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Chrysostom and the Hostility of the Monks of Constantinople


By J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz

Hostility to John Chrysostom was by no means restricted to members of his clergy. There is evidence that the monks of Constantinople were to a large extent against him. We have no satisfactory account of the origin of this antagonism, because the fact of it was as embarrassing to Palladius as an apologist for Chrysostom, as it was to the biographers of the monks Isaac and Hypatius, who wrote after John had been rehabilitated. Nevertheless, there can be no question about the hostile attitude of the Constantinopolitan monks. Palladius described Isaac as the leader of false monks, who spent all his time abusing bishops, and as one of the principal conspirators against John. In fact Isaac was very unlikely to represent only himself when he took so prominent a part in the attack on Chrysostom. At the trial Isaac produced his own list of seventeen charges, and he was one of the men who brought the final summons for John to appear before the Synod. One of the charges was that Chrysostom had caused a lot of unpleasantness to Isaac personally. Sozomen explains the cause of this hostility: John had several disputes with many of the monks, particularly with Isaac. He highly commended those who remained in quietude in the monasteries and practiced philosophy there, but the monks who went out of doors and made their appearance in the city he reproached and regarded as insulting philosophy. For these causes he incurred the hatred of the clergy and of many of the monks, who called him a hard, passionate, morose, and arrogant man. They therefore attempted to bring his life into disrepute, by stating confidently that he would 'eat with no one, and that he refused every invitation to a meal'.

It is significant that while our sources mention Isaac as leader of the false monks they do not mention any corresponding leader of the good monks. The ascetics belonging to John's party, that is, Olympias and her home of dedicated virgins, the Gothic monks living on the property that had belonged to Promotus, and the Tall Brothers and their sympathizers were, none of them, typical Constantinopolitans. There were no mass demonstrations by monks in favour of Chrysostom to compare with the violent rioting of monks to prevent his return from his first exile. It is also significant that one of Chrysostom's principal enemies among the bishops was Acacius of Beroea, a Syrian like Isaac, and an ex-monk highly respected by the monks of his native province. When Chrysostom was on his way into exile, he was actually attacked by monks as he was staying at Caesarea in Cappadocia. There is every reason to believe that the monks were against Chrysostom. Unfortunately we have no account written from the monks' point of view. Most of the monks were probably illiterate, and if literate, were not concerned with writing. The oldest hagiographic source, Callinicus' Life of Hypatius, written about 447-50, i.e. after the rehabilitation of Chrysostom, is carefully neutral between Isaac and Chrysostom. Each is given a paragraph of praise. Not a word is said of the conflict between them, or of any part that Hypatius himself might have played in those troubles: Incidentally the early part of the Life amply illustrates the informality of monasticism at Constantinople around 400, and this helps to explain the antagonism between those uncontrolled monks and their administratively active bishop.

In his Constantinopolitan writings Chrysostom occasionally mentions monks with approval. But the references are not to urban monks. The monks are described as 'those of the hills', the 'brothers of the hills', 'those who dwell in the mountains', 'those who have embraced life in the desert'. The passages look like nostalgic memories of the hermits of the hills on the desert edge around Antioch. He says nothing either in praise or blame that might be applicable to monks roaming the streets of the capital. So the history of the conflict between Chrysostom and the monks of Constantinople has to rely heavily on the passages of Sozomen already cited and some inferences based on scraps of very interesting but totally inadequate evidence on the nature of monasticism at Constantinople.

Dagron has pointed out that monasticism at Constantinople was started by Eleusius and Marathonius, assistants of the semi-Arian bishop Macedonius, and was strongly influenced by the ideas of Eustathius of Sebaste. It had features which some contemporaries, and certainly the leaders of the more disciplined and controlled monasticism of later years, found discreditable. The theology might be semi-Arian. Some monasteries contained both men and women. There was little discipline. Monks moved in and out of monasteries, changed monasteries, retired from monastic life almost as it pleased themselves, certainly without reference to any ecclesiastical authority. They wandered among the urban population. They had a strong social conscience. While the founders and financial supporters of monasteries belonged to the official class the bulk of the monks were ordinary people, who like much of the population of the city were recent arrivals from the provinces. One can see that the monks might be considered a threat to public order - indeed they were. They also offered a challenge to any bishop who took a monarchical view of the government of his Church. After all they were largely outside his jurisdiction. Sozomen suggests that this was precisely the point where they clashed with Chrysostom. The behaviour of the monks at Constantinople did not correspond to what Chrysostom thought proper. He tried to confine monks to monasteries and to subject them to the control of their bishop. This provoked resentment. Dagron goes as far as to interpret Chrysostom's charitable foundations as an attempt to transfer welfare work from monks to the episcopal Church. There is no evidence for this motive. That the monks of Constantinople maintained hospitals or other social institutions is an inference from what is known of the monks of Eustathius of Sebaste. But Chrysostom's own passionate interest in helping the poor went back to his Antioch days and was certainly not simply a reaction to the charitable works of the monks of Constantinople.

It is difficult to estimate the importance of Chrysostom's conflict with the monks since we know so little about their numbers and influence. According to Callinicus there existed crowds of monasteries in and around Constantinople, each with around 50 monks, at the turn of the century. If this was so, a conflict between monks and bishops would cause endless disturbances of a kind which would seriously worry the administration. We know that the opposition of the monks of Constantinople was to contribute significantly to the fall of Nestorius thirty years later. We simply lack the evidence to assert that the monks' contribution to the fall of Chrysostom was comparable. But it is likely. The disaffected monks certainly were natural allies of Theophilus, and therefore made his task of building up opposition to Chrysostom much easier. Just as Chrysostom was the natural protector of the Tall Brothers, the intellectual monks of Egypt, so Theophilus was the natural ally of the ordinary monks of Constantinople. After all, he seems to have quite deliberately chosen to side with the unsophisticated.

It is certainly not a coincidence that two of the most prominent laymen among the opponents of John Chrysostom, the general Saturninus, and Aurelian, twice praetorian prefect, had close links with the monk Isaac. Saturninus had given him the land for his first cell, and indeed built the cell itself. Aurelian arranged for Isaac to be buried in the martyrium of Stephen which he had built. Perhaps the body of Isaac was a substitute for relics of the body of Stephen himself which Aurelian had failed to obtain. The ability of monks to combine with ordinary people to make an extremely powerful pressure group had already been demonstrated in the events leading to the abdication from the see of Constantinople of Gregory of Nazianzus. In antagonizing the monks Chrysostom had made formidable enemies.

From Barbarians and Bishops: Army, Church, and State in the Age of Arcadius and Chrysostom, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990.


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