Basi'lius or Basil the Great or St. Basil
2. Bishop of CAESAREIA in Cappadocia, commonly called Basil the Great, was born A. D. 329, of a noble Christian family which had long been settled at Caesareia, and some members of which had suffered in the Maximinian persecution. His father, also named Basil, was an eminent advocate and teacher of rhetoric at Caesareia: his mother's name was Emmelia.
He was brought up in the principles of the Christian faith partly by his parents, but chiefly by his grandmother, Macrina, who resided at Neocaesareia in Pontus, and had been a hearer of Gregory Thaumaturgus, bishop of that city. His education was continued at Caesareia in Cappadocia, and then at Constantinople. Here, according to some accounts, or, according to others, at Antioch, he studied under Libanius.
The statements of ancient writers on this matter are confused; but we learn from a correspondence between Libanius and Basil, that they were acquainted when Basil was a young man.
The genuineness of these letters has been doubted by Gamier, but on insufficient grounds. From Constantinople he proceeded to Athens, where he studied for four years (351-355 A. D.), chiefly under the sophists Himerius and Proaeresius. Among his fellow-students were the emperor Julian and Gregory Nazianzen.
The latter, who was also a native of Cappadocia, and had been Basil's schoolfellow, now became, and remained throughout life, his most intimate friend.
It is said, that he persuaded Basil to remain at Athens when the latter was about to leave the place in disgust, and that the attachment and piety of the two friends became the talk of all the city. Basil's success in study was so great, that even before he reached Athens his fame had preceded him; and in the schools of that city he was surpassed by no one, if we may believe his friend Gregory, in rhetoric, philosophy, and science.
At the end of 355, he returned to Caesareia in Cappadocia, where he began to plead causes with great success.
He soon, however, abandoned his profession, in order to devote himself to a religious life, having been urged to this course by the persuasions and example of his sister Macrina.
The more he studied the Bible the more did he become convinced of the excellence of a life of poverty and seclusion from the world. About the year 357, he made a journey through Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, in order to become acquainted with the monastic life as practised in those countries. On his return from this journey (358), he retired to a mountain on the banks of the river Iris, near Neocaesareia, and there lived as a recluse for thirteen years. On the opposite bank of the river was a small estate belonging to his family, where his mother and sister, with some chosen companions, lived in religious seclusion from the world. Basil assembled round him a company of monks, and was soon joined by his friend Gregory. Their time was spent in manual labour, in the religious exercises of singing, prayer, and watching, and more especially in the study of the Scriptures, with the comments of Christian writers. Their favourite writer appears to have been Origen, from whose works they collected a body of extracts under the title of Philocalia
). Basil also composed a code of regulations for the monastic life.
He wrote many letters of advice and consolation, and made journeys through Pontus for the purpose of extending monasticism, which owed its establishment in central Asia mainly to his exertions.
In the year 359, Basil was associated with his namesake of Ancyra and Eustathius of Sebaste in an embassy to Constantinople, in order to gain the emperor's confirmation of the decrees of the synod of Seleuceia, by which the Homoiousians had condemned the Anomoians; but he took only a silent part in the embassy.
He had before this time, but how long we do not know, been appointed reader in the church at Caesareia by the bishop Dianius, and he had also received deacon's orders from Meletius, bishop of Antioch.
In the following year (360) Basil withdrew from Caesareia and returned to his monastery, because Dianius had subscribed the Arian confession of the synod of Ariminum. Here (361) he received a letter from the emperor Julian, containing an invitation to court, which Basil refused on account of the emperor's apostacy. Other letters followed; and it is probable that Basil would have suffered martyrdom had it not been for Julian's sudden death.
In the following year (362), Dianius, on his death bed, recalled Basil to Caesareia, and his successor Eusebius ordained him as a presbyter; but shortly afterwards (364), Eusebius deposed him, for some unknown reason. Basil retired once more to the wilderness, accompanied by Gregory Nazianzen. Encouraged by this division, the Arians, who had acquired new strength from the accession of Valens, commenced an attack on the church at Caesareia. Basil had been their chief opponent there, having written a work against Eunomius; and now his loss was so severely felt, that Eusebius, availing himself of the mediation of Gregory Nazianzen, recalled Basil to Caesareia, and, being himself but little of a theologian, entrusted to him almost the entire management of ecclesiastical affairs. (365.) Basil's learning and eloquence, his zeal for the Catholic faith, and, above all, his conduct in a famine which happened in Cappadocia (367, 368), when he devoted his whole fortune to relieve the sufferers, gained him such general popularity, that upon the death of Eusebius, in the year 370, he was chosen in his place bishop of Caesareia.
In virtue of this office, he became also metropolitan of Caesareia and exarch of Pontus.
He still retained his monastic habit and his ascetic mode of life.
The chief features of his administration were his care for the poor, for whom he built houses at Caesareia and the other cities in his province; his restoration of church discipline; his strictness in examining candidates for orders; his efforts for church union both in the East and West; his defence of his authority against Anthimus of Tyana, whose see was raised to a second metropolis of Cappadocia by Valens; and his defence of orthodoxy against the powerful Arian and Semi-Arian bishops in his neighbourhood, and against Modestus, the prefect of Cappadocia, and the emperor Valens himself.
He died on the 1st of January, 379 A. D., worn out by his ascetic life, and was buried at Caesareia. His epitaph by Gregory Nazianzen is still extant.
The following are the chief works of Basil the Great:
- 1. Εἰς τὴν ἑξαήμερον, Nine Homilies on the Six Days' Work.
- 2. XVII. Homilies on the Psalms.
- 3. XXXI. Homilies on various subjects.
- 4. Two Books on Baptism.
- 5. On true Virginity.
- 6. Commentary (ἑρμηνεία or ἐξήγησις) on the first XVI. chapters of Isaiah.
- 7. Ἀντιρρητικὸς τοῦ ἀπολογητικοῦ τοῦ δυσσεβοῦς Εὐνομιοῦ, An Answer to the Apology of the Arian Eunomius.
- 8. Περὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος, a Treatise on the Holy Spirit, addressed to Eunomius: its genuineness is doubted by Garnier.
- 9. Ἀσκητικά, ascetic writings. Under this title are included his work on Christian Morals (ἠθικά), his monastic rules, and several other treatises and sermons.
- 10. Letters.
- 11. A Liturgy.
His minor works and those falsely ascribed to him are enumerated by Fabricius and Cave.
The first complete edition of Basil's works was published at Basel in 1551
;the most complete is that by Gamier, 3 vols. fol. Paris, 1721-1730
Gregor. Nazian. Orat. in Laud. Basilii M.;
Gregor. Nyss. Vit. S. Macrinae;
Garnier, Vita S. Basilii;
Socrates, H. E.
4.26; Sozomen, H. E.
6.17; Rufinus, H. E.
11.9; Suidas, s. v. Βασίλειος