Athana'sius or St. Athana'sius
), ST., archbishop of Alexandria, was born in that city, a few years before the close of the third century.
The date of his birth cannot be ascertained with exactness ; but it is assigned by Montfaucon, on grounds sufficiently probable, to A. D. 296. No particulars are recorded of the lineage or the parents of Athanasius.
The dawn of his character and genius seems to have given fair promise of his subsequent eminence; for Alexander, then primate of Egypt, brought him up in his own family, and superintended his education with the view of dedicating him to the Christian ministry. We have no account of the studies pursued by Athanasius in his youth, except the vague statement of Gregory Nazianzen, that he devoted comparatively little attention to general literature, but acquired an extraordinary knowledge of the Scriptures. His early proficiency in Biblical knowledge is credible enough; but though he was much inferior in general learning to such men as Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and Eusebius, his Oration against the Greeks, itself a juvenile performance, evinces no contemptible acquaintance with the literature of heathen mythology. While a young man, Athanasius frequently visited the celebrated hermit St. Antony, of whom he eventually became the biographer; and this early acquaintance laid the foundation of a friendship which was interrupted only by the death of the aged recluse. [ANTONIUS, ST.] At what age Athanasius was ordained a deacon is nowhere stated; but he was young both in years and in office when he vigorously supported Alexander in maintaining the orthodox faith against the earliest assaults of the Arians.
He was still only a deacon when appointed a member of the famous council of Nice (A. D. 325), in which he distinguished himself as an able opponent of the Arian doctrine, and assisted in drawing up the creed that takes its name from that assembly.
In the following year Alexander died; and Athanasius, whom he had strongly recommended as his successor, was raised to the vacant see of Alexandria, the voice of the people as well as the suffrages of the ecclesiastics being decisively in his favour.
The manner in which he discharged the duties of his new office was highly exemplary; but he had not long enjoyed his elevation, before he encountered the commencement of that long series of trials which darkened the eventful remainder of his life. About the year 331, Arius, who had been banished by Constantine after the condemnation of his doctrine by the council of Nice, made a professed submission to the Catholic faith, which satisfied the emperor; and shortly after, Athanasius received an imperial order to admit the heresiarch once more into the church of Alexandria.
The archbishop had the courage to disobey, and justified his conduct in a letter which seems, at the time, to have been satisfactory to Constantine. Soon after this, complaints were lodged against Athanasius by certain enemies of his, belonging to the obscure sect of the Meletians. One of the charges involved nothing short of high treason. Others related to acts of sacrilege alleged to have been committed in a church where a priest named Ischyras or Ischyrion officiated.
It was averred that Macarius, a priest acting under the orders of Athanasius, had forcibly entered this church while Ischyras was performing divine service, had broken one of the consecrated chalices, overturned the communion-table, burned the sacred books, demolished the pulpit, and razed the edifice to its foundations. Athanasius made his defence before the emperor in person, and was honourably acquitted.
With regard to the pretended acts of sacrilege, it was proved that Ischyras had never received regular orders; that, in consequence of his unduly assuming the priestly office, Athanasius in one of his episcopal visitations had sent Macarius and another ecclesiastic to inquire into the matter; that these had found Ischyras ill in bed, and had contented themselves with advising his father to dissuade him from all such irregularities for the future. Ischyras himself afterwards confessed with tears the groundlessness of the charges preferred against Macarius; and gave Athanasius a written disavowal of them, signed by six priests and seven deacons. Notwithstanding these proofs of the primate's innocence, his enemies renewed their attack in an aggravated form; accusing Athanasius himself of the acts previously imputed to Macarius, and charging him moreover with the murder of Arsenius, bishop of Hypselis in Upper Egypt. To give colour to this latter accusation Arsenius absconded, and lay concealed for a considerable time.
The emperor before whom the charges were laid, already knew that those relating to Ischyras were utterly unfounded.
He referred it to his brother Dalmatius, the Censor, to inquire into the alleged murder of Arsenius. Dalmatius wrote to Athanasius, commanding him to prepare his defence.
The primate was at first inclined to leave so monstrous a calumny to its own fate; but finding that the anger of the emperor had been excited against him, he instituted an active search after Arsenius, and in the end learned that he had been discovered and identified at Tyre. The Arians meanwhile had urged the convention of a council at Caesareia, for the purpose of inquiring into the crimes imputed to Athanasius.
But he, unwilling to trust his cause to such a tribunal, sent to the emperor a full account of the exposure of the pretended homicide. On this, Constantine ordered Dalmatius to stay all proceedings against Athanasius, and commanded the Arian bishops, instead of holding their intended synod at Caesareia, to return home.
Undeterred by this failure, the enemies of Athanasius, two years after, prevailed upon Constantine to summon a council at Tyre, in which they repeated the old accusations concerning Ischyras and Arsenius, and urged new matter of crimination.
The pretended sacrilege in the church of Ischyras was disproved by the bishops who were present from Egypt.
The murder of Arsenius was satisfactorily disposed of by producing the man himself alive and well, in the midst of the council.
The adversaries of the primate succeeded, however, in appointing a commission to visit Egypt and take cognizance of the matters laid to his charge.
The proceedings of this commission are described by Athanasius as having been in the highest degree corrupt, iniquitous, and disorderly. On the return of the commissioners to Tyre, whence Athanasius had meanwhile withdrawn, the council deposed him from his office, interdicted him from visiting Alexandria, and sent copies of his sentence to all the bishops in the Christian world, forbidding them to receive him into their communion. On a calm review of all the proceedings in this case, it seems impossible to doubt that the condemnation of Athanasius was flagrantly unjust, and was entirely provoked by his uncompromising opposition to the tenets of the Arians, who had secured a majority in the council. Undismayed by the triumph of his enemies, the deposed archbishop returned to Tyre, and presenting himself before Constantine as he was entering the city, entreated the emperor to do him justice. His prayer was so far granted as that his accusers were summoned to confront him in the imperial presence. On this, they abandoned their previous grounds of attack, and accused him of having threatened to prevent the exportation of corn from Alexandria to Constantinople.
It would seem that the emperor was peculiarly sensitive on this point; for, notwithstanding the intrinsic improbability of the charge, and the earnest denials of Athanasius, the good prelate was banished by Constantine to Gaul.
It is not unlikely that, when the heat of his indignation had subsided, Constantine felt the sentence to be too rigorous; for he prohibited the filling up of the vacant see, and declared that his motive in banishing the primate was to remove him from the machinations of his enemies. 1
Athanasius went to Treves (A. D. 336), where he was not only received with kindness by Maximinus, the bishop of that city, but loaded with favours by Constantine the Younger. The Alexandrians petitioned the emperor to restore their spiritual father, and Antony the hermit joined in the request; but the appeal was unsuccessful.
In the year 337, Constantine died.
In the following year, Athanasius was replaced in his see by Constantine II.
He was received by the clergy and the people with the liveliest demonstrations of joy.
But he had scarcely resumed the dignities and duties of his office, when the persevering hostility of his Arian opponents began to disturb him afresh. They succeeded in prejudicing the mind of Constantius against him, and in a council held at Antioch proceeded to the length of appointing Pistus archbishop of Alexandria. To counteract their movements, Athanasius convoked a council at Alexandria, in which a document was prepared setting forth the wrongs committed by the adverse party, and vindicating the character of the Egyptian primate. Both parties submitted their statements to Julius, the bishop of Rome, who signified his intention of bringing them together, in order that the case might be thoroughly investigated. To this proposition Athanasius assented. The Arians refused to comply.
In the year 340, Constantine the Younger was slain; and in him Athanasius seems to have lost a powerful and zealous friend.
In the very next year, the Arian bishops convened a council at Antioch, in which they condemned Athanasius for resuming his office while the sentence of deposition pronounced by the council of Tyre was still unrepealed. They accused him of disorderly and violent proceedings on his return to Alexandria, and even revived the old exploded stories about the broken chalice and the murder of Arsenius. They concluded by appointing Eusebius Emisenus to the archbishopric of Alexandria; and when he declined the dubious honour, Gregory of Cappadocia was advanced in his stead.
The new primate entered on his office (A. D. 341) amidst scenes of atrocious violence. The Christian population of Alexandria were loud in their complaints against the removal of Athanasius; and Philagrius the prefect of Egypt, who had been sent with Gregory to establish him in his new office, let loose against them a crowd of ferocious assailants, who committed the most frightful excesses. Athanasius fled to Rome, and addressed to the bishops of every Christian church an energetic epistle, in which he details the cruel injuries inflicted upon himself and his people, and entreats the aid of all his brethren. At Rome he was honourably received by Julius, who despatched messengers to the ecclesiastical opponents of Athanasius, summoning them to a council to be held in the imperial city. Apparently in dread of exposure and condemnation, they refused to comply with the summons. When the council met (A. D. 342), Athanasius was heard in his own vindication, and honourably restored to the communion of the church.
A synodical letter was addressed by the council to the Arian clergy, severely reproving them for their disobedience to the summons of Julius and their unrighteous conduct to the church of Alexandria.
In the year 347, a council was held at Sardica, at which the Arians at first designed to attend. They insisted, however, that Athanasius and all whom they had condemned should be excluded.
As it was the great object of this council to decide upon the merits of that very case, the proposition was of course resisted, and the Arians left the assembly.
The council, after due investigation, affirmed the innocence of those whom the Arians had deposed, restored them to their offices, and condemned their adversaries. Synodical epistles, exhibiting the decrees of the council, were duly prepared and issued. Delegates were sent to the emperor Constantius at Antioch, to notify the decision of the council of Sardica; and they were also entrusted with a letter from Constans to his brother, in which the cause of the orthodox clergy was strongly recommended. At Antioch an infamous plot was laid to blast the reputation of the delegates. Its detection seems to have wrought powerfully upon the mind of Constantius, who had previously supported the Arians; for he recalled those of the orthodox whom he had banished, and sent letters to Alexandria forbidding any further molestation to be offered to the friends of Athanasius.
In the following year (A. D. 349), Gregory was murdered at Alexandria; but of the occasion and manner of his death no particulars have reached us.
It prepared the way for the return of Athanasius.
He was urged to this by Constantius himself, whom he visited on his way to Alexandria, and on whom he made, for the time, a very favourable impression.
He was once more received at Alexandria with overflowing signs of gladness and affection. Restored to his see, he immediately proceeded against the Arians with great vigour, and they, on their side, renewed against him the charges which had been so often disproved. Constans, the friend of Athanasius, was now dead; and though Constantius, at this juncture, professed great friendliness for the primate, he soon attached himself once more to the Arian party.
In a council held at Arles (A. D. 353), and another at Milan (A. D. 355), they succeeded by great exertions in procuring the condemnation of Athanasius. On the latter occasion, the whole weight of the imperial authority was thrown into the scale against him; and those of the bishops who resolutely vindicated his cause were punished with exile. Among these (though his banishment occurred some time after the synod of Milan had closed) was Liberius, bishop of Rome. Persecution was widely directed against those who sided with Athanasius; and he himself, after some abortive attempts to remove him in a more quiet manner, was obliged once more to flee from Alexandria in the midst of dreadful atrocities committed by Syrianus, a creature of the emperor's.
The primate retired to the Egyptian deserts, whence he wrote a pastoral address to his persecuted flock, to comfort and strengthen them amidst their trials. His enemies meanwhile had appointed to the vacant primacy one George of Cappadocia, an illiterate man, whose moral character was far from blameless.
The new archbishop commenced a ruthless persecution against the orthodox, which seems to have continued, with greater or less severity, during the whole of his ecclesiastical administration.
The banished primate was affectionately entertained in the monastic retreats which had already begun to multiply in the deserts of Egypt; and he employed his leisure in composing some of his principal works. His place of retreat was diligently sought for by his enemies; but, through his own activity and the unswerving fidelity of his friends, the monks, the search was always unsuccessful.
In the year 361, Constantius, the great patron of the Arians, expired.
He was succeeded by Julian, commonly called the Apostate, who, at the commencement of his reign, ordered the restoration of the bishops banished by Constantius.
This was rendered the easier in the case of Athanasius, inasmuch as George the Cappadocian was slain, at that very juncture, in a tumult raised by the heathen population of the city. Once more reinstated in his office, amidst the joyful acclamations of his friends, Athanasius behaved with lenity towards his humbled opponents, while he vigorously addressed himself to the restoration of ecclesiastical order and sound doctrine.
But, after all his reverses, he was again to be driven from his charge, and again to return to it in triumph.
The heathens of Alexandria complained against him to the emperor, for no other reason, it would seem, than his successful zeal in extending the Christian faith. Julian was probably aware that the superstition he was bent upon re-establishing had no enemy more formidable than the thrice-exiled archbishop: he therefore banished him not only from Alexandria, but from Egypt itself, threatening the prefect of that country with a heavy fine if the sentence were not carried into execution. Theodoret, indeed, affirms, that Julian gave secret orders for inflicting the last penalties of the law upon the hated prelate.
He escaped, however, to the desert (A. D. 362), having predicted that this calamity would be but of brief duration; and after a few months' concealment in the monasteries, he returned to Alexandria on receiving intelligence of the death of Julian.
By Jovian, who succeeded to the throne of the empire, Athanasius was held in high esteem. When, therefore, his inveterate enemies endeavoured to persuade the emperor to depose him, they were repeatedly repulsed, and that with no little asperity.
The speedy demise of Jovian again deprived Athanasius of a powerful protector. During the first three years of the administration of Valens, the orthodox party seem to have been exempt from annoyance.
In this interval Athanasius wrote the life of St. Antony, and two treatises on the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the year 367, Valens issued an edict for the deposition and banishment of all those bishops who had returned to their sees at the death of Constantius.
After a delay occasioned by the importunate prayers of the people on behalf of their beloved teacher, Athanasius was for the fifth time expelled from Alexandria. His last exile, however, was short.
In the space of a few months, he was recalled by Valens himself, for reasons which it is now impossible to penetrate; and from this time to the date of his death, A. D. 373, he seems to have remained unmolested.
He continued to discharge the laborious duties of his office with unabated energy to the last; and after holding the primacy for a term of forty-six years, during which he sustained unexampled reverses with heroic fortitude, and prosecuted the great purpose of his life with singular sagacity and resolution, he died without a blemish upon his name, full of years and covered with honour.
The following eulogium was extorted by his merits from the pen of an historian who seldom lavishes praise upon ancient or modern defenders of orthodoxy :--" Amidst the storms of persecution, the Archbishop of Alexandria was patient of labour, jealous of fame, careless of safety; and though his mind was tainted by the contagion of fanaticism, Athanasius displayed a superiority of character and abilities, which would have qualified him, far better than the degenerate sons of Constantine, for the government of a great monarchy. His learning was much less profound and extensive than that of Eusebius of Caesarea, and his rude eloquence could not be compared with the polished oratory of Gregory or Basil; but whenever the primate of Egypt was called upon to justify his sentiments or his conduct, his unpremeditated style, either of speaking or writing, was clear, forcible, and persuasive." (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, &c.
ch. xxi. vol. iii. pp. 351, 352, Milman's edition.) Erasmus's opinion of the style of Athanasius seems to us more just and discriminating than Gibbon's :--" Erat vir ille saeculo tranquillissimo dignus, dedisset nobis egregios ingenii facundiaeque suae fructus. Habebat enim vere dotem illam, quam Paulus in Episcopo putat esse prae-cipuaimi, τὸ διδακτικόν
; adeo dilucidus est, acutus, sobrius, adtentus, breviter omnibus modis ad docendum appositus. Nihil habet durumn, quod offendit in Tertulliano : nihil ὲπιδεικτικόν
, quod vidimus in Hieronymo; nihil operosum, quod in Hilario: nihil laciniosum, quod est in Augustino, atque etiam Chrysostomo: nihil Isocraticos numeros, aut Lysiae compositionem redolens, quod est in Gregorio Nazianzeno : sed totus est in explicanda re."
The most important among the works of Athanasius are the following:--
Oratio contra Gentes; Oratio de Incarnatione ; Encyclica ad Episcopos Epistola ; Apologia contra Arianos ; Epistola de Nicaenis Decretis; Epistola ad Episcopos Aegypti et Libyae ; Apologia ad Imperatorem Constantium ; Apologia de Fuga sua ; Historia Arianorum ad Monachos ; Orationes quatuor contra Arianos ; Epistolae quatuor ad Serapionem ; Epistola de Synodis Arimini et Seleuciae ; Vita Antonii ; Liber de Incarnatione Dei Verbi et c. Arianos.
The earliest edition of the collected works of Athanasius appeared, in two volumes, folio, at Heidelberg, ex officina Commeliniana, A. D. 1600. The Greek text was accompanied by the Latin version of Peter Nanning (Nannius); and in the following year an appendix issued from the same press, containing notes, various readings, indices, &c., by Peter Felckmann.
Those who purchase this edition should take care that their copies contain the appendix. The Paris edition of 1627
, and the Leipzig of 1686
(which professes, but untruly, to have been published at Cologne), are not held in much estimation; and the latter is very inaccurately printed. The valuable Benedictine edition of Athanasius was published at Paris, A. D. 1698, in three volumes, folio.
The learned editor, Montfaucon, was at first assisted in preparing it by James Loppinus; but his coadjutor dying when no more than half of the first volume was finished, the honour of completing the edition devolved upon Montfaucon. Many of the opuscula of Athanasius were printed, for the first time, in the second volume of Montfaucon's " Collectio Nova Patrum et Scriptorum Graecorum," Paris, A. D. 1706. The most complete edition of the works of Athanasius is that published at Padua, A. D. 1777, in four volumes, folio. The first three volumes contain all that is comprised in the valuable Benedictine edition of 1698
; the last includes the supplementary collections of Montfaucon
, and Antonelli
The following list includes the principal English translations from the works of Athanasius :--" St. Athanasius's Four Orations against the Arians ; and his Oration against the Gentiles. Translated from the original Greek by Mr. Sam. Parker." Oxford, 1713. Athanasius's intire Treatise of the Incarnation of the Word, and of his bodily appearance to us, translated into English by W. Whiston, in his " Collection of ancient Monuments relating to the Trinity and Incarnation," London, 1713. The same collection also contains a translation of Athanasius's Life of Antony the Monk, which was first published in 1687.
The Epistles of Athanasius in defence of the Nicene definition, and on the Councils of Ariminum and Seleuceia, together with his first Oration against the Arians, have been recently translated, with notes, by the Rev. J. H. Newman, Oxford, 1842. The other three Orations, translated by the same writer, are shortly to appear; and other works of Athanasius on the Arian controversy are advertised as preparing for publication.
For a complete list of the genuine, doubtful, and supposititious works of Athanasius, see Fabricius, Bibl. Graeca,
vol. viii. pp. 184-215, ed. Harles.
The most important of his genuine writings are those (both historical and doctrinal) which relate to the Arian controversy.
It is hardly necessary to observe that the creed commonly called Athanasian was not composed by the archbishop of Alexandria. (See Gerardi Vossii, Dissertatio de Symbolo Athanasiano,
Opp. vol. vi. pp. 516-522; W. E. Tentzelii, Judicia eruditorumn de symbolo Athanasiano.
) It has been ascribed to Vigilius of Tapsus, Vincent of Lerins, Hilary of Poictiers, and others; but its real author is unknown. The " Synopsis Sacrae Scripturae," which is included in the writings of this eminent father, has no claim to be considered his; though, in itself, it is a valuable relic of antiquity.
The chief sources of information respecting the life of Athanasius are found in his own writings ; next to these, in the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret.
The materials afforded by these and other writers have been collected, examined, and digested with great learning and fidelity by Montfaucon, in his " Vita Sancti Athanasii," prefixed to the Benedictine edition of the works of this father, and by Tillemont, in his Memoires pour servir à l'Histoire Ecclésiastique, vol. viii., Paris edition of 1713.