The Parabalani (from Ancient Greek: παραβαλανεῖς, "bath attendants"), or Parabolani (Late Latin from Ancient Greek: παράβολοι or παραβολᾶνοι), were the members of a Christian brotherhood who in the Early Church voluntarily undertook the care of the sick and the burial of the dead, thus hoping to die for Christ. Generally drawn from the lower strata of society, they also functioned as attendants to local bishops and were sometimes used by them as bodyguards and in violent clashes with their opponents.
The parabalani had neither orders nor vows, but were enumerated among the clergy and enjoyed clerical privileges and immunities. In addition to performing works of mercy they constituted a bodyguard for the bishop. Their presence at public gatherings or in the theatres was forbidden by law. At times they took a very active part in ecclesiastical controversies, as at the Second Council of Ephesus. They received their name from the fact that they were hospital attendants, although the alternate name parabolani also became current, because they risked their lives (παραβάλλεσθαι τὴν ζωήν, “parabállesthai tēn zōēn“) in exposing themselves to contagious diseases.
It has been asserted, though without sufficient proof, that the brotherhood was first organized during the great plague in Alexandria in the episcopate of Pope Dionysius of Alexandria (second half of the 3rd century). Though they were chosen by the bishop and always remained under his control, the Codex Theodosianus placed them under the supervision of the governor of Egypt (the praefectus augustalis).
Because their fanaticism resulted in riots, successive laws limited their numbers: thus a law issued in 416 restricted the enrollment in Alexandria to 500, a number increased two years later to 600. In Constantinople the number was reduced from 1100 to 950. The parabolani are not mentioned after Justinian's time.