1902 Encyclopedia > Basil the Great (St Basil)

Basil the Great
(also known as: St Basil)
Cappadocian father of the Christian church

(c. 329 - 379)

BASIL THE GREAT, an eminent ecclesiastic in the 4th century. He was a leader in the Arian controversy, a distinguished theologian, a liturgical reformer; and his letters to his friends, especially those to Gregory of Nazianzus, give a great amount of information about the stirring period in which he lived. Basil came of a somewhat famous family, which gave a number of distinguished supporters to the church of the 4th century. His eldest sister, Macrina, was celebrated for her saintly life; his second brother was the famous Gregory of Nyssa; his youngest was Peter, bishop of Sebaste; and his eldest brother was the famous Christian jurist Naucratius. It has been observed that there was in the whole family a tendency to ecstatic emotion and enthusiastic piety. Basil was born about 330, at Cassarea in Cappadocia. While he was still a child, the family removed to Pontus; but he soon returned to Cappadocia to live with his mother's relations, and seems to have been brought up by his grandmother Macrina. It was at Cassarea that he became acquainted with his life-long friend Gregory of Nazianzus, and it was there that he began that interesting correspondence to which reference has been made. Basil did not from the first devote himself to the church. He went to Constantinople in pursuit of learning, and spent four or five years there and at Athens. It was while at Athens that he seriously began to think of the church, and resolved to seek out the most famous hermit saints in Syria and Arabia, in order to learn from them how to attain to that enthusiastic piety in which he delighted, and how to keep his body under by maceration and other ascetic devices. After this we find him at the head of a convent near Arnesi in Pontus, in which his mother Emmilia, now a widow, his sister Macrina, and several other ladies, gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works. He was not ordained presbyter until 365, and his ordination was probably the result of the entreaties of his ecclesiastical superiors, who wished to use his talents against the Arians, who were numerous in that part of the country, and were favoured by the Arian emperor, who then reigned in Constantinople. In 370 Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him. It was then that his great powers were called into action. Caesarea was an important diocese, and its bishop was, ex officio, exarch of the great diocese of Pontus. Basil was threatened with confiscation of property, banishment, and even death, if he did not relax his regulations against the Arians ; but he refused to yield, and in the end triumphed. He died in 379. The principal theological writings of Basil are his De Spiritu Sancti and his three books against Eunomius. He was a famous preacher, and we possess at least seventeen homilies by him on the Psalms and on Isaiah His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the Liturgy (the Liturgy of the Holy Basil), and the reformation of the monastic orders of the East, (Cf. the Benedictine editions of the works of Basil the Great.)

The name BASIL also belongs to several distinguished churchmen besides Basil the Great. (1.) Basil, bishop of Ancyra (336-360), a semi-Arian, highly favoured by the Emperor Constantine, and a great polemical writer; none of his works are extant. (2.) Basil of Seleucia (fl. 448-458), a bishop who shifted sides continually in the Eutychian controversy, and who wrote extensively; his works were published in Paris in 1622. (3.) Basil of Ancyra, fl. 787; he opposed image worship at the second council of Nicasa, but afterwards retracted. (4.) Basil, the founder of a sect of mystics who appeared in the Greek Church in the 12th century (cf. Anna Comnena, Alexiad, bk. 15).

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries