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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world


Theophylact Simocatta in his History describes how the Persian King Khosrau II had a dream vision of *Mary (Mother of Christ, S00033) in 596 or later, promising him victory. He related the dream to Probos, bishop of Chalcedon and venerated a portable icon of her carried by the bishop; all in Ctesiphon (Persia). Written in Greek in Constantinople in the early 7th century.

Evidence ID

E00041

Type of Evidence

Literary - Other narrative texts (including Histories)

Major author/Major anonymous work

Theophylact Simocatta

Theophylact Simocatta, History 5.15.8-10

(8.) οὐ μετὰ πολὺ δὲ καὶ ὁ Πρόβος τῆς Χαλκηδονέων πόλεως τὴν ἀρχιερατικὴν φροντίδα περιεβάλετο, καὶ ἤκουσέ που παρὰ Χοσρόου παράδοξα. (9.) τοῦ γὰρ αὐτοκράτορος Μαυρικίου τοῦτον ἐς Κτησιφῶντα πρὸς Χοσρόην ἐπαποστείλαντος, ἐν σταθηρᾷ μεσημβρίᾳ τινὶ μετάκλητον εἰς τὰ ἀνάκτορα τοῦτον εἰσποιησάμενος, ἱδρῶτι περιρρεόμενος τῆς θεομήτορος εἰκόνα ἠξίου παρὰ τοῦ ἱερέως θεάσασθαι. (10.) ἐπιφερόμενος οὖν ὁ ἱερεὺς τὸ ταύτης ἴνδαλμα ἐν πυκτίῳ ἐδίδου ἐς θέαν ἐλθεῖν τῷ Περσῶν βασιλεῖ. ὁ δὲ προσκυνήσας τὸν πίνακα ἔφασκε παρεστάναι αὐτῷ τὸ τούτου ἀρχέτυπον φῆσαί τε πρὸς αὐτὸν τὰς Ἀλεξάνδρου νίκας αὐτῷ τοῦ Μακεδόνος χαρίσασθαι ...

'(8.) Not long afterwards, Probos was invested with the high-priestly care of the city of the Chalcedonians [became bishop of Chalcedon] and apparently heard extraordinary things from Chosroes [Khosrau II]. (9.) For when the emperor Maurice sent this man to Chosroes at Ctesiphon, at high noon one day, Chosroes had him summoned to the palace where, bathed in sweat, he demanded from the priest to see an image of the Mother of God. (10) So the priest, who carried with him her likeness on a tablet (ἐν πυκτίῳ) granted a view of it to the Persian king. He venerated the panel (πίναξ), and declared that its archetype had stood beside him and told him that the victories of Alexander of Macedon would be bestowed upon him ...'

Text: de Boor and Wirth 1972. Translation: Whitby and Whitby 1986.

Use of Images

Private ownership of an image
Other forms of veneration of an image

Miracles

Miracle after death
Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops
Pagans
Monarchs and their family
Foreigners (including Barbarians)

Source

Theophylact Simocatta wrote his History in Constantinople probably in the late 620s. The period covered by his work is the reign of Maurice (582-602), and the main subjects of the historical narrative are the wars of the East Roman Empire with Persia, and with the Avars and the Slavs in the Balkans. Several digressions of hagiographical, chronographical and geographical interest are inserted in the narrative. Using various earlier sources, Simocatta produces a positive account of Maurice, portraying him as a good emperor overthrown by a tyrant (Phocas). In fact, Maurice was very unpopular in his own times, but cleansing his memory was important to legitimise the rule of Heraclius (610-641), who presented his own coup against Phocas as avenging the murder of Maurice. A supporter and successful official of Heraclius’ regime, Simocatta apparently served this particular political agenda.

Further reading:
Whitby and Whitby 1986, xiii-xxx (introduction); Whitby 1988; Frendo 1988; Olajos 1988.

Discussion

The passage comes from the end of Simocatta's account of Khosrau II’s restoration to the Persian throne with the assistance of the Roman Emperor Maurice. The author employs a number of anecdotes intending to show that Khosrau, although loyal to the Persian religion, was sympathetic to Christianity and that his alliance with Maurice was approved by God. Khosrau married a Christian woman and had a special devotion for the Christian martyr *Sergius who granted his petitions, while his overthrow and flight to the Romans were prophesied by the Persian convert to Christianity *Golinduch (see E00025, E00030, E00018). All these probably seek to justify Maurice’s support for the non-Christian monarch, which is likely to have been remembered with mixed feelings by the Romans after Khosrau's new conquests of Roman lands following Maurice's death. At the same time, under the impact of Heraclius' successes against Persia in the 620s, stories like this may have also echoed contemporary Roman hopes that Persia would eventually be converted to Christianity.

According to the story, the Persian king has a dream vision of Mary promising him legendary victories like those of Alexander the Great, and summons the bishop of Chalcedon, Probos, then visiting the palace on an embassy. Khosrau asks to be shown an icon of Mary, which the bishop produces and the Persian venerates, revealing his vision to Probos. The date of the supposed incident is unknown. It is likely that an embassy led by Probos visited Ctesiphon in the 590s or later, but the veracity of the anecdote cannot be checked. An event described by the Syriac Chronicle of Seert may be a version of the same story: according to this, a Roman embassy led by a bishop of Chalcedon called Marutha witnessed a miraculous cure effected by *Sabrisho (
$S###), Katholikos of the Church of the East (596-604). Prophecies about Khosrau’s victories probably circulated after 605, the date of his spectacular conquests in the East. Simocatta may have heard this story from people close to Probos.

However true or fictitious the story may be, the phrase προσκυνήσας τὸν πίνακα is one of the earliest explicit descriptions of veneration of a portable panel icon. It is unclear how exactly Khosrau venerated the icon, but the object itself is described by the words πυτκίον and πίναξ, both meaning a tablet or panel. Πυκτίον or πτυκτίον can also denote a folding tablet or diptych. The text implies that the bishop carried a portable icon of Mary on his journey.

The phrasing concerning the distinction between the icon and its archetype is also remarkable, as it echoes attitudes that were later debated during Iconoclasm and prevailed in the Second Council of Nicaea (787). The phrase about Mary’s likeness on a tablet (τὸ ταύτης ἴνδαλμα ἐν πυκτίῳ) and about the icon’s archetype (τὸ τούτου ἀρχέτυπον) talking to the king are early attestations of beliefs concerning the use of images in Christian cult.

Further reading:
Whitby 1988, 240-241.


Bibliography

Edition:
de Boor, C., and Wirth, P., Theophylacti Simocattae Historiae (Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana; Leipzig: Teubner, 1972).

Translation:
Whitby, M., and Whitby, M., The History of Theophylact Simocatta: An English Translation with Introduction and Notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

Further Reading:
Frendo, J.D.C., “History and Panegyric in the Age of Heraclius: The Literary Background of the Composition of the Histories of Theophylact Simocatta,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 42 (1988), 143-156.

Olajos, T.,
Les Sources de Théophylacte Simocatta Historien (Leiden: Brill, 1988).

Whitby, M.,
The Emperor Maurice and his Historian: Theophylact Simocatta on Persian and Balkan Warfare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).


Record Created By

Efthymios Rizos

Date Last Modified

14/04/2020

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristΘεομήτωρCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Efthymios Rizos, Cult of Saints, E00041 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E00041