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Saint Basil the Great
St. Basil depicted on the left, mass of St. Basil by Pierre Subleyras
Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church; Great Hierarch
Born ca. 335, Caesarea, Cappadocia,
Died January 1, 379[1], Caesarea, Cappadocia, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey)
Venerated in Eastern and Western Christianity
Canonized Pre-Congregation
Feast January 1 and January 30 (Eastern Orthodox Churches)
January 2 (Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church and Lutheran Church)
January 15 / January 16 (leap year) (Coptic Orthodox Church and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church)
June 14 (Traditional Roman Catholics, Episcopal Church, and Lutheran Church)
Attributes vested as bishop, wearing omophorion, holding a Gospel Book or scroll. St. Basil is depicted in icons as thin and ascetic with a long, tapering black beard.
Patronage Russia, Cappadocia, Hospital administrators, Reformers, Monks, Education, Exorcism, Liturgists

Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great, (330[2] – January 1, 379) (Greek: Άγιος Βασίλειος ο Μέγας) was the bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He was an influential 4th century Christian theologian and monastic. Theologically, Basil was a supporter of the Nicene faction of the church, in opposition to Arianism on one side and the followers of Apollinaris of Laodicea on the other. His ability to balance his theological convictions with his political connections made Basil a powerful advocate for the Nicene position.

In addition to his work as a theologian, Basil was known for his care of the poor and underprivileged. Basil established guidelines for monastic life which focus on community life, liturgical prayer, and manual labor. Together with Pachomius he is remembered as a father of communal monasticism in Eastern Christianity. He is considered a saint by the traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity.

Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches have given him, together with Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, the title of Great Hierarch, while the Roman Catholic Church has named him a Doctor of the Church. He is also referred to as "the revealer of heavenly mysteries" (Ouranophantor).[3]




Early life and education

The theology of Gregory Thaumaturgus, a student of Origen, influenced Basil through his grandmother Macrina the Elder.

Basil was born into the wealthy family of Basil the Elder, a famous rhetor,[4] and Emmelia of Caesarea around 330 in Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia[5] (now known as Kayseri, Turkey). It was a large household, consisting of ten children, the parents, and Basil's grandmother, Macrina the Elder. His parents were known for their piety,[6] and his maternal grandfather was a Christian martyr, executed in the years prior to Constantine I's conversion.[7][8] Four of Basil's siblings are known by name, and considered to be saints by various Christian traditions. His older sister Macrina the Younger was a well-known nun. His older brother Peter served as bishop of Sebaste in Armenia, and wrote a few well-known theological treatises. His brother Naucratius was an anchorite, and inspired much of Basil's theological work. Perhaps the most influential of Basil's siblings was his younger brother Gregory. Gregory was appointed by Basil to be the bishop of Nyssa, and he produced a number of writings defending Nicene theology and describing the life of early Christian monastics.

Shortly after Basil's birth, the family moved to the estate of his grandmother Macrina, in the region of Pontus. There, Basil was educated in the home by his father and grandmother. He was greatly influenced by the elder Macrina, who herself was a student of Gregory Thaumaturgus.[9] Following the death of his father during his teenage years, Basil returned to Caesarea in Cappadocia around 350-51 to begin his formal education.[10] There he met Gregory of Nazianzus, who would become a lifetime friend.[11] Together, Basil and Gregory went on to study in Constantinople, where they would have listened to the lectures of Libanius. Finally, the two spent almost six years in Athens starting around 349, where they met a fellow student who would become the emperor Julian the Apostate.[12][13] It was at Athens that he began to first think about living a life focused on Christian principles.

Returning from Athens around 355, Basil briefly practiced law and taught rhetoric in Caesarea.[14][15] A year later, Basil's life would change radically after he encountered Eustathius of Sebaste, a charismatic bishop and ascetic.[16]

Basil soon abandoned his legal and teaching professions in order to devote his life to God. Describing his spiritual awakening in a letter, Basil said:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.[17]


Russian icon of Basil of Caesarea

After receiving the sacrament of baptism, Basil traveled in 357 to Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia to study ascetics and monasticism.[18][19] While impressed by the piety of the ascetics, the ideal of solitary life held little appeal to him.[20] Rather, he turned his attention toward communal religious life. After dividing his fortunes among the poor he went briefly into solitude near Neocaesaria on the Iris.[18] Basil soon ventured out of this solitude, and by 358 he was gathering around him a group of like-minded disciples, including his brother Peter. Together they founded a monastic settlement on his family estate at Arnesi in Pontus.[21] Joining him there were his mother Emmelia, then widowed, his sister Macrina and several other women, gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works. Eustathius of Sebaste had already labored in Pontus in behalf of the anchoretic life, and Basil revered him on that account, although they differed over dogmatic points, which gradually separated the two.[22]

It was here that Basil wrote his works regarding monastic communal life, which are accounted as being pivotal in the development of the monastic tradition of the Eastern Church and have led to his being called the "father of Eastern communal monasticism".[23][14] In 358 he wrote to his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, asking Gregory to join him in Arnesi.[24] Gregory eventually agreed to come; together, they collaborated on the production of the Philocalia, an anthology drawn from Origen.[14][25] Gregory then decided to return to his family in Nazianzus.

Basil attended the Council of Constantinople in 360. It was here that he first sided with the Homoiousians, a semi-Arian faction who taught that the Son was of like substance with the Father, neither the same (one substance) nor different from him.[26] Its members included Eustathius, Basil's mentor in asceticism. The Homoiousians opposed the Arianism of Eunomius but refused to join with the supporters of the Nicene Creed, who professed that the members of the Trinity were of one substance ("homoousios"). This stance put him at odds with his bishop, Dianius of Caesarea, who had subscribed only to the earlier Nicene form of agreement. Some years later Basil abandoned the Homoiousians, emerging instead as a supporter of the Nicene Creed.[26]


Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil the Great (left), John Chrysostom (center) and Gregory the Theologian (right)—from Lipie, Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland.

In 362 Basil was ordained a deacon by Bishop Meletius of Antioch. He was summoned by Eusebius to his city, and was ordained presbyter of the Church there in 365. His ordination was probably the result of the entreaties of his ecclesiastical superiors,[18] who wished to use his talents against the Arians, who were numerous in that part of the country and were favored by the Arian emperor, Valens, who then reigned in Constantinople.[citation needed]

Basil and Gregory Nazianzus spent the next few years combating the Arian heresy, which threatened to divide the region of Cappadocia. The two friends then entered a period of close fraternal cooperation as they participated in a great rhetorical contest of the Caesarean church precipitated by the arrival of accomplished Arian theologians and rhetors.[27] In the subsequent public debates, presided over by agents of Valens, Gregory and Basil emerged triumphant. This success confirmed for both Gregory and Basil that their futures lay in administration of the church.[27] Basil next took on functional administration of the Diocese of Caesarea.[23]Eusebius is reported as becoming jealous of the reputation and influence which Basil quickly developed, and allowed Basil to return to his earlier solitude. Later, however, Gregory persuaded Basil to return. Basil did so, and became the effective manager of the diocese for several years, while giving all the credit to Eusebius.[14]

In 370, Eusebius died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him, and was consecrated bishop on June 14, 370.[28] His new post as bishop of Caesarea also gave him the powers of exarch of Pontus and metropolitan of five suffragan bishops, many of whom had opposed him in the election for Eusebius's successor. It was then that his great powers were called into action. Hot-blooded and somewhat imperious, Basil was also generous and sympathetic. He personally organized a soup kitchen and distributed food to the poor during a famine following a drought. He gave away his personal family inheritance to benefit the poor of his diocese.[14]

His letters show that he actively worked to reform thieves and prostitutes. They also show him encouraging his clergy not to be tempted by wealth or the comparatively easy life of a priest, and that he personally took care in selecting worthy candidates for holy orders. He also had the courage to criticize public officials who failed in their duty of administering justice. At the same time, he preached every morning and evening in his own church to large congregations. In addition to all the above, he built a large complex just outside Caesarea, called the Basiliad, which included a poorhouse, hospice, and hospital, and was regarded at the time as one of the wonders of the world.[14]

His zeal for orthodoxy did not blind him to what was good in an opponent; and for the sake of peace and charity he was content to waive the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth. The Emperor Valens, who was an adherent of the Arian philosophy, sent his prefect Modestus to at least agree to a compromise with the Arian faction. Basil's adamant response in the negative prompted Modestus to say that no one had ever spoken to him in that way before. Basil replied, "Perhaps you have never yet had to deal with a bishop." Modestus reported back to Valens that he believed nothing short of violence would avail against Basil. Valens was apparently unwilling to engage in violence. He did however issue orders banishing Basil repeatedly, none of which succeeded. Valens came himself to attend when Basil celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Theophany (Epiphany), and at that time was so impressed by Basil that he donated to him some land for the building of the Basiliad. This interaction helped to define the limits of governmental power over the church.[14]

Basil then had to face the growing spread of Arianism. This belief system, which denied that Christ was consubstantial with the Father, was quickly gaining adherents and was seen by many, particularly those in Alexandria most familiar with it, as posing a threat to the unity of the church.[29] Basil entered into connections with the West, and with the help of Athanasius, he tried to overcome its distrustful attitude toward the Homoiousians. The difficulties had been enhanced by bringing in the question as to the essence of the Holy Spirit. Although Basil advocated objectively the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son, he belonged to those, who, faithful to Eastern tradition, would not allow the predicate homoousios to the former; for this he was reproached as early as 371 by the Orthodox zealots among the monks, and Athanasius defended him. He maintained a relationship with Eustathius despite dogmatic differences. On the other hand, Basil was grievously offended by the extreme adherents of Homoousianism, who seemed to him to be reviving the Sabellian heresy.[citation needed]

Basil corresponded with Pope Damasus in the hope of having the Roman bishop condemn heresy wherever found, both East and West. The Pope's apparent indifference upset Basil's zeal and he turned around in distress and sadness. It is still a point of controversy over how much he believed the Roman See could do for the Churches in the East, as many Roman Catholic theologians[30] claim the primacy of the Roman bishopric over the rest of the Churches, both in doctrine and in authoritative strength.

He did not live to see the end of the factional disturbances and the complete success of his continued exertions in behalf of the Church. He suffered from liver illness and his excessive asceticism seems to have hastened him to an early death. A lasting monument of his episcopal care for the poor was the great institute before the gates of Caesarea, which was used as poorhouse, hospital, and hospice.[citation needed]


Fresco of Basil the Great in the cathedral of Ohrid. The saint is shown consecrating the Gifts during the Divine Liturgy which bears his name.

The principal theological writings of Basil are his On the Holy Spirit, a lucid and edifying appeal to Scripture and early Christian tradition (to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit), and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, written in 363 or 364, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism. The first three books of the Refutation are his work; the fourth and fifth books that are usually included do not belong to Basil, or to Apollinaris of Laodicea, but probably to Didymus "the Blind" of Alexandria.[citation needed]

He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on the Hexaëmeron (the Six Days of Creation), and an exposition of the psalter, have been preserved. Some, like that against usury and that on the famine in 368, are valuable for the history of morals; others illustrate the honor paid to martyrs and relics; the address to young men on the study of classical literature shows that Basil was lastingly influenced by his own education, which taught him to appreciate the propaedeutic importance of the classics.[citation needed] Deferrari, "The Classics and the Greek Writers of the Early Church: Saint Basil." The Classical Journal Vol. 13, No. 8 (May, 1918). 579–91.

In his exegesis Basil tended to interpret Scripture literally—following more the Antiochian school—rather than allegorically as Origen and the Alexandrian school had done. Concerning this, he wrote:

"I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those, truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own end."[31]

His ascetic tendencies are exhibited in the Moralia and Asketika (sometimes mistranslated as Rules of St. Basil), ethical manuals for use in the world and the cloister, respectively. Of the two works known as the Greater Asketikon and the Lesser Asketikon, the shorter is the one most probably his work.[citation needed]

It is in the ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of his theoretical theology are illustrated. So, for example, it is in his Sermon to the Lazicans that we find St. Basil explaining how it is our common nature that obliges us to treat our neighbor's natural needs (e.g., hunger, thirst) as our own, even though he is a separate individual. Later theologians explicitly explain this as an example of how the saints become an image of the one common nature of the persons of the Trinity.[citation needed]

His three hundred letters reveal a rich and observant nature, which, despite the troubles of ill-health and ecclesiastical unrest, remained optimistic, tender and even playful. His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic institutions of the East.

Most of his extant works, and a few spuriously attributed to him, are available in the Patrologia Graecae, which includes Latin translations of varying quality. Several of St. Basil's works have appeared in the late twentieth century in the Sources Chrétiennes collection. No critical edition is yet available.[citation needed]


Statue of Saint Basil, depicting him in Western vestments, in the Church of St. Nicholas, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic.

Liturgical contributions

St Basil of Caesarea holds a very important place in the history of Christian liturgy, coming as he did at the end of the age of persecution. At this time, liturgical prayers were transitioning from being extemporaneous or memorized into written formulas, and liturgy began to be influenced by court ritual. Basil's liturgical influence is well attested in early sources. Though it is difficult at this time to know exactly which parts of the Divine Liturgies which bear his name are actually his work, a vast corpus of prayers attributed to him has survived in the various Eastern Christian churches. Tradition also credits Basil with the elevation of the iconostasis to its present height.[citation needed]

Most of the liturgies bearing the name of Basil are not entirely his work in their present form, but they nevertheless preserve a recollection of Basil's activity in this field in formularizing liturgical prayers and promoting church-song. Patristics scholars conclude that the Liturgy of Saint Basil "bears, unmistakably, the personal hand, pen, mind and heart of St. Basil the Great."[32]

One liturgy that can be attributed to him is The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, a liturgy that is somewhat longer than the more commonly used Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The difference between the two is primarily in the silent prayers said by the priest, and in the use of the hymn to the Theotokos, All of Creation, instead of the Axion Estin of Saint John Chrysostom's Liturgy. Chrysostom's Liturgy has come to replace Saint Basil's on most days in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic liturgical traditions. However, they still use Saint Basil's Liturgy on certain feast days: the first five Sundays of Great Lent; the Eves of Nativity and Theophany; and on Great and Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday; and the Feast of Saint Basil, January 1 (for those churches which follow the Julian Calendar, their January 1 falls on January 14 of the Gregorian Calendar).[citation needed]

The Eastern Churches preserve numerous other prayers attributed to Saint Basil, including three Prayers of Exorcism, several Morning and Evening Prayers, the "Prayer of the Hours" which is read at each service of the Daily Office, and the long and moving "Kneeling Prayers" which are recited by the priest at Vespers on Pentecost in the Byzantine Rite.[citation needed]

Influence on monasticism

Through his examples and teachings Basil effected a noteworthy moderation in the austere practices which were previously characteristic of monastic life.[33] He is also credited with coordinating the duties of work and prayer to ensure a proper balance between the two.[34]

Basil is remembered as one of the most influential figures in the development of Christian monasticism. Not only is Basil recognised as the father of Eastern monasticism; historians recognize that his legacy extends also to the Western church, largely due to his influence on Saint Benedict.[35] Patristic scholars such as Meredith assert that Benedict himself recognized this when he wrote in the epilogue to his Rule that his monks, in addition to the Bible, should read "the confessions of the Fathers and their institutes and their lives and the Rule of our Holy Father, Basil.[36] Basil's teachings on monasticism, as encoded in works such as his Small Asketikon, was transmitted to the west via Rufinus during the last 4th century.[37]

As a result of his influence, numerous religious orders in Eastern Christianity bear his name. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Basilian Fathers, also known as The Congregation of St. Basil, an international order of priests and students studying for the priesthood, is named after him.

Commemorations of Basil

St Basil was given the title Doctor of the Church for his contributions to the debate initiated by the Arian controversy regarding the nature of the Trinity, and especially the question of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil was responsible for defining the terms "ousia" (essence/substance) and "hypostasis" (person/reality), and for defining the classic formulation of three Persons in one Nature. His single greatest contribution was his insistence on the divinity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.[14]

In Greek tradition, his name was given to Father Christmas and he is supposed to visit children and give presents every January 1 (St Basil's Day) — unlike other traditions where Saint Nicholas arrives either on December 6 (Saint Nicholas Day) or on Christmas Eve (December 24). It is traditional on St Basil's Day to serve "Vasilopita," a rich bread baked with a coin inside, in commemoration of St. Basil's charity. It is customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing carols, and to set an extra place at the table for Saint Basil. In Greek tradition and according to historical records, St Basil, of Greek heritage, is the original "Santa Claus," who being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor and those in need, the underprivileged and children.[38] A similar story exists for another Greek bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra. Over the centuries the two have been merged but the Western "Santa Claus" is St. Nicholas and the Eastern "Santa Claus" is St. Basil.[citation needed]

Saint Basil died on January 1, the day on which the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates his feast day together with that of the Feast of the Circumcision.

In the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, January 1 is the day marking the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and St Basil's feast is celebrated on the following day, January 2, together with Saint Gregory Nazianzen. Prior to the revision of the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1969, St Basil's feast was celebrated on June 14, the traditional date of his ordination as Bishop. Traditional Roman Catholics continue to celebrate the feast day of "St. Basil the Great, Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church" as a Double feast or a feast of the III Class.

The Anglican Church celebrates St Basil's feast on January 2, whereas the Episcopal Church celebrates it on June 14. The Lutheran Church, of various synods, commemorates him on both dates, each time with Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa.[citation needed]

In the Byzantine Rite, January 30 is the Synaxis of the Three Holy Hierarchs, in honor of Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom.

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria celebrates the feast day of Saint Basil on the 6th of Tobi (6th of Terr on the Ethiopian calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church). At present, this corresponds to January 14, January 15 during leap year.[citation needed]

There are numerous relics of Saint Basil throughout the world. One of the most important is his head, which is preserved to this day at the monastery of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos in Greece. The mythical sword Durandal is said to contain some of Basil's blood.[39]

See also


  1. ^ The exact date of Basil's death is debated by historians. See Rousseau (1994), pp. 360–363, Appendix III: The Date of Basil's Death and of the Hexaemeron for details.
  2. ^ Liturgy of the Hours Volume I. Proper of Saints, January 2.
  3. ^ St Basil the Great the Archbishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, Orthodox Church in America Website,, retrieved 2007-12-15 
  4. ^ Quasten (1986), p. 204.
  5. ^ Rousseau (1994), p. 1.
  6. ^ Oratio 43.4, PG 36. 500B, tr. p.30, as presented in Rousseau (1994), p.4.
  7. ^ Davies (1991), p. 12.
  8. ^ Rousseau (1994), p. 4.
  9. ^ Bauer, Jerald (1971), "Basil of Caesarea", The Westminster Dictionary of Christian History, Philadelphia: Westminster Press 
  10. ^ Hildebrand (2007), p. 19.
  11. ^ Norris, Frederick (1997), "Basil of Caesarea", in Ferguson, Everett, The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (second edition), New York: Garland Press 
  12. ^ Ruether (1969), pp. 19, 25.
  13. ^ Rousseau (1994), pp. 32–40.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Burns, Paul, ed. Butler's Lives of the Saints: New Full Edition January. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press. ISBN 0-8146-2377-8.
  15. ^ St. Basil the Great at Catholic Online.
  16. ^ Hildebrand (2007), pp. 19–20.
  17. ^ Basil, Ep. 223, 2, as quoted in Quasten (1986), p. 205.
  18. ^ a b c Quasten (1986), p. 205.
  19. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed.) vol. 1, p. 938.
  20. ^ Merredith (1995), p. 21.
  21. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed.) vol. 1, p. 938.
  22. ^ St. Basil the Great in Catholic Encyclopedia: "In 373 ... Eustathius of Sebaste (became) a traitor to the Faith and a personal foe"
  23. ^ a b Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0140513124.
  24. ^ Rousseau (1994), p. 66.
  25. ^ Merredith (1995), pp. 21–22.
  26. ^ a b Meredith (1995), p. 22.
  27. ^ a b McGuckin (2001), p. 143.
  28. ^ Meredith (1995), p. 23
  29. ^ Foley, O.F.M., Leonard (2003), "St. Basil the Great (329-379)", in McCloskey, O.F.M., Pat (rev.), Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons and Feasts (5th Revised Edition), Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, ISBN 0-86716-535-9,, retrieved 2007-12-15 
  30. ^ Catholic encyclopedia article on Saint Basil makes such a claim: [1].
  31. ^ Basil, "Hexameron, 9.1", in Schaff, Philip, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (2nd Series), 8 Basil: Letters and Select Works, Edinburgh: T&T Clark (1895), p. 102,, retrieved 2007-12-15 . Cf. Hexameron, 3.9 (Ibid., pp. 70-71).
  32. ^ Bebis (1997), p. 283
  33. ^ Murphy (1930), p. 94.
  34. ^ Murphy (1930), p. 95.
  35. ^ See K.E. Kirk, The Vision of God: The Christian Document of the summum bonun, (London, 1931), 9.118, as quoted in Meredith)
  36. ^ Meredith (1995), p.24
  37. ^ Silvas (2002), pp. 247-259, in Vigliae Christanae
  38. ^ "Santa Claus". Retrieved 2008-01-02. 
  39. ^ Keary (1882), p. 512


  • Bebis, George (Fall-Winter 1997). "Introduction to the Liturgical Theology of St Basil the Great". Greek Orthodox Theological Review 42 (3-4): 273–285. ISSN 0017-3894. 
  • The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, v. 1. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica. 
  • Hildebrand, Stephen M. (2007). The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 978-0-8132-1473-3. 
  • Keary, Charles Francis (1882). Outline of Primative Belief Among the Indo-European Races. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. 
  • Meredith, Anthony (1995). The Cappadocians. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminar Press. ISBN 0-8818141-112-4. 
  • Murphy, Margaret Gertrude (1930). St. Basil and Monasticism: Catholic University of America Series on Patristic Studies, Vol. XXV. New York: AMS Press. ISBN 0-404-04543-x. 
  • Rousseau, Phillip (1994). Basil of Caesarea. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08238-9. 
  • Quasten, Johannes (1986). Patrology, v.3. Christian Classics. ISBN 0-87061-086-4. 
  • Ruether, Rosemary Radford (1969). Gregory of Nazianzus. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Silvas, Anna M. (September 2002). "Edessa to Cassino: The Passage of Basil's Asketikon to the West". Vigliae Christianae (Brill Academic) 56 (3): 247–259. doi:10.1163/157007202760235382. ISSN 042-6032. 
  • Corona, Gabriella, ed. (2006). Aelfric's Life of Saint Basil the Great: Background and Content. [2] Anglo-Saxon Texts 5. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. ISBN 9781 84384 095 4. 

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Bishop of Caesarea, and one of the most distinguished Doctors of the Church. Born probably 329; died 1 January, 379. He ranks after Athanasius as a defender of the Oriental Church against the heresies of the fourth century. With his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, he makes up the trio known as "The Three Cappadocians", far outclassing the other two in practical genius and actual achievement.


St. Basil the Elder, father of St. Basil the Great, was the son of a Christian of good birth and his wife, Macrina (Acta SS., January, II), both of whom suffered for the faith during the persecution of Maximinus Galerius (305-314), spending several years of hardship in the wild mountains of Pontus. St. Basil the Elder was noted for his virtue (Acta SS, May, VII) and also won considerable reputation as a teacher in Caesarea. He was not a priest (Cf. Cave, Hist. Lit., I, 239). He married Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr and became the father of ten children. Three of these, Macrina, Basil, and Gregory are honoured as saints; and of the sons, Peter, Gregory, and Basil attained the dignity of the episcopate.

Under the care of his father and his grandmother, the elder Macrina, who preserved the traditions of their countryman, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-275) Basil was formed in habits of piety and study. He was still young when his father died and the family moved to the estate of the elder Macrina at Annesi in Pontus, on the banks of the Iris. As a boy, he was sent to school at Caesarea, then "a metropolis of letters", and conceived a fervent admiration for the local bishop, Dianius. Later, he went to Constantinople, at that time "distinguished for its teachers of philosophy and rhetoric", and thence to Athens. Here he became the inseparable companion of Gregory of Nazianzus, who, in his famous panegyric on Basil (Or. xliii), gives a most interesting description of their academic experiences. According to him, Basil was already distinguished for brilliancy of mind and seriousness of character and associated only with the most earnest students. He was able, grave, industrious, and well advanced in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and medicine. (As to his not knowing Latin, see Fialon, Etude historique et littéraire sur St. Basile, Paris, 1869). We know the names of two of Basil's teachers at Athens — Prohaeresius, possibly a Christian, and Himerius, a pagan. It has been affirmed, though probably incorrectly, that Basil spent some time under Libanius. He tells us himself that he endeavoured without success to attach himself as a pupil to Eustathius (Ep., I). At the end of his sojourn at Athens, Basil being laden, says St. Gregory of Nazianzus "with all the learning attainable by the nature of man", was well equipped to be a teacher. Caesarea took possession of him gladly "as a founder and second patron" (Or. xliii), and as he tells us (ccx), he refused the splendid offers of the citizens of Neo-Caesarea, who wished him to undertake the education of the youth of their city.

To the successful student and distinguished professor, "there now remained", says Gregory (Or. xliii), "no other need than that of spiritual perfection". Gregory of Nyssa, in his life of Macrina, gives us to understand that Basil's brilliant success both as a university student and a professor had left traces of worldliness and self-sufficiency on the soul of the young man. Fortunately, Basil came again in contact with Dianius, Bishop of Caesarea, the object of his boyish affection, and Dianius seems to have baptized him, and ordained him Reader soon after his return to Caesarea. It was at the same time also that he fell under the influence of that very remarkable woman, his sister Macrina, who had meanwhile founded a religious community on the family estate at Annesi. Basil himself tells us how, like a man roused from deep sleep, he turned his eyes to the marvellous truth of the Gospel, wept many tears over his miserable life, and prayed for guidance from God: "Then I read the Gospel, and saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one's goods, the sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth" (Ep. ccxxiii). To learn the ways of perfection, Basil now visited the monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, Coele-Syria, and Mesopotamia. He returned, filled with admiration for the austerity and piety of the monks, and founded a monastery in his native Pontus, on the banks of the Iris, nearly opposite Annesi. (Cf. Ramsay, Hist. Geog. of Asia Minor, London, 1890, p. 326). Eustathius of Sebaste had already introduced the eremitical life into Asia Minor; Basil added the cenobitic or community form, and the new feature was imitated by many companies of men and women. (Cf. Sozomen, Hist. Eccl., VI, xxvii; Epiphanius, Haer., lxxv, 1; Basil, Ep. ccxxiii; Tillemont, Mém., IX, Art. XXI, and note XXVI.) Basil became known as the father of Oriental monasticism, the forerunner of St. Benedict. How well he deserved the title, how seriously and in what spirit he undertook the systematizing of the religious life, may be seen by the study of his Rule. He seems to have read Origen's writings very systematically about this time, for in union with Gregory of Nazianzus, he published a selection of them called the "Philocalia".

Basil was drawn from his retreat into the area of theological controversy in 360 when he accompanied two delegates from Seleucia to the emperor at Constantinople, and supported his namesake of Ancyra. There is some dispute as to his courage and his perfect orthodoxy on this occasion (cf. Philostorgius, Hist. Eccl., IV, xii; answered by Gregory of Nyssa, In Eunom., I, and Maran, Proleg., vii; Tillemont, Mém., note XVIII). A little later, however, both qualities seem to have been sufficiently in evidence, as Basil forsook Dianius for having signed the heretical creed of Rimini. To this time (c. 361) may be referred the "Moralia"; and a little later came two books against Eunomius (363) and some correspondence with Athanasius. It is possible, also, that Basil wrote his monastic rules in the briefer forms while in Pontus, and enlarged them later at Caesarea. There is an account of an invitation from Julian for Basil to present himself a court and of Basil's refusal, coupled with an admonition that angered the emperor and endangered Basil's safety. Both incident and correspondence however are questioned by some critics.

Basil still retained considerable influence in Caesarea, and it is regarded as fairly probable that he had a hand in the election of the successor of Dianius who died in 362, after having been reconciled to Basil. In any case the new bishop, Eusebius, was practically placed in his office by the elder Gregory of Nazianzus. Eusebius having persuaded the reluctant Basil to be ordained priest, gave him a prominent place in the administration of the diocese (363). In ability for the management of affairs Basil so far eclipsed the bishop that ill-feeling rose between the two. "All the more eminent and wiser portion of the church was roused against the bishop" (Greg. Naz., Or. xliii; Ep. x), and to avoid trouble Basil again withdrew into the solitude of Pontus. A little later (365) when the attempt of Valens to impose Arianism on the clergy and the people necessitated the presence of a strong personality, Basil was restored to his former position, being reconciled to the bishop by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. There seems to have been no further disagreement between Eusebius and Basil and the latter soon became the real head of the diocese. "The one", says Gregory of Nazianzus (Or. xliii), "led the people the other led their leader". During the five years spent in this most important office, Basil gave evidence of being a man of very unusual powers. He laid down the law to the leading citizens and the imperial governors, settled disputes with wisdom and finality, assisted the spiritually needy, looked after "the support of the poor, the entertainment of strangers, the care of maidens, legislation written and unwritten for the monastic life, arrangements of prayers, (liturgy?), adornment of the sanctuary" (op. cit.). In time of famine, he was the saviour of the poor.

In 370 Basil succeeded to the See of Caesarea, being consecrated according to tradition on 14 June. Caesarea was then a powerful and wealthy city (Soz., Hist. Eccl., V, v). Its bishop was Metropolitan of Cappadocia and Exarch of Pontus which embraced more than half of Asia Minor and comprised eleven provinces. The see of Caesarea ranked with Ephesus immediately after the patriarchal sees in the councils, and the bishop was the superior of fifty chorepiscopi (Baert). Basil's actual influence, says Jackson (Prolegomena, XXXII) covered the whole stretch of country "from the Balkans to the Mediterranean and from the Aegean to the Euphrates". The need of a man like Basil in such a see as Caesarea was most pressing, and he must have known this well. Some think that he set about procuring his own election; others (e.g. Maran, Baronius, Ceillier) say that he made no attempt on his own behalf. In any event, he became Bishop of Caesarea largely by the influence of the elder Gregory of Nazianzus. His election, says the younger Gregory (loc. cit.), was followed by disaffection on the part of several suffragan bishops "on whose side were found the greatest scoundrels in the city". During his previous administration of the diocese Basil had so clearly defined his ideas of discipline and orthodoxy, that no one could doubt the direction and the vigour of his policy. St. Athanasius was greatly pleased at Basil's election (Ad Pallad., 953; Ad Joann. et Ant., 951); but the Arianizing Emperor Valens, displayed considerably annoyance and the defeated minority of bishops became consistently hostile to the new metropolitan. By years of tactful conduct, however, "blending his correction with consideration and his gentleness with firmness" (Greg. Naz., Or. xliii), he finally overcame most of his opponents.

Basil's letters tell the story of his tremendous and varied activity; how he worked for the exclusion of unfit candidates from the sacred ministry and the deliverance of the bishops from the temptation of simony; how he required exact discipline and the faithful observance of the canons from both laymen and clerics; how he rebuked the sinful, followed up the offending, and held out hope of pardon to the penitent. (Cf. Epp. xliv, xlv, and xlvi, the beautiful letter to a fallen virgin, as well as Epp. liii, liv, lv, clxxxviii, cxcix, ccxvii, and Ep. clxix, on the strange incident of Glycerius, whose story is well filled out by Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire, New York, 1893, p. 443 sqq.) If on the one hand he strenuously defended clerical rights and immunities (Ep. civ), on the other he trained his clergy so strictly that they grew famous as the type of all that a priest should be (Epp. cii, ciii). Basil did not confine his activity to diocesan affairs, but threw himself vigorously into the troublesome theological disputes then rending the unity of Christendom. He drew up a summary of the orthodox faith; he attacked by word of mouth the heretics near at hand and wrote tellingly against those afar. His correspondence shows that he paid visits, sent messages, gave interviews, instructed, reproved, rebuked, threatened, reproached, undertook the protection of nations, cities, individuals great and small. There was very little chance of opposing him successfully, for he was a cool, persistent, fearless fighter in defence both of doctrine and of principles. His bold stand against Valens parallels the meeting of Ambrose with Theodosius. The emperor was dumbfounded at the archbishop's calm indifference to his presence and his wishes. The incident, as narrated by Gregory of Nazianzus, not only tells much concerning Basil's character but throws a clear light on the type of Christian bishop with which the emperors had to deal and goes far to explain why Arianism, with little court behind it, could make so little impression on the ultimate history of Catholicism.

While assisting Eusebius in the care of his diocese, Basil had shown a marked interest in the poor and afflicted; that interest now displayed itself in the erection of a magnificent institution, the Ptochoptopheion, or Basileiad, a house for the care of friendless strangers, the medical treatment of the sick poor, and the industrial training of the unskilled. Built in the suburbs, it attained such importance as to become practically the centre of a new city with the name of he kaine polis or "Newtown". It was the motherhouse of like institutions erected in other dioceses and stood as a constant reminder to the rich of their privilege of spending wealth in a truly Christian way. It may be mentioned here that the social obligations of the wealthy were so plainly and forcibly preached by St. Basil that modern sociologists have ventured to claim him as one of their own, though with no more foundation than would exist in the case of any other consistent teacher of the principles of Catholic ethics. The truth is that St. Basil was a practical lover of Christian poverty, and even in his exalted position preserved that simplicity in food and clothing and that austerity of life for which he had been remarked at his first renunciation of the world.

In the midst of his labours, Basil underwent suffering of many kinds. Athanasius died in 373 and the elder Gregory in 374, both of them leaving gaps never to be filled. In 373 began the painful estrangement from Gregory of Nazianzus. Anthimus, Bishop of Tyana, became an open enemy, Apollinaris "a cause of sorrow to the churches" (Ep. cclxiii), Eustathius of Sebaste a traitor to the Faith and a personal foe as well. Eusebius of Samosata was banished, Gregory of Nyssa condemned and deposed. When Emperor Valentinian died and the Arians recovered their influence, all Basil's efforts must have seemed in vain. His health was breaking, the Goths were at the door of the empire, Antioch was in schism, Rome doubted his sincerity, the bishops refused to be brought together as he wished. "The notes of the church were obscured in his part of Christendom, and he had to fare on as best he might,--admiring, courting, yet coldly treated by the Latin world, desiring the friendship of Rome, yet wounded by her reserve,--suspected of heresy by Damasus, and accused by Jerome of pride" (Newman, The Church of the Fathers). Had he lived a little longer and attended the Council of Constantinople (381), he would have seen the death of its first president, his friend Meletius, and the forced resignation of its second, Gregory of Nazianzus. Basil died 1 January, 379. His death was regarded as a public bereavement; Jews, pagans, and foreigners vied with his own flock in doing him honour. The earlier Latin martyrologies (Hieronymian and Bede) make no mention of a feast of St. Basil. The first mention is by Usuard and Ado who place it on 14 June, the supposed date of Basil's consecration to the episcopate. In the Greek "Menaea" he is commemorated on 1 January, the day of his death. In 1081, John, Patriarch of Constantinople, in consequence of a vision, established a feast in common honour of St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom, to be celebrated on 30 January. The Bollandists give an account of the origin of this feast; they also record as worthy of note that no relics of St. Basil are mentioned before the twelfth century, at which time parts of his body, together with some other very extraordinary relics were reputed to have been brought to Bruges by a returning Crusader. Baronius (c. 1599) gave to the Naples Oratory a relic of St. Basil sent from Constantinople to the pope. The Bollandists and Baronius print descriptions of Basil's personal appearance and the former reproduce two icons, the older copied from a codex presented to Basil, Emperor of the East (877-886).

By common consent, Basil ranks among the greatest figures in church history and the rather extravagant panegyric by Gregory of Nazianzus has been all but equalled by a host of other eulogists. Physically delicate and occupying his exalted position but a few years, Basil did magnificent and enduring work in an age of more violent world convulsions than Christianity has since experienced. (Cf. Newman, The Church of the Fathers). By personal virtue he attained distinction in an age of saints; and his purity, his monastic fervour, his stern simplicity, his friendship for the poor became traditional in the history of Christian asceticism. In fact, the impress of his genius was stamped indelibly on the Oriental conception of religious life. In his hands the great metropolitan see of Caesarea took shape as the sort of model of the Christian diocese; there was hardly any detail of episcopal activity in which he failed to mark out guiding lines and to give splendid example. Not the least of his glories is the fact that toward the officials of the State he maintained that fearless dignity and independence which later history has shown to be an indispensable condition of healthy life in the Catholic episcopate.

Some difficulty has arisen out of the correspondence of St. Basil with the Roman See. That he was in communion with the Western bishops and that he wrote repeatedly to Rome asking that steps be taken to assist the Eastern Church in her struggle with schismatics and heretics is undoubted; but the disappointing result of his appeals drew from him certain words which require explanation. Evidently he was deeply chagrined that Pope Damasus on the one hand hesitated to condemn Marcellus and the Eustathians, and on the other preferred Paulinus to Meletius in whose right to the See of Antioch St. Basil most firmly believed. At the best it must be admitted that St. Basil criticized the pope freely in a private letter to Eusebius of Samosata (Ep. ccxxxix) and that he was indignant as well as hurt at the failure of his attempt to obtain help from the West. Later on, however, he must have recognized that in some respects he had been hasty; in any event, his strong emphasis of the influence which the Roman See could exercise over the Eastern bishops, and his abstaining from a charge of anything like usurpation are great facts that stand out obviously in the story of the disagreement. With regard to the question of his association with the Semi-Arians, Philostorgius speaks of him as championing the Semi-Arian cause, and Newman says he seems unavoidably to have Arianized the first thirty years of his life. The explanation of this, as well as of the disagreement with the Holy See, must be sought in a careful study of the times, with due reference to the unsettled and changeable condition of theological distinctions, the lack of anything like a final pronouncement by the Church's defining power, the "lingering imperfections of the Saints" (Newman), the substantial orthodoxy of many of the so-called Semi-Arians, and above all the great plan which Basil was steadily pursuing of effecting unity in a disturbed and divided Christendom.



Of the five books against Eunomius (c. 364) the last two are classed as spurious by some critics. The work assails the equivalent Arianism of Eunomius and defends the Divinity of the Three Persons of the Trinity; it is well summarized by Jackson (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, VIII). The work "De Spiritu Sancto", or treatise on the Holy Spirit (c. 375) was evoked in part by the Macedonian denial of the Divinity of the Third Person and in part by charges that Basil himself had "slurred over the Spirit" (Gregory Naz., Ep. lviii), that he had advocated communion with all such a should admit simply that the Holy Ghost was not a creature (Basil, Ep. cxiii), and that he had sanctioned the use of a novel doxology, namely, "Glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Ghost" (De Sp. S., I, i) The treatise teaches the doctrine of the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, while avoiding the phrase "God, the Holy Ghost" for prudential reasons (Greg. Naz., Or. xliii). Wuilcknis and Swete affirm the necessity of some such reticence on Basil's part. (Cf. Jackson, op. cit., p. XXIII, note.) With regard to Basil's teaching on the Third Person, as expressed in his work against Eunomius (III, i), a controversy arose at the Council of Florence between the Latins and the Greeks; but strong arguments both external and internal, availed to place Basil on the side of the "Filioque". The dogmatic writings were edited separately by Goldhorn, in his "S. Basilii Opera Dogmatica Selecta" (Leipzig, 1854). The "De Spiritu Sancto", was translated into English by Johnston (Oxford, 1892); by Lewis in the Christian Classic Series (1888); and by Jackson (op. cit.).


These include nine homilies "On the Hexaemeron" and thirteen (Maran) genuine homilies on particular Psalms. A lengthy commentary on the first sixteen chapters of Isaias is of doubtful authenticity (Jackson), though by a contemporary hand. A commentary on Job has disappeared. "The Hexaemeron" was highly admired by Gregory of Nazianzus (Or. xliii, no. 67). It is translated entire by Jackson (op. cit.). The homilies on the Psalms are moral and hortatory rather than strictly exegetical. In interpreting the Scripture, Basil uses both the literal and the allegorical methods, but favours the literal system of Antioch. His second homily contains a denunciation of usury which has become famous.


Twenty-four sermons, doctrinal, moral, and panegyrical in character, are looked upon as generally genuine, certain critical difficulties, however, remaining still unsolved. Eight of these sermons were translated into Latin by Rufinus. The discourses place Basil among the very greatest of Christian preachers and evince his special gift for preaching upon the responsibilities of wealth. The most noteworthy in the collection are the homilies on the rich (vi and vii) copied by St. Ambrose (De Nabuthe Jez., v, 21-24), and the homily (xxii) on the study of pagan literature. The latter was edited by Fremion (Paris, 1819, with French translation), Sommer (Paris, 1894), Bach (Münster, 1900), and Maloney (New York, 1901). With regard to Basil's style and his success as a preacher much has been written. (Cf. Villemain, "Tableau d'éloq. Chrét. au IVe siècle", Paris, 1891; Fialon, "Etude Litt. sur St. B.", Paris, 1861); Roux, "Etude sur la prédication de B. le Grand", Strasburg, 1867; Croiset, "Hist. de la litt. Grecque", Paris, 1899.)

Moral and Ascetical

This group contains much of spurious or doubtful origin. Probably authentic are the latter two of the three prefatory treatises, and the five treatises: "Morals", "On the Judgment of God", "On Faith", "The Longer Monastic Rules", "The Shorter Monastic Rules". The twenty-four sermons on morals are a a cento of extracts from the writings of Basil made by Simeon Metaphrastes. Concerning the authenticity of the Rules there has been a good deal of discussion. As is plain from these treatises and from the homilies that touch upon ascetical or moral subjects, St. Basil was particularly felicitous in the field of spiritual instruction.


The extant letters of Basil are 366 in number, two-thirds of them belonging to the period of his episcopate. The so-called "Canonical Epistles" have been assailed as spurious, but are almost surely genuine. The correspondence with Julian and with Libanius is probably apocryphal; the correspondence with Apollinarus is uncertain. All of the 366 letters are translated in the "Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers". Some of the letters are really dogmatic treatises, and others are apologetic replies to personal attacks. In general they are very useful for their revelation of the saint's character and for the pictures of his age which they offer.


A so-called "Liturgy of St. Basil" exists in Greek and in Coptic. It goes back at least to the sixth century, but its connexion with Basil has been a matter of critical discussion (Brightman, "Liturgies, Eastern and Western", Oxford, 1896, I; Probst, "Die Liturgie des vierten Jahrhunderts und deren Reform", Münster, 1893, 377-412).


The editio princeps of the original text of the extant works of Basil appeared at Basle, 1551, and the first complete Latin translation at Rome, 1515 (autograph manuscript in the British Museum). The best edition is that of the Maurist Benedictines, Garnier and Maran (Paris, 1721-30), republished with appendixes by Migne (P. G., XXIX-XXXII). For fragments attributed to Basil with more or less certainty, and edited by Matthaei, Mai, Pitra, and others, see Bardenhewer, "Patrologie" (Freiburg, 1901), 247. Portions of letters recently discovered in Egyptian papyri were published by H. Landwehr, "Grieschische Handschriften aus Fayûm", in "Philologus", XLIII (1884).

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
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