In the eastern Roman Empire, several faiths and philosophies agree on one thing; that you need to eschew flesh to live a life of the spirit.
Episode 5: Flesh & Spirit
Not all Romans celebrated pagan sacrifices or the bloodthirsty arena. Some Romans followed the semi-mythical vegetarian Pythagoras, or neoplatonist philosophers who preached a vegetarian contemplative life.
In the melting pot of Jewish mythology, Greek philosophy, and the worship of Jesus many forms of Christianity emerge. Some of them advocate vegetarianism. The lost world religion of Manichaeanism took ideas from India and was led by a plant based priesthood that would last a thousand years.
Alexandria in Egypt is the epicentre of many of these contemplative movements. Ian visits a valley in Yorkshire that still echoes with the traditions of the ancient Egyptian desert – the Coptic Christian monastery of St. Athanasius. He discovers why the monks pursue that life, what it means to them, and how they maintain some of the original vegetarian traditions of the Egyptian desert fathers.
- Fr. Abouna Yostas St. Athanasius (St. Athanasius’ Monastery)
- Dr David Grummet (University of Edinburgh, davidgrumett.com)
- Dr Michael Beer (@Sutekh69)
- Dr Nicholas Baker-Brian (Cardiff University)
- Seneca the Younger, “Epistles“, 1st Century CE.
- Philo (attributed), “The Contemplative Life”, 1st Century CE. Translation by Charles Duke Yonge
- Paul of Tarsus, “Letter to the Romans”, 1st Century CE. Romans 14:2-3.
- Gospel of the Ebionites, 1st or 2nd Century CE (as quoted in fragments by a later Christian heresiologist). Translation by Montague Rhode James 1924
- Jerome (attributed), “The History of the Monks (Fr Theon)”, traditionally 5th century.
- Plutarch, “On the Eating of Flesh”, 1st Century CE. Translation by PD Loeb
- Clement of Alexandria, “Miscellanies”, turn of 3rd Century CE. Translation by William Wilson 1885
- Porphyry, “On the Abstention from Flesh”, 3rd Century CE, Translation by Thomas Taylor
- Council of Ancyra, 314 CE. Translation by Henry Percival 1900
- Augustine of Hippo, “Against the Manichaeans”, 388 CE. Translation by Richard Stothert 1887
Now the story has reached characters whose writing survives to the present in volumes, I’m spending less time talking about historical sources and more time quoting people. And it’s hard to leave things out. There are so many things that Plutarch said in the first century that people like Vegan Sidekick have had to repeat in the twenty-first.
This was also the hardest episode for which to arrange a location visit; the story unfolded a long way from where I live, there’s not enough reason to travel, and precious few ethical vegetarians. It took me a while to find the monastery of St. Athanasius.
The tattoo of a Coptic cross on Fr. Yostas’ wrist is what modern Copts (Egypt’s Christian minority) show on entry into a church.
Music by Robb Masters, and Michael Levy. The actors were Jeremy Hancock and Yasser Sha’aban.
The music was:
- Theme by Robb Masters
- Sacred Flame of Vesta, by Michael Levy
- Avinu Malcheinu, Jewish traditional, arranged and performed by Michael Levy
- Hurrian Hymn, anonymous ancient Mesopotamian, arranged by Michael Levy based on translation of Ugarit tablet by Richard Dumbrill
The show also included part of a service at the monastery of St. Athanasius, and (at the end) an Ethiopian Orthodox Service at St. Mary of Tserha Sion in Hackney, East London.
The icon of St. Nofer the hermit is taken with permission from this Russian-language tourist website.
Special thanks to the Coptic Monastery of St. Athanasius, and Marian and Kevin McDonald (my parents) for driving me there.
Geek recommendation: some of the Christian theologians in this episode also appear in the excellent (and uncharacteristically monster-free) Doctor Who audio drama Council of Nicea.