of Maurice (p. 150), perhaps the earthquake of 588. Thus it has appeared to some that Leontius has shifted Symeon’s activity forward about forty years. This discrepancy, among others, led Mango to be sharply critical of Leontius’s credibility and prompted him to inquire “why Leontius felt impelled to falsify the facts.”[12] Evagrius, it should be noted, had no written sources for Symeon. After sketching a few details about Symeon’s behavior and relating three anecdotes about him, Evagrius remarks, “Many other things he also did which require a separate treatise [πραγματείας ἰδιαζούσης δεῖται].”[13] It seems that Evagrius had no knowledge of such a treatise. One scholar has suggested that Evagrius received his information from his employer, the Patriarch Gregory of Antioch, or from his monastic circle.[14] Even if Evagrius faithfully recorded his oral sources, and despite his proximity to the supposed events of Symeon’s life, his account may be of no greater historicity than the material in the Life of Symeon. Evagrius should be taken not as evidence for the historical Symeon, but rather as the earliest account of a tradition about Symeon. We return to the details of Evagrius’s account at the end of this chapter.

Leontius’s Claims Concerning Sources

Leontius does not pretend to have had firsthand knowledge of Symeon, but he does claim to have had access to an eyewitness account (p. 125). There is consensus among scholars that Leontius’s claim is a fabrication, an example of a convention of hagiography in this period which the Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye described as “the fiction of the well-informed witness.”[15] In the Life of John the Almsgiver, Leontius claims to have functioned as a stenographer, taking down the testimony of a certain Menas concerning the patriarch. Otto Kresten has shown this assertion to be “pure fancy.”[16] While the Life of Symeon employs a similar narrative device, the text appears to create some confusion about whether Leontius is claiming that his information from the Deacon John came to him in oral or written form.

Of course, it is a historical impossibility that an eyewitness to events in Emesa in the mid-sixth century could have lived long enough to relate his account directly to Leontius almost one hundred years later (or perhaps sixty years later if we follow Leontius himself and date Symeon’s activity in Emesa to the reign of Maurice).[17] On this point there is consensus. Nevertheless, most scholars have taken Leontius to be appealing (albeit falsely) to an oral source. Leontius writes,

All this Symeon narrated in Emesa, where he pretended to be a fool, to a certain deacon of the holy cathedral church of the same city of Emesa, an excellent and virtuous man, who, by the divine grace which had come to him, understood the monk’s work. . . . The aforementioned John, beloved of God, a virtuous deacon, narrated [διηγήσατο] for us almost the entire life of that most wise one, calling on the Lord as witness to his story, that he had written [ἐπέγραψεν] nothing to add to the narrative [διηγήματι], but rather that since that time he had forgotten most things. (p. 125)

Festugière believes Leontius’s claim that the testimony he received was oral.[18] By this reasoning, the word ἐπέγραψεν, “he had written,” in the passage quoted above must be seen as a lapse on Leontius’s part. For Festugière it is merely a mistake; Leontius accidentally confuses the convention of claiming a nonexistent oral source for claiming a nonexistent written one. But a careful consideration of this passage reveals that there is nothing here to suggest that Leontius is claiming to have received John the deacon’s account in oral form.

Leontius fully intends to convey here that his source is a written document. The words διήγημα and διηγέομαι, “narrative” and “narrate,” do not necessarily refer to oral testimony, and in this context should be taken to refer to a written text.[19] By this understanding, pace Festugière,[20]ἐπέγραψεν is not a lapse. This observation prompts an examination of the other two passages where Leontius describes his relationship to the testimony of John the deacon. Twice in the anecdotal section he refers to John who “narrated this life for us” (p. 148, l. 22: ἡμῖν ὑφηγήσαμενος; p. 159, l. 17: ἐξηγησάμενον ἡμῖν). In these two passages, scholars have generally taken Leontius to be claiming to have received an oral account. Once again, it is not clear from the terms used whether this supposed narration is in oral or written form. Ὑφηγέομαι is elsewhere unattested, and ἐξηγέομαι, while often referring to oral communication, can also be used to describe a written interpretation.[21] (Think of “exegesis.”) It may well be the case that scholars have been mistaken, and Leontius never intended to pass off John’s testimony as something he received orally.

The Nature of a Possible Written Source

The question then arises concerning the status of Leontius’s claim to a written eyewitness source, a concern which I believe has been correctly met with skepticism. Leontius is clearly adhering to hagiographical convention in claiming a good source. But did Leontius have a written source which was not an eyewitness account?

Mango has argued that Leontius indeed had a written source for the episodic material in the second half of the Life, positing that this source was not a previous vita, but rather a “paterikon,” which he defines as “a collection of disconnected anecdotes.”[22] This document, claims Mango, originated in Emesa and was compiled in the 560s. It is this text which Leontius attempts to pass off as the eyewitness account of John the deacon. This allows Mango to account for the great shift in literary style between the first half of the life, which he disparages as “pure verbiage” and ascribes entirely to Leontius, and the second half, which he believes Leontius has taken over from a previous document and only slightly altered. Mango further claims that this paterikon was known to Evagrius—an unlikely proposition, since Evagrius tells us that he knows of no such document.[23] Furthermore, the literary relationship between Evagrius’s account of Symeon and Leontius’s Life, which we will consider below, is sufficiently loose that if they were working from the same source we would have to conclude that either one or both of them reworked the material substantially. While such a conclusion is not impossible, it does not best explain the relationship between the two texts.

Dating the Material in the Second Half of the Life

Mango’s further arguments for the provenance and date of this posited “paterikon” source need to be examined carefully. He believes that the story in which Symeon invites ten members of the circus faction to a banquet while they are washing their clothes outside the city (pp. 163–64) reflects the actual situation of Emesa, which was two miles from the Orontes. The episode seems contrived. Why would it be necessary for the men of the city to go so far out to do washing when the women could wash in the city? Far from drawing on accurate information about Emesa, this episode is designed to echo the call of the disciples, the parable of the banquet (Mt 22:1–10), and the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1–13). It is followed by a miraculous feeding. In all likelihood, the episode owes its situation outside the city to a verse from the Book of Revelation in which John of Patmos writes, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rv 22:14); here the robe washers are placed outside the city. Little else in the text might allow us to argue that Leontius had access to specific knowledge about the topography of Emesa.

Mango’s argument for the date of his posited source is based on two factors. First, in one extended episode two monks approach John the hermit (not the deacon) and later Symeon seeking a resolution to their (the monks’) debate over the reason for Origen’s fall into error (pp. 152–53). Mango argues that this episode makes more sense in the reign of Justinian than one hundred years later in Leontius’s time.[24] (Origen was condemned in 553 at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.) This observation, it should be noted, does not argue for fixing the date of the supposed source to the 560s, but actually attempts to date the activities of a historical Symeon to circa 550. The Life of Symeon is coy concerning Origen, neither criticizing him nor explicitly supporting him, and to my mind does not reflect composition in the period immediately after the Sixth Council. While Justinian was alive, it would have been difficult to discuss Origen without an unambiguous condemnation. The status of Origen’s teaching remained an issue in the Church well after Justinian’s condemnation, partly for the reasons which the fathers in the Life of Symeon outline (p. 152), namely the value of his text-critical and exegetical works. In the mid-seventh century Leontius’s contemporary, Maximus the Confessor, was accused of Origenism and defended himself against the charge,[25] and the ongoing popularity of Origen in Syria in this period is well attested.[26] If the issue was no longer relevant in the mid-seventh century (or by the same token too sensitive), Leontius could have removed it from his text, skipping over it if he had, in fact, found it in a source. The Origen episode in the Life of Symeon may thus be taken as evidence not for a sixth-century source, but rather for the continuing relevance of the Origenist controversy in the seventh century.

Indeed, much in the Life of Symeon points to a seventh-century date. Other theological concerns expressed in the text can be situated comfortably within the context of seventh-century Cyprus. Leontius’s concern with the conversion of Jews (Symeon converts two) reflects imperial policy in the period. Deeply concerned with the loyalty of religious minorities to Byzantine rule after the Persian invasion and conquest of Syria and Egypt (610–29), during which, as we have seen, Jews in Cyprus and Syria sided with the Sassanians, Heraclius issued an edict in 634 demanding the baptism of all Jews.[27] I have already mentioned the account of the Jew who sought baptism on Cyprus during the Arab invasion in the collection attributed to Anastasius the Sinaite. If the treatise entitled Against the Jews, surviving sections of which discuss the validity of icons, is correctly attributed to Leontius, it attests to his concern with the presence of Jews and Judaism. If the attribution is false, that text nevertheless reflects midseventh-century concerns. In the Spiritual Meadow, for instance, John Moschus describes a certain Alexandrian Christian named Cosmas who owned a substantial private library and occupied himself with composing anti-Jewish literature. Cosmas encourages Moschus to engage Jews in discussion in order to convert them.[28] The text known as the Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, written in Alexandria around 634 by a Jewish convert to Christianity, provides another example of anti-Jewish propaganda in the period, while at the same time providing further evidence of Jewish conversion.[29]

Another religious group prevalent in the seventh century was the Acephalic Severans, represented in the Life of Symeon by the phouska-seller and his wife whom Symeon cajoles into attending the Chalcedonian liturgy. The Acephalic Severans were precisely the group of Monophysites who were the target of Heraclius’s experiment with the doctrine of Monotheletism on Cyprus circa 625/6. Paul “the One-eyed,” the outspoken leader of this Monophysite communion, was active in Cyprus in the 620s and later was an adversary of Arcadius, archbishop of Constantia.[30] In including Jews and Severans in his narrative, Leontius portrays the world of the mid-seventh century, the anxieties of the fragmented empire, and the local problems of his native Cyprus.

Natural disasters are not precise markers. Mango’s second argument for dating the posited paterikon source to the 560s is that the plague of which Symeon has foreknowledge (p. 151) should be identified with the great plague of 542, or perhaps with that of 555. Again, this is ultimately an argument for historical immediacy to the supposed time of Symeon. Plagues, however, returned throughout the rest of the sixth century, during the seventh century, and into the early eighth century.[31] Leontius himself relates a plague in Alexandria during the patriarchate of John the Almsgiver (c. 610–17),[32] and a Syrian chronicle records a devastating plague in the eighteenth Arab year (639) in Palestine[33] in the period immediately preceding the composition of the Life of Symeon. Plague was a real concern for Leontius and his audience in the seventh century, and its appearance in his writings should neither be taken as an antiquarian detail nor as a means of dating the subject of his writings. The same applies to earthquakes; it should be remembered that although the earthquake in Evagrius’s description of Symeon has been dated by some scholars to the reign of Justinian, Leontius explicitly dates the earthquake in the Life of Symeon to the reign of Maurice (582–602; p. 150), a generation after the supposed date of the paterikon which Mango believes he uses as his source.

The three instances of so-called carelessness which Mango identifies at the end of the text[34] do not provide sufficient reason to argue that Leontius was relying heavily on a written source and that he misappropriated it. Mango’s first concern, that Symeon visits his “brother” John just before he dies even though it is a long distance from Emesa to the Dead Sea (p. 167), can either be resolved, as Mango himself suggests, by assuming that Symeon traveled to John in spirit rather than in body, or by accepting that Leontius is not particularly troubled by geographical details. Mango’s second problem is that it is unclear which of the two Jews mentioned in the text, the glassblower whose glasses Symeon breaks (p. 163) or the artisan who sees Symeon conversing with angels at the public baths (p. 154), buries Symeon’s body (p. 168). The confusion is best explained by suggesting that Leontius never reworked the version we now have to polish it and resolve all inconsistencies.

This solution may also account for Mango’s third problem, the fact that although John the deacon is told to look for Symeon’s body after three days (p. 167), he does not go to Symeon’s hut and only seeks out Symeon’s body once it has been buried, discovering an empty grave. Surely biblical typology rather than miscopying accounts for this. The circumstances of Symeon’s burial are modeled on the burial of Jesus and the discovery of his empty tomb. Whichever Jew Leontius intends to have buried Symeon is a type for Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43 and parallels), and the Deacon John stands in relation to Peter in the Johannine account of the scene at the tomb (Jn 20:6–7), arriving only in time to find his master’s empty garments. We shall return to Leontius’s use of the Gospels in the construction of his narrative in chapter 7. Therefore, the so-called confusion in the last chapters of the Life of Symeon is inadequately explained by assuming that Leontius is making poor use of a written source. The internal evidence of the Life of Symeon does not support Mango’s claim that Leontius relied on a source of Emesan provenance datable to the 560s.

Leontius’s Versions and the Structure of the Life

Having rejected Mango’s arguments for Leontius’s use of a source close in time to the supposed events of Symeon’s life, we are left with the initial concern that the two halves of the life seem to adhere to two very different genres, the feature of the work which suggested multiplicity of authorship to Mango in the first place. Such sharp divisions between the Life and the Miracles were common in early Byzantine hagiography, observes Evelyne Patlagean, citing the Life of Symeon the Fool as evidence. She generalizes,

The division into two of the Lives of saints has not been sufficiently taken into account: first, the acquisition and the inaugural demonstration of miraculous powers, then the exercise of this power in human society, without it ever being endangered or weakened.[35]

While there is good reason to regard the two halves of the Life of Symeon in this way, I believe Leontius’s own remarks shed light on the resolution of this problem.

Toward the end of the text, Leontius informs us that the version of the Life which we are reading is his second effort at relating the life of Symeon.

I was eager to commit [Symeon’s] miracles and his praiseworthy victory-prize to writing, as far as it is possible for me in my worthlessness, even though I had already done another shorter one [διὰ συντομίας][36] in addition to this, because detailed knowledge of this marvelous story had not yet come to me. (p. 169)

Despite the plain meaning of this passage, Lennart Rydén took Leontius to be referring to the account of Vitalius embedded in Leontius’s Life of John the Almsgiver.[37] Vitalius was a monk who visited prostitutes in their rooms, appearing to observers to be engaging their services, although he was actually praying for their souls. Presumably on the basis of parallel material in the Life of Symeon (pp. 155–56),[38] Rydén argued that in the passage quoted above, Leontius was not conveying that he had written an earlier (now lost) account of Symeon, but rather, that he had written previously on the theme of holy folly.[39] The story of Vitalius, however, is not a tale of holy folly, although it does fall into the broader category of tales of concealed sanctity. Despite the parallel between the two texts, the two accounts are not sufficiently related to convince us that Leontius is referring to the account of Vitalius when he mentions the συντομία. The passage in question must be construed to refer to an earlier life of Symeon.[40] What then can we say about Leontius’s earlier version of the text?

Festugière proposed the following solution to the problem of Leontius’s two versions. He argued that Leontius wrote a first version that resembled the first part of the extant life.[41] Later he received new material in oral form, presumably a series of anecdotes, which prompted him to write a second, fuller version of the life. The assumption here is that Leontius received “reliable” information about Symeon which he could not leave out. (Festugière rejects the possibility that this information was available to Leontius in written form.) But this solution is unlikely. Anecdotal material about Symeon forms the whole of Evagrius’s account; Evagrius has no information about Symeon’s time before his arrival in Emesa. A narrative about Symeon which said nothing of his folly is inconceivable.

Leontius is unlikely to have written a Life of Symeon based on an account without miracles. It is not reasonable to believe that Leontius composed a life of Symeon knowing only of traditions now incorporated in the first part of the Life; without anecdotes like those found in Evagrius and in the second half of the Life of Symeon, Symeon would not be a subject sufficiently interesting for a saint’s life. As I mentioned above, Mango believes that the anecdotal second half was extant first, and that Leontius composed the first half of the Life to precede it. In other words, the Life was written as an extended introduction to the miracles. With this in mind, I suggest that the reverse of Festugière’s argument is more likely, namely that some time after Leontius had written the anecdotal material now in the second half of the Life, he invented the rhetorical material in the first half to serve as a frame.

This extended introduction served apologetic purposes. Leontius added the first half of the Life as an introduction to the second half in order to show that Symeon had not made a random decision to behave as he did in Emesa. In the episodes related in the second half of the Life, Symeon behaves in a manner threatening to the social order. As we shall see in the course of this study, Leontius himself understands some of the material in the second half of the Life to be potentially scandalous, and he often attempts to preempt a negative reaction on the part of his audience. Consequently, to discourage others from following Symeon’s example, Leontius felt that Symeon should be shown to have gone through elaborate preparations: pilgrimage to Jerusalem, monastic vows, and twenty-nine years living as a grazer (βοσκός) in the desert, conquering his bodily needs.

In the absence of an earlier version of the text, we cannot be sure, but the evidence suggests that Leontius did write two versions, and that the first version consisted largely of the anecdotes in the second half of the Life. Later, in response to the reaction of some of his audience, Leontius reworked the Life, adding much of the first half of the Life as we now know it, and perhaps adding some of the apologetic passages now found in the second half of the Life. Here, as before, I believe Leontius’s claim to have received reliable information which prompted him to rework the Life must be seen as part of the hagiographical topos of the informed witness.

A Possible Written Source

It remains to be determined whether at any stage in his composition of the Life of Symeon Leontius relied on a written source. We can know little about oral traditions which may have been available to him, just as we can know little about written sources which have disappeared. Nevertheless, there is one possible written source worthy of our attention, the only other text relating to Symeon extant from Late Antiquity: the passage in the fourth book of Evagrius Scholasticus’s Ecclesiastical History composed in Antioch during the last decade of the sixth century.[42]

Evagrius’s discussion of Symeon is found in a digression from his presentation of events during the reign of Justinian. After a discussion of the Nikē riots in Constantinople in 532, Evagrius shifts his focus to holy men. He writes, “There lived at that season men divinely inspired and workers of distinguished miracles in various parts of the world, but whose glory has shone forth everywhere.”[43] Under this heading Evagrius presents short notices of Barsanuphius of Gaza, Symeon of Emesa, and Thomas, who was active in Coele-Syria. Only the account of Symeon concerns us here. Evagrius tells that this certain Symeon appeared insane to those who did not know him, that he lived in solitude, and that no one knew when he fasted and when he ate. Frequently while in the market place he seemed “deprived of his self-possession [ἐκτετράφθαι τοῦ καθεστῶτος]” and often helped himself to food in the local tavern. As the account states,

But if any one saluted him with an inclination of the head, he would leave the place angrily and hastily, through reluctance that his peculiar virtues should be detected by many persons. Such was the conduct of Symeon in public [κατὰ τὴν ἀγοράν]. But there were some of his acquaintances, with whom he associated without any assumed appearances.[44]

These remarks serve as an introduction to three brief episodes. It is worth noting that all the elements in this introduction are also found scattered about Leontius’s Life of Symeon. Symeon lives alone in a spare hut (p. 166); his eating habits are a mystery to the residents of Emesa, who see him gorging himself on Holy Thursday (pp. 156–57); he behaves in public in a manner interpreted as insane; he helps himself to food (p. 146); whenever he might be recognized as a holy person, he does something to put others off (p. 147). Finally, Symeon’s true identity is known to John, the deacon of the church in Emesa, with whom he associates without his manic guise (pp. 160, 166). (The figure of John and his function as “informant” are unknown to Evagrius.)

These are the three episodes which Evagrius relates concerning Symeon: (1) A pregnant girl accused Symeon of being the father of her child. Symeon did not deny this, and pretended to be ashamed. However, when the girl went into a particularly painful labor, Symeon would not allow the baby to be born until she named the real father.[45] (2) Symeon visited a prostitute and remained with her for some time before leaving secretly. To onlookers it appeared that Symeon had engaged her services, although in reality, he had merely brought her food because she was starving. (3) Symeon predicted an earthquake by whipping columns in the agora while raving, “Stand still, if there should be an occasion to dance.” When the earthquake did come, only the columns which Symeon whipped remained standing.

The first and third of these episodes have parallels in the Life of Symeon. A slave-girl who is pregnant by one of the members of a circus faction accuses Symeon of having raped her (p. 151). As in the version in Evagrius’s History, the girl can only give birth after she has revealed the true father of the child. Leontius’s version is fuller in detail and has the significant difference that instead of pretending to be ashamed, and hiding, Symeon regularly visits the girl during her pregnancy, bringing her bread, meat, and pickled fish. This last element, however, resembles a detail found in Evagrius’s second episode, where Symeon feeds the prostitute, and may reflect a conflation of the two stories. On the other hand, Symeon associates with prostitutes elsewhere in the Life, although not in episodes which parallel Evagrius (cf. pp. 155–56).[46]

In another episode in the Life, Symeon predicts which pillars will stand during an earthquake (which Leontius says occurred during the reign of Maurice) by whipping them and saying, “Your master says, ‘Remain standing.’ ” The narrative continues, “[H]e also went up to one pillar and said to it, ‘You neither fall nor stand!’ And it was split from top to bottom and bent over a bit and stayed that way” (p. 150). This episode is a version of the earthquake episode related by Evagrius, although there are no verbal echoes to suggest that Leontius is quoting Evagrius; not even the precise words of the saint, which one might expect to be preserved, are the same. Nevertheless the correspondence between these passages, and particularly between Evagrius’s introductory remarks about Symeon and the various elements of the Life of Symeon outlined above, prompts us to consider a literary relationship between Evagrius’s Ecclesiastical History and Leontius’s Life of Symeon the Fool.

Thus Leontius had Evagrius’s account of Symeon available to him as a source for the Life of Symeon the Fool. The fact that all the elements of Evagrius’s introductory remarks appear incorporated into Leontius’s work and that two of the three episodes which he relates are found in the Life of Symeon (although in altered form) suggests one of the following possibilities. First, that Leontius and Evagrius drew on the same oral material—something we can never rule out entirely. Second, that Leontius and Evagrius drew on the same written document. But Evagrius’s own observation that the narration of the other deeds which Symeon accomplished would “require a separate treatise” suggests that he knew of no such written document concerning Symeon of Emesa. Third, that Leontius was familiar with Evagrius’s History and used it as a bare-bones framework out of which he constructed his own Life of Symeon. This suggestion is further supported by the fact that in the first half of the Life, Leontius presents Symeon and his friend John as living as grazers (βοσκοί) in the Syrian desert. An account of such grazers, unrelated to the account of Symeon of Emesa, can be found in the first book of Evagrius’s History.[47] As Rydén has observed, Leontius seems to combine Evagrius’s account of the boskoi with the account of Symeon of Emesa when he composes his full-length vita.[48] Leontius uses the time Symeon “spent” as a boskos to account for how he achieved the state of apatheia, so important to Leontius’s understanding—indeed his construction—of Symeon.

The fourth possibility for explaining the apparent literary relationship between Evagrius’s History and the Life of Symeon the Fool is to posit an intermediary source which expanded on Evagrius and later found its way to Leontius’s desk. This possibility also can never be completely ruled out, but it does posit sources which are no longer extant and unnecessarily complicates a chain of transmission between two authors who wrote within fifty years of each other. The speculation required for such a model argues for the likelihood of my third proposition, namely, that Evagrius’s Ecclesiastical History was Leontius’s source for the Life of Symeon. That said, I believe it is unnecessary to posit other written sources for the Life of Symeon, although there certainly were other influences on Leontius in his composition of the Life, as we shall see in the remainder of this study.

The Armenian Synaxary and the Life of Symeon

Before we close the discussion of Leontius and his possible sources, the entry for Saint Symeon’s day in the Synaxary of the Armenian Church warrants a brief discussion.[49] This lectionary for the liturgical year, based on an eleventh-century collection, was edited by Ter Israel in the thirteenth century. The order and content of the anecdotes related in the reading for St. Symeon’s day in this collection are quite similar to those in Leontius, a fact which prompted Festugière to conclude that both Leontius and the citation in the Armenian Synaxary were drawn from the same source.[50] However, the Armenian version includes material found in both the first and second halves of Leontius’s Life of Symeon. If I am right that Leontius is entirely responsible for both halves, written in somewhat different styles, then it would follow that the Armenian is based solely on Leontius’s text. This argument is strengthened by the fact that all the material in the Armenian précis corresponds to passages in Leontius, and the order of events follows that of the Life of Symeon, with one exception, a change we can reasonably attribute to the Armenian translator.[51]

Thus the Life of Symeon the Fool is the product of the skill and imagination of a mid-seventh-century Cypriot author, Leontius of Neapolis, who, far from slavishly copying sources, composed his work with originality and, as we shall see, a moral purpose. Nevertheless, Leontius did not write without a literary context, and it is to this context that we next turn, for in composing the Life of Symeon Leontius was working within an established genre of Late Ancient hagiography, and he drew heavily upon the conventions of that tradition.


1. See Festugière’s comments on this section in Vie de Syméon le Fou, pp. 9–11.

2. For studies of the linguistic character of this section see Rydén, “Style and Historical Fiction in the Life of St. Andreas Salos,” JÖB 32 (1982): 175–83; Willem Aerts, “Leontios of Neapolis and Cypriot Dialect Genesis,” Praktika B’ diethnous Kypriologikou Synedriou, vol. 2 (Nicosia: Etaireia Kypriakōn Spoudōn, 1986), pp. 379–89; and the many discussions of individual words in Lennart Rydén, Bemerkungen zum Leben des heiligen Narren Symeon von Leontios von Neapolis (Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksell, 1970), passim, and in Festugière’s edition. As a side note, Cyril Mango (“A Byzantine Hagiographer at Work: Leontios of Neapolis,” in Byzanz und der Westen: Studien zur Kunst des europäischen Mittelalters, ed. Irmgard Hutter [Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1984], p. 27) suggests that a change in style can be detected again at p. 166, just preceding the narration of Symeon’s death, where the style is more like the rhetorical style of the first half of the text. This return to a more eloquent style is commonplace at the end of saints’ lives.

3. Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” pp. 30ff. Mango’s evidence for Leontius’s reliance on a written source is, first, the contrasting styles of the first and second halves of the Life; second, possible dates of the earthquake and the plague described in the text; and third, inconsistency or “carelessness” regarding chronological details. Mango further attempts to demonstrate that the second half of the Life reflects the concerns of the mid-sixth century. These arguments will be raised again in a forthcoming study by Vincent Déroche.

4. Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” pp. 30, 33.

5. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 13; “Il n’est donc pas douteux que l’ouvrage entier ne soit de Léontios et qu’il l’ait conçu comme formant un même ensemble.” J. Hofstra (“Leontius van Neapolis als Hagiograaf,” in De heiligenverering in de eerste eeuwen van het christendom, ed. A. Hilhorst [Nijmegen: Dekker en van de Vegt, 1988], pp. 186–92) has attempted to understand the shift in style as part of a critique of monasticism.

6. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 15.

7. On Emesa see N. Elisséeff, “H.ims.,” Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed., 3.397–402, which includes a diagram and an aerial photograph.

8. As has recently been done by Mark Whittow, “Ruling the Late Roman and Early Byzantine City: A Continuous History,” Past and Present 129 (November 1990): 3–29, esp. pp. 24–25. Dorothy Zani de Ferranti Abrahamse (“Hagiographic Sources for Byzantine Cities, 500–900 A.D.” [Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1967], p. 280) took the character of the Jewish glassblower as evidence for the role of Jews in the Syrian economy. But there is no reason to assume that this Jew is presented either in a stereotyped profession or in a profession restricted to Jews in Syria. Leontius may well have known Jewish glassblowers in Cyprus.

9. This issue is addressed more fully in chapter 5.

10. As we shall see, these warnings apply directly to Mango’s arguments concerning Leontius and his sources.

11. Cf. Evagrius Scholasticus, The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius with the Scholia, ed. J. Bidez and C. Parmentier (1898; rpt. New York: AMS, 1979) (hereafter Evagrius, HE) 4.34; John Malalas, Chronicle 18.112. Festugière, introduction, Vie de Syméon le Fou, pp. 3–8; Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” pp. 27–28.

12. Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” p. 28.

13. Evagrius, HE, 4.34; trans. A History of the Church from A.D. 322 to the Death of Theodore of Mopsuestia, A.D. 427 by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus, and from A.D.431 to A.D. 594 by Evagrius . . . (London: Bohn, 1854), p. 416.

14. Pauline Allen, Evagrius Scholasticus the Church Historian (Louvain: Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense, 1981), pp. 199–200.

15. “La fiction du témoin bien informé”; H. Delehaye, Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1966), pp. 182–83. Cf. Rydén, Bemerkungen, pp. 43–47; Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, pp. 14–15; Otto Kresten, “Leontios von Neapolis als Tachygraph? Hagiographische Texte als Quellen zu Schriftlichkeit und Buchkultur im 6. und 7. Jahrhundert,” Scrittura e civiltà 1 (1977): 157–58, esp. n. 10; Mango, “Byzantine Hagiographer,” pp. 29–30 (although Mango’s solution to this problem creates other difficulties, which I shall discuss below). Wolfgang Speyer includes Leontius of Neapolis in his general treatment of the convention of the fictitious witness in his Die Literarische Fälschung im heidnischen und christlischen Altertum: Ein Versuch ihrer Deutung (Munich: Beck, 1971), pp. 71–74.

16. Kresten, “Leontius von Neapolis als Tachygraph,” pp. 158–59. The passage in question is Leontius, Life of John, prologue, pt. 2, ed. Festugière, p. 346.

17. Cf. Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” pp. 29–30.

18. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 14; so also Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” p. 29.

19. Cf. διήγημα, p. 129 l. 8; LSJ and Lampe, s.v. I thank Alexander Kazhdan for his assistance on this reading.

20. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 14.

21. Lampe, s.v.

22. Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” p. 30. In support of his paterikon argument, Mango cites what he believes to be a parallel example, namely the stories about Daniel of Skete, and claims that John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow “presupposes the existence of such collections relating to individual saints” (p. 30 n. 19). But the stories “about” Daniel of Skete are, in fact, a collection of stories about other people whom Daniel of Skete is supposed to have encountered. Each of the accounts is three or four times the length of the average episode in the Life of Symeon, and the individual accounts have no relation to each other. The Life of Daniel of Skete finds closer generic parallels in such texts as Palladius’s Lausiac History, the numerous narrative collections of the Apophthegmata Patrum, and in John of Ephesus’s Lives of the Eastern Saints. In each of these texts a number of figures are described in a succession of brief vignettes, a form quite different from a possible “Paterikon of Symeon,” presumably a lengthy document entirely devoted to one saint. It is also far from clear that the “sources” for John Moschus were of the sort Mango suggests. In fact, the collection of seemingly disjointed anecdotes about a single saint such as we find in the Life of Symeon finds its closest parallels in other full-length vitae of the period, such as George of Sykeon’s Life of Theodore of Sykeon, the various lives of the stylite saints, and Leontius’s own Life of John the Almsgiver. Leontius uses the word πατερικά (Life of John 40) to refer to “Lives of the Fathers” generally.

23. Evagrius, HE 4.34.

24. Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” p. 31. Thus also José Grosdidier de Matons, “Les Thèmes d’édification dans la Vie d’André Salos,” Travaux et mémoires 4 (1970): 290.

25. Maximus, Relatio motionis 5, PG 90.120B. Maximus’s refutation of Origen can be found in Ambigua 7 and 15, PG 91.1068–101, 1216–21. On Maximus’s sources for Origenism see Polycarp Sherwood, The Earlier Ambigua of Saint Maximus the Confessor and His Refutation of Origenism (Rome: Pontifical Institute, 1955), pp. 72–92. I thank Eric Perl for the reference.

26. On this point see Antoine Guillaumont, Les “Képhalaia Gnostica” d’Ëvagre le Pontique et l’histoire de l’origénisme chez les grecs et les syriens (Paris: du Seuil, 1962), esp. pp. 173–99.

27. Michael the Syrian, Chronique 9.4; cf. F. Dölger, Regesten der Kaiserurkunden des oströmischen Reiches von 565–1453 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1924), p. 206.

28. John Moschus, Spiritual Meadow 172. Karl Krumbacher suggested (without proof) that this Cosmas encouraged Leontius to write the anti-Jewish tract attributed to him (Geschichte der Byzantinischen Literatur von Justinian bis zum Ende des oströmischen Reiches (527–1453) [Munich: Beck, 1897], p. 191).

29. Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, ed. F. Nau, PO 8 (1912): 745–80. See now the edition of Gilbert Dagron and Vincent Déroche, in “Juifs et Chrétiens dans l’Orient du viie siècle,” Travaux et mémoires 11 (1991): 70–219.

30. On Monophysites in Cyprus in this period see Jan Louis van Dieten, Geschichte der Patriarchen von Sergios I. bis Johannes VI. (610–715) (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1972), pp. 28–30.

31. On the subject of plague in this period see Pauline Allen, “The ‘Justinianic’ Plague,” Byzantion 49 (1979): 5–20, esp. pp. 13–14; cf. Evelyne Patlagean, Pauvreté économique et pauvreté sociale à Byzance 4e–7e siècles (Paris: Mouton, 1977), pp. 87–91.

32. Leontius, Life of John 24.

33. Chronicon anonymum ad annum domini 819 pertinens, trans. J.-B. Chabot (Louvain: Durbecq, 1937), p. 200.

34. Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” pp. 31–32.

35. Patlagean, “Ancient Byzantine Hagiography and Social History,” in Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore, and History, ed. S. Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 107; for the Life of Symeon in this pattern, see pp. 116–17 n. 37.

36. For διὰ συντομίας with the sense of “a shorter version” rather than “earlier” or “in a short while” (as at p. 139 l. 13), cf. Rydén, Das Leben des heiligen Narren Symeon, p. 202; see also idem,Bemerkungen, p. 141.

37. Leontius, Life of John 38. Dawes and Baynes do not translate this chapter in their version (in Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies translated from the Greek, trans. Elizabeth Dawes and Norman H. Baynes [Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1977], pp. 199–262).

38. I shall discuss these parallels below.

39. Rydén, Bemerkungen, pp. 143–44.

40. Thus also Mango, “A Byzantine Hagiographer,” p. 29, and Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 13.

41. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, pp. 13–15.

42. Evagrius, HE 4.34.

43. Evagrius, HE 4.32; trans. p. 415.

44. Evagrius, HE 4.34; trans. p. 415.

45. A similar story is told of Macarius in Anan-Isho, The Paradise of the Fathers 2.35; ed. with partial Syriac text and a complete English translation: Lady Meux Manuscript No. 6, Book of Paradise, being the histories and sayings of the monks and ascetics of the Egyptian desert by Palladius, Hieronymous and others. The Syriac texts, according to the recension of Anöan Ishô of Bêth Abhê . . . , ed. and trans. E. A. Wallis Budge, vol. 2 (London: Drugulin, 1904), pp. 417–19. A revised translation appeared in 1934 separating the stories and the sayings under the titles Stories of the Holy Fathers and The Wit and Wisdom of the Christian Fathers of Egypt.

46. The prostitute episode in Evagrius also parallels the story of Vitalius which Leontius tells in the Life of John 38.

47. Evagrius, HE 1.21. Reports of this phenomenon are also found in Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica (hereafter Sozomen, HE) 6.33; and John Moschus, Spiritual Meadow 21. Cf. Anan-Isho, The Paradise of the Fathers 2.16a (p. 360) and 2.16d (p. 369).

48. Rydén, “The Holy Fool,” in The Byzantine Saint, ed. Sergei Hackel (San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo, 1983), pp. 108–9.

49. 15 Hrotits (= 21 July), Le Synaxaire arménien de Ter Israel (XII. mois de Hrotits), ed. and trans. G. Bayan, PO 21 (1930): 751–60.

50. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 43; Festugière writes, “Ce strict parallélisme dans l’ordre des faits, la ressemblance, ou plutôt l’identité même (verbatim), de certaines paroles de Syméon ne permettent pas de douter que et Léontios et le traducteur arménien n’aient eu entre les mains le même document” (emphasis in original).

51. Other minor changes (cf. Rydén, Bemerkungen, p. 44) should also be attributed to the translator.

Leontius and his Sources

Preferred Citation: Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.