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The words “monk,” “monastery,” “monasticism,” and their derivations, which are still found in contemporary religious discourses and institutions, bear only a slight relationship to the forms of Christian ascetic life that flourished in the second half of the fourth century. At that stage in the movement, these forms were very diverse and closely interwoven with the local environment. The clearest example is the use of the Greek word monachos: not in evidence in non-Christian literature, its first appearance dates to 180, and it was first used as a technical term defining a separated group of persons in an Egyptian papyrus from 324. Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339) and Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373) were probably the writers who first introduced this set of words into literary texts, and, consequently, the earliest known use of the word monachus in Latin is found in the anonymous translation of Athanasius’ Life of Antony (originally written in Greek around 357; available in Latin by 373). The same observation could be made for the word monasterium: this new Latin word appeared for the first time in the translation of this same text made by Evagrius of Antioch (d. after 392), in which the term is always used (except once) to translate the Greek equivalent.
Under the heading “identities,” we must ask what gave late Roman Christian communities their specific characters. We are dealing with a plural: “Christianities.” The late Roman period was, in religion as in much else, a fractured age. What lay at the root of the resulting variety? Leaders of government and church pleaded for universal loyalty – to empire and orthodoxy above all. By 600 CE, Christians found themselves nevertheless divided geographically into four main blocs. The Latin West was extensively settled by “barbarians” and strained in its relations with the East. The “Chalcedonian” church, centered on Constantinople, retained a more nuanced attachment to the Council of 451. Disaffected Christians in Egypt and western Syria, opposed to the Council, subscribed more explicitly to a “one-nature” or “miaphysite” theology. The church of East Syria distanced itself increasingly from all such preoccupations, deeply affected by its proximity to Persia and the Arabs.
It is tempting to describe and therefore explain those divisions in terms of theological dispute. Dispute there certainly was, and it was not a mere front for other principles or prejudices: the issues at stake affected the core of Christian belief and must be paid respect. The disorder and acrimony of the fifth and sixth centuries had roots reaching back at least to the Council of Nicaea (325). Arius, condemned at that council, appeared to qualify the divinity ascribable to Jesus. Forceful opponents of his position – notably Apollinarius of Laodicea (d. c. 390) – downplayed the permanence of God the Son’s humanity in the name of divine unity.
Devotion to asceticism was a highly visible and in some ways alarming feature of the late Roman world. That thousands of men and women were ready to adopt a life of radical simplicity, sexual abstinence and apparent indifference to wealth, status and power, and that even larger numbers were willing to admire if not imitate their choice, tells us something remarkable about the society in which they lived. Restrictions in diet and sexual behaviour had been accepted for centuries; and abnegation was frequently accompanied by a rejection of influence in public affairs and of privilege and property. Christians, however, from the third century onwards, were responsible for an unprecedented upsurge in ascetic devotion. The movement transformed town as well as countryside: famous exemplars may have congregated at first in remoter districts; but a new class of citizen became more widely evident at an early stage. Distinguished at times by an appalling emaciation of the body, by filth and infestation, by ragged, colourless and skimpy clothes, large numbers of these ascetics converged, at moments of crisis, on the cities themselves, forming virtual mobs that were capable not only of menace but of real power. Within a relatively short time, they occupied special and prominent buildings, administered successful rural estates, broadcast their views in public fora, and gained the ear of those in power – invading, in other words, the chief components of the late Roman polity.