Jan 052019

Today is the feast day in the Roman Catholic communion of Saint Simeon Stylites or Symeon the Stylite (Classical Syriac: ܫܡܥܘܢ ܕܐܣܛܘܢܐ‎ Koine Greek Συμεών ὁ στυλίτης, Arabic: سمعان العمودي‎) (c. 390 – 2nd September 459), a Syriac ascetic saint who achieved notability for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo (in modern Syria). Several other stylites later followed his model (the Greek word style means “pillar”). He is known formally as Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger, Simeon Stylites III, and Saint Symeon Stylites of Lesbos.

Simeon was the son of a shepherd. He was born in Sis, now the Turkish town of Kozan in Adana Province. Sis was in the Roman province of Cilicia. After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, Cilicia became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Christianity took hold quickly there. According to Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, Simeon developed a zeal for Christianity at the age of 13, following a reading of the Beatitudes. He entered a monastery before the age of 16. From the outset, he gave himself up to the practice of an austerity so extreme and to all appearance so extravagant, that his fellow monks judged him to be unsuited to any form of community life, and asked Simeon to leave the monastery.

He shut himself up in a hut for one and a half years, where he purportedly passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. When he emerged from the hut, his achievement was hailed as a miracle (which it certainly would have been if he had lived over 40 days without drinking). He later took to standing continually upright so long as his limbs would sustain him. After one and a half years in his hut, Simeon sought a rocky eminence on the slopes of what is now the Sheik Barakat Mountain, part of Mount Simeon. He chose to live within a narrow space, less than 20 meters in diameter. But crowds of pilgrims invaded the area to seek him out, asking his counsel or his prayers, and leaving him insufficient time for his own devotions. This eventually led him to adopt a new way of life.

In order to get away from the ever-increasing number of people who came to him for prayers and advice, leaving him little if any time for his private austerities, Simeon discovered a pillar which had survived among ruins in nearby Telanissa (modern-day Taladah in Syria), and formed a small platform at the top. He determined to live out his life on this platform. For sustenance small boys from the nearby village climbed up the pillar and passed him parcels of flat bread and goats’ milk. He may also have pulled up food in buckets via a pulley.

When the monastic Elders living in the desert heard about Simeon, who had chosen this new and strange form of asceticism, they wanted to test him to determine whether his extreme feats were founded in humility or pride. They decided to order Simeon under obedience to come down from the pillar. They decided that if he disobeyed, they would forcibly drag him to the ground, but if he was willing to submit, they were to leave him on his pillar. St Simeon displayed complete obedience and humility, and the monks told him to stay where he was.

The first pillar that Simeon occupied was little more than nine feet high. He later moved his platform to others, the last in the series reportedly more than 15 meters (50 ft) above ground. At the top of the pillar was a platform, which is believed to have been about one square meter and surrounded by a baluster. Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes Simeon’s life as follows:

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

Even on the highest of his columns, Simeon was not withdrawn from the world. If anything, the new pillar attracted even more people, both pilgrims who had earlier visited him and sightseers as well. Simeon was available each afternoon to talk with visitors. By means of a ladder, visitors were able to ascend within speaking distance. It is known that he wrote letters, the text of some of which have survived to this day, that he instructed disciples, and that he also lectured to those assembled beneath. He especially preached against profanity and usury. In contrast to the extreme austerity that he practiced, his preaching conveyed temperance and compassion, and was marked with common sense and freedom from fanaticism. Much of Simeon’s public ministry, like that of other Syrian ascetics, can be seen as socially cohesive in the context of the Roman East. In the face of the withdrawal of wealthy landowners to the large cities, holy men such as Simeon acted as impartial and necessary patrons and arbiters in disputes between peasant farmers and within the smaller towns.

Reports of Simeon reached the church hierarchy and the imperial court. The Emperor Theodosius II and his wife Aelia Eudocia greatly respected the saint and listened to his counsels, while the Emperor Leo I paid respectful attention to a letter he sent in favor of the Council of Chalcedon. Simeon is also said to have corresponded with St Genevieve of Paris. Patriarch Domninos II (441–448) of Antioch visited the monk, and celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the pillar. Once when Simeon was ill, Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to come down and allow himself to be attended by physicians. But Simeon preferred to leave his cure in the hands of God, and before long he recovered.

A double wall was raised around him to keep the crowd of people from coming too close and disturbing his prayerful concentration. Women, in general, were not permitted beyond the wall, not even his own mother, reportedly telling her, “If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come.” She submitted to this, remaining in the area, and embraced the monastic life of silence and prayer. When she died, Simeon asked that her coffin be brought to him.

Simeon spent 37 years atop the pillar. He died on 2nd September 459. A disciple found his body stooped over in prayer. The Patriarch of Antioch, Martyrios performed his funeral before a huge throng of clergy and people. They buried him not far from the pillar.

Simeon inspired many imitators. For the next century, ascetics living on pillars, stylites, were a common sight throughout the Christian Levant. He is commemorated as a saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church, where his feast is on 29 Pashons. He is commemorated on 1st September by the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, and 5th January in the Roman Catholic Church. A contest arose between Antioch and Constantinople for the possession of Simeon’s remains. The preference was given to Antioch, and the greater part of his relics were left there as a protection to the unwalled city. The ruins of the vast edifice erected in his honor and known in Arabic as the Qalaat Semaan (“the Fortress of Simeon”) can still be seen. They are located about 30 km northwest of Aleppo.

A recipe to commemorate a celebrated austere ascetic is always a challenge. We know that Simeon ate flat bread and goat milk, so you could go in that direction. Depends how austere you want to be. Syriac Christians, on the other hand, have a wide variety of recipes you could follow. I have been making some version of their stuffed eggplant and zucchini for over 45 years. You make a mix of cooked rice, ground lamb, and spices, hollow out the vegetables, stuff them with the rice/meat mix, and bake in a hot oven for 30 minutes. I usually added a small amount of broth and tomato paste to the pan for added flavor and juiciness.

Syriac Christians also make a soup with lentils, noodles, and spinach. I am fond of this one too, and it is austere enough even for a stylite. Place a cup of dried lentils in a large pot with abundant broth. Add several handfuls of washed spinach with the toughest stems removed. Bring to a boil and then simmer covered for 30 minutes. Check periodically to make sure the soup does not dry out, and add more broth as needed. Meanwhile, peel and slice an onion and sauté it over medium heat in a skillet in a little olive oil until it is evenly browned on all sides. Doing this well takes more time than you might think – 20 to 25 minutes at a minimum (and you need to stir regularly to avoid burning and to brown evenly). When the lentils start to soften add a cup of uncooked egg noodles broken into short strips. Continue to simmer until the lentils are fully cooked and the noodles are also cooked through. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the browned onions and stir them in thoroughly. Ideally the soup should be thick rather than watery. Serve in deep bowls with lemon wedges (for guests to add a splash of juice if they desire), and flatbread.

Sep 122013


Today is the date customarily assigned to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. The Battle of Marathon was a decisive battle in the first wave of the Greco-Persian wars. It was fought between the citizens of Athens (aided by Plataea), and a Persian force commanded by Datis and Artaphernes. The battle was the culmination of the first attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The Greek army decisively defeated the more numerous Persians, marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars.  I am going to give a little background to provide context, but mostly I want to talk about the story of the runner Pheidippides and how this story became the founding legend of the Olympic marathon race.  Chances are that if you have heard anything about Pheidippides (I learnt about him from my 6th grade reader), it isn’t true.  No matter, it’s a good story.

The Battle of Marathon was the culmination of an attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The first Persian invasion was a response to Greek involvement in the Ionian Revolt, when Athens and nearby Eretria had sent a force to support the cities of Ionia (across the Aegean Sea in what is now Turkey), in their attempt to overthrow Persian rule. The Athenians and Eretrians had succeeded in capturing and burning Sardis, but were then forced to retreat with heavy losses. In response to this raid, the Persian king Darius I swore to burn down Athens and Eretria.  From the map below you can see what Greece was up against.  The Persian Empire (in brown) was vast and extremely powerful, and Greece (in green) was a tiny region bordering the empire, divided into fractious city states.  Athens was a fledgling democracy at the time, overshadowed by Sparta but starting to flex its muscles.


Once the Ionian revolt was finally crushed by the Persian victory at the Battle of Lade, Darius began his plan to conquer Greece. In 490 BCE, he sent a naval task force under Datis and Artaphernes across the Aegean, to subjugate the Cyclades, and then to make punitive attacks on Athens and Eretria. Reaching Euboea in mid-summer after a successful campaign in the Aegean, the Persians proceeded to besiege and capture Eretria. The Persian force then sailed for Attica, landing in the bay near the town of Marathon. The Athenians, joined by a small force from Plataea, marched to Marathon, and succeeded in blocking the two exits from the plain of Marathon. Stalemate ensued for five days, before the Athenians (for reasons that are not completely clear) decided to attack the Persians. The Persians outnumbered the Greeks nearly three to one, but despite the numerical advantage of the Persians, the Greek hoplites (citizen-soldiers) proved devastatingly effective against the more lightly armed Persian infantry, routing the wings before turning in on the center of the Persian line.


The date of the battle is not really clear because of rather confusing methods of dating used at the time.  Herodotus, described the battle in detail in Book IV of The Histories, and is our best surviving source of information.  He was writing several decades later (he was not even born at the time), but it is reasonably certain that he used contemporary accounts, no longer extant.  Herodotus mentions a date in the lunisolar calendar, of which each Greek city-state used a variant. Astronomical computation allows us to derive an absolute date in the proleptic Julian calendar which is often used by historians as the chronological frame. Philipp August Böckh in 1855 concluded that the battle took place on September 12, 490 BCE in the Julian calendar, and this is the conventionally accepted date.  But his dating relies on a key festival that occurred at the same time in Sparta, and it is possible that the Spartan calendar was one month ahead of that of Athens. In that case the battle took place on August 12, 490 BCE.

According to Herodotus, an Athenian runner named Pheidippides was sent to run from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance before the battle. He ran a distance of over 225 kilometers (140 miles), arriving in Sparta the day after he left. Here is the original:

Before they left the city, the Athenian generals sent off a message to Sparta. The messenger was an Athenian named Pheidippides, a professional long-distance runner. According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides’ story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection.

On the occasion of which I speak – when Pheidippides, that is, was sent on his mission by the Athenian commanders and said that he saw Pan – he reached Sparta the day after he left Athens and delivered his message to the Spartan government. “Men of Sparta” (the message ran), “the Athenians ask you to help them, and not to stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and subdued by a foreign invader; for even now Eretria has been enslaved, and Greece is the weaker by the loss of one fine city.” The Spartans, though moved by the appeal, and willing to send help to Athens, were unable to send it promptly because they did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full. So they waited for the full moon, and meanwhile Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, guided the Persians to Marathon.


Part of the significance of the story lies in the Athenian belief that the encounter of Pheidippides with Pan was a good omen meaning that Pan would fight on their side.  Apart from his other powers, Pan had the capacity to induce irrational, overwhelming fear in people, from which we get the word “panic.”

Then, following the battle, the Athenian army marched the roughly 40 km (25 miles) back to Athens at a very high pace (considering the quantity of armor, and the fatigue after the battle), in order to head off the Persian force sailing around Cape Sounion. They arrived back in the late afternoon, in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens, thus completing the Athenian victory.

Later, in popular imagination, these two events became confused with each other, leading to a legendary, but inaccurate, version of events. This legend has Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens after the battle, to announce the Greek victory with the word “???????????” (“We were victorious!”), whereupon he promptly died of exhaustion. Most accounts incorrectly attribute this story to Herodotus; actually, the story first appears in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens in the 1st century CE, who is quoting from a lost work of Heracleides of Pontus, giving the runner’s name as either Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE) gives the same story but names the runner Philippides (not Pheidippides).


It seems likely that in the 500 years between Herodotus’ time and Plutarch’s, the story of Pheidippides running to Sparta had become muddled with that of the Battle of Marathon (particularly the story of the Athenian forces making the march from Marathon to Athens in order to intercept the Persian ships headed there), and some fanciful writer had created the story of the run from Marathon to Athens because of the mix up.

In 1879, Robert Browning wrote the poem Pheidippides. The composite story in Browning’s poem of Pheidippides running to Sparta and back, fighting in the battle, then running to Athens to proclaim the victory, became part of late 19th century popular culture and was accepted as an historic fact. That’s the story I read in the 6th grade. When the idea of a modern Olympics was shaping up at the end of the 19th century, the initiators and organizers were looking for a great popularizing event that would recall the ancient glory of Greece. The idea of holding a ‘marathon race’ came from Michel Bréal and the idea was heavily supported by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, as well as the Greeks. This race would echo the legendary version of events, with the competitors actually running from Marathon to Athens. On April 10, 1896, Spiridon Louis of Greece won the first Olympic marathon in a time of 2:58:50.  The event was so popular that it quickly caught on, becoming a fixture at the Olympic games, with major cities subsequently staging their own annual events. The distance eventually became fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195 km, though for the first years it was variable, being around 25 miles (40 km)—the approximate distance from Marathon to Athens.

1896 Olympic marathon

1896 Olympic marathon

To celebrate Athens and Marathon I have chosen a reconstructed ancient Athenian recipe for lentil soup.  I chose it in large part because I am a huge fan of lentil soup, and it seems as if the basic recipe has probably not changed all that much in 2500 years.  This is hardly surprising given the nature of the soup.  The recipe here is adapted from Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti who used a combination of detective work from classic authors and later Roman cookbooks to piece things together.  This recipe, rather fancifully, is attributed to the philosopher Zeno of Citium. It is really quite standard except for the addition of ground coriander and honey whose proportions can be adjusted to taste. It does, however, lack the modern use of a ham bone or similar, but more often than not I make a meatless version.  I have also seen ancient recipes using cilantro and fresh mint.  I do not doubt that if we ate lentil soup in an ancient Athenian home or military mess it would be instantly recognizable as a flavor we know. It would have been common army food because of the ease of storage and transportation of lentils.


Zeno’s Lentil Soup


1 lb (500g) lentils
8 cups beef broth
1 large leek coarsely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp honey
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
coriander seeds, ground


Rinse the lentils thoroughly and put them into a pot with the broth to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one hour.

At the end of the hour, skim the top, add the vegetables, and simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes.

If the soup seems too watery, pass some of the lentils through a sieve, or use an immersion blender on a small portion. Add the vinegar and honey.

Pour into serving bowls and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil per serving.

Guests may add ground coriander seeds, salt, and pepper to taste.

Serves 4-6