Egyptian and Syrian Asceticism in Late Antiquity

An excellent paper on “Egyptian and Syrian Asceticism in Late Antiquity: A Comparative Study of the Ascetic Idea in the Late Roman Empire during the Fourth and Fifth Centuries” by Jeffrey Conrad is available on-line at,_no._2_-_sp._1995/conrad_j.pdf
The following is an extract from the paper.
egyptian desert 2
The Roman Empire between the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. experienced the development of a new form of Christian piety–the rise of asceticism. Two models or disciplines of the ascetic life arose during this time period, coenobitic and anchoritic asceticism. While both were manifestations of withdrawing from society, these two disciplines differed in the way in which the ascetics lived: coenobites lived communally whereas anchorites lived in solitude.1 Anchorites practiced the ascetic discipline of fasting, prayer and meditation while living in solitude, scattered throughout the deserts of Egypt and in the steppe-lands and mountains of Syria. This expression of the monastic ideal rapidly spread from the homeland of its founder, St. Antony, to many Roman provinces, such as Palestine, Asia Minor, and Syria. There were men living as anchorites in Western Europe, but the dominant expression of withdrawing from society in that region of the Empire was coenobitic. Both Egyptian and Syrian asceticism in the fourth century developed out of earlier ascetic traditions in their respective locations. While the anchoritic life was equally as common in both provinces, the expression of the ascetic discipline, the “askesis “, differed between the two: Egyptian asceticism was considerably more mild than the discipline practiced by the anchorites in Syria. This was due to Egypt’s severe deserts and harsh climatic conditions, forcing the ascetic to remain in his cell, where he practiced the central tenets of the ” askesis “: fasting, prayer and meditation.2 Syrian asceticism, in contrast, was less hindered by that province’s geography and climate, which was milder and more varied. The Syrians also developed a much more rigorous body renouncing tendency than in Egypt. While many differences existed between Egyptian and Syrian asceticism, there is one fascinating similarity between the two: asceticism in both provinces was an out-growth of martyrdom, filling the vacuum created by the adoption of Christianity by the Emperors of the Late Roman Empire.
egyptian desert 4
The ascetic ideal that made Egyptian Christianity renowned throughout the Roman Empire by the end of the fourth century, and served as the prototype of Christian asceticism in the West, developed out of earlier ascetic traditions within the Roman province of Egypt. In fact, hermits could be found in Egypt prior to the anchoritic life of St. Antony. Upon hearing the gospel of Matthew, “if you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven,” Antony was convinced to sell his parents’ estate, recently bequeathed to him upon their death, place his sister into a convent, and settle among the hermits already living on the outskirts of his village.3 These hermits, many of whom had been living in isolation for dozens of years, provided the training which Antony was to master, and further add to, eventually becoming one of the most venerated and renowned ascetics empire-wide, both in his lifetime and in the centuries to follow. It is difficult to ascertain exactly when the ascetic “askesis”, or discipline, first took root in Egypt. In some respects, the prototype of Christian asceticism reached back to the dawn of Christianity, to John the Baptist and to Christ’s example of seeking out a solitary place for prayer in the mountains and wilderness. Furthermore, some of the pre-Antonian ascetics undoubtedly came to the desert as refugees, fleeing the great persecutions of the third century, and ended up staying, providing examples of ascetic life which others were to follow.4
Although a prior ascetic tradition existed in Christianity, Egypt was a region prone to asceticism. Men in Egypt were driven to the desert by a crisis in human relations, where tensions of living in the “world” had proved unbearable, as ascetic literature such as the Apophthegmata Patrum overwhelmingly demonstrates. For example, when Abba Matoes was asked by a brother for advice on how to control his tongue and condemnations towards others in his community, he was advised accordingly:
If you cannot contain yourself, flee into solitude. . . . It is not through virtue that I live in solitude, but through weakness; those who live in the midst of men are the strong ones.5

The overwhelming popularity among Egyptians to take up the “askesis”, based on this “crisis in human relations,” is explained by the tense and uneasy relationships between members of Egyptian villages. These villages were made up of peasants who were selfsufficient in mind, possessing an air of total disengagement from their neighbors: however, neither of these ideals were possible for them to carry out. Instead, villagers were forced, out of necessity, to cooperate; life in the desert village was difficult, and survival required cooperation among its members as a whole, not only conforming with the annual demands of Imperial taxation, but also cooperation in order to control the precious water of the Nile: to withdraw was a natural reflex reaction.6 The idea of escape was very real to the Egyptians, based on their autarkic way of thinking. Therefore, Egypt was a predisposed hot-bed for asceticism, built into the minds of the men who lived along the Nile.7

By the fourth century, what once was an obscure and rare tradition among Christians in Egypt, the ascetic life suddenly became extremely characteristic of that province; its reputation quickly spread throughout the empire, rapidly changing the face of the Christian church as well as the province of Egypt, so that “by A.D. 400, Egypt was a land of hermits and monks.”8 It was in this atmosphere that Athanasius’ Vita Antonii became a fourth century “best seller,” not only in Egypt but as far away as Rome, Asia Minor, and Syria: “Antony was the first great manifesto of the ascetic ideal–a classic of the spiritual life which was exerting its influence over the Christian world within a very few years of its writing.”9 St. Antony’s long periods of solitude, withdrawing “to the tombs, situated some distance from the village,” followed by twenty years inside a deserted Roman fortress, set the supreme example of the anchorite; he was so revered by contemporaries and future ascetics alike that “even his death had become something imitable.”10
Antony lived out his hermitic life in the deserts of Lower Egypt, while another contemporary ascetic named Pachomius was establishing his interpretation of the “askesis ” known as coenobitic, or communal monasticism, in Upper Egypt. Both forms of asceticism were to have very long futures in their respective areas. But in Egypt at least, in contrast to Syria asceticism, both anchorites and coenobites were dependent, relying on other humans in one way or another. Surviving in the harsh Egyptian desert conditions, Egyptian ascetics lived out their existence in a cell, whether in solitude, far removed from others, or alone within a community, as in coenobitic monasteries modeled after Pachomius in Upper Egypt.11 It is the locus and significance of the cell that needs clarification.
The cell of the Egyptian ascetic defined him both in space and time, and was common to both communal and solitary ascetics. As mentioned earlier, two manifestations of asceticism arose in Egypt in the course of the third and fourth centuries, divided roughly between Upper and Lower Egypt: in the former, the coenobitic tradition founded by Pachomius (A.D. 290 – 347) at Tabennisi in the Thebaid was most common, and in the latter, the anchoritic custom of Antony.12 The region around Nitria and Scetis, about forty miles to the south, could be classified as a subset of Lower Egyptian anchoritic asceticism.13 This region is more or less characteristic of groups of ascetics, where several hermits lived together, often as disciples of an older and experienced ascetic known as an Abba. The cell in all three regions provided shelter and protection, not only from the elements, but from wild animals roaming the desert. It took many forms, ranging from ancient tombs lying deserted in the middle of the desert, to caves, in which the ascetic often competed with the animal kingdom for solitude.14 But a cell need not have been a pre-existing or natural structure; often a hermit would construct his cell out of materials available in the desert, such as lean-tos made of local Nile thrushes and wood from small desert trees, as well as recycling stone from ancient structures lying vacant in the desert. Furthermore, there is evidence that ascetics sometimes pooled their efforts, hastily constructing a cell in a matter of a single day, using mud-brick, the quintessential building material for the coenobitic monasteries founded by Pachomius in the Thebaid.15 But regardless of how they were built, or from what medium the cells took their shape, the cell was first and foremost the primary locus of the ascetic, defining the ascetic’s utter rejection of the human world–the world defined by civilization and, subsequently, a world characterized by sin; the Egyptian ascetic, whether anchoritic, coenobitic or living with a few hermits harmoniously, (as in the region around Nitria and Scetis), was committed to his cell.
desert fathers


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