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15.03.21, Greenfield, trans., Niketas Stethatos, The Life of Saint Symeon the New Theologian

15.03.21, Greenfield, trans., Niketas Stethatos, The Life of Saint Symeon the New Theologian

With this book, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library--a series of lightly annotated texts with translations modelled on the Loeb Classical Library--reaches to twenty titles, a considerable part of which consists of works of Byzantine Greek literature. The choice of texts so far has been felicitous, and this case is no different. After Michael Psellos, Niketas Stethatos was the most significant theologian of the eleventh century, and his single extant hagiographical work stands out for its spiritual and literary value. In terms of thematic orientation, it is primarily a work of defense, first of the author's spiritual father, Symeon the New Theologian, and subsequently of the latter's own spiritual father, Symeon Eulabes. As in many instances this dual apology intertwines with polemic against those who opposed the recognition of both Symeons as saints, the Life allows a glimpse of the internal tensions that shook the Byzantine Church in a period contrasted by the strong tendency of society towards secularization.

Dating from the second half of the eleventh century, the Life of St Symeon the New Theologian is a saintly biography produced in a literary vacuum. After the publication of Symeon Metaphrastes' Menologion (later tenth century), hagiography fell into a decline, largely prompted by a widespread belief that the age of saints had come to a close. The Lives of new saints, written thereafter, tended to be extensive and teeming with 'material' that would cement the establishment of a saint's cult. This is also the case in the contemporary Life of Saint Lazaros of Mount Galesion, another long monastic biography that was translated and annotated also by Richard Greenfield for a previous Dumbarton Oaks series. This text offers a vivid picture of Byzantine monasticism, yet as this functioned in the provinces, not in the capital, as does the Life of Saint Symeon the New Theologian.

As an author, Niketas Stethatos is very much present in his text. If we trust his personal testimonies that we find interspersed in his narrative (chapters 129, 131, 135, 136), this vita was one of many diverse writings (funeral orations, hymns, eulogies) with which he consolidated the holy paradigm of Symeon but of which none has come down to us. Moreover, as he pledges in two passages (chapters 113 and 150), Niketas was the author of another, more extensive, Life of Symeon, which has also not survived. We may wonder why he proceeded to the compilation of a (relatively) shorter Life. At any rate, beyond the devotion that he showed to his subject of praise, there can be little doubt that, acting as the 'editor' of St Symeon's textual legacy and as his biographer, Niketas Stethatos had a personal axe to grind; and that, in coming to grips with the rivalry that must have arisen around Symeon, he tried to respond to questions that preoccupied the Byzantine Church.

Contrary to what one might have expected, a chronological distance usually separated the composition of the Life of a 'new saint' from his or her death, and in this Symeon the New Theologian is no exception. At least thirty years must have gone by before Niketas wrote this Life, which certainly postdates the translation of St. Symeon's relics to Constantinople in 1052, mentioned and dated in chapter 129. Thus we may wonder whether the Symeon portrayed in this Life is close to the real one or not, yet this hardly affects the value of the work for the modern reader. Aside from the amount of confidence we must place in it, this long Life should appeal to anyone interested in Byzantine spiritual traditions, Church history and life, prosopography, daily life, and its realia. This range of interests ties in well with the variety and arrangement of Stethatos' material, and his steady attention to concrete detail. To begin with, the Life is built upon accounts of the experiences (chiefly ecstatic) which marked Symeon's spiritual progress and highlight his personal commitment to mystically meet God; it includes episodes that bring out his opposition to ecclesiastics and monks, in defense either of his spiritual father, Symeon Eulabes, or of himself; finally, a large section of the narrative is taken up by ordinary hagiographical material, namely stories referring to the saint's miracles before and after death.

Unlike most of the hagiography produced in past centuries (especially in the ninth and tenth), this Life is mostly staged in small, closed spaces and is poor in scenes of travelling from one place to another. An exception are the sections dealing with Symeon's exile to the outskirts of Chrysoupolis, on the Asian side of the Bosphoros (chapters 94-104). Moreover, written more than two centuries after the end of Iconoclasm (843), the text emphasizes the icon-cult of saints, thereby constituting a rare record of historical memory regarding the iconoclastic controversy. All in all, although Niketas is drawn to such and other subtle theological questions, he demonstrates no less an interest in factual evidence and attention to detail, which he supports with prosopographical references and first-person narratives.

After the critical editions of the Greek text and its translations into French and modern Greek, which we owe to Irénée Hausherr (1928) and Symeon Koutsas (1994, 2nd ed. 1996) respectively, the English translation of this Life and discussion of recent scholarship in its introduction represents a significant contribution to its study. Richard Greenfield is an experienced commentator of Byzantine texts, and it is regrettable that, in compliance with the rules of the series, he had to keep the annotation of this important text to a minimum. The study of Byzantine authors seldom benefits from detailed commentaries and, in view of the limited number of scholars engaged with Byzantine studies, it is doubtful that any such undertaking will open up in the next years. This is, however, an issue that affects the whole series, not only to Greenfield's useful endeavor, the core of which is an accurate and readable translation. Indeed, the list of slips that I was able to spot with regard to the reproduction of the Greek text, the English translation, and the notes is not extensive (see errata list, below).

Finally, the following important title is missing from the bibliography: M. Hinterberger, "Ein Editor und sein Autor: Niketas Stethatos und Symeon Neos Theologos," in P. Odorico (ed.), La face cachée de la littérature byzantine. Le texte en tant que message immédiat, Dossiers Byzantines 11 (Paris, 2012), 247-264.



1. Chapter 14 (p. 36): πυρινόν; should be πύρινον.

2. Chapter 14 (p. 37): ἀκηδία; better than "spiritual boredom" is "listlessness" or "despondency."

3. Chapter 35 (p. 78): μόνος μόνῳ...προσωμίλει Θεῷ; a possible allusion to St. Symeon's mystical prayer, which introduced his hymns; see ed. A. Kambylis, Symeon Neos Theologos, Hymnen (Berlin 1976), 42.

4. Chapter 50 (pp. 108-109): ἄρτι ἀνιπταμένων ἐκ νεοσσῶν; not translated.

5. Chapter 56 (pp. 124-125): πιθών, πιθῶνος; should be translated as "store of jars," "cellar," not "large jar."

6. Chapter 92 (n. 97): instead of that by F. Boulenger (Paris, 1908), there is a more recent critical edition of Gregory of Nazianzos' Oration 43, by J. Bernardi, Sources Chrétiennes 384 (Paris, 1992).

7. Chapter 94 (p. 216): ἑώρα ὁ τὰ θεῖα πολὺς Συμεών, καὶ ὅτι οὐκ ἠρεμήσει, ἐὰν μὴ κακοποιήσῃ ὁ τοῖς λόγοις δυνατὸς καὶ ἀντιπαραταττόμενος αὐτῷ τε καὶ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ; the last words are the object of the participle ἀντιπαραταττόμενος, not the verb κακοποιήσῃ, intransitive here and to be followed by a comma. So the translation must be: "the most godly Symeon...knew that this man (sc. Stephen of Alexina), who opposed him and the truth and was strong in words, would not keep quiet until he does ill."

8. Chapter 103 (p. 236): ἀλλὰ τῶν γραφέντων τελείωσε τῆς ἀναγνώσεως; τελείωσε cannot be correct, and must be restored to τελευθείσης (as in Hausherr's ed.) or to τελειωθείσης (as in Koutsas' ed.).

9. Chapter 103 (p. 238): μητροπόλεων; means "metropolitan sees" rather than "metropolitan cities."

10. Chapter 106 (p. 246): σπόδος; wrong accentuation for σποδός.

11. Chapter 145 (p. 360): ἀσκητικὸν καταγώγιον...εἰς γυμνασίαν ἀρετῆς; "an ascetic abode for exercising virtue" rather than "an ascetic abode as a gymnasium of virtue" (cf. chapter 136, p. 332: εἰς γυμνασίαν τοῦ λόγου).

12. Chapter 147 (p. 366): τοῦτό μοι πεποιηκέναι δωρεὰν; the allusion is also to John 15:25.

13. Chapter 149 (p. 374): ἠλευθηρώθη; misspelling of ἠλευθερώθη.

14. Chapter152 (p. 382): σύναμα; wrong accentuation for συνάμα.