Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 19 June 2021

Symeon the Stylite the Youngerfree

Symeon the Stylite the Youngerfree

  • Dina Boero
  •  and Charles Kuper

Summary

Symeon the Stylite the Younger (521–592 ce), a pillar-saint or “stylite,” practised his mode of Christian asceticism for more than sixty years on a mountain southwest of Antioch. Symeon’s lifetime, spanning most of the 6th century, coincides with a drastic time of transition in the history of Antioch, which began with the devastating earthquake of 526 ce and includes events such as the sack of Antioch in 540 ce and the Plague of Justinian in the following years. Symeon also happens to be one of the best-documented holy men from this period. The remains of his monastery have been preserved and studied extensively. A number of pilgrimage objects, most notably clay tokens, have also received much scholarly attention. The extant literary evidence is also vast, though understudied in comparison. It includes homilies, letters, and short hymns penned by the saint himself, as well as two hagiographies composed by members of his monastic community shortly after his death. Symeon, therefore, is a critical figure for understanding many issues relevant to the study of the Eastern Roman Empire during this period: political, social, and theological history; the development of cult sites and pilgrimage; the literary self-representation of a stylite and his community; and the construction of monumental architecture and water management in remote locations in Syria, among many others.

Subjects

  • Christianity
  • Late Antiquity
  • Near East

Symeon was born in Antioch to his mother Martha from Antioch and his father John from Edessa in 521 ce. He died in his monastery upon the Wondrous Mountain, located approximately 18 kilometres (11 miles) southwest of Antioch, in 592 ce. Symeon spent his early years in Antioch until the earthquake of 526 ce. He then entered the monastery of the stylite John located at the base of the Wondrous Mountain at the age of 5 or 6. At the age of 7, he took up standing on a small pedestal next to John’s stylite column and excelled in ascetic renunciation and fasting. At the age of 12 or 13, he ascended a column 12 metres (40 feet) in height. At this time, the bishops of Antioch and Seleucia Pieria also anointed him a deacon. Soon after, the abbot John died, and Symeon assumed leadership for the monastery. At the age of 20 (541 ce), Symeon processed from the base of the Wondrous Mountain to the summit, where he founded a new monastery, of which the lower monastery would be a subsidiary. While Symeon inhabited some form of an enclosure, monks and pilgrims constructed the monastery on the Wondrous Mountain. By the early 7th century, the complex included a column placed centrally within an octagon (see Figure 1), three churches, living quarters for monks, a hospice, and a baptistery among other facilities. On June 4, 551 ce, at the age of 30, Symeon along with his mother dedicated the completed portions of the monastery. Three years later, he was ordained a priest by Dionysius, the bishop of Seleucia Pieria. Symeon received pilgrims from Antioch, its suburbs, and its hinterlands, as well as Cilicia, Isauria, Syria, Cappadocia, Armenia, and Iberia. He was famed for healing and offering relief in times of natural disaster. On his death, his remains were interred at his cult site, as were the remains of his mother. His feast day is celebrated on May 24, the same day as his death.

Figure 1. The column of Symeon the Younger upon the Wondrous Mountain, view from the west looking east.

Photo by Arzu Özsavaşçı. Courtesy of Ayşe Belgin-Henry.

The Writings of Symeon the Younger

Symeon’s extant writings, all in Greek, provide the earliest literary evidence for his career and the history of his monastic community, though they have received the least scholarly attention to date. They consist of thirty homilies purportedly delivered between the years 531–545 ce, three or four troparia (short hymns of a single stanza), and at least one letter. The homilies, which emphasize monastic, secular, and eschatological themes, are preserved separately from the hagiographical material and may have been heavily redacted following their collection. This hypothesis is based on the stylistic differences between these homilies and the corresponding discourses embedded in the Life of Symeon, but the state of the question is currently unclear. Three extant troparia are quoted verbatim in the Life of Symeon. According to the hagiographer, they were composed in response to a series of earthquakes in November–December of 557 ce. A fourth hymn is found in the manuscript tradition (see Magdalen MS gr. 9, 288r), but it is also an excerpt from the Life, though one that circulated independently. One letter is preserved in the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787 ce), where it was cited in defence of the veneration of icons. In this letter, the saint petitioned Justin II (or possibly Justinian) to intervene when an image of Christ and the Theotokos was desecrated in the city of Porphyreon. Additionally, the Life of Symeon describes six exchanges of letters, five between Symeon and various Constantinopolitan dignitaries, including Justin II, John Scholasticus, and Theodore the Praetorian Prefect, and the sixth with Evagrius Scholasticus, who also mentions this exchange in his Ecclesiastical History. Finally, the Life of Martha includes an embedded verbatim letter exchange between Symeon and Thomas the Staurophylax (Guardian of the Cross) in Jerusalem, but the authenticity of the letter attributed to Symeon has not been determined.

Archaeological Sources for Symeon’s Life and Cult

The archaeological record preserves the second-oldest set of evidence for Symeon’s life and cult. Remains of Symeon’s monastery are preserved on the Wondrous Mountain (modern Turkish Semandağ). The site was adjacent to the Roman road connecting Antioch and Seleucia Pieria. In the most recent archaeological assessment of the complex, Ayşe Belgin-Henry distinguished four phases of construction on the Wondrous Mountain and established an updated site plan (see Figure 2).1 The first phase predates the pilgrimage complex. The structures from this phase indicate that the site was occupied prior to the 6th century, but its function is unclear. The second phase of construction took place between 541 and 551 ce and consisted of the construction of the octagon with the column and monolithic staircase, the Church of the Holy Trinity, and probably the hospice, all set down in the Life of Symeon. It also included the construction of the North Church, the atrium, the entrance hall, and probably the baptistery, structures not discussed in the Life. The third phase took place after Martha’s death c. 562 ce. It consisted of the construction of the South Church (dedicated to Martha) as well as the construction or substantial renovation of the south passage into the octagon, the storage area, and the tetraconch on the southwest side of the octagon. The fourth phase comprises post-6th-century renovations and repairs, many of which occurred after the Byzantine reoccupation of Antioch in 969 ce. The monastery continued to be used into the 13th century, housing a vibrant population of Greek-, Georgian-, Arabic-, and potentially Syriac-speaking monks.

Figure 2. Site plan of the Wondrous Mountain by Ayşe Belgin Henry.

Courtesy of Ayşe Belgin-Henry.

In addition, a number of pilgrimage tokens depict stylites, but only those which identify the younger stylite with an inscription can be securely associated with the saint (see Figure 3). In total, nine tokens and related objects can be securely identified as representing Symeon the Younger and dated to late antiquity: four clay tokens housed in the monastic church at Bobbio, Italy; two clay tokens in the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (nos. 1979-24.198 DJ and 1979-24.200 DJ); two lead or clay tokens in the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Antakya, Turkey (nos. 8655 and 8749 according to Lafontaine-Dosogne); and a bifaced marble stamp for tokens from el-Fauz, Syria. In addition, several lead medallions dating from the Byzantine reconquest of Syria (969–1074 ce) display Symeon the Younger.

Figure 3. Token of Symeon the Younger owned by the Menil Foundation, Inc., Houston, Texas, no. 1979-24.198DJ.

Courtesy of the Menil Collection.

Hagiographic Sources for Symeon’s Life and Cult

The Life of Symeon (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca [BHG] 1689), composed in Greek, is among the longest hagiographies in late antiquity, eclipsing even large anthologies such as Theodoret’s Religious History and John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow. It was composed sometime after Symeon’s death in 592 ce by an anonymous member of the saint’s monastic community who claims to have personally witnessed many of the events described. The author probably worked from multiple written sources housed at the monastery. Scholars such as Hippolyte Delehaye and Paul van den Ven have generally accepted the view that the vita was composed shortly after Symeon’s death, proposing the early 7th century, and Vincent Déroche narrowed this window slightly, suggesting the reign of Phocas (602–10) on the basis of internal evidence.2

The Life of Symeon represents a hybrid of hagiographical genres, combining biography proper with elements usually associated with miracle collections. In general, the sections narrating Symeon’s life progress chronologically from birth until death and give structure to the text, though certain periods are emphasized over others. Symeon’s activity during the construction of the monastic complex from 541 to 551 ce, for example, is treated in great detail, while his later life is significantly less well documented. Nested throughout the narrative sections are dozens of miracles, often clustered together, which include bilocation, prophetic visions, communication with wild animals, and numerous healings of monks, pilgrims, and distant suppliants. No posthumous miracles are recorded. Many of these miracles are closely related to and serve to expand upon their narrative context, while other groups appear disconnected and interchangeable, even repetitive. The literary framework of this text merits further investigation; such analysis will advance our understanding of the composition, the performance, and the reception of the Life of Symeon. Additionally, because of Symeon’s wide influence, the text provides a wealth of political and social history for Antioch and the surrounding area, including descriptions of the earthquakes in Antioch in 526 and 557 ce, the Sasanian invasion in 540 ce, and incidents of plague in Antioch starting in 542 ce. Thus, the text offers valuable evidence for the question of Antioch’s decline, continuity, or resilience in the 6th century. The Life of Symeon enjoyed a rich afterlife and a wide readership. Translations into Syriac, Arabic, and Georgian are attested, as well as multiple Greek metaphraseis, all from the 8th century onward.

The Life of Martha (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca [BHG] 1174), written anonymously and traditionally dated to the years following the completion of the Life of Symeon, is a sequel of sorts to this text. If the reign of Phocas is indeed when the Life of Symeon was composed, 610 ce becomes a plausible terminus post quem for the composition of the Life of Martha. The terminus ante quem is more difficult to establish, but it was probably completed prior to the Islamic conquest of Antioch in 638 ce. Like its earlier counterpart, the structure of the Life of Martha is atypical. Although it is called a “Life,” details about Martha’s birth, childhood, and even much of her adult life are notably absent. Instead the narrative begins mere weeks before its protagonist’s death. The second part of the vita focuses on Martha’s posthumous miracles and directions for the construction of a new church at the cult site. The third and final part addresses the transfer of Martha’s body from its temporary location near Symeon’s column to the newly constructed church, as well as the translation of a piece of the True Cross from Jerusalem to the monastery. Unlike the Life of Symeon, the Life of Martha has a focused literary argument: to connect Martha with the Cross and therefore the acquisition of the relic from Jerusalem with the church constructed to commemorate her. Because of this fact, it is reasonable to read the Life of Martha as a conscious act of monastic self-representation in response to the theft of the True Cross from Jerusalem by Khosrow II in 614 ce. Additionally, the Life of Martha is noteworthy for including some important details attested nowhere else in the tradition. These include the location of Symeon’s body after his death and the only description of someone using a pilgrimage token from the Wondrous Mountain. The Life of Martha was also translated into Georgian some years after the Life of Symeon.

Primary Texts

Life of Martha
  • van den Ven, Paul, ed. La Vie ancienne de S. Syméon Stylite le jeune (521–592). Vol. 2, Traduction et Commentaire: Vie grecque de sainte Marthe mère de S. Syméon. Subsidia hagiographica 32. Brussels: Société des bollandistes, 1970.

Life of Symeon the Stylite the Younger

  • van den Ven, Paul, ed. La Vie ancienne de S. Syméon Stylite le jeune (521–592). 2 vols. Subsidia hagiographica 32. Brussels: Société des bollandistes, 1962–1970.

Symeon the Younger, Homilies

(Homilies 1–4)

  • van den Ven, Paul, ed. “Les Écrits de S. Syméon Le Jeune, avec trois sermons inédits.” Le Muséon 70 (1957): 1–57.

(Homilies 4–30)

  • Mai, Angelo, ed. Patrum Nova Bibliotheca. Vol. 8, pt. 3. Rome: Typis Sacri Consilii Propagando Christiano Nomini, 1871.

Symeon the Younger, Letter

PG 86.2 3216–3220.

Bibliography

  • Belgin-Henry, Ayşe. “A Mobile Dialogue of an Immobile Saint: St. Symeon the Younger, Divine Liturgy, and the Architectural Setting.” In Perceptions of the Body and Sacred Space in Late Antiquity and Byzantium. Edited by Jelena Bogdanović, 149–165. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Belgin-Henry, Ayşe. “The Bishop, the Saint, and Their Site: The Wondrous Mountain in an Antiochene Context.” In Sacred Spaces and Urban Networks. Edited by Suzan Yalman and A. Hilâl Uğurlu, 51–66. Istanbul: Koç University Press, 2021.
  • Boero, Dina. “Between Gift and Commodity: The Distribution of Tokens and Material Substances at the Pilgrimage Sites of Stylites.” In Syriac Hagiography: Texts and Beyond. Edited by Sergey Minov and Flavia Ruani, 281–339. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021.
  • Boero, Dina, and Charles Kuper. “Steps towards a Study of Symeon the Stylite the Younger and His Saint’s Cult.” Studies in Late Antiquity 4, no. 4 (2020): 370–407.
  • Caseau, Béatrice, and Marie-Christine Fayant. “Le Renouveau du culte des Stylites syriens aux Xe et XIe siècles? La Vie abrégée de Syméon Stylite le Jeune (BHG 1691C).” In Autour du premier humanisme byzantin et des cinq études sur le XIe siècle, quarante ans après Paul Lemerle Travaux et mémoires, 21.2. Edited by Bernard Flusin and Jean-Claude Cheynet, 701–732. Paris: Association des Amis du Centre d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, 2017.
  • Delehaye, Hippolyte. “Les Ampoules et les médaillons de Bobbio.” Journal des savants (1929): 453–457.
  • Déroche, Vincent. “La Forme de l’informe: La Vie de Théodore de Sykéôn et la Vie de Syméon Stylite le Jeune.” In Les Vies des saints à Byzance: Genre littéraire ou biographie historique? Actes du IIe Colloque international philologique “Hermēneia,” Paris, 6–7–8 juin 2002. Edited by Paolo Odorico and Panagiotis A. Agapitos, 365–385. Paris: Centre d’études byzantines, néo-helléniques, et sud-est européennes, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2004.
  • Djobadze, Wachtang Z. Archeological Investigations in the Region West of Antioch On-the-Orontes. Forschungen zur Kunstgeschichte und Christlichen Archäologie 13. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1986.
  • Glynias, Joe. “Byzantine Monasticism on the Black Mountain west of Antioch in the 10th–11th Centuries.” Studies in Late Antiquity 4, no. 4 (2020): 408–451.
  • Gwiazda, Mariusz. “Le Sanctuaire de Saint-Syméon-Stylite-le-Jeune au Mont Admirable à la lumière de la documentation photographique du Père Jean Mécérian.” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 65 (2013–2014): 317–340.
  • Lafontaine-Dosogne, Jacqueline. Itinéraires archéologiques dans la région d’Antioche: Recherches sur le monastère et sur l’iconographie de S. Syméon Stylite le Jeune. Bibliothèque de Byzantion 4. Brussels: Éditions de Byzantion, 1967.
  • Mécérian, Jean. “Les Inscriptions du Mont Admirable.” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 38 (1962): 297–330.
  • Mécérian, Jean. “Le Monastère de Saint Syméon le Stylite du Mont Admirable.” In Actes du VIe Congrès international d’études byzantines, Paris, 27 juillet–2 août 1948, Vol. 2, 299–302. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1978.
  • Mennella, Giovanni. Dertona, Libarna, Forum Iulii Iriensium: regio IX. Inscriptiones Christianae Italiae 7. Bari, Italy: Edipuglia, 1990.
  • Millar, Fergus. “The Image of a Christian Monk in Northern Syria: Symeon Stylites the Younger.” In Being Christian in Late Antiquity: A Festschrift for Gillian Clark. Edited by Carol Harrison, Caroline Humfress, and Isabella Sandwell, 278–295. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Nasrallah, Joseph. “Une Vie arabe de saint Syméon le Jeune.” Analecta Bollandiana 90 (1972): 387–389.
  • Parker, Lucy. “Paradigmatic Piety: Liturgy in the Life of Martha, Mother of Symeon Stylites the Younger.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 24, no. 1 (2016): 99–125.
  • Parker, Lucy. “Symeon Stylites the Younger and His Cult in Context: Hagiography and Society in Sixth- to Seventh-Century Byzantium.” DPhil diss., University of Oxford, 2017.
  • Peeters, Paul. “S. Thomas d’Émèse et la Vie de Ste Marthe.” Analecta Bollandiana 45 (1927): 262–296.
  • Schachner, Lukas Amadeus. “The Archaeology of the Stylite.” In Religious Diversity in Late Antiquity. Late Antique Archaeology 6. Edited by David M. Gwynn, Susanne Bangert, and Luke Lavan, 329–397. Boston, MA: Brill, 2010.
  • Sodini, Jean-Pierre. “Remarques sur l’iconographie de Syméon l’Alépin, le premier stylite.” Monuments et Mémoires de La Fondation Eugène Piot 70 (1989): 29–53.
  • Sodini, Jean-Pierre. “La Terre des semelles: Images pieuses ramenées par les pèlerins des Lieux saints (Terre sainte, Martyria d’Orient).” Journal des Savants 1 (2011): 77–140.
  • Sodini, Jean-Pierre. “Les Stylites syriens (Ve–VIe siècles) entre cultes locaux et pèlerinages ‘internationaux.’” In Le Pèlerinage de l’antiquité à nos jours. Edited by André Vauchez, 5–23. Paris: Éditions du CTHS, 2012.
  • Verdier, Philippe. “A Medallion of Saint Symeon the Younger.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 67, no. 1 (1980): 17–26.
  • Vikan, Gary. Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art. Rev. ed. Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 5. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010.

Notes

  • 1. Ayşe Henry, “The Pilgrimage Center of St. Symeon the Younger: Designed by Angels, Supervised by a Saint, Constructed by Pilgrims” (PhD diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2015).

  • 2. Hippolyte Delehaye, Les Saints stylites, Subsidia hagiographica 14 (Paris: A. Picard, 1923); Paul van den Ven, ed., La Vie ancienne de S. Syméon Stylite le jeune (521–592), 2 vols., Subsidia hagiographica 32 (Brussels: Société des bollandistes, 1962–1970); and Vincent Déroche, “Quelques interrogations à propos de la Vie de Syméon Stylite le Jeune,” Eranos 94, no. 2 (1996): 65–83.