Ethiopians: Palladios and others on Abba Moses the former bandit with darker skin (fourth-fifth centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethiopians: Palladios and others on Abba Moses the former bandit with darker skin (fourth-fifth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient author: Palladios / Palladius of Galatia (fourth-fifth centuries CE), Lausiac History 19 (link; link to Greek text); Sayings of the Fathers Apophthegmata Patrum (ca. fifth century CE), Alphabetical Collection, “Moses” (in the alphabetical version) (link; link to Greek in PG 65, columns 281-289; link to recent critical edition of the Greek).

Comments (by Phil Harland and Maia Kotrosits): As the only expressly “Ethiopian” (or in Syriac translation “Indian”) monk whose supposed adventures were retold and survive, Abba Moses “the bandit” provides insights into some dimensions of representations of Ethiopians within Christian literature in late antiquity. It is important to remember that the Greek designation “Ethiopian” itself is an outsider one rather than a self-descriptor in origins, as it simply means “burnt-faced” (implying very dark skin or complexion compared to the person using the designation), and could refer either to a particular people or to darker-skinned peoples generally. The term also more closely resembles modern racializing categories which lean heavily on skin colour. In Greek ethnographic materials generally (see category two), Ethiopians range from being portrayed “positively” (though still exoticized) as especially close to the gods to being negatively depicted as extremely uncivilized, depending on the person doing the evaluation and depending on the sub-group of so-called “burnt-faced” people in mind (e.g. the very negatively evaluated Troglodytes are placed in the context of Ethiopia at times, for instance [link]).

Some of the images of Moses the former bandit (set in fourth century CE Egypt) that emerge from the materials gathered here in this post are less negative in certain respects than the more widely attested (and of course disturbing) use of the “Ethiopian” / “burnt-faced person” to describe demons in other Christian apocryphal writings and writings about lone figures in the desert (link).

On the one hand, Palladios’ story of the Ethiopian bandit who changes his ways does not spend much time focussing on the fact that Moses is “burnt-faced” or “black-skinned” (cf. Sozomen, Church History 6.29 who does not even mention that Moses was “Ethiopian”). It is true that Palladios or his sources picture Moses as a former bandit, which may suggest a negative assumption about people living in particular regions in that part of the world generally, on which see the depiction of Egyptian bandits at this link (where the darker skin of those characters does come to the fore). The concept of Ethiopians as a “bandit-people” may be lurking in the background, to use Strabo’s and Livy’s way of speaking about some other peoples (link coming soon). But the story of Moses itself in Palladios ends up being a quite typical story about a recluse’s struggle with, and overcoming of, sexual temptations in the desert. Moses is presented as perhaps having a more inherent struggle with his uncontrolled sexual habits of the past due to his identification as an Ethiopian (see Brakke). It takes several years and he needs help from other holy men.

On the other hand, further materials that claim to know about Moses’ adventures or experiences recount some disturbing incidents of prejudice and abuse even after Moses leaves behind banditry and becomes a holy man (see also Mayerson 1978). The alphabetical version of the Sayings of the Fathers has numerous stories (omitted here) that simply have Moses giving wise advice to others and showing humility along the way. However, there are two main episodes presented here where Moses faces discrimination based on his darker skin colour. In fact, one of the stories presents Moses as interpreting this treatment to mean he is less than human. So these specific anecdotes reflect representations of Ethiopians as an uncivilized and even less-than-human people deserving of mistreatment.

Works consulted: D. Brakke, “Ethiopian Demons: Male Sexuality, the Black-Skinned Other, and the Monastic Self,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10 (2001): 501–35 (link); C. Luckritz Marquis, Death of the Desert: Monastic Memory and the Loss of Egypt’s Golden Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022); P. Mayerson, “Anti-Black Sentiment in the ‘Vitae Patrum,’” Harvard Theological Review 71 (1978): 304–11 (link); V.L. Wimbush, “Ascetic Behavior and Color-ful Language: Stories about Ethiopian Moses,” Semeia 58 (1992): 81–92 (link).


Palladius, Lausiac History

[Moses the “black” Ethiopian and his banditry]

19 (1) A certain person called Moses was Ethiopian (literally, “burnt-faced”) [“Indian” in one Syriac translation] by descent group (genos), black, and a household slave of a civic official. His own master drove him out because of his disagreeable character and banditry (lēsteia). For he was said to even go to the extent of murder. I am compelled to relate his wicked actions in order to show the excellence of his repentance.

Anyhow, they used to say that he was leader of a group of bandits, and among his acts of banditry one especially stood out: he once plotted vengeance against a shepherd whose dogs had one night impeded him in a project. (2) Wanting to kill the shepherd, he looked around to find the place where the shepherd kept his sheep, and he was informed that it was on the opposite bank of the Nile. Since the river was at the time of flood and about a mile in extent, he grasped his sword in his mouth and put his shirt on his head and so got over by swimming across the river. While he was swimming over, the shepherd was able to escape him by burying himself in the sand. So, after killing the four best male sheep and tying them together with a cord, he swam back again. (3) After arriving at a small building, he skinned the sheep and, having eaten the best of the flesh and sold the skins in exchange for wine, he drank a quart, that is eighteen Italian pints (about 500ml each), and travelled fifty milestones further to where he had his association (kollēgion = collegium) of bandits.

[Moses’ change and influence on others]

This abandoned man, being troubled by his circumstances, eventually gave himself over to a place to be alone (“monastery” / monastērion). When his change of mind occurred, he brought to the recognition of Christ even his accomplice in crimes from his youth, the demon who had sinned with him.

Among other tales this one is told about him: One day bandits (lēstai) attacked him as he sat in his cell, not knowing who it was. They were four in number. (4) He tied them all together and, putting them on his back like a bundle of straw, brought them to the assembly of brothers, saying: “Since I am not allowed to hurt anyone, what do you want me do with these?” Then these bandits, having confessed their mistakes (or: sins) and recognizing that this was Moses the previously renowned and famous bandit, themselves also glorified God and renounced the world because of his change, saying to themselves: “If he who was so great and powerful in banditry has feared God, why should we deter our salvation?”

[Moses’ struggle with his own sexual habits and help from Isidoros and other holy men]

(5) This Moses was attacked by demons, who tried to plunge him into his old habit of uncontrolled sexual behaviour. He was tempted so much, as he himself testified, that he almost gave up his aim. So, having come to the great Isidoros, the one who lived in Skete [in the Nitrian desert of Egypt, modern Wadi El Natrun], he told him about his conflict. And Isidoros said to him: “Do not be upset. These are the beginnings, and therefore they have attacked you more vehemently, seeking out your old habit. (6) For this is like a dog that cannot pull himself away from a butcher’s shop due to habits, but if the shop is closed and no one gives him anything, he no longer comes near it. So also with you: if you persist, the demon gets discouraged and has to leave you.”

So Moses returned and from that hour he kept practicing more vehemently. He especially refrained from food, taking nothing except dry bread to the extent of twelve ounces, accomplishing a great deal of work and completing fifty prayers each day. So he subdued his body, but he still continued to burn and be troubled by dreams. (7) Again he went to another one of the holy ones and said to him: “What am I to do, seeing that the dreams of my soul darken my reason, by reason of my sinful habits?” He said to him: “Because you have not withdrawn your mind from imagining these things, that is why you endure this. Give yourself to watching and pray with fasting and you will quickly be delivered from them.”

[Continued struggles with sexual dreams]

Listening to this advice also, he went away to his cell and gave his word that he would not sleep all night nor bend his knees. (8) So he remained in his cell for six years, and every night he stood in the middle of the cell praying and not closing his eyes. And he could not master the thing. So he suggested to himself yet another plan: Going out at night, he would visit the cells of the older and more ascetic individuals, and taking their water-pots secretly would fill them with water. For they fetch their water from a distance, some from two miles off, some five miles, others half a mile.

[Demon attacks and time healing]

(9) So one night the demon watched for Moses, having lost his patience, and as Moses stooped down at the well gave him a blow with a cudgel across the loins and left him for dead, with no recognition of what he had suffered or who caused it. So the next day a man came to draw water and found Moses lying there, and told the great Isidoros, the priest of Skete. He therefore picked up Moses and brought him to the assembly. For a year, Moses was so ill that his body and soul only recovered strength with difficulty. (10) So the great Isidoros said to him: “Moses, stop struggling with the demons, and do not provoke them.” But Moses said to him: “I will never cease until the appearance of the demons ceases.” So Isidoros said to him: “In the name of Jesus Christ your dreams have ceased. Come to communion then with confidence, because you have been oppressed for your own good so that you would not boast about having overcome passion.” (11) And Moses went back again to his cell. Afterwards when asked by Isidoros about two months later, Moses said that he no longer suffered anything. Indeed, he was counted worthy of such a gift over demons that we fear flies more than he feared demons. This was the manner of life of Moses the Ethiopian (literally: burnt-faced person). He was also numbered among the great ones of the fathers. So he died in Skete at seventy-five years old, having become a priest. He also left behind seventy disciples.


Sayings of the Desert Fathers

[Incidents of mistreatment based on being “Ethiopian”]

(Alphabetical collection under “Moses”, 3) . . . Another day when a council was being held in Sketis (or: Scetis), the Fathers treated Moses as if he was worthless in order to test him, saying, “Why does this Ethiopian (literally: “burnt-faced”) man come among us?” When he heard this, he kept silence. When the council was dismissed, they [ambiguous as to who this is] said to him, “Abba, didn’t that disturb you at all?” He said to them, “I was disturbed, but I did not say anything.”

(4) Concerning Abba Moses, they were saying that he was ordained and the priestly garment (ephod) was placed upon him. The archbishop said to him, “See, Abba Moses, now you are entirely white.” The old man said to him, “It is true about the outside, lord and father (papa), but what about the one who sees the inside?” Wishing to test him, the archbishop said to the priests, “When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, chase him away and follow him to hear what he says.” So the old man came in and they verbally abused him and chased him out, saying, “Go away, Ethiopian (literally: burnt-face)!” Going out, he said to himself, “They have treated you as you deserve, for your skin is as black (melanos) as soot. Since you are not a man, why should you meet with men?” [For an alternative version of this episode, see the Systematic collection under “humility, 15.43].


Source of the translations: W.K.L. Clarke, The Lausiac History Of Palladius (London: MacMillan, 1918), public domain, adapted by Harland; Sayings of the Fathers translated by Harland in consultation with B. Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (London: Mowbrays, 1975).

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