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Basil of Caesarea

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Anna SilvasAnna Silvas, Andrea SterkAndrea Sterk

Basil of Caesarea (adc.330–378) 

Also called Basil the Great. Bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia 370–8, one of the three ‘Cappadocian fathers’ and the first Christian to be venerated as a saint without being a martyr.

Early life

Basil’s early life was dominated by three formative influences: family, education, and ascetic pursuits. He was born into a wealthy family of Pontus in Anatolia, the second child and first son of Christian parents whose own Christian heritage went back to the 3rd century. Their piety, according to Basil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus, was especially marked by care for the poor, hospitality to strangers, austere living, and dedication of their goods to God. Basil’s mother, Emmelia, was from Cappadocia, and his maternal great-grandfather died in the persecutions under Decius. His father, Basil the Elder, was a rhetorician and advocate in Neocaesarea, metropolis of Pontus Polemoniacus. His paternal grandmother, Macrina the Elder, had been taught by disciples of Gregory Thaumaturgus (the Wonderworker), the great apostle of Cappadocia and Pontus who had been a pupil of Origen and became Bishop of Neocaesarea around ad 240. Basil increasingly identified his family with the theological tradition of Gregory the Wonderworker. Basil’s eight siblings included his younger brothers, Gregory of Nyssa and Peter II of Sebaste, both of whom became bishops; and Macrina the Younger, who spearheaded the family’s zeal for the ascetic life. There were other ascetic heroes too: the second-born son, Naucratius, and a younger sister, Theosebia. From his family Basil inherited aristocratic standing; Hellenic rhetorical culture; a moderate Origenism, probably mediated through Gregory the Wonderworker; a devotion to the cult of the martyrs; and the witness of Christian domestic piety in which women were often the leaders.

After his father died c.344, Basil continued his education first in Caesarea, then in Constantinople, where he studied briefly under Libanius, and finally in Athens, where he studied for almost six years under Himerius and Proaeresius, among others. During this period he established a lifelong friendship with his Cappadocian colleague Gregory of Nazianzus. Basil’s education in Athens, alongside the religious instruction of his youth, would have had a moral as well as intellectual aim. His training in philosophy and rhetoric equipped him later to write his Address to Young Men, advising Christians on how to cull the most from the traditional educational curriculum.

Basil left Athens for his homeland in 356 and taught rhetoric briefly in Caesarea. Yet he had come under the influence of the ascetic pioneer Eustathius of Sebasteia, whose inspiration in part led Basil to take a year-long tour of the ascetic communities of the eastern provinces—Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Upon his return from these travels he withdrew to a secluded family estate, possibly at Anisa, possibly located across the river from where his mother and sister Macrina had already established an ascetic household. There he studied the Bible more intensively, and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus joined him for a time in his ascetic routine and study of biblical and spiritual texts. Together they compiled the Philocalia, a selection of lengthy passages from the writings of Origen. Basil also attracted others, mostly disciples of Eustathius; and he visited nearby communities of Eustathian inspiration and responded to questions posed by the brothers. Eustathius himself, who had been elected Bishop of Sebasteia c.358, was a frequent visitor.

Ecclesiastical career

Basil moved into more public ministry around 360 and was thereafter involved in both theological controversies and ecclesiastical politics. He was ordained a reader around 360 by Bishop Dianius of Caesarea in Cappadocia and ordained a priest by Dianius’ successor Eusebius in 362. In 360, he left his rural retreat to attend a synod in Constantinople, only to find that those with whom he had allied himself theologically, Basil of Ancyra and Eustathius of Sebasteia, were deposed by the victorious Homoeans. Basil then withdrew from the city and returned to his ascetic retreat. He became despondent at the state of the contemporary Church. In seeking answers, his life and thinking matured in three interrelated areas: asceticism, theological engagement, and ecclesiastical leadership.

Basil’s ideas about ascetic life developed over time. He spent 363–5 touring ascetics in Pontus, persuading them to forsake freelance enthusiasm and accept the disciplined, obedient, and communal life. Basil’s ascetic thought finds its fullest expression in his Asceticon, better known as the Long Rules and the Short Rules. The corpus was composed in stages, first during his years in Pontus, and then in Caesarea, where Basil served as priest from 365 and as bishop upon the death of Eusebius in 370. Despite their common title, the Rules of S. Basil were actually responses to the questions of the faithful. They were not strictly ‘monastic’ since Basil believed the principles of ascetic life were applicable to all baptized Christians. The Rules exalted coenobitic or communal asceticism over the anchoritic life and emphasized moderation in the practice of ascetic disciplines. Basil presented asceticism as a life of obedience to the commands of Christ expressed in scripture and service to God through liturgical and private prayer, charity, and manual labour.

As both priest and bishop in Caesarea Basil inevitably became involved in the theological controversies of his day. He made his first foray into Trinitarian theology with the Contra Eunomium. Countering the verbose rationalism of Eunomius, Basil expounded the incomprehensibility of the divine substance to the human intellect, the limitations of language, and the imperative of great humility in approaching the divine mystery. He insisted on a simple attachment to the decisions of the Council of Nicaea, though he argued for the divinity of the Spirit as well, both in Contra Eunomium and in his later De Spiritu Sancto. In concert with the other Cappadocian fathers he emphasized the individuality of the Persons as well as the divine Unity of the Trinity, an understanding of this doctrine that was eventually incorporated into the wording of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed adopted in 381. Basil allied himself above all with the moderate Nicenes in the circle of Meletius, the exiled Bishop of Antioch, whom he faithfully supported. At the same time, by 374 he had fully broken with his former friend and mentor, Eustathius of Sebasteia, because of the latter’s shift towards Arianism.

Basil was increasingly involved in ecclesiastical and political affairs on the world stage, from nearby Neocaesarea to Armenia, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. Each of these cities represented groups of supporters or antagonists, adherents or opponents to aspects of his own theology. His letters illumine much about the state of the Church in this phase of the Arian conflict. They also reveal Basil’s own attempted negotiations with bishops, his personal loyalties, and his strained relationships with relatives and friends.

While negotiating theological conflicts he was also occupied with philanthropic endeavours. His response to the great famine that struck Cappadocia in 369 reveals both his pastoral and administrative gifts. In a series of sermons concerned with social justice, he trenchantly challenged the luxurious way of life of prosperous Christians, advocating self-divestment in succour of the poor as a gospel imperative. He sold some of his own inheritance and procured funds from the rich to help weather the crisis. On the outskirts of Caesarea he founded the Basileias, a complex of monastery, hospital, workshops, and hostels for the poor and the aged. Basil also made monastic life a social as well as a spiritual force. His social service programme became a model for Byzantine philanthropy in subsequent centuries. His care for the poor and sick in his own day drew the admiration and financial support of the Arian Emperor Valens, who visited Caesarea in 372. The emperor apparently respected the bishop’s organizational abilities and entrusted him with the task of settling church affairs in Armenia.

Basil’s sermons, always elegant and often humorous, show him to have been a dedicated pastor, a social critic, and a serious biblical exegete. They combined a moderate allegorical and typological exegesis with frequent reference to the city and Church of his day and consistently connected spiritual ideals with social and economic realities. His Hexaemeron, homilies on the six days of creation, were among his greatest achievements. In these late sermons he aimed to present a complete cosmology, interpreting the text of the Bible in the light of contemporary philosophy and science as well as the classical tradition. At the same time he addressed both the individual Christian and the community, summarizing many themes of his earlier writings. His Hexaemeron also influenced Ambrose’s work of the same name.

Basil took pains over the liturgy, articulating for the first time the full range of canonical hours. He revised and amplified an Antiochian anaphora into what became known as the Liturgy of S. Basil. In the liturgical iconography of the Eastern Church, his image belongs in the apse, opposite S. John Chrysostom. Together with Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus, he is honoured by Eastern Orthodox Christians as one of the three hierarchs of the faith. Basil died in September 378, while the promotion of his feast day on 1 January was the project of his brother Gregory of Nyssa.

Anna Silvas; Andrea Sterk


Works (CPG 2835–907): PG 30–2, reprinting Maran-Garnier (1721–30).

Ad Adulescentes (PG 31.563–90): ed. (with FT) Fernand Boulenger (1952).Find this resource:

    ET N. G. Wilson, Saint Basil on the Value of Greek Literature (1975).Find this resource:

      Text with ET R. J. Deferrari, Saint Basil, The Letters, 4: 379–435 (LCL 270).Find this resource:

        Ascetica: Long Rules

        Long Rules = Regulae Fusius Tractatae (CPG 2875; PG 31.889–1052).

        Short Rules = Regulae Brevius Tractatae (PG 31.1080–1306).

        ET W. K. Clarke, The Ascetic Works of Saint Basil (1925) andFind this resource:

          M. M. Wagner, Basil of Caesarea, Ascetical Works (FC 9, 1950).Find this resource:

            Contra Eunomium (CPG 2837; PG 29.497–670): ed. (with FT) S. B. Sesboüé (SC 299, 305; 1982, 1983).Find this resource:

              ET M. DelCogliano and A. Radde-Gallwitz, Against Eunomius (FC 122, 2011).Find this resource:

                De Spiritu Sancto (CPG 2839; PG 32.67–218): ed. B. Pruche (SC 17bis, 21968).Find this resource:

                  ET B. Jackson, rev. D. Anderson, St. Basil the Great on the Holy Spirit (1980).Find this resource:

                    Hexaemeron (CPG 2835): ed. (with FT) S. Giet (SC 26bis, 21968).Find this resource:

                      ET A. C. Way, Saint Basil, Exegetic Homilies, 3–150 (FC 46, 1963).Find this resource:

                        Epistulae (CPG 2900; PG 32.219–1112): ed. (with FT) Y. Courtonne, 3 vols. (1957, 1961, 1967).Find this resource:

                          Text (with ET) R. J. Deferrari, The Letters, 4 vols. (LCL 190, 215, 243, 270, 1926–34).Find this resource:

                            Homilia (PG 29.209–494; 31.163–8, 1429–1514): ET [homilies on the Psalms] A. C. Way, Saint Basil, Exegetic Homilies.

                            Moralia (CPG 2877; PG 31.700B–869C): ET Clarke, The Ascetic Works of Saint Basil, 100–31 (1925).Find this resource:

                              Philocalia (with Gregory of Nazianzus) ed. J. Armitage Robinson, The Philocalia of Origen (1893).Find this resource:

                                ET G. Lewis, The Philocalia of Origen (1911).Find this resource:

                                  On the mss. and text of Basil: see P. J. Fedwick, Bibliotheca Basiliana Vniuersalis: A Study of the Manuscript Tradition, Translations and Editions of the Works by Basil of Caesarea, 5 vols. in 8 (Corpus Christianorum, 1993–2004).Find this resource:

                                    Other ancient sources

                                    Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 43 (BHG 245); ET ed. L. P. McCauley, Funeral Orations by Saint Gregory Nazianzen and Saint Ambrose (FC 22, 1953), 119–56.Find this resource:

                                      Gregory of Nyssa, On his Brother Basil (BHG 244), ed. O. Lendle, GNO 10/1; 53 (1990); ed. (annotated with FT and introd.) O. Lendle and P. Maraval (SC 573, 2014).Find this resource:

                                        ET (with comm.) J. A. Stein, Encomium of Saint Gregory Bishop of Nyssa on His Brother Saint Basil Archbishop of Caesarea (CUA Patristic Studies 17, 1928).Find this resource:


                                          B. Daley, SJ, ‘Building a New City: The Cappadocian Fathers and the Rhetoric of Philanthropy’, JECS 7/3 (1999), 431–61.Find this resource:

                                            M. DelCogliano, Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names: Christian Theology and Late-Antique Philosophy in the Fourth Century Trinitarian Controversy (2010).Find this resource:

                                              P. J. Fedwick, Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic, A Sixteen-Hundredth Anniversary Symposium, 2 vols. (1981).Find this resource:

                                                P. J. Fedwick, The Church and the Charisma of Leadership in Basil of Caesarea (Studies and Texts 45, 1979).Find this resource:

                                                  J. Gribomont, Saint Basile: Évangile et église. Mélanges, 2 vols. (Spiritualité orientale et vie monastique 36–7, 1984).Find this resource:

                                                    S. M. Hilderbrand, The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea: A Synthesis of Greek Thought and Biblical Truth (2009).Find this resource:

                                                      S. R Holman, The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (2001).Find this resource:

                                                        R. Pouchet, Basile le Grand et son univers d’amis d’après sa correspondance: une stratégie de communion (Studia Ephememeridis Augustinianum 36, 1992).Find this resource:

                                                          J.-R. Pouchet, ‘La Date de l’élection épiscopale de Saint Basile et celle de sa mort’, RevHistEccl 87 (1992), 5–33.Find this resource:

                                                            A. Radde-Gallwitz, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity (2009).Find this resource:

                                                              P. Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (TCH 20, 1994).Find this resource:

                                                                A. Silvas, The Asketikon of St. Basil the Great (2005).Find this resource:

                                                                  A. Sterk, Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity (2004).Find this resource:

                                                                    R. Van Dam, Becoming Christian: The Conversion of Roman Cappadocia (2003).Find this resource:

                                                                      R. Van Dam, Family and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia (2003).Find this resource: