The story of a visit made to the monks of Egypt during the winter of 394-395 by a group of seven persons, among them the writer of the book. The story exists in two recensions: one in Greek (editions by Preuschen and Festugière), the other in Latin, the work of Rufinus of Aquileia. The connection between these two recensions has long been the subject of discussion. E. Preuschen thought that the Greek text was a translation of the Latin text of Rufinus, whom he regarded as the real author of the book. R. Reitzenstein also considered the Greek text a translation of the text of Rufinus, but he thought that Rufinus had himself translated a Greek text different from the one that has come down to us.

Cain, Andrew. The Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto: Monastic Hagiography in the Late Fourth Century.
Cain, Andrew. The Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto: Monastic Hagiography in the Late Fourth Century.

C. Butler (1898, Vol. 1, pp. 10-15, 257-64) demonstrated that the Greek text is the original and Rufinus a translator; this view, confirmed by the comparative study of the two texts made by A. J. Festugière (1955), is now generally accepted. Rufinus, according to his habits, translated rather freely, sometimes adding to the Greek text, which he perhaps knew in a form slightly different from the one we know.

Sozomen’s assertion (Historia ecclesiastica 6. 29) that the author was “Timothy, bishop of Alexandria,” who died some ten years before the journey took place, cannot be maintained. Butler’s conjecture (1898, pp. 276-77), still accepted in some handbooks, that the author was one Timothy, deacon of Alexandria in 412, whom Sozomen confused with the bishop of the same name, also remains unconfirmed. In the prologue the author says he wrote at the request of the members of “the pious fraternity established on the Mount of Olives,” an expression that certainly indicates the monastic community of Rufinus and Melania.

The travellers, who are shown by certain passages in the text to be of Latin speech, probably themselves belonged to this community, and among them the author. They seem to have gone directly by the Nile to Asyut. The first chapter relates their visit to JOHN OF LYCOPOLIS, but they do not seem to have gone any farther. They visited monks in the Thebaid, notably those in the region of Oxyrhynchus.

Then they came back down the Nile as far as the desert of Diolcos, close to the sea. It is not certain that they went to NITRIA, which the narrator does not distinguish from the KELLIA. Rufinus gives a much more accurate description of these places, which he knew, for he had stopped there on his way to about 373-374. The book belongs to a traditional genre, that of the travel narrative, in which the author describes not only what he has seen but also what he knows by hearsay, mingling the marvelous with reality. The imaginative tale, which the narrator tells in the epilogue, of the perils of all kinds that he and his companions had to face in the course of their journey, resumes a theme habitual in this kind of work.

The Historia monachorum in Aegypto contributed largely to the spreading of the fame of the monks of Egypt, both in the East and in the West. From this point of view the book played a role comparable to that of the Historia lausiaca of PALLADIUS, with which it was often closely associated in the manuscript tradition. Several ancient versions in Syriac or in Armenian have been preserved. In Coptic five leaves have come down from a Sahidic codex containing fragments of the first chapter, devoted to John of Lycopolis (ed. Devos, 1969). There are several translations into modern languages; a recent English translation can be found in The Lives of the Desert Fathers.