Anto'nius, St. or Anto'nius Abbas
4. sometimes surnamed Abbas, because he is believed to have been the founder of the monastic life among the early Christians, was born in A. D. 251, at Coma, near Heracleia, in Middle Egypt. His earliest years were spent in seclusion, and the Greek language, which then every person of education used to acquire, remained unknown to him.
He merely spoke and wrote the Egyptian language.
At the age of nineteen, after having lost both his parents, he distributed his large property among his neighbours and the poor, and determined to live in solitary seclusion in the neighbourhood of his birthplace.
The struggle before he fully overcame the desires of the flesh is said to have been immense; but at length he succeeded, and the simple diet which he adopted, combined with manual labour, strengthened his health so much, that he lived to the age of 105 years. In A. D. 285 he withdrew to the mountains of eastern Egypt, where he took up his abode in a decayed castle or tower. Here he spent twenty years in solitude, and in constant struggles with the evil spirit.
It was not till A. D. 305, that his friends prevailed upon him to return to the world.
He now began his active and public career.
A number of disciples gathered around him, and his preaching, together with the many miraculous cures he was said to perform on the sick, spread his fame all over Egypt.
The number of persons anxious to learn from him and to follow his mode of life increased every year. Of such persons he made two settlements, one in the mountains of eastern Egypt, and another near the town of Arsinoe, and he himself usually spent his time in one of these monasteries, if we may call them so. From the accounts of St. Athanasius in his life of Antonius, it is clear that most of the essential points of a monastic life were observed in these establishments. During the persecution of the Christians in the reign of the emperor Maximian, A. D. 311, Antonius, anxious to gain the palm of a martyr, went to Alexandria, but all his efforts and his opposition to the commands of the government were of no avail, and he was obliged to return uninjured to his solitude.
As his peace began to be more and more disturbed by the number of visitors, he withdrew further east to a mountain which is called mount St. Antonius to this day; but he nevertheless frequently visited the towns of Egypt, and formed an intimate friendship with Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. During the exile of the latter from Alexandria, Antonius wrote several letters on his behalf to the emperor Constantine.
The emperor did not grant his request, but shewed great esteem for the Egyptian hermit, and even invited him to Constantinople. Antonius, however, declined this invitation. His attempts to use his authority against the Arians in Egypt were treated with contempt by their leaders.
After the restoration of Athanasius, Antonius at the age of 104 years went to Alexandria to see his friend once more, and to exert his last powers against the Arians. His journey thither resembled a triumphal procession, every one wishing to catch a glimpse of the great Saint and to obtain his blessing.
After having wrought sundry miracles at Alexandria, he returned to his mountains, where he died on the 17th of January, 356.
At his express desire his favourite disciples buried his body in the earth and kept the spot secret, in order that his tomb might not be profaned by vulgar superstition.
This request, together with the sentiments expressed in his sermons, epistles, and sentences still extant, shew that Antonius was far above the majority of religious enthusiasts and fanatics of those times, and a more sensible man than he appears in the much interpolated biography by St. Athanasius.
We have twenty epistles which go by the name of Antonius, but only seven of them are generally considered genuine. About A. D. 800 they were translated from the Egyptian into Arabic, and from the Arabic they were translated into Latin.
The Latin version was published by Abraham Ecchellensis, Paris, 1641, 8vo. The same editor published in 1646, at Paris, an 8vo. volume containing various sermons, exhortations, and sentences of Antonius.
S. Athanasii, Vita S. Antonii, Gr. et Lat.
ed. Hoeschel, Augustae Vindel. 1611, 4to.; Socrat. Hist. Eccles.
1.21, 4.23, 25; Sozom. Hist. Eccles.
1.3, 2.31, 34; comp. Cave, Script. Eccl. Hist. Lit.
i. p. 150, &c.