17.03.09, Talbot et al., eds. and trans., Holy Men of Mount Athos

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Nicholas Marinides

The Medieval Review 17.03.09

Talbot, Alice-Mary, Richard Greenfield, Alexander Alexakis, and Stamatina McGrath, eds. Holy Men of Mount Athos. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 40. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. pp. 776. ISBN: 978-0-674-08876-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Nicholas Marinides
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

"Thus has nature from the beginning framed it as a workshop of virtue, and of old it attracts everyone to its desire: not only those to whom it has been granted to savor in any way the honey of that virtue and tranquility, but even those who happened to learn of its good and pleasant things only by report." [1]

These words of the fourteenth-century scholar Nikephoros Gregoras, describing Mount Athos as a natural and spiritual paradise, apply as much today as in the late Byzantine Empire. Athos, the eastern-most finger of the Chalkidike peninsula in northern Greece, has been inhabited by holy hermits from at least the ninth century A.D. and is still active as the heart of Orthodox Christian monasticism, with over two thousand resident monks. [2]

Given the diachronic importance of the Holy Mountain, as it is often styled, the editors and translators of Holy Men of Mount Athos have done a great service to the academy and the wider reading public by providing the lives of five Athonite saints in accessible Greek texts and, more importantly, first-ever English translations. Richard P.H. Greenfield and Alice-Mary Talbot were the main editors and translators, while Alexander Alexakis re-edited the first Life and Stamatina McGrath translated the last one.

In terms of chronology the Lives cover large intervals of the history of Mt Athos during the Byzantine period, from the ninth to the fifteenth century. In terms of forms of monastic life, they include the exploits of isolated hermits, the communal institution-building of coenobites, and different practices in between--sometimes in the life of one and the same saint. Though differing in linguistic and stylistic register and showing differing degrees of theological interpretation and reworking, all six of them present their subjects in substantial detail, replete with anecdotes of both exalted and mundane happenings in their lives. The Greek texts are taken from extant critical editions, emended slightly by the translators (more substantially in the case of the first Life listed below):

1. Life of Euthymios the Younger (anonymous), ed. Alexakis and trans. Talbot; henceforth Euth. [3] Euthymios (traditionally 823/4-898) was a pioneer on Mount Athos. A married man, from a village near Ankara. he abandoned his family to become a monk on on the holy mountain Olympus in Bithynia, then spent several intervals on Athos as a hermit, before establishing a monastery near Thessalonike.

2. Life of Athanasios of Athos (anonymous), trans. Talbot; henceforth Ath. [4] Athanasios (ca. 925/30-ca. 1001) was the founder of coenobitic monasticism on Athos. He was born in Trebizond; after a promising start as a professor of rhetoric in Constantinople, he became a monk in Bithynia, then moved to Athos and spent some time as a hermit. With the support of his spiritual son, the emperor Nikephoros Phokas, he founded the Great Lavra on a coenobitic pattern. Despite initial resistance from many Athonites, it prospered and inspired similar foundations. There are two extant early versions of the Life of Athanasios, designated Vita A (by a certain Athanasios of Panagiou Monastery in Constantinople, early eleventh century) and Vita B (anonymous, probably by a monk of the Great Lavra, mid- to late-eleventh century), and both based on a lost Vita Prima by Anthony, a close disciple of Athanasios and spiritual father of the author of Vita A. The editors of the present volume chose to translate Vita B, since it is arguably closer to the Vita Prima and presents a more circumstantial account of Athanasios' life and the workings of his Lavra than the rather florid Vita A.

3. Life of Maximos the Hutburner by Niphon (trans. Greenfield); henceforth Max.Niph. [5] Maximos (1272/85-1367/80) was from Lampsakos, on the Asian side of the Hellespont, and began monastic life in Thrace at the holy mountain Ganos. He spent some time as a fool for Christ in Constantinople before moving to Athos. After a stint at the Great Lavra, he began life as a wandering hermit in the wilderness of the south of Athos, where he earned his sobriquet Hutburner (Gk. Kavsokalyvitēs) by burning his makeshift abode and moving to a new location whenever he started attracting visitors. Eventually he settled down, receiving visits from emperors and bishops. Almost three centuries later, the Skete of the Holy Trinity, a semi-eremitic community, was founded in one of the areas he had wandered in, and has become known popularly as Kavsokalyvia. The author of this life, Niphon, was a friend of Maximos and himself a holy hermit (see number 5 below), though not very learned, as reflected in this Life. 4. Life of Maximos the Hutburner by Theophanes (trans. Greenfield and Talbot); henceforth Max.Theo. [6] Theophanes was also an associate of Maximos; he became abbot of the large Monastery of Vatopedi and later a bishop outside Athos. He used Niphon's account but added substantially, including an account of Maximos's interview with the great hesychast teacher, Gregory of Sinai. Theophanes wrote in a moderately learned and polished style.

5. Life of Niphon of Athos (anonymous), trans. Greenfield; henceforth Niph. [7] Niphon (1315–1411), the author of the first Life of Maximos above, hailed from southern Albania. Becoming a monk and priest at the monastery of Geromerion on the Greek side of today's border, he then moved to Athos in search of tranquility. This life is closer to Theophanes in its literary level.

6. Life of Philotheos of Athos (anonymous), trans. McGrath; henceforth Philo. [8] This short life is of historical interest chiefly for its description of the devşirme, the Ottoman practice of drafting young Christian boys into the elite corps of janissaries, from which Philotheos (ca. 1365-1450) miraculously escaped, leading him to embrace the monastic life first in Neapolis (probably modern Kavala) at a double monastery of monks and nuns. When the temptations there proved too much, he moved to Athos and spent some time at the monastery of Dionysiou before becoming a hermit nearby. Later he seems to have lived in the vicinity of Vatopedi. The anonymous author of this Life wrote in a middle register of Byzantine Greek.

As a whole, the lives are well-chosen to offer an overview of Byzantine Athos. Given the historical and theological significance of their subjects, the translations of Ath. and Max.Niph. and Max.Theo. will be especially valuable for classroom use (as well as for practicing monastics and lay believers). The translations are very good, usually accurate while also reading smoothly in English.

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, like its older counterpart the Loeb Classical Library, does not present full critical texts. Unlike Loeb, however, this present volume and the Medieval series in general do not offer the attenuated critical apparatus at the foot of the page, but in a section in the back. I am not the first commentator in TMR to complain about this format. The need to flip back and forth is inconvenient, and nothing is gained in terms of readability or aesthetics, given the small number of variants. The apparatus section is introduced by a brief overview of the texts, discussing the editions from which they are taken and changes made by the editors of the DO volume. There is no apparatus fontium as such; scriptural references are indicated parenthetically, and references to other works are given in the endnotes.

The endnotes follow immediately on the apparatus section. In keeping with the Medieval Library guidelines, they are concise, but nevertheless manage to convey plenty of useful and interesting information. Unfortunately the references to primary and secondary literature found in these notes are not collected in a comprehensive bibliography at the end; the two pages of bibliography that do exist (731-732) give only the critical editions of the Lives themselves (given in the footnotes to the present review), and a few basic studies of textual or historico-theological questions.

In the introduction to the critical apparatus the editors mention that Max.Niph., Max.Theo., and Niph. display elements of vernacular Greek. Following the original edition, the editors have kept these as evidence of the historical development of Greek, rather than correcting toward a more correct literary Koine. This is a sound choice, but it might have been useful if they had provided less knowledgable readers with some examples and discussion of these vernacular elements. [9]

In the course of my own reading, I marked many vernacular features in the margins. This review is not the place to list these jottings; nor am I qualified to pronounce authoritatively on issues of linguistics. But I would like to offer a tentative conjecture relating to the two Lives of Maximos the Hutburner. When not employing the classical dative, Niphon uses a genitive for the indirect object; cf. Max.Niph. 15.1 (402): én paximán édoken enós tón evrethénton adelfón. Theophanes, for his part, uses an accusative instead; cf. Max.Theo. 16.1 (504): metádos tó tálanton...tón laón toú Theoú. This tracks an important isogloss separating the two major modern Greek dialect groups. Niphon's usage fits his Epirote origins, while Theophanes' points to the northern group, anywhere from western Macedonia and Thessaly to Constantinople and Pontus. [10] This might add a small datum to our scant evidence for Theophanes. Furthermore, Niph., among its few vernacular traces, once gives the genitive as indirect object; cf. 20.1 (608): ei tón ptochón eíches dósi. This is placed in the mouth of Niphon, so it might reflect the latter's customary speech rather than the author's. Philo., which is otherwise written in classicizing Greek, has one instance of accusative of indirect object: 3.4 (624): efcharistían anépempen tín ypéragnon kaí éfsplachnon mitéra toú Kyríou, which might reveal the anonymous author as a northern Greek speaker. These are only tentative hypotheses; further analysis would hopefully turn up a further useful information.

Before proceeding to a select list of corrigenda, I would like to note that such minor corrections do not detract from my appreciation of Holy Men of Mount Athos as an accessible edition, much-needed translation, and concise commentary on these important texts, which are windows into Byzantine monastic life in general, and Mount Athos in particular.


7.2 (22): citation Ct. 1:4

8.1 (26): error in note (664)--"genuine worship (latreia)" rendered only to God, according to official iconophile doctrine, not any "sacred person depicted"

23.2 (66): "also believed that they would transfer to the blessing among themselves through a holy kiss' instead of 'also...kiss"; if my rendering is correct, this is evidence for an interesting and rather unusual means of conveying sanctity at several removes from a holy man 27.2.56 (82): citation Ps. 4:9

30.5 (96): "win the sons of Seth as his spoils" instead of "ravage the sons of Seth"

37.3 (118): citation Ps. 4:9


26.4 (204): diakonitín refers to a monk who is fulfilling his appointed task in the monastery, not a 'servant'

30.3 (220): note (680-81) correctly traces quotation to Apophthegmata patrum, but misidentifies monk in question as Isidore of Pelusium rather than Isidore of Scetis

50.4 (290): "excommunicate" for aforisthínai, not "confine"

52.3 (296): priní should be emended to prin í, as in 35.3 (238)

74.2 (352): citation Ps. 112:8

77.1 (356): "barbarous people" may refer to Bulgarian raiders rather than to earlier Slav settlers (cf. note, 693)


10.2 (390) and 10.4 (392) and 11.1 (394): Maximos clairvoyantly exposes the hoarding of certain monks; this may indicate a general concern with private property, at time when idiorrhythmic monastic observance was becoming more common (cf. Niph. 14.1 and note ad locum)


6.1 (460): arxasthai diá práxeos = "begin through cultivation of the practical virtues" rather than "begin to act"

7.3 (466): emendation of tá prós trofín ek tís trapézis mónis unnecessary; even today on Mount Athos, someonewho kratáei tín trápeza, i.e. "eats only what is served in the refectory," is admired

8.3 (470): quotation oís erimikoís...ektós from anabathmoi of the matins for Sundays, First Mode, 1.2, in Paraklētikē ētoi Oktōēchos ē Megalē (Athens: Apostolikē Diakonia, 1994), 26, attributed to Theodore the Stoudite or his brother Joseph or John of Damascus; see Ioannēs Fountoulēs, "Anavathmoí (Leitourgikí)," Thrēskeutikē kai Ēthikē Enkyklopaideia 2, ed. Arēs Panōtēs (Athens: Martinos, 1963), 451.

27.1 (534): "how each one's was, doubled" (i.e. 'as each one's was, let alone exaggerate it') instead of "unless he is a duplicate of each one"

31.1 (544): prós emendation unnecessary, given use of accusative of indirect object in Max.Theo.

33.2 (554): en aftoís instead of en aftón


4.1 (578): pace the note (723), Athos was not under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Hierissos at this time; it was transferred from direct dependence on the emperor to direct jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch by an imperial chrysobull in 1312 [11]. The bishop of Hierissos was probably delegated by the patriarch for such minor tasks as the altar restoration mentioned here.

18.1 (604): óplon tón Sérvon = "Serbian weapons" i.e. "Serbian siege engines," not "Serbian forces"; cf. 18.2 (606): ploía tón Venetikón oplisména = "heavily-armed ships of the Venetians" rather than "ships, manned by the Venetians"; cf. in same section "Turkish ships, along with their weapons (óplon)" (as translated in book)



1. Nicephorus Gregoras, Roman History 14.7.4, ed. Ludwig Schopen, Nicephori Gregorae historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1830), vol. 2, 717-718 (my translation).

2. For good general overviews, see Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), and Veronica della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place from Homer to World War II (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).

3. BHG 655; ed. Louis Petit, "Vie et office de St. Euthyme le Jeune," Revue de l'Orient chrétien 8 (1903): 155-205, 503-536.

4. BHG 188; ed. Jaques Noret, Duae vitae antiquae Sancti Athanasii Athonitae, CCSG 9 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1982), 127-213.

5. BHG 1236z; ed. François Halkin, "Deux vies de s. Maxime le Kausokalybite, ermite au Mont Athos (XIVe s.)," Analecta Bollandiana 54 (1936): 38-65 (based on transcription by the monk Eustratios Kourilas).

6. BHG 1237; ed. ibid., 65-112.

7. BHG 1371; ed. idem, "La vie de Saint Niphon ermite au Mont Athos, (XIVe s.)," Analecta Bollandiana 58 (1940): 1-27; note that the volume being reviewed gives the incorrect page range of 42-65 (731).

8. BHG 1534; ed. Basilike Papoulia, "Die Vita des Heiligen Philotheos vom Athos," Südost Forschungen 23 (1963): 259-280.

9. Halkin discusses vernacular elements briefly: "Deux vies d s. Maxime Kausokalybite," 41 n. 2 and "La vie de Saint Niphon," 11 n. 5.

10. For the isogloss, see Nick Nicholas, "The story of pu: The grammaticalisation in space and time of a Modern Greek complementiser," PhD Dissertation (University of Melbourne, 1999), 498; available online at

11. Speake, Renewal in Paradise, 85.

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