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Marcianos: A Syrian Ascetic of the Fourth Century.

The Desert of Chalcis

There were ascetics in Syria at the time when Anthony withdrew to the Egyptian desert, but their practices were rather different from his, and in many cases, they were more innovative and more extreme.

Marcianos, who died in the 380’s, was a Syrian ascetic who was roughly contemporary with Anthony, but it was nearly a hundred years after Athanasius wrote his biography of Anthony that Marcianos and the ascetics of Syria became famous. Their fame was due to Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in North Syria, who, in about 444, recorded their lives for posterity in his Historia Religiosa. Until then, the Syrian ascetics were little known outside their own region. One of the most important things about the book is that Theodoret knew many of them and describes them from personal observation of their way of life. Marcianos, of course, was either very old or dead when Theodoret was born, in 381, but he drew his information from eyewitnesses and it is credible.

Marcianos was born in Cyrrhus, and, unlike many of the Egyptian Desert Fathers he was neither of humble birth nor illiterate. He was a member of the nobility, and, before he retired from the world, he held a post of distinction at the emperor’s court in Constantinople. He practised asceticism in an area known as the Desert of Chalcis just outside what is now Qinnesrin, south of Aleppo. He built himself a small cell, surrounded by a low wall, where he lived in complete solitude. The cell was just big enough for him to squeeze into, and very uncomfortable: he couldn’t lie stretched out, because it was not as long as his body, nor was it high enough for him to stand upright. Living in a very small space was a practice favoured by many of the Syrian monks who made themselves as uncomfortable as possible, in some cases unable to move at all.

However extreme his living conditions, Marcianos was more moderate in his eating habits than many Syrians, and, indeed, than many Egyptians, for he saw the pitfalls of excessive fasting, and decided to eat a small amount of bread every day, and to make it little enough that he always felt hungry – an important aspect of fasting emphasised by many ascetics.

Eventually, God told him to take disciples, so he stopped being solitary, and accepted two followers, Eusebios and Agapetos. The number of disciples increased. Agapetos founded a monastery at Nikerte, near Apamea (where Theodoret himself would become a monk), and Eusebius took over the charge of the now numerous followers, transmitting Marcianos’ teaching to them. He also took over the duty of looking after Marcianos.

The following rather charming story about Marcianos demonstrates not only his asceticism but his humanity. An old man, Avitos, who had been practising asceticism in another desert for longer than Marcians had been in the desert of Chalcis. He had heard about Marcianos and decided that it would be profitable to visit him. Marcianos was delighted to see him, and asked Eusebius, to cook some dried beans and also some fresh greens if he had any. But Avitos refused to eat, saying that he only ate in the evening, and sometimes not for two or three days. Marcianos tried to persuade him by saying that he himself was too weak to wait till evening, but Avitos still refused. So Maarcianos thought of another way to persuade him: he said he was discouraged and deeply upset that Avitos should have come all this way to see someone who was a lover of hard work and a philosopher, only to find himself in the presence of an inn-keeper and a dissolute person. (In other words, Avitos had hoped to find an ascetic, who fasted as he did himself, but found someone who thought it more important to provide food than to practice austerity, and was thus a disappointment to him). Avitos said he would rather eat meat than hear such words and gave in. The problem having been solved, they spent three happy days together, talking, eating a little and singing hymns. After that, they never saw each other again in the flesh, but only in spirit.

Marcianos is described as living in his cell, and staying there in solitude, never coming out. But obviously, he did come out from time to time: he was obliged to communicate with his disciples, telling Eusebios and Agapetos to build cells for themselves as, obviously, there was not room for them in his. Theodoret also speaks of him as praying in the area between the cell and the outer wall. Apart from that, we know from other accounts that the Syrian solitaries generally had a helper who brought them food and water and the story of Avitos sees Marcianos clearly outside his cell, and being waited on by his disciple.

Even if Marcianos came out of his cell from time to time, there is no reason to think that he went further than the forecourt between the cell and the wall. But he lived in a tiny space for many years, unable to stretch his body or move around, unkempt and unwashed; it must have been squalid, to say the least. Although it is true that a good many early Christian ascetics are known to have abhorred washing , squalor is not mentioned in any descriptions of them. That is left to our imagination.



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