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December 11, 2018

Daniel the Stylite and the Stylites of Constantinople

Stylitism as a Christian form of asceticism was born in early-fifth century Syria with Saint Symeon the Stylite. It reached Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, and was officially recognized by the Patriarch and the Emperor of Constantinople. To a large extent this was due to the deeds of Saint Daniel the Stylite, who was one of the most well-known Christian ascetics of the fifth century. On the order of his spiritual mentor Saint Symeon the Stylite, he settled near Constantinople where he soon attracted the attention of the metropolitans who were not used to severe forms of Christian asceticism. According to Daniel’s Life he had a miraculous gift for healing and helped all those in need. Not only common people turned to him. The high and mighty, including Emperor Leo I (457–474), asked for his help. In gratitude for curing his wife Verina of infertility, Leo I ordered a new pillar to be built for the Saint. He also had a monastery and a chapel constructed near this pillar where, at Daniel’s request, the relics of his teacher Saint Symeon were taken.

Daniel the Stylite’s authority reached far beyond the spiritual sphere. By the end of his earthly life the Saint had also gained great political influence. During the revolt of 475–476 both the future Emperor Zeno (474–475), the father and co-ruler of the early deceased Emperor Leo II, and Zeno’s rival and empress Verina’s brother Basiliscus (475–476), sought Daniel’s support. Daniel the Stylite condemned Basiliscus for the heresy of Monophysitism and became the head of the Orthodox opposition to this movement which denied the double nature of Christ. Together with Patriarch Acacius they forced Basiliscus to give up the heresy. At the Patriarch’s request Daniel descended from the pillar to give spiritual instruction to Emperor Basiliscus at the royal palace.

Daniel the Stylite had close relations with Emperor Leo I, who revered the Saint as his spiritual father and also as his adviser and assistant in managing the empire. According to Daniel’s Life, Leo regularly visited the Saint. He went to his pillar on foot, told him his most hidden secrets, and even asked him to become an intermediary in the difficult negotiations with Georgian King Gubazes I of Lazica. When Leo faltered in his faith and became friendly with heretics, Daniel came down from his pillar admonishing the emperor to remain steadfast in his faith. Leo repented and asked the Saint for forgiveness. According to the emperor’s wish, Patriarch Gennadius ordained Daniel the Stylite a presbyter. After that, the Patriarch went up the pillar and took communion together with the Saint.

According to Niketas Choniates, the Roman emperor Isaak II Angelos (1185–1195, 1203–1204) showed an extraordinary, not to say an unprecedented, interest in Stylitism. This aroused perplexity and even condemnation among those around him. Swept away by his intense religiosity, at the height of the war with the rebel Alexios Branás, Isaak “lost heart” (Nicetae Choniatae Historia 383). The emperor avoided any involvement in the war, instead praying together with numerous monks and Stylites who lodged in his palace. “Having gathered a crowd of monks, who walked barefoot and slept on the bare ground [...] the emperor asked God to subdue with the help of their prayers the internecine war that had begun and not to allow the emperor’s power to be taken away from him and passed on to another. He did not care about the things relating to war, having set all his hopes on spiritual armor” (Nicetae Choniatae Historia 383).

The unusual liking that Isaak II acquired for Stylitism can be seen in the large-scale construction activities he undertook with such zeal that he, as Choniates put it, “disregarded all his other duties.” When he decided to build yet another tower in the palace at Blachernae, partly, as he said, to protect and defend the palace, and partly for his own accommodation, he destroyed a number of the churches on the sea coast from olden times: “[He] turned into ruins numerous excellent houses in the capital [...]. And [he] completely leveled to the ground the magnificent building of the state treasury built of burnt brick” (Nicetae Choniatae Historia 580–581).

Western European sources confirm the expansion of Stylitism in the Roman capital at the turn of the twelfth–thirteenth century. According to Robert de Clari, the crusaders who seized Constantinople in spring 1204 were most impressed by the pillars decorating the city and the hermits living on top of them. “And there was a great wonder in a different place of the city where there were two pillars, each must have been three arms spans wide and a good 50 toises high (a toise equals 6.395 feet). On each of these pillars, on top, a hermit lived in a small shelter. Inside each pillar a staircase was made, which they climbed up. On the outside of the pillars all the events and all the conquests that had occurred in Constantinople or that were to occur in the future” were drawn and “prophetically recorded” (Robert de Clari 114).

In the Byzantium of the late twelfth century there was a growing interest in the founders of Stylitism, especially Saint Daniel who had promoted this movement in Greece. We can infer that from one of the oldest known images of Daniel the Stylite in a Christian church — the fresco of the katholikon (cathedral) in the Monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa in Kastoria — which is dated to the late twelfth century. The Russian pilgrim Dobrynya Yadreikovich, who visited Constantinople in 1200, mentioned the Monastery of Daniel the Stylite among the most important sacred places in the Roman capital. According to Dobrynya, he even saw the imperishable relics of the Saint in the Saint Daniel Monastery: “Saint Daniel the Stylite’s body lies on an elevation," he reported "for all to see."

It should be added that family veneration of Daniel the Stylite and the external attributes of Stylitism among the princes of Old Rus' probably stemmed from Constantinople. The Rurikids were the ruling dynasty of Kievan Rus' (after 882), as well as the successor principalities of Galicia-Volhynia (after 1199), Chernigov, Vladimir-Suzdal, and the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and the founders of the Tsardom of Russia. Euphrosyne, the daughter of Roman emperor Isaak II Angelos, was the second wife of the Galician-Volhynian prince Roman Mstislavich. her family veneration for the Stylites was brought to Russia, leading to many Rurikids being named after Saint Daniel the Stylite. The ancient Stylite saints aroused the interest of and inspired respect in the princes of Rus' by their extraordinary spiritual deeds and the enormous influence they wielded over the Roman emperors. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the name not only of Saint Daniel the Stylite but also that of his no less renowned teacher Saint Symeon the Stylite was included in the name list of the Rurikid. He had been the spiritual mentor of Emperor Theodosius II the Younger (408–450), his widow Eudocia, and the new emperor Marcian (450–457). Saint Symeon dissuaded Eudocia and Marcian from the heresy of Monophysitism. In the early fourteenth century the name Symeon appeared in the name list of the princes of Moscow. Also, probably due to the close relationship between Emperor Leo the Wise and Daniel the Stylite, as well as his canonization by the Romans, the name Leo, or Lev, began to appear in the name list of the princes of Moscow. It must be concluded by this and other factors that the evidence for the Roman-Rus' link and its role in the appearance of originally non-Rurikid names associated with Stylites is overwhelmingly likely.