The Religious Habit in Late Antiquity

“The second to sixth centuries comprise a time period that is fundamental to understanding later developments of the religious habit. During the first three centuries the two initial forms of consecrated life entered the life of the Church: (1) asceticism, a disciplined and sexually continent form of life that was centered in populated areas and (2) eremiticism, an austere and sexually continent form of life that was usually located in remote areas. In the fourth century cenobitic (communal) monasticism developed in the East and then spread to the West, primarily during the fifth century. The sixth century saw the rise of “Benedictine monasticism,” which has had a perduring influence on monasticism in the West.1 In order to understand the development of the religious habit in male religious institutes of the western Church, it is necessary to have knowledge of early developments that took place, generally speaking, in the East.

A. Unmarried Ascetics Living in Population Centers

At the end of the first century and in the beginning of the second, there are occasional references to male ascetics who lived a life of sexual continence “in honor of the flesh of Christ.” Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – 215) wrote at length about this lifestyle in his treatise “On Continence”. Along with voluntary poverty and general austerity, sexual continence was a constitutive element of early Christian ascetics, a lifestyle which over time evolved into monasticism. Generally speaking, the few references to Christian men who lived a life of continence in towns and villages during the first centuries of Christianity do not include information about their mode of dress.

One exception to this concerns “Christian philosophers,” some of whom practiced sexual continence and some of whom were married. Christian philosophers sometimes adopted a custom practiced by pagan philosophers of the Roman Empire, who replaced their customary Roman toga with the Greek pallium, a distinct type of cloak, as a sign of their role as a philosopher. The distinctive look of the Greek pallium set the philosophers of the Roman Empire apart. One such Christian philosopher who donned the Greek pallium was Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165).
We learn of Justin’s special clothing in his “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew”, which indicates that Justin’s distinctive outfit motivated Trypho to engage him in conversation:
“I was instructed, said he [Trypho], by Corinthus the Socratic Philosopher at Argos, not to despise, disregard, or neglect those who appear in this habit, but rather to show the utmost degree of civility to, and embrace all opportunities of conversing with them, that some advantage might accrue to one or other of us; and that it would be well for both, if either of us should be profited thereby. For this reason therefore, when I see anyone in this habit, I readily and willingly go to him, and have now accosted you civilly; these my companions also are in hopes of hearing something useful from you.

Note that Trypho is favorably disposed toward those who “appear in this habit” and that he “readily and willingly” goes to such a person. Trypho’s favorable disposition toward those dressed like Justin Martyr raises the potential witness value that distinctive dress holds to reveal and define a Christian in a favorable light. Tertullian (160-225), a married man, is a second example of an early Christian who adopted and advocated use of the Greek pallium.
To his fellow Carthaginians, Tertullian defended his abandonment of the Roman toga in a brief work entitled “On the Pallium”. Tertullian concluded his defense: “Rejoice, pallium, and exult! A better philosophy has deigned you worthy, from the moment that it is the Christian whom you started to dress.” For Tertullian, Christianity was the true philosophy and the Christian was the true philosopher; therefore it was right for a Christian philosopher to wear the pallium of the Greeks.

B. The Development of Christian Monasticism in the East (3rd c. – 5th c.)

Monasticism in its Christian form is traditionally dated as having arisen in the East around 250 A.D. The latter half of the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I, during which tradition ascribes the promulgation of the Edict of Milan (313), brought about a more favorable situation for Christians. As the threat of martyrdom diminished, the religious fervor of Christians waned. In this political and religious context, thousands of Christians moved away from population centers in pursuit of a more fervent Christian life. During the fourth century, Christian monasticism was cultivated in Arabia, Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The great center was Egypt, where there developed three different types of monastic life, which roughly corresponded with three different geographical locations.
The first type of monasticism, eremitic life, found its greatest flowering in lower Egypt. Associated with the eremitic life are persons such as Paul of Thebes and Antony of the Desert.
paul of thebes 1
The second type of Christian monasticism was groupings who usually banded together under the direction of a spiritual father. This designation is best associated with the Egyptian region of Nitria and Scetis and its most well-known representative is Evagrius Ponticus. The third type of Christian monasticism was cenobitic and is best associated with the territory of upper Egypt. Though its progenitor was Pachomius, the principal conveyor of Egyptian cenobitic monasticism to the West was John Cassian.

Monastic life in early Christian tradition was present outside of Egypt as well. The eremitic life flourished in Syria even before its debut in Egypt. Simon Stylites is a notable representative. In Asia Minor the dominant type of monasticism was cenobitic. It was a learned and liturgical monasticism that first developed in the city of Cappadocia and is associated with St. Basil. In Palestine, especially in the fifth century, cenobitic monasticism also took “pride of place.”

Today Christians generally emphasize the fundamental goodness of the human body as made in the image and likeness of God, whereas the primitive monks often operated from a dualistic mentality (i.e. body vs. soul, flesh vs. spirit) that considered the body as an obstacle to union with God. This mindset manifested itself in the early monks’ manner of dress.

C. Desert Hermits in the East (3rd c. – 5th c.)

With the early Christian hermits of Syria one encounters a rarity that is somewhat confounding to an investigation into the history and significance of the religious habit of men. Some of these Syrian hermits practiced total or partial nudity, which was only one of a host of peculiar customs.
This odd practice was influenced by Manichaeism, with its negative attitude toward the body and the body’s demand for comfort. By placing themselves so definitively outside the norms of society, these hermits sought to give robust expression to their renunciation of the things of this world. Their renunciation of clothing was mistakenly thought to be a fuller expression of the renunciations that are affirmed during the sacrament of baptism.

Paul of Thebes (c. 227-340) is considered to be the first Christian hermit of the Egyptian desert.
Anba_Bola_1 (2)
Jerome wrote The Life of Paulus, the First Hermit (c. 375), a hagiographical work that gives a credible detail about the garb of Paul of Thebes. Jerome wrote that upon Paul’s death, Antony of the Desert took Paul’s simple and unique tunic that was woven from palm leaves and wore it on the feasts of Easter and Pentecost. Because it is historically verifiable that Jerome visited Antony of the Desert in person, this detail about Paul’s unique tunic is plausible.

Antony of the Desert (c. 251-356), the most prominent of the early desert hermits, is popularly celebrated as the “Father of Monks.” His inclusion in the General Roman Calendar is evidence of Antony’s importance. Antony’s prominence in early Christian monasticism is also highlighted by the plentiful number of sayings that are attributed to him in the “Apothegmata Patrum”. During his long duration in the Egyptian desert, Antony lived for many years as a solitary hermit and for a fewer number of years as the leader of a group of hermits.

“The Letters of Antony”, written between 330 and 349 and deemed authentic by the majority of scholars, is the first of many sources that demonstrate an established tradition of particular dress among the early Egyptian monastics. Antony mentions the habit in five of his letters, in each case warning against “wearing the habit in vain.” Unfortunately, the context of these letters does not make it clear if they were written to cenobites or to groups of hermits living under the guidance of a spiritual father.
In letter three Antony speaks of the “habit of godliness.” He wrote of having “grief and tears” because of those who wear the habit but live in a manner that negates the faith and virtue it symbolizes: “But as for me, miserable prisoner in Christ, this time which we have reached is a time of joy, as well as grief and tears, for there are many of our generation who have put on the habit of godliness but denied its power.” In this same letter Antony also related that he “cried” over those who had given up the habit and returned to their former way of life: “Over those who have considered the lengthy time, their hearts failing them, and who have laid off the habit of godliness and become like beasts, I cry.”

In letter seven Antony expressed an unsettled spirit. He feared that a monk might fulfill St. Paul’s admonition against “having the form of godliness but denying the power thereof” by living in a worldly manner rather than a godly manner: “Truly, my beloved in the Lord, I am greatly troubled and vexed in my spirit, for wearing the habit and having the name of saints we are glorified in front of unbelievers; but I fear lest the word of Paul be fulfilled upon us that says, having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof (2 Tm. 3:5).”

“The Life of Antony”, written by Athanasius of Alexandria in close proximity to Antony’s death, indicates the garments that Antony possessed: two sheepskins, a hair garment, and another article used when sleeping (possibly akin to a sheet or blanket). Athanasius put on Antony’s lips the following instructions as to how his garments were to be distributed upon his death: “And divide my garments. To Athanasius the bishop give one sheepskin and the garment whereon I am laid, which he himself gave me new, but which with me has grown old. To Serapion the bishop give the other sheepskin, and keep the hair garment yourselves.” This reference gives us an indication of the apparel likely worn by other fourth century monastics of the Egyptian desert…”

From: Peter F. Killeen “The Development and Significance of the Religious Habit of Men”, A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the School of Theology and Religious Studies Of The Catholic University of America In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, 2015
Full text of the dissertation available on-line at:×908


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