On looking through the site archive, I was surprised to find I had not yet posted about one of the most interesting (and far-fetched) hagiographic tales pictured in icons — in Russian icons, specifically. That is the story of Антоний Римлянин — Antoniy Rimlyanin — Antoniy the Roman. Here he is, standing on his floating rock on the Volkhov River:
His story relates that he was born in Rome in 1067, some 13 years after the official separation of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Anthony, who came from a well-to-do pious family that favored the Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, is said to have known Greek and to have studied the Greek Fathers in his teens, and at age 17 or 18 — after he lost his parents — he gave part of his inheritance to the poor, and put the remainder of the wealth — gold and silver and church implements, it is said — in a barrel that he threw into the sea. Then he became an Orthodox monk, and is said to have lived in one of the “desert” monasteries — some say among the hills — for some 20 years, though just where the monastery was located is vague. In any case, Antoniy was not happy in Rome, where it was said the “Latins” tried to convert Orthodox holdouts to the Roman Catholic view. Because of this, his monastic brethren dispersed, and he went to an isolated beach near the Tiber where he began a rigorous ascetic regimen by fasting and praying on a large rock for a little over an entire year.
Then — in 1105 or 1106 (the dates in these accounts are rather uncertain) — there was a huge storm that ripped the rock from the beach, and Antoniy along with it. Both the stone and he were pulled into the sea, where the stone supposedly miraculously floated, carrying Antoniy on the waters all the way to the far North of Russia, and up the Neva River to Lake Ladoga, and from there into the Volkhov river and up it to the village of Volkhov, near Novgorod. There the floating stone stopped on the day of commemoration of the Nativity of Mary — September 5, 1106, The amazed locals rushed to inform bishop Nikita of the bizarre arrival, and Nikita then went to the Volkhov River, where he saw Antoniy still standing there on his rock.
Now supposedly Antoniy did not understand the language of the local Novgorodians, and had no idea where he was. But eventually he is said to have met a fellow in Novgorod who knew Russian, Greek and Latin, and told Antoniy where he had ended up. And in Volkhov Antoniy founded a Monastery in the name of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God. He is said to have floated on his rock on the sea from Rome to the Novgorod region in two days (some say three). In any case, a journey from Rome to Novgorod in those days would have required at least half a year.
In the following year, Antoniy told some fishermen who were not catching much to go out and try again. They were reluctant, so he offered them a silver coin, with the condition that what they caught would be given to Mary. So they threw their nets again, and this time they snagged, along with some fish, a barrel that turned out to be the very barrel Antoniy had thrown into the sea near Rome, containing the portion of his inherited treasure not given to the poor. Anthony let the fishermen keep the fish. They did not want to give up the barrel, but it is said he took them to court, and there they were unable to identify the contents of the still-sealed barrel, while Antoniy could easily describe what was in it — gold, church vessels, silver — and such things. So with his recovered treasure he is said to have bought the land and begun the building of a wooden church and monastery. The church was later was replaced by stone construction between 1117 and 1119. The laying of the foundation stone is recorded in the Chronicle of Novgorod. Though long heading the monastery without a title, in 1131 Bishop Nikita officially made Antoniy Hegumen (Abbot) of the monastery, and on August 3, 1147, Antoniy died (as recorded in the Novgorod Chronicle; but some say in 1142).
The accounts of the life of Antoniy the Roman began appearing in the 2nd half of the 16th century, possibly based on earlier writing. Antoniy’s successor as Abbot — a fellow named Andrei — is said to have written the first life in the middle of the 1100s. But of course as we can see from the fantastic tale of his trip from Rome to Novgorod, the account of his life as passed down to us is not exactly historically reliable.
The veneration of Antoniy as more than a local phenomenon apparently really got under way in the Novgorod region in the late 1500s. In 1597 an official service to Antoniy as saint was created, and the usual miracles were attributed to him and to his stone, which was believed still to exist.
That, essentially, is the legend of Antoniy Rimlyanin — Anthony the Roman.
Here is a map showing the region of the legend. The large body of water at the top is Lake Ladoga (Ладожское Озеро). At the bottom of the lake and to the left is Санкт-Петербург — Saint Petersburg, where the Neva flows into the Baltic Sea. Just on the other side of the little “bump” of land to the east of St. Petersburg is the mouth of the Volkhov River, which flows north from Lake Ilmen (Озеро Ильмень) at the base of the map. The town of Volkhov is visible not far south from the mouth of the Volkhov (Волхов) River.
Now it is not difficult to see that to get to Volkhov by sea, one would have to go from the mouth of the Tiber near Rome, into the Tyrrhenian Sea, across the Mediterranean Sea to Gibraltar, into the Atlantic Ocean, and up past Portugal, France, and Britain, around Denmark and into the Baltic Sea to the entrance to the Neva River at St. Petersburg, up it to Lake Ladoga, then down the Volkhov to — well, the town of Volkhov. That’s quite a trip by rock.
In the icon on this page, Antoniy is carrying the white church he had constructed at Volkhov.
The cathedral church still exists — though somewhat modified — as we see in this photo:
In the vestibule of the cathedral, the stone on which Antoniy supposedly floated to Volkhov is still shown. It is said to have been discovered (rather conveniently) by Hegumen Benjamin in the middle of the 16th century, which as we know, is about when the veneration of Antoniy really got under way. Before that time, he had been honored only as a local saint.
We cannot really tell what fragments of history may remain in this extravagant tissue of fanciful legend. A real Antoniy does seem to have existed as a monastic founder in the North, but just who he was and precisely where he was from is not known. Some think he was possibly a missionary monk sent from the Pecherskaya Lavra in Kiyev — perhaps a Greek-speaking Italian from Calabria, or perhaps just known as “the Roman” because he was from somewhere in what had been the Roman Empire. Remember that even Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire were once known in Islam as “Rum” — Rome.
That is part of the negative side of the extravagant legends we find in the lives of the saints: they obscure the real people and events behind them (when there were real people, which is not always the case). We do know that the Novgorod region in those days was an international trading center, with people from many countries visiting and passing through. Novgorod was a very important city on the Varangian Trade Route that passed from Scandinavia into the Neva River, into Lake Ladoga, up the Volkhov to Novgorod, and from there all the way to Kiyev and Constantinople. So it would have been quite possible for a foreign “Roman” of some description to have traveled along this route to the Novgorod Region in the 12th century.
Not, however, by floating rock.
Here’s an icon of Antoniy showing various incidents in his life, including throwing his barrel into the sea, his journey on the rock and meeting with the Novgorodians, the retrieval of his treasure barrel, and so on: