Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” (1971)

Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), pp. 80-101.

This article is social functionalist examination of the role of the “holy man” (i.e., male ascetics; female ascetics were apparently excluded from the dominance of the ascetic) in Late Antiquity, arguing that the late antique holy man played the same social role as the patrons of classical antiquity—that is, the late antique holy man stood up for the rights of the oppressed, acted as mediator for village disputes, and interacted in the larger world on behalf of the village. It is worth noting, also, that Brown explicitly rejects the notion that the dominance of the holy man represents a decline from the ideals of Greek civilization (as argued by, e.g., Gibbon). Instead, he seeks to paint an empathetic portrait of holy man in his social environment.

Brown begins his article by tracing the rise of the ideal late antique holy man, who lived in and acted at the margins of society. He notes that, even though wilderness asceticism developed in Egypt, the environment shaped the Egyptian ascetics’ practices—because the Egyptian desert is so harsh and inhospitable, desert monks had to adopt civilized practices (like earning a living by manual labor in order to be able to afford food, or living together in order to share water); therefore, even though Egyptian wilderness ascetics lived on the margin of society, they could not afford—literally—to act at the margin of society.

Syrian holy men, on the other hand, had sources of food, water, and shelter readily available in the wilderness, so they did not need to cling to civilized practices in order to survive; therefore, they were completely marginal figures, living and acting outside the bounds of society—a status that gave them great authority within the social structure. Moreover, the social conditions in late antique Syria enabled the Syrian holy men to gain fame quickly—a large portion of the Syrian population were unemployed itinerant agricultural workers, so large numbers of them were able to flock to the holy man and live with him. For these unemployed workers, the holy man was a patron figure—he possessed δύναμις (on account of his special relationship with God), and he used that δύναμις “to smooth over the thorny issues of village life” (85), like distributing water among the villagers, cancelling debts, and settling disputes between villagers. Moreover, the miracle stories told about holy men often reflect the holy man using his δύναμις in order to keep a village society running smoothly.

In the second part of the paper, Brown examines the roles that the holy man played in the wider Byzantine world, outside the confines of the Syrian village. In Byzantine society, the holy man was an outsider—a stranger—largely because of his ascetic practices, through which he resisted being classified in the society’s terms. These ascetic practices resulted in παρρησία (intimacy [with God]), which gave them an intrinsic authority, not deriving from anywhere in the social structure. The late antique holy man was thus a liminal figure, who, because he operated outside the social structure, was able to enact change; for instance, by resolving disputes between the society’s insiders, be they villagers or patricians. Even into the Middle Ages, the holy men retained their liminal power, which was encapsulated in their relics and icons, and which had the power, for instance, to heal and kill people.

Therefore, holy men filled four specific roles in Byzantine society. First, they mediated between the people and God, who, like the emperor, “was at one and the same time remote and unflinching, and yet, ideally, the ever-loving Father of his people” (97). Second, they made a full-time profession of contrition for sin, whereas a normal Byzantine person only occasionally expected to feel contrite for their sins. Third, therefore, they allayed people’s anxieties, allowing people to manage their guilt through acts of penance. And thus, fourth, they were important decision-makers within society, settling questions of ethics, morals, medicine, and science.


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