Persians: Acts of Archelaos on Mani’s foreignness (early fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Acts of Archelaos on Mani’s foreignness (early fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 3, 2023,

Ancient author: Hegemonius (early fourth century CE), Acts of Archelaos / Acta Archelai, or Acts of the Disputation of Archelaus (link; link to Latin and Greek).

Comments: We have already seen how heresy-hunters among Jesus adherents might tap into negative characterizations of easterners, and Persian Magians in particular, as part of their polemical strategy to counter other sects or opponents (link). Rather than viewing Babylonian Chaldeans or Persian Magians as sources of foreign wisdom, as many others might do (see category four), the author of the Acts of Archelaos (early fourth century in its final form) plays on readers’ or hearers’ stereotypes about potentially dangerous and deceptive skills and knowledge of easterners.

This narrative tells a tale (set some time in the period 260s-280s CE, depending on the manuscript) about a group of Jesus adherents living on the edges of the Roman world, perhaps imagined to be on the western bank of the Tigris, right across from Persian (Sassanian) territory. The story-teller pictures Mani – founder of what opponents would label “Manicheans” – on the other side as an expert in foreign forms of knowledge (particularly Persian or Zoroastrian dualistic teachings of good versus evil) who has an eye on disseminating this knowledge on the western bank, targeting the pious Marcellus and his community generally. The local overseer of the Jesus community, Archelaos (or: Archelaus), steps in to combat these dangerous foreign, Persian and, it turns out, in some sense even Egyptian, Scythian, and Saracen teachings. The author (through the character Archelaos) can’t quite make up his mind even as the Persian theme predominates, but the point is that this is very foreign and therefore dangerous.

The excerpts below show the consistency with which the author of this material characterizes Mani (here labelled Manes) as Persian and/or Chaldean, including a description of his physical appearance, wearing multi-coloured pants carrying a Babylonian (Chaldean) book under his arm. One of the speeches given by the overseer Archelaos to the crowd of Jesus adherents sketches a biography of Mani and further underlines the dangerous foreignness of Mani and his Persian, “barbarian” teachings. Quite interesting is the attempt to link Mani with predecessors who thereby add to this foreignness not only Egyptian elements, but also Saracen and, ultimately, Scythian aspects (vaguely defined). Coherency on the source of the knowledge was not the aim of the story, but this Christian author’s message to watch out for dangerous Persians and foreigners from the edges of the Roman empire and beyond comes across clearly nonetheless. Basilides is thrown in as another earlier instance of “Persian” infiltration, just for good measure.

Roughly contemporary with the author of these acts is Eusebios (Church History 7.31), who also characterizes Mani primarily in terms of his origins in Persia:

(31) At that time [270s CE] also the mad-man (maneis) [i.e. Mani], named after his devil-possessed sect (hairesis) [Manicheans], was taking as his armour mental delusion. For the devil, that is Satan himself, the adversary of God, had put the man forward for the destruction of many. His very speech and manners proclaimed him a barbarian in mode of life. Being by nature devilish and insane, his endeavours matched this and he attempted to pose as Christ: at one point proclaiming he was the Paraclete and the Holy Spirit himself, conceited fool that he was, as well as mad; and, at another time choosing, as Christ did, twelve disciples as associates in his new-fangled system. In short, he stitched together false and godless doctrines that he had collected from the countless, long-extinct, godless sects (haireseis), and infected our empire with, as it were, a deadly poison that came from the land of the Persians. Because of him, the ungodly name of “Manicheans” is still prevalent to this day. Such, then, was the foundation on which rested this falsely-called knowledge (gnōsis) which sprang up at the time we have mentioned (translation adapted from Oulten, LCL).

The Roman imperial rescript by the emperor Diocletian (ca. 297 or 302 CE) dealing with Africa shows that the characterization of Mani and his followers as dangerous Persians was not limited to some Christian circles (link).

Works consulted: J. Beduhn and P. Mirecki, eds., Frontiers of Faith: The Christian Encounter with Manichaeism in the Acts of Archelaus (Leiden: Brill, 2007); J.K. Coyle, Manichaeism and Its Legacy (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

Source of the translation: S.D.F. Salmond, The Works of Gregory Thaumaturgus, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Archelaus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Christian Library 20 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1871), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.


[Mani’s supposed Persian appearance on arriving to try to convert Marcellus and the region]

(14.2-4) But on that same day Manes [i.e. Mani] arrived, bringing along with him twenty-two specially chosen youths and virgins. First of all he looked for Turbo [Mani’s messenger] at the door of the house of Marcellus [the pious local who had attracted the notice of Mani as a potential convert] and, on failing to find him there, he went in to salute Marcellus. On seeing Manes, Marcellus at first was struck with astonishment at Manes’ costume. For he wore a kind of shoe which is commonly called “trisole” [i.e. high-healed]. He also had a multi-coloured cloak with a somewhat ethereal appearance. He held a very sturdy staff of ebony-wood in his hand. He carried a Babylonian book under his left arm. His legs were wrapped in different coloured pants, the one leg being red and the other green. His whole appearance was like that of some old Persian expert (artificis) [i.e. likely in the sense of Magian expertise] and war-lord (bellorum ducis).

At that point, Marcellus sent for Archelaos [the overseer or bishop of the local assembly of Jesus adherents]. Archelaos arrived so quickly that he seemed to appear faster than the call was uttered. On entering, Archelaos was very tempted to immediately break out against Manes. Archelaos was provoked to that instantly by the very sight of Manes’ costume and his appearance, but even more by the fact that he had himself been turning over in his mind in his retirement the various matters which he had learned from the recital of Turbo [who had earlier tried to explain Mani’s teaching], and had thus come carefully prepared. But Marcellus, in his great thoughtfulness, repressed all his eagerness for mere wrangling and decided to hear both parties [i.e. listen to a debate by Mani and Archelaos].


[Archelaos on Mani the Persian barbarian and Chaldean speaker]

(40) [Archelaos:]

“None of your party, Manes, will you make a Galatian. Neither will you in this fashion divert us from the faith of Christ. Yes, even if you were to work signs and wonders, to raise the dead, to present to us the very image of Paul himself, you would still remain accursed, Satan! For we have been instructed ahead of time with regard to you: we have been both warned and armed against you by the holy scriptures. You are a vessel of Antichrist. Truly you are no vessel of honour, but a low and base one. You are used by him as any barbarian or tyrant may do. . . [omitted sentences].”

“You Persian barbarian, you have never been able to have a knowledge of the language of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, or any other people. Rather, you only know the Chaldean [i.e. Babylonian] language, which is really not a prevalent language among a large number of people. You are not capable of understanding anyone from another people when he speaks. It is not this way with the Holy Spirit (evil averted). He distinguishes everything, knows every language, has understanding of everything, and is made all things to all men, so that the very thoughts of the heart cannot escape his recognition. For what does the scripture say?: ‘That every man heard the apostles speak in his own language through the Spirit, the Paraclete’ [Acts 2:6].”

[Mani as worshipper of the Persian god Mithras]

“But why should I say more on this subject? You barbarian priest and crafty coadjutor of [the Persian god] Mithras! You will only be a worshipper of the sun-god Mithras, who is the illuminator of places of mystical importance, as you hold, and the self-conscious deity (conscium). That is, you will behave as his worshippers do, and you will celebrate his mysteries, though with less elegance as it were. . .” [omitted sections].


[Mani’s supposed biography connecting him with Persian and other foreign ways]

(61) When the crowd was silent, Archelaos proceeded to speak to them of Manes in the following way:

“You have in fact heard about the character of the teaching which we teach, and you have got some proof of our faith. For I have expounded the scriptures in front of everyone, precisely in accordance with the views which I myself have been able to reach in studying them. But I ask you now to listen to me in all silence while I speak very briefly with the aim of helping you understand who this person is who has appeared among us, where he comes from, and what character he has. I relate this exactly as a certain man of the name of Sisinius, one of his companions, has indicated the facts to me. If you want, I am also prepared to summon this person to support the statements I am about to make. Certainly, this person did not decline to affirm the very same facts which we now present, even when Manes was present. This person became a believer of our teaching, as did also another person who was with me, named Turbo. Accordingly, all that these parties have conveyed in their testimony to me, and also all that we ourselves have discovered about the man, I will not withhold from your understanding.” . . . [omitted material].

[Scythian / Saracen / Egyptian predecessor Scythianos]

(62) “As to this fellow, Manes by name, who has at present burst boastfully forth upon us from the region of Persia, and between whom and me a disputation has now for the second time been stirred, I will tell you about his lineage. I will do so in a complete manner and I will also show you most clearly the source from which his teaching has descended. This man is neither the first nor the only originator of this type of teaching. But a certain person from Scythia, bearing the name Scythianos, and living in the time of the apostles, was the founder and leader of this sect. He did so just like many other apostates have established themselves as founders and leaders. . . [omitted sentence]. This Scythianos, then, was the person who introduced this self-contradictory dualism. He was himself indebted to Pythagoras for that dualism, as all the other followers of this dogma have been as well. They all uphold the notion of a dualism and turn aside from the direct course of scripture. But they will not gain any further success with this. No one, however, has ever made such a shameless advance in the promulgation of these principles as this Scythianos. For he introduced the notion of a feud between the two unbegottens, and all those other imaginations which are the consequences of a viewpoint of that kind.”

“This Scythianos himself descended from Sarakenians (Saracens). He took as his wife a certain captive from the Upper Thebaid, who persuaded him to live in Egypt rather than in the deserts [where the Saracens lived]. It would have been better if he had never been accepted by that region. He lived there for a period and found the opportunity for learning the wisdom of the Egyptians because, honestly, he was a person of very distinct talent and also very wealthy, as those who knew him have likewise testified in accounts transmitted to us.”

[Babylonian / Persian connections with Terebinthus]

“Moreover, he had a certain disciple named Terebinthus, who wrote four books for him. To the first of these books he gave the title of the Mysteries, to the second that of the Heads (Capitulorum), to the third that of the Gospel, and to the last of all that of the Treasury (Thesaurus). He had these four books, and this one disciple whose name was Terebinthus. (63) As these two people had determined to reside alone by themselves for a considerable period, Scythianos thought of making an excursion into Judea, with the purpose of meeting with all those who had a reputation there as teachers. However, it came to pass that he suddenly died after that, without having been able to accomplish anything.”

“Moreover, his disciple Terebrinthus who had sojourned with him had to flee. He made his way toward Babylonia, a region which at present is held by the Persians, and which is distant now a journey of about six days and nights from our area. On arriving there, Terebinthus succeeded in giving currency to a wonderful account of himself, declaring that he was replete with all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and that he was now really named another “Buddas,” rather than Terebinthus, and that this designation had been placed upon him. He asserted further that he was the son of a certain virgin, and that he had been brought up by an angel on the mountains. A certain prophet, however, by the name of Parcus and Labdacus the son of Mithras charged him with falsehood, and day after day unceasingly they had keen and intense arguments on this subject. But why should I speak of that at length?”

“Although Terebinthus was often reproved, he still continued to make declarations to them on matters which were antecedent to the world, on the sphere, on the two luminaries, and also on the question of where souls come from and how souls depart and in what mode souls return again into the bodies. He also made many other assertions of this kind, and others even worse than these. For instance, he asserted that war was raised with God among the elements, so that the prophet himself might be believed. However, as he was hard pressed for further assertions like these, he went to a certain widow along with his four books. This was because he did not have any disciple in that same place with the single exception of an old woman who became an intimate of his. Later on, at the earliest dawn one morning, he went up to the top of a certain house, and there began to invoke certain names, which Turbo has told us only the seven elect have learned. He ascended to the housetop, then, with the purpose of engaging in some rite, or some artifice of his own. He went up alone, so as not to be detected by any one because he thought that, if he was convicted of falsely using or considering of little importance beliefs of the people, he would be liable to be punished by the real princes of the country. And as these things were going through his mind, God in his perfect justice decreed that he should be thrown to the earth by a spirit. Immediately he was cast down from the roof of the house and his body, falling lifeless to the ground, was taken up in pity by the old woman mentioned above, and was buried in the usual place of burial.”

[Mani in the heart of Persia teaching others]

(64) “After this event, everything he had brought with him from Egypt remained in her possession. And she was very happy about his death for two reasons: first, because she did not find his skills satisfying and, second, because she had obtained such an inheritance, for it was one of great value. But as she was all alone, she thought to herself that she should have some one to attend her; and she got for that purpose a boy of about seven years of age, named Koubrikos (or: Corbicius), to whom she immediately gave his freedom. She also instructed him on how to read letters. When this boy had reached his twelfth year, the old woman died. She left to him all her possessions, and among other things those four books which Scythianos had written, each of them consisting of a moderate number of lines. When his mistress was buried, Koubrikos began to make his own use of all the property that had been left him.”

“Abandoning the old locality, he settled in the middle of the city, where the king of Persia had his residence. Changing his name, he called himself ‘Manes’ instead of Koubrikos, or, to speak more correctly, not Manes, but ‘Mani’: for that is the kind of inflection employed in the Persian language. Now, when this boy had grown to be a man of almost sixty years old, he had acquired great facility in all the branches of learning taught in those regions, and I might almost say that he surpassed all others in this respect. Nevertheless he had been a still more diligent student of the teachings contained in these four books. He had also gained three disciples, whose names were Thomas, Addas, and Hennas. Then he also took these books and transcribed them in such a way that he introduced into them much new material which was simply his own, and which can only be compared to old wives’ tales. So those three disciples were implicated with him as conscious participants in his evil plans. Moreover, he put his own name on the books and deleted the name of their former owner [i.e. Terebinthus, drawing on Scythianos’ teachings], as if he had composed them all by himself.”

[Dissemination of the teachings: Egypt, Scythia, and Persia]

“Then it seemed good to Manes to send his disciples with the teachings which he had committed to writing in the books into the upper districts of that region through various cities and villages, with the view of securing followers. Thomas accordingly determined to take possession of the regions of Egypt, and Addas those of Scythia, while Hermas alone chose to remain with the man himself. When these, then, had set out on their course, the king’s son was seized with a certain sickness. As the king was very anxious to see him cured, he published a decree offering a large reward to anyone who would prove able to heal the prince. On the report of this – like the men who are accustomed to play the game of cubes, which is another name for the dice – Manes presented himself before the king, declaring that he would cure the boy. And when the king heard that, he received him courteously and welcomed him heartily.”

“But to avoid tiring your ears out with reciting the details of what he did, let me simply say that the boy died or rather was deprived of life in Manes’ hands. Then the king ordered Manes to be thrown into prison, and to be loaded with chains of iron weighing about twenty-five kilograms. Moreover, those two disciples of his who had been sent to share his teaching among the different cities were also sought for with a view to punishment. However, they ran away without ever stopping to introduce into the various localities which they visited that teaching of theirs which is so alien to the faith, and which has been inspired only by Antichrist.”

(65) “But after these events they returned to their master, and reported what had happened to them. At the same time, they got an account of the numerous bad things that had happened to him. When, therefore, they got access to him, as I was saying, they called his attention to all the sufferings they had had to endure in each region. As for the rest, they urged him that more attention should be given to safety, because they had been greatly terrified in case any of the miseries which were inflicted on Manes would happen to them. But he counselled them to fear nothing, and rose to berate them.”

[Interactions with Christians]

“Then, while he was in prison, he ordered them to procure copies of the books of the law of the Christians. These disciples who had been sent by him throughout various communities were cursed by everyone, and most of all by those who held the name of ‘Christians’ in honour. Accordingly, on receiving a small supply of money, they left for those districts in which the books of the Christians were composed. Pretending that they were Christian messengers, they requested that the books might be shown them, with a view to their acquiring copies. To make a long story short, they got possession of all the books of our scriptures and brought them back with them to their master, who was still in prison. On receiving these copies, that astute figure put his effort into finding all statements in our books that seemed to favour his notion of a dualism. However, these did not really reflect his notion, but rather that of Scythianos who had promulgated it a long time before him.”

[Mani’s supposed distortions and applications of Christian writings]

“Just like when Manes was disputing with me [Archelaos], so then too, by rejecting some things and altering others in our scriptures, he tried to make it seem that they put forward his own teachings except that the name of ‘Christ’ was attached to them there. So he took on that name [i.e. Christ] himself, in order that the people in the various communities, hearing the holy and divine name of “Christ,” might have no temptation to curse and harass his disciples. Moreover, when they came upon the word which is given us in our scriptures touching the “Paraclete,” he took it into his head that he himself might he that Paraclete. For he had not read carefully enough to observe that the Paraclete had come already: namely, at the time when the apostles were still upon earth. Accordingly, when he had made up these impious inventions, he sent his disciples also to proclaim boldly these fictions and errors, and to make these false and novel words known in every region. But when the king of Persia learned this fact, he prepared to punish him appropriately. However, Manes received information of the king’s intention, having been warned of it in sleep, and made his escape out of prison and succeeding in taking to flight, for he had bribed his keepers with a very large sum of money.”

“Afterwards he took up his residence in the castle of Arabion. From there he sent Turbo with a letter to our Marcellus. That was the letter in which he indicated his intention of visiting Marcellus. On his arrival there, a contest took place between him and me, resembling the disputation which you have witnessed and listened to here. In that discussion we sought to show, as far as it was in our power, that he was a false prophet. I should add that the keeper of the prison who had let him escape was punished, and that the king gave orders that the man should be sought for and apprehended wherever he might be found. And as these things have come to my own knowledge, it was essential that I should also make the fact known to you, and that the king of Persian continues to search for this fellow even until today.”

[Narrator’s conclusion to the biographical section and Manes’ death]

(66) On hearing this, the crowd wished to seize Manes and hand him over to the power of those barbarians who were their neighbours, and who lived beyond the river Stranga [perhaps imagined as part of the Tigris]. This was especially the case since, some time before this, certain parties had come to look for Manes; however, they had to leave again without finding any trace of him, for at that time he was running. However, when Archelaos made this declaration, Manes ran away immediately, and succeeded in making his escape before any one followed in pursuit of him. For the people were detained by the narrative which was being given by Archelaos, whom they heard with great pleasure. Nevertheless, some of them did follow in close pursuit after Manes. But Manes headed again for the roads by which he had come, crossed the river, and returned to the castle of Arabion. There, however, he was afterwards apprehended and brought before the king, who, being inflamed with the strongest indignation against him, and fired with the desire of avenging two deaths upon him – namely, the death of his own son and the death of the keeper of the prison – gave orders that he should be skinned and hung before the gate of the city, and that his skin should be dipped in certain medicaments and inflated. Also, his flesh he ordered to be given as food for the birds. When these things came to the knowedge of Archelaos at a later period, he added them to the former discussion, so that all the facts might be made known to all, even as I, who have written the narrative about these things, have explained the circumstances in what precedes. All the Christians, who had assembled, agreed that the decision should be made against Manes, transmitting that as a sort of epilogue to his death which would be in proper consonance with the other circumstances of his life.

[Final outline of the foreign origins of Mani’s teaching]

(67) Besides that, Archelaos added words to the following effect:

“My brothers, let none of you be incredulous in regard to the statements made by me: I refer to the assertion that Manes was not himself the first author of this impious teaching, but that it was only made public by him in certain regions of the earth. For certainly a man should not be considered an originator of anything if he has simply been the bearer of it to some area or another. Rather, only the discoverer of that teaching has a right to take credit. For as a pilot who uses a ship which another has built may convey it to any countries he wants, and yet he remains someone who had nothing to do with the construction of the vessel, so also is this man’s position to be understood. For he did not impart its origin to this matter really from the beginning. But he was only the means of transmitting to men what had been discovered by someone else, as we know on the evidence of trustworthy testimonies. It was on this ground that we aimed to prove to you that the invention of this wickedness did not come from Manes, but originated with someone else. That other person was, in fact, a barbarian, who appeared a long time before him. Furthermore, that teaching remained unpublished for a while until, finally, the teachings which had thus been lying in obscurity for a certain period were brought forward publicly by him as if they were his own, after the name of the actual author had been deleted, as I have shown above.”

[Narrator on Basilides the Persian as an earlier holder of this dualism]

Among the Persians there was also a certain promulgator of similar tenets at an earlier time, one Basilides, who lived not long after the period of our apostles. This man was of a shrewd disposition himself, and as he observed that at that time all other subjects were preoccupied, he determined to affirm that same dualism which was maintained also by Scythianos. Briefly, since Basilides had nothing to offer which was actually his own, he brought the sayings of others before his adversaries. All his books contain some material that is at the same time both difficult aud extremely harsh. The thirteenth book of his Tractates, however, is still extant, which begins in the following manner:

“In writing the thirteenth book of our Tractates, the wholesome Word furnished us with the necessary and fruitful word.”

Then he illustrates how the opposition between good and evil is produced under the figures of a rich principle and a poor principle, of which the latter is by nature without root and without place, and only supervenes upon things. This is the only topic which the book contains. Does it not then contain a strange word? As certain people have been shown this, will you not also all be offended with the book itself, which has such a beginning as this! But Basilides, returning to the subject after an introduction of some five hundred lines, more or less, proceeds as follows:

“Give up this vain and curious variation, and let us rather find out what inquiries the barbarians have instituted on the subject of good and evil, and what opinions they have been led to adopt on all these subjects. For certain among them have maintained that there are for all things two beginning principles, to which they have referred good and evil, holding that these beginnings were never created and are ungenerate. That is to say that in the origins of things there were light and darkness, which existed of themselves, and which were not merely declared to exist. While these subsisted by themselves, each of them led its own proper mode of life, its own will to lead, so to speak, and such as was competent to it. For in the case of all things, what is proper to any one is also in amity with the same, and nothing seems evil to itself. But after they came to know each other, and after the darkness began to contemplate the light, then, as if fired with a passion for something superior to itself, the darkness pressed on to have intercourse with the light.” . . . [omitted remainder].

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