Suicide in the Byzantine Empire (G. Tsoukalas, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Psychiatriki 2013, 24:55–60

Portrait of Gemistus Pletho, detail of a fresco by acquaintance Benozzo Gozzoli, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, Italy
Portrait of Gemistus Pletho,

Studying the suicide in the Byzantine Empire is difficult due to the limited number of references to it. Their number is greater in the early years of the Empire, mainly because of the persecution of Christians and gradually decreases. The attitude of the Church also gradually hardens, as well as the law. The law was strictly followed to the West, but as far as the Eastern Empire is concerned there are no references of punishment, confiscation of property or vandalism of dead bodies mentioned. Avoiding public humiliation after a public crime or a military defeat, religious redemption, emotional disturbance and debts, are the main cause of suicide. There are some references of mass suicides, while women suicides are relatively fewer, if the early Christian years are excluded. Suicide is more acceptable to the pagans because of their lifestyle. The therapeutic approach comes mainly through the treatment of depression. Aretaeus and Galen cite some ways to deal with the disturbance in the internal balance of black bile. Their view echoes through the centuries and the subsequent doctors embrace it. At least after the 9th century, more importance is given to the patient’s bliss. Gemistus Pletho tried to revive the Platonic view of suicide shortly before the end of the Empire. The Church forbids Christian burial and troubled soul hovers in an intangible journey.


The references to suicide from the 4th to the 15th century in the Byzantium are extremely limited, which explains the reason why the issue has not been studied extensively.1–2 The attitude of most religions towards the suicide is negative, so the Jewish and Christian religion condemn suicide. These religions, being the antipode of individualism, accept reality as a single entity, focusing on the divine element, around which all the other elements are developed, that is the human and the cosmic, the animate and the inanimate, the rational and the irrational. Life belongs to the divine factor of the reality, which determines the rhythm of beings throughout the whole range of their existence. Each one adapts and submits to the cycle of life and death, determined by the divine element. The human thus is not entitled to disrupt the cycle of life and therefore killing another human being or himself is prohibited and considered as the highest contempt for God who created him.3–6 Suicide has been studied only in the references of removal of own life in the Greek Novel from Antiquity to the Comnenian period.2 According to the Romans, nobles’ suicide shortly before an inevitable death, as in the end of lost a battle or after a disgraceful act, is an acceptable fact,1 although by the 3rd AD century the Roman law punishes suicides strictly.7 Since the 5th century AD the references get fewer and are mainly confined to the hagiographic literature.

The sources mentioning suicides or suicide attempts are primarily religious or secular discourses, in which suicide is generally and often referred as an irreverent act. The Byzantine law punishes self-destruction as well as those who lead others to forced suicide, such as a ruler that leads to suicide a slave who has done some penal offense.1 The therapeutic approach to prevent suicide is found in the treatment of depression and mania and is mainly expressed by Aretaeus and Galen, even if they lived earlier than the creation of the Empire.8

Suicide in the early Christian years of the Empire

St. John Chrysostom praises the Martyr Domina, who drowned her two daughters--Bernike and Prosdoke--and then drowned herself to avoid rape.
St. John Chrysostom praises the Martyr Domina, who drowned her two daughters–Bernike and Prosdoke–and then drowned herself to avoid rape.

Despair is a terrible evil and unhealable passion that erodes the human soul. It destroys everything sound in him, it delivers him to the disaster and pushes him to end his life.9 The despair of the Christian martyrs during the persecutions led some of them to suicide in order to avoid rape or humiliation. John Chrysostom says that the three witnesses Bernike, Prosdoke and Domnine, fell into the river near the city of Hierapolis and drowned to avoid humiliation.10 He even connects their act to a Cristian baptism.1 The tendency of Christians to end their life or cause death because of the pagans, during their persecution, was not considered as suicide in the early years of the Church. It is certain that Christianity invites suicide in a way in which other major religions do not. In the early years of Christianity the faithful Christian can commit suicide if he believes that the time of sin is close, while the suicidal death of a martyr is treated with sympathy by the Church to such an extent that it is not considered as suicide.9

The reason of suicide and the causes that led to self-destruction were often attributed to the forces of evil, and which overcome those with weak faith. There are however quotes like this from the teaching of St. Athanasius, in which the Saint, trying to explain what leads a man to self-destruction, simply says “these are only known by God”.11

Suicide in the Byzantine Empire

During the first centuries of the Byzantine Empire the references to suicide are associated with political upheavals and the change in the fate of the aristocracy members. The defeat in a battle or the guilt for a public crime led militaries or politicians of the Empire to choose suicide over public humiliation. The act is equivalent to common murder and the suicide’s property is confiscated.7 Then the law changed and the property was confiscated only in cases where suicide was committed to avoid the consequences of the law.12

Lausaic History of Palladius

The Church condemns suicide and forbids Christian burial, provided the perpetrators were of a sound state of mind, as in this case the suicide has surrendered his soul to the devil. Those who commit suicide on account of distress, grief or lack of courage have no right to Christian burial.13 The first mention of a suicide burial ban is cited in Lausiac History at about 419, where a priest forbids the burial of two nuns who had committed suicide.14 The suicide’s widow is excluded from bereavement and can get married immediately, while in the case of instigator, the punishment was a 10-year exile.1 Regarding the suicides’ corpses, called “viothanon” or “viothanaton” buried in Kynegion, an area where those executed in Istanbul were buried.15 Relatives should not face penance, except for abstaining from meat, they should attend the Divine Liturgy from the antechamber and finally raise a cross at the point of death of the suicide.2

Over the years the nobles’ or militaries’ suicides continued, with examples the suicides of Maximinianus Augustus, Magnentius, Arbogastes and Gerontios. For Gerontios especially, because of the fact that he was British, it was considered that he perceived “the insane of the barbarian kind” and preferred to be burned alive than surrender.16 To the antipode suicides of the ordinary people were confined among the Christians, due to the reaction of the Church, but were increased among the pagans as they were more vulnerable to violence, or because the act was considered as a form of reaction.1 The philosopher Iamblichus, having been involved in the pagan apposition, was captured by Christians and drank poison to die.1 We have now reached the time when pagans commit suicide to save themselves from Christians. The most prominent cases are those of Maximos of Ephesus, patrician Phocas, Asclepiodotos. Ordinary soldiers are often victims of depression and attempted suicide. In this case, an enquiry is conducted and in case of cowardice follows a disgraceful retirement or death.17–18 Suicides of women were also reduced and limited mainly to emotional reasons, such as loss of a loved one.1 Thus Miroslava, the daughter of the Bulgarian ruler Samuel, threatened to commit suicide if not allowed to marry her lover Ashot. There were also cases of suicides of women who could not stand living anymore with their husbands, whom they abhorred.2,19


There are references of mass suicides like those in the time of Theodosius II, when many were unable to collect the tax required by Attila,20 or when the Phrygian Montanists refused to change their religion coerced by Justinian.1 The exploitation of the poor by the rich or the debt burden often led to suicide. Since the middle Byzantine period and later, suicides are rarely mentioned in relation to the later years of the empire. This means either that there were generalized and thus ceased to be a memorable event, or that they had become more acceptable since the transition of pagans to Christianity. Perhaps suicides simply were not recorded anymore. The few references concern plots and plans of revolution in the army, as in the cases of Agallianos Kontoskelles and Eustathios Argyros.1

Suicide was rarely mentioned in medical books of the time, and according to them the reason was depression, mania or the imbalance of one of the four bodily humors.1,18 In the last centuries of the Empire the references are even more rare and the causes more accidental, such as intolerable life, avoiding execution, demons and passions. Georgios Plethon Gemistos (1360–1452) had a strange vision about suicide, which he recorded in his essay “Book of Laws”. Suicide kills only what is mortal in the immortal soul. The soul is separated from the body and thus all the vicissitudes that can affect its well being, the so-called “eudaemony”.1,21 Plethon proposes in his writings a way of “rational withdrawal”, probably influenced by the course of the Empire, a conscious attempt to escape from the grim realities of the years immediate before the Fall.1

Suicide in literature

Except from the love romances, drama and humorous texts, suicide as a literary motive is encountered in poetry. In humorous poems a crummy husband begs to drink poison in order to avoid his talkative wife.1 The bulk of reports relating to suicide were found in hagiographic literature, which is caused by demonic forces, when the victim is under spell having lost his mind and the control of himself.1 Saint Pachomius says many eremites committed suicide since they did not realize that they had been possessed by unclean.22

The therapeutic approach to suicide


Aretaeus, in his work entitled “On melancholy and On Mania”, correlates mania with crisis of melancholy and projects their periodicity, and the fact that mania frequently affects the youngsters whereas depression the elders.23 He thinks that the cause of the disease is found in the blood and bad humors,23 while especially melancholy implicates the black bile.24 However, he indicates that the main cause of the disease can be found on the nerves. Patients are calm or very serious or unreasonably inert, they get furious, they are smelly, they have agitated sleep, insomnia, irrational fear, they change opinion easily, they are shameless, petty, simplistic, prodigal, exaggerated, they avoid people, they get frightened by dreams, they complain about life, they wish death. Many people’s mental state leads to derangement and stupefaction and the feeling ends up in sorrow and depression, causing resolute anger, sadness and melancholy. Patients are suspected of poisoning and misanthropy, they are considered superstitious, they feel hatred for life and may lead to suicide.23 He is also the first to recognize the impaired function of neurovascular centers in the hypothalamus and the reticular formation,8 indicating that the patients are very slim while eating a lot, their intestines are dry without stools, their skin breaks down, the color is dark green, the pulses are small, inert, inactive, frequent as due to cold, and the urine is sparse, containing acids and bile.23

For its treatment he suggests an etiopathologic approach to the disease. Thus he removes blood from the liver, in which the black bile is produced, while, at the same time, he administers drugs that inhibit its production, such as absinthe juice. Concurrently, he places a suction cup to the head, so that a direct effect on diseased nerves is created. He also suggests a supportive treatment with proper diet, often warm baths, gentle rubbing, swinging and administration of laxatives.8,24 Vomitives are also provided for the elimination of black bile.

Aretaeus also considers that melancholy is the beginning and part of the mania, leading to convulsions and paralysis and in this case hellebore should be administered. In advanced disease asphalt, sulfur and astringent soil that contains aluminum and hydrochloric acid should be used.24 Mania is a chronic confusion of mind and the cause lies in the head and the area of hypochondria. Nocturnal emissions, lust and venereal pleasures are also characteristic symptoms. Eventually, they isolate and lament for their plight, which also can lead to suicide.23

Four Humors Drawing
Four Humors Drawing

Galen generally agrees with Aretaeus that suffering, fear, unwillingness to eat or drink, dark thoughts, are all associated with causes and symptoms of melancholy and self-destruction is a major risk.25 Galen recognised emotional states as factors in disease. Some problems were for Galen purely emotional in origin: one patient worried obsessively that the mythical Atlas would grow tired or sick and drop the sky, crushing the earth. This patient’s anxiety, according to Galen, had developed into melancholia, an overabundance of black bile, which, when accumulated in the brain, caused delirium, aggressive or suicidal behaviour and other psychological problems. Anxiety is, along with anger, the emotion Galen mentions most often as a cause of disease. Both could cause or exacerbate epilepsy; along with diet, temperament, lifestyle and environmental factors could contribute to any number of feverish illnesses; anxiety, in particular, could trigger a sometimes fatal syndrome of insomnia, fever and wasting, or transform into melancholy.26

Although Aretaeus and Galen lived on the early Byzantine Empire, their views on depression and mania survived through the centuries, and marked the therapeutic approach of these diseases.

Due to the fact that love often led to suicide, Ovid gave the remedies for love, or Remedia amoris. Some of them are that the lover should cure the wound of love when it is still fresh and new, without waiting, because being on time is almost a medicine. Moreover a lover should be busy and avoid idleness and excessive sleep. Going to the country could also help, but the lover should know that the recovery process will be very painful, mainly because he needs to forget his beloved and think ill of her, and no pills or witchcraft will alleviate the pain. A lover who wants to recover from the lovesickness should pay attention to his beloved’s faults and show no grief. Most importantly, the lover should not avoid intercourse, because if he remains alone he will become sad. Finally, a certain diet should be followed, where onions should be avoided, he should eat rue because it sharpens the eyesight and drink wine, but only the perfect amount only, otherwise the lover might feel too drowned by alcohol, or the wine might have prepared his heart for love.27

Constantine examines patients' urine
Constantine examines patients’ urine

The next generation of physicians having a great influence on Byzantine thoughts was that of the Arabic physicians. Among them were Rhazes (865–923), Haly Abbas (994) and Avicenna (980–1037), whose thoughts were developed from the Byzantine compilers. Avicenna’s work gained notice to the West by the second quarter of the thirteenth century. The thoughts of these Arabic physicians and philosophers influenced the whole world because they were translated into Latin by Constantinus Africanus (1010–1087) Constantinus recognized the three types of melancholy as indicated by Galen, and added a variety of causes and symptoms related to melancholy. With him, the association of lovesickness, acedia, and mourning with melancholy was introduced. As for the cures for all illnesses associated with melancholy, purgatives and coitus were recommended. It should be noticed that the same cures are recommended for all the illnesses likened to melancholy.28 One observes a circle with the Arabs being affected by the Byzantines and the knowledge returning filtered and refreshed to the West and Byzantium.

The seriously ill sought their healing often in sanctuaries  and if their situation persisted they resorted to sacred grounds of the church, seeking treatment by the patron Saint at the crucial moment.1 The patient’s treatment in hospitals, as for example in the Guesthouse of the Pantocrator in Constantinople, where there was a remote psychiatric ward, can be derived indirectly through the reports of the hospital of the city of Cairo (873 AD). The hospital operated according to Byzantine standards and the mentally ill were treated with extreme caution, always focusing in the bliss of the patient, that is his mental tranquility.29


The references to suicide in the Byzantine empire are numerically much less than expected and their largest number is recorded between 4th and 6th century. In late antiquity, in many cases, such as military defeat or disgrace, suicide was considered an offense consistent with the code of honor, a moral duty. During the early Christian period, suicides proliferate and sometimes are treated with sympathy. Then the attitude of both the church and the legislature hardens. Despite the strict laws though, in Greek literature resources it is not mentioned any case of indignities inflicted upon the suicide’s body or ravages and arbitrary confiscation of his property, in contrast to what happened in the Western Empire.1–2 Perhaps the attitude of the society or the medical influence in favour of the victim, overrode the law. Mental patient or mentally ill, the suicidal always triggered the society, creating feelings of sympathy or repulsion, depending on the reason and time of commitment of the act. Melancholy, mania, depression, emotional frustration, shame, demonic forces, redemption, loss, debts, religion, tortures, such diverse concepts which still all resulted in their zenith in the self-destruction of the mortal body, with the hope of a better trip of the soul in the “afterlife.”


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  3. Nektarios St. On true and false education. On suicide. Panagopoulos N. Athens, 1989
  4. Boulgarakis H. Suicide and ecclesiastical burial. Armos, Athens, 2000
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  6. Begzos M. Suicide and religion. Αρχαιολογία και τέχνες, Athens, 2006, 99:23–29
  7. Corpus luris Civilis, II, Corpus Justinianus, IX,6,5. Krüger P, Hildesheim, 1889: 373
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  17. Basilica, LVII,1,6. Fabrotus, 1647
  18. Corpus luris Civilis. I. Digesta, XLIX. Weidman, Berlin, 1888:16,6
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  23. Aretaeus of Cappadocia. De causis et signis acutorum morborum. In: Hude K. Aretaeus (ed) Berlin, 1958: Α΄, V & Α΄, V, 4–5. & Α΄, V, 2 & Α΄, V, 3 & Α΄, V, 5 & Α΄,V, 7–8 & Α΄, VΙ
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  29. Dols M. Insanity in Byzantine and Islamic medicine. Dumbarton Oaks Papers. JSTOR 1984, 38:135–148

Alexander the Monk’s Text of Helena’s Discovery of the Cross, BHG 410 (John W. Nesbitt, 2003)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Byzantine Authors: Literary Activities and Preoccupations. Texts and Translations dedicated to the Memory of Nicolas Oikonomides, pp. 23-42:



Afterwards the emperor [Constantine] despatched his praiseworthy and God-beloved mother Helena to Jerusalem with letters and money in abundance for the bishop of Ailia, by name Makarios, in order to search for the glorious cross and erect buildings upon the holy sites, the empress herself having made the request, asserting that some divine vision appeared, commanding her to go to Jerusalem and to bring to light the holy places buried by the impious and become hidden from sight, up to her own day. The bishop, learning of the coming of the empress, assembling the bishops of his province, met her with due honor. At once she ordered the bishops to make a search for the longed-for wood. Since all were at a loss concerning the place [of its burial] and from feelings of uneasiness began describing an array of different things, the bishop of the city ordered all to affect silence and in earnest offer prayer to God on behalf of this. Upon doing so the place by the will of God was revealed to the bishop, in which was situated a temple and cult statue of the unclean daimon. Then the empress, using imperial authority, gathering together a very great quantity of builders and workers, ordered the foul building to be overthrown to its foundations and to cast away the dust far off from there. Upon this being done, there came to light the divine monument and the place of Golgotha and not far off three buried crosses. Diligently searching they also found the nails. From whence therefore despair and anxiety gripped the empress, who demanded which was the cross of the Lord. The bishop through faith resolved the problem. For there was a woman (one of the leading citizens) in ill-health and all despaired of her chances. And while she was breathing her last [the bishop], bringing each of the crosses, found the answer. For it required only the shadow of the salvific cross to approach the sickly woman for the motionless and limp patient at once through divine power to jump up, crying with a great voice and glorifying God. Empress Helena with great joy and fear having taken up the life-giving cross carried off a portion with the nails for her son. She had made for the remainder a silver casket that she gave to the bishop of the city for a remembrance to all generations. And she decreed that churches be built in the form of life-giving remembrances on Holy Golgotha and in Bethlehem in the cave where our lord Jesus Christ submitted to a birth according to the flesh, and on the Mount of Olives where the Lord upon blessing his disciples ascended. And so after doing many other good things in Jerusalem she returned to her son. Having received her with joy, he placed the piece of the precious cross in a the appearance of the cross be celebrated with annual commemorations. Some of the nails he had forged for his helmet, whereas others he had added as studs to his horse bridle, in order that he might fulfill what was said by the Lord through his prophet, to wit “On that day shall there be holiness upon the horse bridle unto the all-powerful Lord” (Zachariah 14: 20).

In his Introduction the author states that it is his intention “to compose a historical narrative on the finding of the life-giving cross, the all-holy and all-revered cross on which our lord Jesus Christ allowed himself to be stretched out, whereby he destroyed the power of the devil and the tyranny of death and bestowed on those believing in Him unknowable salvation.” I accept the author at his word and therefore reject the notion that he copied out and appended to his composition Cyril of Jerusalem’s letter to Constantius about the appearance of the cross over Jerusalem. Alexander was not concerned with the post-Constantinian history of the cross and indeed the opening lines of Cyril’s narration (at 3.1-4) totally contradict portions of Alexander’s story of Helena’s adventures in Jerusalem. The relevant section of Cyril’s letter reads as follows:

“For…in the days of your Imperial Father, Constantine of blessed memory, the saving wood of the cross was found in Jerusalem (divine grace granting the finding of the long hidden holy places to the one who nobly aspired to piety)….” In Cyril’s account, there is no mention of the identity of the person who found the cross, but it is specified that the person who discovered “the long hidden holy places” was a man. Additionally, Alexander was not a mere copyist. He was an historian. He was not a great historian, but he told his story in his own way and for this reason I submit that Cyril’s letter represents nothing more than a later addition to Alexander’s original text…

Let us now conclude by examining in some detail Alexander’s narrative regarding Helena’s finding of the cross. The purpose here is to compare Alexander’s narration with prior accounts, to see in what ways it is similar or varies and, following that, to suggest what purpose Alexander had in mind in writing his specific version of Helena’s invention. We shall proceed with the first task by summarizing each section of the Treatise’s version and listing within the section the versions of earlier writers regarding the same events.

Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript c. 825
Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript c. 825


Alexander the Monk: Constantine and Helena share joint responsibility for initiative. Constantine sends his mother to Jerusalem to identify the location of the cross and build churches; Helena is inspired to the same task by a divine vision.

V(ita) C(onstantini): Constantine orders the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Helena visits the Holy Land and initiates construction of various churches. No mention of cross.

Ambrose of Milan: Helena goes to Jerusalem and visits. The Spirit inspires her to search for the wood of the cross.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): (Spurred by divine visions), Helena travels to Jerusalem (“in order to lay hold of the holy places and seek out the venerable wood of the Cross”).

Rufinus: “Helena…was alerted by divine visions and traveled to Jerusalem (divinis admonita visionibus, Hierusolyma petit).”

Socrates: Helena, summoned by dreams, goes off to Jerusalem.

Theodoret: Helena, now aged, travels to Jerusalem with letters for

Bishop Makarios from Constantine. In these letters Constantine directs Makarios to clear the area of Christ’s tomb and to erect on the spot a church.



Alexander the Monk: Helena, met by Makarios, orders the bishops to search for the wood.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): Helena inquires of inhabitants of the town where Christ was crucified.

Rufinus: “[Helena] traveled to Jerusalem, where she asked the inhabitants where the place was where the sacred body of Christ had hung fastened to the gibbet Socrates: Helena searches zealously for the tomb of Christ, where buried, he arose.


Alexander the Monk: God reveals the place to dig, an area where there was situated a pagan temple and cult statue. She gathers workmen and they clear the site. Three crosses are found and the nails. No mention of the titulus.

Ambrose: Helena goes to Golgotha and has the ground opened where three gibbets are found, the nails and the titulus.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): the location is revealed, a place where there was a statue of Venus; workmen topple “the polluted structures” and, upon excavating, bring to light three crosses.

Rufinus: the location is “indicated to her by a sign from heaven”; beneath a statue of Venus set there are uncovered, in a jumble, three crosses and the titulus.

Socrates: those opposed to Christianity had covered with earth the site of Christ’s passion and established a temple there with a cult statue. The situation becomes clear to Helena. She has the statue toppled and the earth cleared. The cross is uncovered in the tomb, along with the crosses of the two thieves, and the titulus composed by Pilate.

Theodoret: “When [Helena] saw the area where the passion had occurred, she immediately commanded that the abominable temple be knocked down and the statue be carted off”.



Alexander the Monk: confronted by three crosses Helena wonders which cross was the one on which Christ was crucified. Makarios solves the problem. He approachesa lady of rank who is close to death. It requires only the shadow of one (the true) cross to fall near the woman and at once she is cured (see Acts 5: 15: the sick await Peter, hoping that at the least his shadow will fall upon them).

Ambrose: the identity of the true cross is guaranteed by the presence of the titulus attached to it.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): With the empress, Makarios visits a noble lady who is gravely ill. He brings all three crosses. He prays and then touches the woman in vain with two crosses. As soon as the shadow of the third draws near she is cured.

Rufinus: the titulus is of no help. Accompanied by the empress, Makarios, bringing along all three crosses, visits a woman of distinguished position who is near death. He touches her with all three crosses, but only the true cross cures her.

Socrates: the titulus plays no role. Makarios seeks a sign from God and God sends one. “And the sign was such”. A certain woman of the district was near death. Makarios arranges that she receive the touch of all three crosses. When touched by the first two she shows no improvement but when she receives the touch of the third cross, she is healed.

Theodoret: confusion reigns over the identity of the true cross. Makarios solves the problem. He has a woman who is near death touched by the three crosses: it requires only the approach of the true cross and the lady is cured.

The titulus crucis and relics of the True Cross can be seen in Rome's Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
The titulus crucis and relics of the True Cross can be seen in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.


Alexander the Monk: Helena reserves a portion of the true cross and the nails for Constantine. She has a silver casket made for the remainder and gives it to Makarios. She has churches built on Golgotha, in Bethlehem, and on Olivet. Constantine places the piece of cross in a gold box and gives the box to the bishop, ordering the day of the cross’s discovery to be annually commemorated. Some of the nails are added to his helmet and others to his bridle.

Ambrose: Helena finds the nails: from one she has made a bridle and from the other a diadem.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): Helena builds a church at the find spot of the cross. She searches for the nails and finding them she has several inserted into Constantine’s helmet, and others are smelted and mixed with metal of his bridle. She returns with a portion of the cross for Constantine, but leaves behind the remainder, which is placed in a silver casket and given to Makarios.

Rufinus: Helena has a church built at the site of the discovery of the cross. The nails still adhered and these she brought to Constantine. From some he has made a bridle and with others he outfitted himself with a helmet. “As for the healing wood itself, part of it she presented to her son, and part she put in silver reliquaries and left in the place; it is still kept there as a memorial with unflagging devotion.”

Socrates: “The mother of the emperor had a splendid house of prayer built on the site of the sepulchre (called “New Jerusalem”)…. She left behind there a portion of the cross enclosed in a silver casket  as a memorial for those wishing to observe [it], the remainder she despatched to the emperor.” Helena also finds the nails and sends them to Constantine. He has them fashioned into bridle-bits and a helmet. Helena has other churches built: one at Bethlehem and another on the mount of the ascension.

Theodoret: mention of the nails and their disposition. Helena has some nails placed in the imperial helmet; the remainder she had made into a horse bridle in order to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Zacharias. She has a portion of the cross sent on to Constantinople and the rest placed in a silver casket which is given to the bishop of the city, requesting that he watch over these “memorials of salvation”. She has churches of great workmanship constructed.

Geronda Ephraim's mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).
Geronda Ephraim’s mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).

The invention of the cross involves three different traditions. We have been following only one, and so before we proceed, we might take a moment and reflect upon the other two. The beginning of the fifth century saw the emergence of two new versions of the finding of the cross. Both are of Syrian origin and are re-workings of the older Helena version. One is the “Protonike” legend: a story in which the central character, Protonike, said to be the wife of Emperor Claudius (41-54), converts to Christianity and visits Jerusalem where she discovers the true cross in the sepulchre, hands it over to James, and builds a church over the tomb. This version was known at first only in Syriac, then later in Armenian. The second is the “Judas Cyriacus” legend: a version in which Helena goes to Jerusalem and orders an assembly of the Jews. Among them is a certain Judas who is brought before her and interrogated. He asks God to show him the place where the cross is buried. God gives him a sign and he uncovers three crosses, one of which restores a dead man. Helena provides the cross with a mount and encases it in a casket. She builds a church on Golgotha and Judas converts. Judas, now Cyriacus, finds the nails for her; she has bridles made from them. This retelling, popular in the Middle Ages because of its anti-Jewish flavor, was read in many languages, the earliest versions of which are in Syriac, Greek, and Latin. The fifth-century Byzantine historian, Sozomen, knew of the Judas Cyriacus legend: “Some say that a certain Hebrew who lived in the East had prior knowledge [of the location of the cross] from paternal records….” Sozomen rejects the legend, declaring it more likely that divine matters are revealed through “signs and dreams”, than through records of the past. We may reasonably assume that Alexander the Monk had knowledge of this legend. Like Sozomen, Alexander rejected the Judas Cyriacus tradition. It is not difficult to understand why: one of his objectives is to give full and sole credit for the discovery of the cross to Constantine and his mother.

We see this in the way Alexander has crafted his narration. In the Introduction he has Constantine send his mother to Makarios with letters and money for the purpose of uncovering the cross and erecting churches on holy places. Alexander has borrowed the phrase “with letters”, as well as the notion of Constantine’s participation in the cross’s discovery. The latter states that Constantine had a letter composed in which he directs Makarios to clear the area where Christ was entombed and to build on the site a church. In a second letter he speaks of the financial arrangements for the construction. In other words, Constantine knows where Christ’s tomb is located and hence, by implication, where the cross is to be found. All that is required is for Helena to go to Jerusalem and seek it. On the other hand, there was a strong tradition, beginning with Ambrose (395), that Helena, aroused to action by dreams, traveled to Jerusalem on her own initiative. To accommodate this version, Alexander simply grafted it on (though awkwardly) to his initial statement: “the queen herself, having made the request, asserting that some divine vision appeared, commanding her to go to Jerusalem….” From this point until almost the very end, Helena occupies center stage. She finds and identifies the cross and is responsible for the building of churches on Golgotha, in Bethlehem, and on Olivet. Constantine reappears in an interesting context. Helena returns to her son and Constantinople bearing a piece of the true cross. Upon placing it in a gold box and giving the relic to the bishop of the city, Constantine decrees that the appearance of the cross be celebrated with annual commemorations. Since the geographical setting of Alexander’s remark is Constantinople, we may reasonably infer that Alexander is attesting that in his own day (the sixth century) the feast of the Cross was being celebrated at the capital.

At base Alexander’s Treatise is a work of pilgrimage literature. If anyone doubts the validity of Scriptures—of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and ascension—they need only visit Jerusalem and its environs. All the important sites connected with the unfolding of salvation are marked by holy structures. The cross exists. It was prefigured in the Old Testament. It became hidden after Christ’s death. Pagan rulers came and went. But now, through the efforts of Constantine and Helena, it can be seen, if not touched. But the miracle of the infirm woman, related in the various accounts of Helena’s discovery, including Alexander the Monk’s, makes it clear that one may expect benefits (a cure of physical affliction?) from “only the shadow of the salvific cross”. Propinquity is sufficient.

In concluding I would observe that Alexander’s Treatise differs from previous accounts of Helena’s discovery of the True Cross in length. Nevertheless the Treatise is a coherent example of pilgrim propaganda. It is clearly meant to entice people to undertake a trip to Jerusalem and to explore the sites where the drama of Salvation occurred and where testimony in Gospel accounts can be visually affirmed. In the same visit the infirm might find physical, as well as spiritual, comfort. Since it is pilgrimage- driven, I would say it is reasonable to postulate that the Treatise was written before the reign of Heraclius and the disruptions to pilgrimage traffic which his rule witnessed.

Alexander’s emphasis on the joint responsibility of Constantine and Helena for the discovery of the cross raises an interesting possibility about the date of their sainthood. Some thirty years ago Laurent published a seal (poorly known) of the seventh century depicting on the obverse a representation of a saint holding a globus cruciger who is identified on the reverse as St. Constantine. The seal indicates that by at least the late seventh century Constantine had become a saint. In my opinion, one of Alexander’s goals was to promote the cult of Saints Constantine and Helena and it was for this reason that he joins the two together and emphasizes their equal credit for the discovery of the cross.

Murial of Saint Helena Finding the True Cross of Christ. at St Helena's church which is inside the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Murial of Saint Helena Finding the True Cross of Christ. at St Helena’s church which is inside the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land (Claudine Dauphin, 1995)

NOTE: This research piece by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris explores both the formal and informal arrangements that developed, typically centring around the triad of the wife, the concubine and the courtesan. The article is taken from Classics Ireland, Volume 3 (1996):



For Baths in illuminated manuscripts, see Theologizing or Indulging Desire: Bathers in the Sacra Parallela (Paris, BnF, gr. 923):

The Sacra Parallela is a theological and ascetic florilegium of biblical (OT and NT) and patristic citations related to a now-lost model entitled Hiera, composed in Palestine by John of Damascus (ca. 675 – ca. 749). The only known copy is a ninth-century manuscript (Paris, BnF, gr. 923) thought to have been produced in a Greek monastery in Italy, possibly in Rome.1 The text contains three treatises— one on God and the Trinity, another on man, and a third on vices and virtues. The scriptural and exegetical citations are arranged in alphabetical order by στοιχεῖα (alphabetical letters) and τίτλοι (titles). The manuscript, lavishly decorated with miniatures executed in a schematized style, represents a defined group of scenes depicting male and female bathers, which, modeled after Graeco-Roman formulae, have never been discussed in light of their value for gender studies.

Unusual Deaths of Byzantine Emperors

Emperor Zeno the Isaurian (474-475 & 476-491)


According to a popular legend recorded by two ancient historians, emperor Zeno died when he was buried alive after loosing his senses, either because of epilepsy or as a result of heavy drinking.  He called for help when awoke but he was already in the sarcophagus and empress Ariadne did not allow to open it.  Zeno, officially, died of dysentery.

Emperor Basiliscus (475-476)

basiliscus (1)

Basiliscus was an usurper who exploited the unpopularity of Zeno to become emperor. Zeno managed to gather an army against him and eventually Basiliscus was forced to abdicate and surrender. He was killed together with his family. Zeno had promised not to shed their blood, so he gave orders to leave them to die -without food and water- in a dry cistern.

Emperor Maurice (582-602)


Maurice lost his throne after a mutiny of the troops in Thrace who rebelled when they received orders to stay during the winter in enemy territory, north of Danube. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Phocas, became emperor. It was the first coup d’ etat after the foundation of Constantinople. Maurice was tortured to death after he was forced to watch the execution of his six sons.

Emperor Phocas (602-610)


Maurice was the first emperor killed by his successor, Phocas. The second was Phocas. After the successful rebellion of Heraclios, Phocas was captured and brought before Heraclios, who asked, “Is this how you have ruled, wretch?” Phocas replied, “And will you rule better?” Enraged, Heraclios personally killed and beheaded Phocas on the spot. Phocas’s body was mutilated, paraded through the capital, and burned.

Leo IV the Khazar(775-780)


Leo IV officially died of fever. The rumour was that he had died of an illness contracted after taking and wearing on his head the jewelled crown from the Church of St Sophia, which had been dedicated there by Maurice or Heraclios. His head developed carbuncles and was seized by a violent fever. It is, however, very possible that his wife, the notorious Irene, deliberately had this strange story circulated, in an attempt to smear her husband’s memory .

Nikephoros I Logothetes(802-811)


Nikephoros I was killed fighting against the Bulgars, in the disastrous battle of Pliska, where a Byzantine army of 80,000 was destroyed. The victorious King Krum had the dead Roman Emperor’s skull made into a silver-lined goblet from which visiting Byzantine ambassadors were thereafter forced to drink a toast.

Leo V the Armenian(813-820)


Leo V was murdered inside the Palace chapel on Christmas day by the supporters of Michael II, who were disguised as monks. Michael II was in jail at the time of the murder and was crowned hastily, while still in prison chains (they could not found the key)

Basil I the Macedonian(867-886)


Basil I, while hunting in Thrace, was thrown from his horse and impaled on the horns of a stag, which carried him for sixteen miles before it was hunted down. One of the attendants finally caught them and drew his hunting-knife, and, cutting the girdle, saved the emperor’s life; but the suspicious despot, fearing an attempt at assassination, ordered his faithful servant to be immediately decapitated. The shock he received from the stag brought on a fever, which terminated his eventful life.

Emperor Alexander III (912-913)


Alexander died of exhaustion -probably a heart attack- after a game of tzykanion which was a popular, upper-class game with horses, very similar to the modern polo. Leo the Wise had prophesied that his brother, Alexander, would reign for 13 months only (as it happened)

Emperor Nikephoros II Phocas (963-969)


Nikephoros II Phocas was murdered by a gang of conspirators who were led by John Tzimiskes. They had entered the palace dressed as women, with the help of the empress Theophano. Tzimiskes and the others sneaked into his bed chamber, alarmed at first to find the bed empty because Nikephoros frequently slept on the floor, but finally they found and killed the emperor.

His head was cut off and paraded on a spike, while his body was thrown out the window. His death shook Christians and caused joy in the Muslim world. An inscription carved on the side of his tomb read: “You conquered all but a woman”.

Emperor John II Komnenos(1118-1143)


John Komnenos died in a hunting accident in the mountains of Cilicia, when he grazed himself with a poisoned arrow which was put out from a wounded boar. There had been the usual speculations that it was not really an accident but there are no motives nor suspects for such an action.

Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos(1183-1185)


Andronikos I Komnenos had established a state of terror. When his people tried to arrest a suspect aristocrat, Isaac Angelos, the people revolted and proclaimed Isaac emperor.

Isaac handed him over to the city mob and for three days he was exposed to their fury and resentment, remaining for that period tied to a post and beaten. His right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair were pulled out, one of his eyes was gouged out, and, among many other sufferings, boiling water was thrown in his face, punishment probably associated with his handsomeness and life of licentiousness. At last, led to the Hippodrome of Constantinople, he was hung up by the feet between two pillars, and two Latin soldiers competed as to whose sword would penetrate his body more deeply, and finally his body, according to the representation of his death, was torn apart.

Emperor Alexios V Doukas Murtzuphlos (1204)


Alexios V Doukas was emperor when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders. He fled to Mosynopolis, the base of the ex-emperor Alexios III. At first he was received well and Alexios III married him with his daughter who already was Alexios V’s lover. However, later, Alexios V was ambushed in the baths and was blinded on the orders of his father-in -law.

After that, he was released and was wandering helpless the streets. There, he was found by Latin soldiers and was brought back to Constantinople. The new rulers of Byzantium sentenced him to death for treason against their ally, Alexios IV.
He was thrown from the top of the column of Theodosius. An unusual death even for Byzantine standards.

Emperor John V Palaiologos (1341-1391)


John V Palaiologos had to swallow many humiliations during his long reign: he was jailed for bad debts by the Venetians, he had to become a Catholic, he kissed Pope’s feet, he was deposed 3 times, his son was kept hostage by the Turks etc. He could not take the last humiliation: In 1390 he tried to repair the Golden Gate of the walls using marble from the the decayed churches of the city. Upon termination of works, the Turk sultan Bayazid I, threatening to murder his son Manuel who was kept as a hostage, demanded to raze the newly erected wall enforcement. John V was forced to obey and destroy the construction. This incident was the last drop. He suffered a severe breakdown. He never recovered and died a couple of months later.


Letters Concerning Monks and Monasticism (St. Athanasios I, Patriarch of Constantinople)

NOTE: The following Letters are taken from The Correspondence of Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople: Letters to the Emperor Andronicus II, Members of the Imperial Family, and Officials.

The Correspondence of Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople

Letter 16: Athanasius attacks bishops and monks who stay in Constantinople, instead of returning to their dioceses or monasteries (Dated between 1303-1309).

To the emperor,

Your divine majesty is aware how the bishops, as well as certain monks, have been and are staying here <in the capital> these days for no other reason than for drinking bouts and dissension and disturbances, and so that people who are bringing cases <before the synod> may make use of this or that <bishop> for assistance, so that even when the bishops deliberate at meetings of the synod, they squabble with each other for reasons alien to truth. For this reason, I beg of you, if God has had mercy on us and has removed or is removing some of these people from here, let us not invite them back to cause harm and confusion. For those who have learned to speak evil, will never speak good. What need is there for the chartophylax or the present <abbot of the monastery> of Akapniou to come here, or another of their ilk? <Are they afraid> they won’t have enough to live on there? If we want them to stir up trouble, let us bring upon ourselves what we will not be able to get rid of even though we hate it. And if your majesty would like to learn how he administers Akapniou, question under oath Kyr Elias, whom you consider to be truthful, and he will tell you why we did not look in Thessalonica for the three hundred hyperpyra of Abbot John of Bera.

Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus
Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus

Letter 27: Since the Emperor is entitled to regulate the secular administration of monasteries, no one will oppose any imperial measure dealing with secular affairs in monasteries. Therefore Athanasius asks Andronicus to issue a decree protecting monasteries from fiscal agents. If monasteries keep surplus land which has been assigned them, then the tenants on the perisseia should pay morti to the monks, who in turn pay taxes to the imperial treasury. If the perisseia is taken away from the monastery, the monks should not be accountable for the morti since the fiscal agents will probably appropriate the money for themselves, instead of forwarding it to the imperial treasury.

Το the emperor,

Το your divine majesty has been assigned responsibility for monasteries, and the duties performed—and expenses incurred—by your majesty with regard to monasteries are duties secular in nature. For this reason Ι do not think that anyone in his right mind will oppose whatever you command, either in chrysobulls or without chrysobulls, concerning secular administration. And Ι make this petition, that it come to pass, in accordance with agricultural 1aw, that, if the former owners are going to keep the surplus land, then they should pay rent; however, if this (land) is going to be taken away, they should not pay rent on it, because it is very likely that those who are going to collect the rent will pocket it, and the damage will be twofold. For in addition to wronging your imperial majesty, they will be classed among thieves.

St. Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople
St. Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople

Letter 77: Because of the misconduct of the abbot of a patriarchal monastery near Apameia, the synod has granted the property of that monastery to a neighboring monastery dedicated to the Virgin. Now imperial agents are seeking to confiscate some of this property newly acquired by the monastery of the Theotokos. Athanasius asks the Emperor to put an end to this harassment.

<Το the emperor>

It has been rightly ordained from the beginning as a part of pious worship that Orthodox Christians should construct as many holy churches and establish as many monasteries as possible, thus providing a haven for those souls which yearn to escape the stormy seas of life, and then to entrust <them> to the 1ocal <diocese of the> catholic Church, and to the man appointed to Her charge, as is expressly stated by the holy canons. He should concern himself with the advancement and protection and the spiritual examination and God-loving behavior of their inhabitants. And if anyone should attempt to seize the objects there dedicated to God, at a great peril and to the destruction of his own soul, <the bishop> should prevent him as best he can, reminding him either of the grave sin of sacrilege, or of the fact that, just as people who dedicate to God their possessions, whether silver or gold, have their inalienable reward, so people who remove them in any way whatsoever are without any doubt found guilty of the crime of sacrilege. And if in these matters he [the sacrilegious person] should fail to obey those into whose hands God entrusted the rule <of the Church> [i.e., the bishops], they seek assistance, so that, first, in such a way they may deliver the sacrilegious person from his transgression of the law-this for the sake of the State-, and second, so that the Church may be granted the honor of keeping irrevocably those objects which are dedicated to God. Wherefore, as God well knows, Ι, who have been charged with responsibility for the property of the Church of Christ, desire neither to offer it anything which is stolen, since Ι know that « God takes no pleasure in an offering of stolen property», nor can Ι tolerate those who wish to seize the property of the Church. For Ι am gripped with divine fear lest as a result of my silence Ι bring merciless punishment on the thieves.

Thus a while ago a man happened to come before the synod and denounced us without restraint because at the patriarchal monastery near Apameia the proestos of the monastery had shamelessly cohabited with a woman for a long time, and he assured everyone that he [the proestos] indulged in such a cohabitation with the knowledge of the patriarch and the exarchs. When we learned this, thinking to deliver the guilty man from his sin, the monastery from its scandal, and the accomplices from their defilement, we decided to hand the monastery and all its possessions over by means of a letter to the neighboring monastery of the Mistress of the World and Mother of God, the Euergetis, so that there would be an opportunity for pious monks to offer up «entreaties to God, prayers, supplication and thanksgiving on behalf of your majesty and those in authority» all over the world. But now they [the monks] come to me and complain that they are being abused by certain of your divine majesty’s officials. Wherefore Ι have decided to make this report to you, so that if the monk8 are speaking the truth, by the command of your divine majesty they may be left in peace and not suffer any losses; but those who desire the possessions of others should be ordered to refrain from wrongdoing, and especially (to keep away) from offerings dedicated to God. .And thanks to this may the God of righteousness and mercy deem you worthy of the heavenly kingdom in addition to the one you have here on earth.

Studios Monastery -  Constantinople, 5th c.
Studios Monastery – Constantinople, 5th c.

Letter 83: One of the responsibilities of bishops is to see that monasteries are administered in accordance with the canons. Athanasius complains that the greed of certain people (the bishops to whom the letter is addressed?) has led them to exploit the monasteries which they are administering. If someone builds a monastery, or restores one in ruins, he should take care to entrust it to true servants of God (i.e., to people who will not exploit the monastery). It is sheer folly to give sitiresion (the revenue from monastic lands granted as pronoia) to soldiers, and it is even worse to entrust monasteries to laymen or worthless monks.

(Το bishops)

Since we have been appointed by divine decision to rule over the Church of Christ, we should not use our authority to manage Her property in accordance with our personal wishes, either to sell it or give it away, but it is both our obligation and ardent desire (to do so) as seems proper to the Holy Spirit, and as has been ordained by those inspired by (the Spirit) for our salvation. Of the duties involved in caring for (the Church), most important seems to me to be the administration of monasteries, even if recently, like every other good thing which was rightly laid down for our generation, it has been forgotten for what reason monasteries have been constructed, or one attached to another; and Ι am to blame if those who ask for <monasteries> and those who grant them do not act in accordance with the canons, just as «(he who know his lord’s will» , and does not soberly carry it out, «will undoubtedly become one of those who is beaten with many stripes» . For monasteries were not organized without the aid of God, but for the sake of those who with divine assistance have fled Sodom and its flames, who do not think pagan thoughts and cling to earthly possessions, but «seek» only «the kingdom» < of God>, and «except in extreme need, do not even partake of necessities», «until» whom «the world is crucified, and they unto the world». It is for the sake of these people that Providence, which marvelously guides everything, takes hold of God-loving souls and urges them to build dwelling-places for the glory of God, as they strive «to live above that which is visible».

But, alas, what a grievous misfortune! How greed has beguiled certain people, like the son of Charmi, to steal without scruple <property> dedicated to God, and to satisfy their own appetites with such things as are not lawful; and the <gifts> which come from the (opened hand, which satisfies the desire of every living being» in the best way, for the dwelling place of holy people, are taken, without scruple and for their own advantage and use, by certain people who should be merely administering them, and are added to their own property <instead>. They search out whatever will contribute to their sensual enjoyment, and are not concerned with inhabiting <the monasteries> in an ascetic manner so that they may please God, but that they may enjoy to satiety (food and wine and other corruptible» <pleasures>. Nor do they heed the warning, «(Woe unto you that are full» , but prefer a life of self-sufficiency together with the man who foolishly boasted, «Ι will pull down my barns» , and who said to his soul, «you have many goods stored away» . But they glory in their shame, alas, causing twofold harm, by attaching to mammon that which has been established for a divine purpose, and indeed in consequence they receive the rewards of those «(who shut up the kingdom <of heaven) against men» , in addition to preventing both themselves and those who wish <from entering), thus bringing upon themselves the cry of «woe !» . And while <it is> easy to lose <even> what is justly acquired, and <one should> not covet the property of one’s neighbor, and <should> «take heed and beware of covetousness», we pretend to be performing good works, but are <actually> slaves of greed, hypocritically «seeking the kingdom», although we are always clinging to the earth, and while we pretend to be virtuous, we are enveloped in sensuous pleasures, deceiving (others) or perhaps deceiving ourselves that we will bequeath to our descendants (oh, what lack of perception!) not the pious life and concern for our souls which will be asked of each of us, but a despicable life and a «feast for moths» .

But if ever a divine passion should come and appear to someone, either to renounce the world, or to build a monastery or repair one that is falling down, let him be very careful not to entrust (the matter) to any chance person-but to undertake the task with love of God, in the knowledge that He said, «man will say to me in that day» , and so forth-but to those who genuinely choose to serve God. For it is admirable to have mercy on and to give to every man ; but to give an allowance, on the pretext of their military service, to certain of the Despot’s men who have never heard the name of weapons which soldiers bear, is not only worthy of scorn and punishment, but is ridiculous stupidity. And the man who grants to unconcerned people an establishment where ascetics dwell will be punished much (more) than the above-mentioned. Wherefore Ι cannot bear to hand over unconcernedly to laymen or to inexperienced monks monasteries which have been dedicated to the God of all, unless those who are going to inhabit them show proof that they are not false to their name, for men of understanding realize that (<one man who does the will of the Lord is better than ten thousand who go against His will».

Lips Monastery, Constantinople, 10th c
Lips Monastery, Constantinople, 10th c

Letter 91: Athanasius reiterates the canonical ruling that monks should not leave their monasteries. (This letter should perhaps be connected with another of Athanasius’ letters about a runaway Athonite monk, Vat. Gr. 2219, fols. 269V-272v = Laurent, Regestes, no. 1780.)

<Letter concerning monks)

Even if up to now certain people, Ι know not how, have suffered ignorance of God, and have chosen the lawless paths of their own accord, so as to trample and despise the instructions of holy synodical canons and their awesome decisions concerning a way of life leading to salvation, while none of the bishops appointed for such purpose has paid attention to such an evil, such a great storm, but most of them are liable .to burn in hell-fire on account of their accursed silence (and bishops surely will bear the responsibility for the transgressions of their flock, if they do not clearly rebuke them and protest night and day), still as Ι indeed did perceive and realize the situation which was exceedingly grievous, God having mercy on me ; since Ι realized the transgression of divine ordinances ; and since Ι was aware that every Orthodox Christian must without any sympathy render an accounting for his words and deeds, and even more for transgressions < of the commandments) of the Gospels and the apostles and the canons ; henceforth Ι promise before God and the holy angels and the synod, with confidence in the power of my Savior, that hereafter Ι will not be caught failing to live up to my professions and covenants with God. Ι shall never forget the future fire which aw aits transgressors of the words of God spoken through the Spirit, since the divinely inspired passage, which also asserts that anyone who wishes to be saved should not move from his own monastery, declares as follows, word for word : «(If» , it says, «(a monk runs away from his own monastery and transfers to another monastery, or ends up in a worldly resting-place, both he and the one who receives him are to be excommunicated until the run-away monk returns to the monastery which he wickedly left».

Kyriotissa Monastery(Kalenderhane), Constantinople, 12th c
Kyriotissa Monastery(Kalenderhane), Constantinople, 12th c

Letter 92: Athanasius reminds the Emperor that he is his spiritual father, and therefore Andronicus should follow his advice at all times.

Το the emperor

Events have shown that those who rule over the people on earth should be presented by everyone in various ways with the belongings of others which are pleasing to them. But when Ι looked in myself for gifts pleasing to them, Ι found not even a few to offer to your divine majesty with a show of affection, since you had no need of those blessings, as you have been appointed by the righteous Judge to dispense riches. But Ι do have something which is both suitable and necessary to offer to your divine majesty, since you both need and ought to abound in it, and one might say that both of us have an obligation, on the one hand Ι should speak and compel and demand what is fitting for you, and on the other hand you ought constantly to show your abundant zeal to heed (me) and carry out (my suggestions).  And this (characteristic), like nothing else in life, is the distinguishing feature of men who are conspicuous for their piety and virtue, not like «(topaz or gold» but incomparably more important and valuable than them. «(Just what is this one might ask. It is for your divine majesty to refer everything after God to your spiritual father [Athanasius], to entrust undisguisedly to him whatsoever you rule whether on the left or right, to converse more frequently with him than with  all other men, since «(the gift of the Holy comes «(according to one’s faith). Ι entreat you to abound in this (spiritual wealth), to pride yourself on it, and to adorn yourself with it with less hesitation than those who ruled before you (?) For what good are spoils and military encampments and ephemeral heaps of gold and silver, and subject nations and cities, since He has the power to snatch them away from those who  do  not  have  the  abovementioned  (spiritual  riches),  and  destroy them? It is my constant prayer that you increase in your possession of this <spiritual wealth). For he who is fortified by this <wealth> will administer everything in his power in a spiritual manner, and will view more humbly and in every way more keenly the position entrusted to him, both the trust he has received and the One Who entrusted it to him, and <see) whether the ship or state is being guided in a manner pleasing to Him, reflecting on the awe­ some fact that some men, as a result of this gift, will become  <<heirs of the true  kingdom>> but others will be brought to trial for their malpractice, because they did not take advantage of the <asset> granted them, <that is> to be considered after God as gods by their countrymen. This requires much paternal assurance and assistance and direction, which qualities accrue only to a truly spiritual <father>, not to those who speak only to curry favor, and to lightly debase truth and righteousness for worldly motives, but to the man who <<sets the Lord before him on his right hand, so as not to be shaken at all by Him.>> Therefore Ι ask your divine majesty, who has been promoted by God with incomparable distinctions, at this time to devote more energies toward this worthy goal than anyone who has come down in memory. For if someone possesses all the riches of the world, but does not acquire that <spiritual wealth> which makes him honorable and which departs with him <from this world>, it would be better if he had never been born, and had never enjoyed <those advantages>.

Pammakaristos Monastery, Constantinople, 12th c
Pammakaristos Monastery, Constantinople, 12th c

Letter 95: Athanasius urges the Emperor not to delay any longer an investigation of the charges of a certain monk against Niphon, metropolitan of Cyzicus; cf. Letter 89.

To the emperor

Inasmuch as the soul is more precious than the body and heavenly things are more precious than material things, to such an extent every orthodox person, especially emperors, should always strive, just as we breathe, to make sure that the good governance of the Church is of greater concern than that of the State. But, woe is me, most of us have been deprived of this <attitude>, since «all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s». Therefore no one will deny that Orthodox Christians are suffering greatly, because the Church has not been administered by subsequent generations rightfully and as it was ruled in the beginning. Surely those who have ears to hear are aware of the threats against shepherds for such deeds, and the constant ridicule of the Holy Scriptures, even if (these threats) have turned out to be horribly trampled by certain people to whom the words seem nonsense, and especially by some of those to whom bishoprics have been assigned. For in addition to other words of the Spirit, we neither understand nor fear the passage, «the shepherds have become foolish and have not sought the Lord; therefore the whole pasture has failed, and the sheep have been scattered).

But if we who «sit in Moses’ seat» have been overcome by such paralysis that scorn for the divine pronouncements is the result, still God does not allow our affairs to go unperceived, but for this very reason the Church of Christ has been endowed with you as epistemonarch, resplendent in wisdom and piety and discretion, since you know how to honor divine things properly and to defend and respect (the Church) and to seek what is fitting and to present it as a gift due Her, Who was midwife to you and brought you forth for this purpose and preserves you; and we all are confident that She will show you to be heir of the eternal and immovable and blessed kingdom of heaven (if we don’t omit our part); and She has filled you with strength and glory.

Wherefore I ask that we not in a careless fashion leave uninvestigated the accusations of the monk which portend great harm, and let not this affair drag on. For if death should overtake him, or if he should by chance move away, it will cause much hesitation to the consciences of those who are making the investigation, and also for the Xylotes and those who are otherwise anxious to seek pretexts, unless (<injustice shall stop her mouth», because we have conducted a free and truthful investigation. For no one who desires salvation will endure either to be in communion with, or to be friends with, those who rage against the holy icons. And if we do not judge a righteous judgment freely and truthfully, so as either to reveal the innocence of the defendant or to substantiate the plaintiff, and so that such a matter may not remain in our souls uninvestigated, but may receive true and free examination, – even if meanwhile grief fills your soul, as God knows, while storm after storm falls upon the Church on account of my sins, and the waves thus seethe, and constantly dash against Her as a result of «the gales» and machinations «of the enemy», even up to this day.

Pantokrator Monastery  Constantinople
Pantokrator Monastery Constantinople

Letters Concerning the Jews of Constantinople (Saint Athanasios I, Patriarch of Constantinople)

NOTE: Athanasius I (1230 – October 28, 1310) was the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople for two terms, from 1289 to 1293 and 1303 to 1309. He was born in Adrianople and died in Constantinople. Chosen by the emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus as patriarch, he opposed the reunion of the Greek and Roman Churches and introduced an ecclesiastic reform that evoked opposition within the clergy. He resigned in 1293 and was restored in 1303 with popular support. The pro-Union clerical faction forced him into retirement in early 1310.

St. Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople
St. Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople

He is commemorated as a saint in the Orthodox Church with his feast day observed annually on October 28.

The following Letters are taken from The Correspondence of Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople: Letters to the Emperor Andronicus II, Members of the Imperial Family, and Officials.

The Correspondence of Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople

Letter 23. Athanasius asks the bishops to join him when he presents a supplication to the Emperor about the problem of the Latins, Jews, and Armenians in Constantinople.

(Το the bishops)

Since each of the most holy bishops must soon go to his assigned see, and since there are certain matters which require a joint supplication to the ruler, such as the question of the Latins and the rumor that they are teaching with impunity, and are corrupting many of wavering (faith), we should not go away without attending to this. There is also the issue of the Jews and Armenians, that they should leave (the capital), and other such God-pleasing acts which require a joint supplication, and (the factor of) the oppressive summer weather. Wherefore, if you please after our meal on Sunday let us assemble and go together to the emperor. For Ι do not think that he will fail to see the advantage of the proposal. Therefore, for the sake of the Lord, let no one be absent through hesitancy. If then you judge it fitting, let us assemble at Chora, and from there go together to meet with the emperors.

The Synagogue, Sardis Ancient City, Salihli, Manisa, Turkey
The Synagogue, Sardis Ancient City, Salihli, Manisa, Turkey

Letter 36 <Το the emperor>

The fact <is> that you do not instruct your sons in ways pleasing to God, and that you do not look after your subjects as a father should his children; that the Church has been profaned and attacked, so that not only through ignorance are unworthy men brought into the clergy, but also men who are known to be unworthy; that not only in the common people abandoned without any instruction, but they are defiled as they ought not to be by the introduction of Jews and Armenians; that fiscal agents are not investigated, but persist in their depravity and injustice; that truth and righteousness and judgment and mercy have disappeared; that the people of God have been delivered into the hands of Ishmael on account of their adultery, incest and perverted passion for sodomy and pederasty, and because of their intolerable blasphemy and sorcery and injustice; that never has such license for corruption been granted to nuns and monks; that although you were able to act in both public and private affairs and to acquire exalting humility through the Lord and with the help of the Lord, you preferred to do nothing (?); that when an army is dispatched, there is no one to admonish the men and to frighten them into marching with Christ, but they indulge in adultery and looting and thievery, and how will they then be victorious 1 that although we condemn the disobedience and transgression of the Jews, on account of which they were destroyed, we ourselves are even more guilty of disobedience and transgression, and just as they disregarded their fellow servants, so we disregard our Lord and King the great God. If then with the help of God you strive to the best of your ability for a change <in these conditions>, not only will you rise above the threatened <catastrophe>, and your subjects with you, but, in addition to this kingdom, you will also gain the kingdom of heaven.

Mosaic Floor of the Beth Alpha Synagogue
Mosaic Floor of the Beth Alpha Synagogue

Letter 41. Athanasius protests the Emperor’s toleration of religious worship by Jews, Armenians, and Turks within the walls of Constantinople.

(Το the emperor)

When Rhapsakes the general of Senachereim, king of the Assyrians, dared to spew forth words of insult against the Lord of all, the most pious king Hezekiah not only rent his garments in his zeal for the great Lord, but removed his royal garb and donned sackcloth. Wherefore the Lord of hosts was moved to pity and slew 185,000 Assyrians. How then, holy emperor, will the Lord Sabaoth help us, when we not only permit, in the midst of Orthodox Christians, the assembly of a God-murdering congregation, people who sneer at our customs (that is, at our worship and adoration and faith in our Lord and God Jesus Christ, and our pious veneration of images, and all the mysteries in which the holy and immaculate faith of Christians abounds), but when also through bribes Kokalas has given them great power? And if any Christian out of zeal dares to protest, who will save him from jail?

Beth Alpha Synagogue Zodiac Mosaic (Detail)
Beth Alpha Synagogue Zodiac Mosaic (Detail)

As for the outrages which the Armenians perpetrate towards the neighboring Orthodox Christians, Ι am ashamed to tell that story, God be my witness. I’ll say only so much, that they are not prevented from having a meetinghouse for their prayers, and if any orthodox person should dare to protest in that matter, too, the Armenians will exert a great deal of power with a few silver coins. Everyone knows that <those> Ishmaelites, .who on account of my sins rule Christian cities, do not even allow Christians to strike the semαndron there. But although we are endowed with this Christian empire through the grace of Christ our God, not only have we neglected to do what the envoys of the Ishmaelites did (good-for-nothings that they are, and sent by no better masters), but they openly climb up on high, as is the custom in their land, and shout forth their abominable mysteries. Witnesses of these and similar outrages conceal them and do not report the bald facts to your majesty, so that you might demonstrate your zeal inspired by God.

Synagogue mosaic of King David (Byzantine Era)
Synagogue mosaic of King David (Byzantine Era)

For this reason, holy emperor, how will God hear our prayers, if we pray at all? How «while thou art yet speaking will He say ‘Behold, Ι am here’»? How «will He speak peace to His people»? For this reason, to borrow your own words, «Ι entreat, Ι entreat, Ι entreat» your majesty, arise! Let victims of wrongdoing have a hearing, evil-doers be restrained, and men of righteousness and truth receive favor and praise. « Gird thy sword upon thy thigh» with the help of God in all good works, and «bend thy bow and prosper and reign, because of truth and righteousness» and divine zeal and courage, «so that the right hand of God shall guide thee wonderfully» , and so that He will honor you ; for God says, «Ι will only honor them that honor me» , and Ι know that you will honor Him in your heart. However, God has a rule: He honors in secret those who honor Him in secret, and He honors in the presence of men those who honor Him in the presence of men. As He says, «Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will Ι confess».

The Sardis synagogue floors were paved with ornate mosaics and its walls were covered with panels made with multicolored marble.
The Sardis synagogue floors were paved with ornate mosaics and its walls were covered with panels made with multicolored marble.

Meanwhile, if you, your majesty, strive with the help of God to fulfil <these duties>, Ι will not hesitate to petition about the other matters. Acquire then a good and holy name for the sake of God. Strive honestly, not in word, but in deed. For at the time of death, one should show deeds, not words. Be <another> Phinees. «Atone» for our evil .deeds, so that «the s1aughter will abate» , and so that God may «broaden the territory» of Christians, so that He will supply an abundance of necessities to your subjects, so that He will protect you in battle, and grind down like dust under your feet every foe and enemy, so that He will grant you long life, and on account of your virtues will hand down the empire to your children and grandchildren, for generation after generation, and in addition to your terrestrial empire will grant you also the one in heaven.

The Binding of Isaac, Synagogue Mosaic.
The Binding of Isaac, Synagogue Mosaic.

Also see:

Remarriage and Arsenokoetia: Shifty Byzantine Views of Sex (Stephen Morris)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Something Wicked this Way Comes: Essays on Evil and Human Wickedness, pp. 143-165

 Something Wicked this Way Comes

Abstract: Patristic canon law condemned remarriage, under any circumstances, in no uncertain terms. Penance for remarriage demanded repudiating the wicked sexual relationship and decades of excommunication. Penances for remarriage were gradually reduced and two Byzantine political/theological crises in the 8th and 10th centuries allowed these condemned sexual relationships to be eventually tolerated and even accepted. Same-sex behaviour was condemned as satanic and diabolic by many of these same patristic authorities, often in the same breath and with the same words as they condemned remarriage. Penances assigned were virtually identical. During the 6th century, however, these penances for sex between men (especially “anal sex”) were reduced to little more than a slap on the wrist. These reduced penances suggest that just as remarriage was eventually able to be accepted into polite Byzantine Christian society, same-sex relationships might also come to be accepted in Byzantine/Eastern Christian society.


“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” warned Laocoön in Virgil’s Aeneid and the medieval West took his warning to heart. Western mistrust of the Byzantines led to the negative stereotype of Byzantine bureaucracy, so much so that the modern epithet “Byzantine” describes any complex, difficult-to-navigate, apparently unstable body of rules – such as those at New York City’s City Hall. As a slur, “Byzantine” stands for both “shifty” and “shifting;” perhaps better, “shifty,” in both popular senses – shady as well as unstable – can stand as a synonym for ”Byzantine” in Western perceptions. The medieval West did not always understand how or why Byzantine Christian theology, liturgy, and practice could vary so markedly from Western norms.

One area of such difference involved marriage and sexuality. Western canonists and theologians were baffled by how Byzantine apprehension of evil or wicked sexual behaviour could differ so from theirs. The body of Byzantine canonical rulings was simply allowed to grow like topsy and was never systematically codified as was common in the West during the latter Middle Ages (resulting in what we know today as the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law.) The redundancies, repetitions, and conflicting answers simply hung together in the practice of the Eastern Church; the Eastern canonical tradition was “talmudic,” in that it maintained the practices and rulings of all the sages and conciliar bodies that preceded whatever the “current” situation might have been and then required a current sage to apply these rulings as appropriate. It is this Byzantine approach to divorce, remarriage, and “homosexual” behaviour that I wish to turn.


Individual fathers and early Christian thinkers began to grapple with questions concerning Christian sexual behaviour before the New Testament itself was completed.1 Some authorities were satisfied to stress the need to confine sexual expression to heterosexual marriage (Didache, Hippolytus2) while others (Athenagoras, Tertullian3) felt the need to confine the definition of “marriage” proper to the first such union a Christian experienced. According to these authors, the death of a spouse did not free the survivor to remarry; any further sexual relationship was considered inappropriate and an act of infidelity to the spouse who had died but whose death did not end the marriage. (It was the later Byzantine refusal to acknowledge that death of a spouse ended a marriage which constituted one of the differences the medieval West found difficult to comprehend.) If remarriage and further sexual relationship was improper for the survivor, how much more so if the other spouse was not even dead but merely separated or divorced – practice which was allowed by Roman law. The early apologists stressed that simply because an action was legal did not make it proper, especially for Christians who were held to a higher standard of behaviour.

The practice of public penance, which patristic sources take for granted, evolved as the mechanism for reintegrating members of the Christian community who had sundered their participation in the community’s life and who wished to be restored to full membership and participation – as evidenced primarily in the reception of Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy. The sins and transgressions, which served to sunder participation in the communal life of the Church, had to be renounced and – upon ceasing the behaviour – the penitent would begin the penance (epithemia) which had to be fulfilled before the penitent could be restored to participating in the Eucharist. The penance, or epithemia, was considered a therapeutic or medicinal tool. It was not a juridical sentence that “paid off” the debt a criminal owed society. Rather, it was a method – similar to surgery – that might prove painful in the short term but which aimed at restoring the (spiritual) health of the patient; it should be remembered that the Greek terms for “health” and “salvation” have the same root and the Gospel miracles of healing were considered paradigms of salvation by the same preachers who gave their “canonical opinions.”

This system of years of penance was predicated on the practice of an extended catechumenate of three years or more preceding the baptism of the candidate who wished to enter the Christian community in the first place. The division of the penitents into a variety of ranks, indicating their distance from or proximity to full Eucharistic participation, was indicated by their position in the church building (relative to the altar-table). As can be seen in Table I, the view that remarriage was virtually identical with adultery remained the canonical pastoral response; in order to be reconciled with the community, the couple would need to repudiate their subsequent marriage and live separately before the epithemia would commence.

Constantine VI (right to the cross) presiding over the Second Council of Nicaea. Miniature from early 11th century.
Constantine VI (right to the cross) presiding over the Second Council of Nicaea. Miniature from early 11th century.

Two revolutions occurred in the eighth and tenth centuries to change this approach. The first was the “Moechian Schism” of 795 A.D. in which the emperor Constantine VI divorced his wife and married again; he was eventually permitted to begin the epithemia for a second marriage without repudiating or separating from his second wife. The second was the “Tetragamy affair,” the dispute – probably the “most dangerous crisis between the Emperor and the Patriarch in the middle Byzantine period”4 – which rocked Byzantine society from 903 – 923 A.D. over Leo VI’s fourth marriage, resulting in an official truce between the Church and the remarried. Shifting allegiances, changes in civil law, early or unexpected deaths, clergy both willing and unwilling to comply with imperial designs, secret negotiations, pious public sentiment, loud-spoken monastics, differing interpretations of how to apply oikonomia5 – the principle of pastoral discretion in applying canonical penances more rigidly or more freely, in manner that seems appropriate – all contributed to the chaos. It was the Tome of Union, summarized in Table I, which resolved the issue and led to the use of a different wedding service for those embarking on a second/third marriage. (This was a considerable difference from the Western Christian practice, which used the same service for all weddings and refused to ever officially countenance “remarriage.”) Not only were second and third marriages regularized, but the various epithemia could all be undergone while the couple began their new life as husband and wife. Rather than serving as the means of reintegration with the larger Christian community, the epithemia became the “price” a couple paid to be able to live together in a sexually suspicious relationship which was disapproved of but tolerated.

A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI paying homage to Christ
A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI paying homage to Christ

During this same period, a variety of responses to same-sex behaviour developed. The oldest canons, those of Basil, stipulate that several sins were considered moral equivalents and subject to the same penance of 15 years: bestiality, murder, sorcery, adultery, idolatry, and arsenokoetia.6 (Arsenokoetia is derived from the root “male” and the verb – koitai, which “is a coarse word, generally denoting base or licentious sexual activities (see Romans 13:13), and in this and other compounds corresponds to the vulgar English word “fucker,” i.e. a person who, by insertion, takes the active role in intercourse.”7

(The modern Latinate “coitus” may well be derived from this as well.) In the canonical literature, therefore, it appears that arsenokoetia is the technical term for what we now refer to as “anal sex.”


Arsenokeotia, as a specific act, was not singled out as being necessarily worse than a wide variety of other activities.8 However, John Chrysostom’s Homily IV on Romans decries what we now call “homosexual behaviour” in no uncertain terms.

“All these affections then were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul suffers more and is more dishonoured in sins, than the body is when diseased.”9

Arsenokoetia is clearly inspired by the Devil.

“But when God has left one, then all things are turned upside down. Not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was also diabolical.”10

Their beliefs and behaviour go hand-in-hand, one reflecting the other. Same-sex behaviour is also inherently violent.

“… [T]hey become enemies to themselves and to one another, bringing in a pernicious kind of strife, and one even more lawless than any civil war, rife in divisions, and of varied form…. It was appropriate that the two should be one; I mean the woman and the man. For “the two” it says, “shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) But this desire of intercourse affected, and united the sexes to one another. This desire the devil having taken away, and having turned the desire in another direction, he thus sundered the sexes from one another, and made the one to become two parts in opposition to the law of God. For it says, “the two shall be one flesh;” but he divided the one flesh into two: here then is one war.”

“These same two parts he provoked to war both against themselves and against one another. For even women abused women, and not men only. The men stood against one another, and against the female sex, as happens in a battle by night. You see a second and a third war, and a fourth and a fifth; there is also another, for beside what we have mentioned they also behaved lawlessly against nature itself. For when the Devil saw that this desire it is, principally, which draws the sexes together, he was bent on cutting through the tie, so as to destroy the race, not only by their not copulating lawfully, but also by their being stirred up to war, and in sedition against one another.”11

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Instigated by the devil, same-sex behaviour portends the end of the human race not only because normal reproductive processes cease but because men and women begin to fight one another. The men, fighting each other, would eventually come to blows while the arguments with women would be the cause of friction, anger, resentment – all the attitudes which conspire against a common household or urban life. Fighting against each other, each would also – in Chrysostom’s view – be fighting against each person’s own true, inherently heterosexual, desires. Not only would this aspect of the universal warfare unleashed by the devil be fought by each against himself but it would be a fight against nature: against the heterosexual nature of mankind and against the natural cycle of birth and reproduction. There would be as many wars let loose in the world as there were individuals engaged in same-sex behaviour.

St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen

As can be seen in Table II, the practice of arsenokoetia (anal sex) was the primary sexual act between men which prompted discussion. It was compared to adultery and was penanced accordingly: St. Basil gave an epithemia of 15 years to both adultery and arsenokoetia while his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa suggested an epithemia of 18 years to both behaviours. Both presumed that the behaviour would cease when the epithemia commenced. Although it is arsenokoetia (anal sex) which receives Basil and Gregory’s attention, they make no distinction in assigning penance to either the “active” or “passive” (“top” vs. “bottom”); the word itself implies the “top” role as the most blameworthy, however.

This condemnation of arsenokoetia apparently remains constant for approximately 300 years. Although it is not repeated by other canonical authors, neither is it repudiated or altered. St. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople (582-595 A.D.), is credited with a new approach to penances. In general, he adds ascetic exercises as well as deprivation of Communion to the epithemias and significantly reduces the time a penitent would spend doing “penance.” He adds masturbation and intercural sex between men (“between the thighs,” the equivalent of the heterosexual “missionary position”) to the acts which concern him but he suggests the epithemias involved be reduced to little more than a “slap on the wrist.” The epithemias for masturbation and intercural sex vary from 7 to 80 days while the epithemia for arsenokoetia is reduced to three years, thanks to the introduction of a certain number of prostrations during the penitent’s daily prayers as well as fasting during the day with xerophagy (“dry eating,” i.e. no animal products and those vegetables or fruit that were eaten were not to be cooked) after 3 p.m. It should be noted that this “double masturbation” of intercural sex between men is a significantly less grave transgression than heterosexual fornication (to which he assigns a penance of two years with xerophagy and 250 daily prostrations. The wicked sexual acts between men that had previously cost 15 years estrangement from the community were suddenly reduced in severity to less than a third of the time involved. Not only is the epithemia for arsenokoetia reduced, that for adultery is also reduced from fifteen to three years but adultery is taken to be a more serious offence as 250 prostrations, as opposed to the 200 assigned to “perfect arsenokoetia,” is stipulated. A later manuscript, used by leading medieval canonical authorities, adds a series of subcategorizations of arsenokoetia: between brothers, with a brother-in-law, and with women. A leading 18th century Greek canonist comments that, in general, arsenokoetia between men was preferable to that between a man and a woman while anal sex with a “strange woman” was “less reprehensible …than [with a man’s own] wife.”12


 The behaviours of heterosexual divorce and remarriage constituted sexually suspicious relationships that were wicked, condemned, finally tolerated, and even gradually accepted. Although condemned by the canons, a service which acknowledged this paradox developed to bless these second and third marriages. Condemned in many of the same ways, same-sex behaviour – especially arsenokoetia – was deemed wicked but eventually tolerated as the reduced epithemias for the various grades of arsenokoetia indicate. The satanic sexual behaviour of men with men was always castigated in tandem with the diabolic behaviour of divorce and remarriage. As the one was finally admitted and integrated into polite Eastern Christian society, might this not show the way to eventually include the other as well?


  1. Didache 2, 3.3; English translation in Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers. (New York: Macmillan.) 1970, 1975. See also Athenagoras Plea, 33; English translation in Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers. (New York: Macmillan.) 1970, 1975 and Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, ii.23; cited in Pat Harell, Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church: A History of Divorce and Remarriage in the Ante-Nicene Church. (Austin: R.B. Sweet Co.) 1967. p. 177.
  2. Apostolic Tradition 15; English translation in Geoffrey Cuming, Hippolytus: A Text for Students. (Bramcote Notts: Grove Books.) 1976.
  3. Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity, 5; English translation in Ante-Nicene Fathers (ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson.) (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson ) 1885, 1995. Vol. 4, p. 53.
  4. Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy. (London: Cambridge University Press.) 1977. p. 102.
  5. Patricia Karlin-Hayter, “Further Notes on Byzantine Marriage: Raptus – αρπαγή or μνηστείαι?” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 46 (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection) 1992. pp. 133-134.
  6. Basil the Great, Canon 7.
  7. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) 1980. p. 342. See also Steven Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.) 2004. p. 84.
  8. See Origen, Homily 11 on Leviticus (11.3-4). English translation available in Gary W. Barkley, Origen: Homilies on Leviticus, 1-16. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.) 1990. pp. 212-213; also John Chrysostom, Homily XVI on I Corinthians (16.8). NPNF, vol. 12, p. 93 and his Homily II on I Timothy (2.1). NPNF, vol. 13, p. 414.
  9. John Chrysostom, Homily IV on Romans (4.1). NPNF, vol. 11, p. 355-256.
  10. John Chrysostom, IV Homily on Romans (4.1). NPNF, p. 356.
  11. John Chrysostom, IV Homily on Romans (4.1). NPNF, p. 356-357.
  12. John the Faster, The 35 Canons. English translation in D. Cummings, The Rudder (Pedalion). (Chicago: Orthodox Christian Educational Society.) 1957, 1983. pp. 942-943.

Stephen Morris is an independent scholar living in New York City.