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Column Cryptography: The Theodosian Obelisk as Cipher for the Fictional Life of Theodulus the Stylite

Charles Kuper

Thesaurus linguae Latinae

Stylites or “pillar-saints” represent Christian asceticism at its most extreme. These men and women stood on columns and endured the harsh elements, sometimes for decades, while fasting and praying. Such a lifestyle is intrinsically material. Without a column, there is simply no stylite. Late antique authors and artists were quick to play with this association, even blurring the boundary between the two. In the Life of Alypius the Stylite (BHG 65), the saint becomes a “living statue” whose flesh is paradoxically sturdier than real statues of bronze. In the Life of Symeon the Younger (BHG 1689), the opposite is true. The column becomes animated with the saint’s power and heals an ailing suppliant. The latter point especially resonated for monastic self-representation, as the column could “live on” as a destination for pilgrimage long after the stylite’s death.

Most hagiographies about stylites, therefore, were composed by members of the saint’s community and present an idealized and sympathetic portrait of a historical stylite. But there is one notable exception. The Life of Theodulus the Stylite (BHG 1785) purportedly describes the conversion of Theodulus, the urban prefect of Constantinople under Theodosius I, who rejected his secular career to become a stylite in Syria. Yet unlike other stylites, Theodulus’ virtue is less than lofty. He abandons his wife, lies to the emperor, and purchases his column at an extravagant price. In the most prominent scene, Theodulus is humiliated to learn that a musician who spends his days consorting with prostitutes is more pious and beneficial to society than he.

Scholarly treatment of this strange, almost embarrassing, text is sparse. Daniel Cardono, who prepared the seventeenth-century editio princeps, searched in vain for evidence of an official named Theodulus in fourth-century Constantinople (Cardono, 1688). Hippolyte Delehaye took a different approach in his magisterial volume on stylites. He dismissed this vita as fictional, derivative, and naive, claiming that it was divorced from reality and therefore irrelevant to the study of stylites (Delehaye, 1923). Due to this negative assessment and the inaccessibility of the text, the Life of Theodulus is barely mentioned in scholarship after Delehaye.

Working from my new critical edition, I propose a new interpretation of this text. I argue that the author composed this parody-vita in order to critique stylitism specifically and to question the value of asceticism over married life more generally. To accomplish this, I will show how the vita’s extra- and intertextual references clue readers to its fictionality and critical agenda. The Theodosian Obelisk is the key to unlocking this reading. Not only was the obelisk raised by the actual urban prefect under Theodosius—the historical model for Theodulus and his column—but the obelisk’s location, the artistic reliefs on its base, and its bilingual inscriptions all illuminate important aspects of the narrative. This paper corrrects a century-old interpretation of an understudied text and thereby rediscovers a crucial witness for Christian anti-stylite sentiment. It also serves as a rich example of how ancient fiction functioned in and interacted with its material landscape.

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Pagans and Christians

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