The Odd Tale Of The Ascetic, Jacobus, And His Confrontation With A Persian Army

 

According to the historian Procopius (c. 490-565), an interesting figure named Jacobus flourished in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. This Jacobus, it was said, hailed from Syria, but chose to end his days in a place called Endielon, located not far from the important Byzantine (Eastern Roman) fortress of Amida (near Diyarbakir, Turkey). Jacobus was a devoutly religious man with ascetic tendencies, and after living in the community at Endielon for some time, he ultimately decided to live out the remainder of his life in a religious cell. Supportive of his decision, Jacobus’ neighbors reportedly built for their resident hermit a roofed shelter in which he could live. The walls of the structure apparently resembled fencing, built with gaps in the barrier so that Jacobus could receive food and conversation from visitors. With the blueprint set, Jacobus entered his loosely built enclosure and let his friends set up the final pieces of the cage.

Jacobus likely thought his life from then on out would be nothing but peace, quiet and tranquility. World events, however, thwarted Jacobus’ plans and instead brought chaos to his isolated enclosure. By 502, the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire and the Sāsānian Empire of Persia were at war, and the area in which Jacobus lived was a hotspot of the conflict. Persian forces invaded the region and laid siege to the fortress of Amida between 502 and 503. As Jacobus’ cage could reportedly be reached after only a day’s journey from Amida, Persian scouts or scavengers inevitably found the hermit.

When the Persians discovered the peculiar cage, they approached it cautiously, keeping their bows and arrows at the ready. As the story goes, when the warriors saw that there was a person inside the structure, their first impulse was to loose their arrows and kill whoever was residing in the odd shelter. Yet, upon closer inspection, something suppressed their initial violent impulse. Perhaps, it was Jacobus’ friendly demeanor or his emaciated physique (he had reportedly been living off only seeds). Whatever the case, the Persians apparently could not bring themselves to kill the hermit, and therefore they left him in peace. As the Romans had been driven from the region, the Persians must have also taken up the task of making supply drops for the caged man.

News of the hermit’s existence spread quickly through the ranks of the Persians at Amida. As the story goes, even the Persian king of kings, Kavadh I (r. 488-496, 498-531), the Sāsānian ruler at that time, was interested in seeing the recluse. Kavadh I allegedly traveled to Jacobus’ cage and talked with the man, opening up the conversation by apologizing to the hermit for the incident where Persian troops almost shot arrows at the cage. As recompense, the Persian king supposedly offered to grant a single wish that the hermit might request. Accepting this deal, Jacobus asked for sanctuary and safety to be given to any refugee from the region who camped by his cage at Endielon. According to the historian Procopius, King Kavadh I granted the request “and gave him a written pledge of his personal safety. And great numbers of men, as might be expected, came flocking to him from all sides and found safety there; for the deed became widely known” (The Wars, 1.7).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Recluse Reading, painted by Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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