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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. VIII:
Prolegomena.: Education.

Early Church Fathers  Index     


The place most closely connected with St. Basil’s early years is neither Cæsarea nor Neocæsarea, but an insignificant village not far from the latter place, where he was brought up by his admirable grandmother Macrina. 21   In this neighbourhood his family had considerable property, and here he afterwards resided.  The estate was at Annesi on the river Iris (Jekil-Irmak), 22 and lay in the neighbourhood of scenery of romantic beauty.  Basil’s own description 23 of his retreat on the opposite side of the Iris matches the reference of Gregory of Nazianzus 24 to the narrow glen among lofty mountains, which keep it always in shadow and darkness, while far below the river foams and roars in its narrow precipitous bed.

There is some little difficulty in understanding the statement of Basil in Letter CCXVI., that the house of his brother Peter, which he visited in 375, and which we may assume to have been on the family property (cf. Letter CX. § 1) was “not far from Neocæsarea.”  As a matter of fact, the Iris nowhere winds nearer to Neocæsarea than at a distance of about twenty miles, and Turkhal is not at the nearest point.  But it is all a question of degree.  Relatively to Cæsarea, Basil’s usual place of residence, Annesi is near Neocæsarea.  An analogy would be found in the statement of a writer usually residing in London, that if he came to Sheffield he would be not far from Doncaster. 25

At Annesi his mother Emmelia erected a chapel in honour of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste to which their relics were translated.  It is possible that Basil was present at the p. xv dedication services, lasting all night long, which are related to have sent his brother Gregory to sleep. 26   Here, then, Basil was taught the rudiments of religion by his grandmother, 27 and by his father, 28 in accordance with the teaching of the great Gregory the Wonder-worker. 29   Here he learned the Catholic faith.

At an early age he seems to have been sent to school at Cæsarea, 30 and there to have formed the acquaintance of an Eusebius, otherwise unknown, 31 Hesychius, 32 and Gregory of Nazianzus, 33 and to have conceived a boyish admiration for Dianius the archbishop. 34

From Cæsarea Basil went to Constantinople, and there studied rhetoric and philosophy with success.  Socrates 35 and Sozomen 36 say that he worked at Antioch under Libanius.  It may be that both these writers have confounded Basil of Cæsarea with the Basil to whom Chrysostom dedicated his De Sacerdotio, and who was perhaps the bishop of Raphanea, who signed the creed of Constantinople. 37

There is no corroboration of a sojourn of Basil of Cæsarea at Antioch.  Libanius was at Constantinople in 347, 38 and there Basil may have attended his lectures. 39

From Constantinople the young Cappadocian student proceeded in 351 to Athens.  Of an university town of the 4th century we have a lively picture in the writings of his friend, 40 and are reminded that the rough horse-play of the modern undergraduate is a survival of a very ancient barbarism.  The lads were affiliated to certain fraternities, 41 and looked out for the arrival of every new student at the city, with the object of attaching him to the classes of this or that teacher.  Kinsmen were on the watch for kinsmen and acquaintances for acquaintances; sometimes it was mere good-humoured violence which secured the person of the freshman.  The first step in this grotesque matriculation was an entertainment; then the guest of the day was conducted with ceremonial procession through the agora to the entrance of the baths.  There they leaped round him with wild cries, and refused him admission.  At last an entry was forced with mock fury, and the neophyte was made free of the mysteries of the baths and of the lecture halls.  Gregory of Nazianzus, a student a little senior to Basil, succeeded in sparing him the ordeal of this initiation, and his dignity and sweetness of character seem to have secured him immunity from rough usage without loss of popularity. 42   At Athens the two young Cappadocians were noted among their contemporaries for three things:  their diligence and success in work; their stainless and devout life; and their close mutual affection.  Everything was common to them.  They were as one soul.  What formed the closest bond of union was their faith.  God and their love of what is best made them one. 43   Himerius, a pagan, and Prohæresius, an Armenian Christian, are mentioned among the well-known professors whose classes Basil attended. 44   Among early friendships, formed possibly during his university career, Basil’s own letters name those with Terentius 45 and Sophronius. 46

If the Libanian correspondence be accepted as genuine, we may add Celsus, a pupil of Libanius, to the group. 47   But if we except Basil’s affection for Gregory of Nazianzus, of none of these intimacies is the interest so great as of that which is recorded to have been formed between Basil and the young prince Julian. 48   One incident of the Athenian sojourn, which led to bitter consequences in after days, was the brief communication with Apollinarius, and the letter written “from layman to layman,” 49 which his opponents made a handle for much malevolence, and perhaps for forgery.  Julian arrived at Athens after the middle of the year 355. 50   Basil’s departure thence and return to Cæsarea may therefore p. xvi be approximately fixed early in 356. 51   Basil starts for his life’s work with the equipment of the most liberal education which the age could supply.  He has studied Greek literature, rhetoric, and philosophy under the most famous teachers.  He has been brought into contact with every class of mind.  His training has been no narrow hothouse forcing of theological opinion and ecclesiastical sentiment.  The world which he is to renounce, to confront, to influence is not a world unknown to him. 52   He has seen heathenism in all the autumn grace of its decline, and comes away victorious from seductions which were fatal to some young men of early Christian associations.  Athens no doubt contributed its share of influence to the apostasy of Julian.  Basil, happily, was found to be rooted more firmly in the faith. 53



Epp. cciv., ccx., ccxxiii.


Epp. iii., ccxxiii.  The researches of Prof. W. M. Ramsay enable the exact spot to be identified with approximate certainty, and, with his guidance, a pilgrim to the scenes of Basil’s boyhood and earlier monastic labours might feel himself on fairly sure ground.  He refers to the description of St. Basil’s hermitage given by Gregory of Nazianzus in his Ep. iv., a description which may be compared with that of Basil himself in Ep. xiv., as one which “can hardly refer to any other spot than the rocky glen below Turkhal.  Ibora,” in which the diocese Annesi was situated, “cannot be placed further down, because it is the frontier bishopric of Pontus towards Sebasteia, and further up there is no rocky glen until the territory of Comana is reached.  Gregory Nyssenus, in his treatise on baptism” (Migne, iii. 324 c.) “speaks of Comana as a neighbouring city.  Tillemont, thinking that the treatise was written at Nyssa, infers that Nyssa and Comana were near each other.  The truth is that Gregory must have written his treatise at Annesi.  We may therefore infer that the territory of Ibora adjoined that of Comana on the east and that of Sebasteia on the south, and touched the Iris from the boundary of Comana down to the point below Turkhal.  The boundary was probably near Tokat, and Ibora itself may have been actually situated near Turkhal.”  Prof. W. M. Ramsay, Hist. Geog. of Asia Minor, p. 326.


Ep. xiv.


Greg. Naz., Ep. iv.


On the visits to Peter, Prof. W. M. Ramsay writes:  “The first and more natural interpretation is that Peter lived at a place further up the Iris than Dazimon, in the direction of Neocæsarea.  But on more careful consideration it is obvious that, after the troubles in Dazimon, Basil went to take a holiday with his brother Peter, and therefore he did not necessarily continue his journey onward from Dazimon.  The expression of neighbourhood to the district of Neocæsarea is doubtless only comparative.  Basil’s usual residence was at Cæsarea.  Moreover, as Ibora has now been placed, its territory probably touched that of Neocæsarea.”  Hist. Geog. of A.M. p. 328.


Greg. Nyss., Orat. in xl. Mart.


Greg. Naz., Or. xliii.


Ep. ccxxiii.


See Ep. cciv. and note on p. 250.


i.e. the Cappadocian Cæsarea.  The theory of Tillemont that Cæsarea of Palestine was the scene of Basil’s early school life seems hardly to deserve the careful refutation of Maran (Vit. Bas. i. 5).  cf. Ep. xlv. p. 148, and p. 145, n.  cf. also note on p. 141 on a possible intercourse between the boy Basil and the young princes Gallus and Julian in their seclusion at Macellum.  The park and palace of Macellum (Amm. Marc. “fundus”) was near Mt. Argæus (Soz. v. 2) and close to Cæsarea.  If Basil and Julian did ever study the Bible together, it seems more probably that they should do so at Macellum, while the prince was still being educated as a Christian, than afterwards at Athens, when the residence at Nicomedia has resulted in the apostasy.  cf. Maran, Vit. Bas. ii. 4.


Ep. cclxxi.


Ep. lxiv.


Greg. Naz. Or. xliii.


Ep. li.


Ecc. Hist. iv. 26.


Ecc. Hist. vi. 17.


Maran, Vit. Bas. ii., Fabricius, Ed. Harles. vol. ix.


He does not seem to have been at Antioch until 353, D.C.B. iii. 710, when Basil was at Athens.


cf. the correspondence with Libanius, of which the genuineness has been questioned, in Letters cccxxxv.–ccclix.  Letter cccxxxix. suggests a possibility of some study of Hebrew.  But Basil always uses the LXX.


Greg. Naz., Or. xliii., and poem De Vita Sua.


φράτριαι.  Greg., De Vita Sua, 215.


A somewhat similar exemption is recorded of Dean Stanley at Rugby.


Greg. Naz., Or. xliii. 20, 21; Carm. xi. 221–235:

Ο δ᾽ εἰς ἔν ἡμᾶς διαφερόντως ἤγαγε

Τοῦτ ἦν θεός τε καὶ πόθος τῶν κρεισσόνων.

Ullman (Life of Greg.) quotes Cic., De Amicitia, xxv.:  “Amicitiæ vis est in eo ut unus quasi animus fiat ex pluribus.”


Soc. iv. 26 and Soz. vi. 17.


Ep. lxiv.


Ep. cclxxii.


Ep. cccvi.


Greg. Naz., Or. iv., Epp. xxxix., xl., xli., on the first of which see note.


Ep. ccxxiv. 2.


Amm. Mark 15:2, 8.  “Permissus” is no doubt an euphemism for “coactus.”


Non enim citius contigit anno 355 exeunte aut ineunte 356, si quidem ibi vidit Basilius Julianum, qui in hanc urbem venit jam media parte anni 355elapsa:  neque etiam serius, quia spatia inter studia litterarum et sacerdotium nimis contrahi non patitur rerum Basilii gestarum multitudo.”  Maran.


On the education of Basil, Eug. Fialon remarks (Etude Historique et Litteraire, p. 15):  “Saint Grégoire, sur le trône patriarcal de Constantinople, déclarait ne pas savoir la langue de Rome.  Il en fut de même de Saint Basile.  Du moins, c’est vainement qu’on chercherait dans ses ouvrages quelque trace des poètes ou des prosateurs Latins.  Si des passages de l’Hexaméron semblent tirés de Cicéron ou de Pline, il ne faut pas s’y méprendre.  C’étaint de sortes de lieux cammuns qui se retrouvent dans Plutarque et dans Élien-ceux-ci les avaient empruntés à quelque vieil auteur, Aristotle, par exemple, et c’est à cette source première qu’avaient puisé Grecs et Latins.  Les Grecs poussaient même si loin l’ignorance du ayant à dire comment le mot ciel s’exprime en Latin, l’écrit a peu pres comme il devait l’entendre prononcer aux Romains, Κέλουμ, sans se préoccuper de la quantité ni de l’etymologie…La littérature Grecque était donc le fonds unique des études en Orient, et certes elle pouvait, à elle seule, satisfaire de nobles intelligences…C’est dans Homère que les jeunes Grecs apprenaient à lire.  Pendant tout le cours de leurs études, ils expliquaient ses poèmes…Ses vers remplissent la correspondances des pères de l’Eglise, et plus d’une comparaison profane passe de ses poèmes dans leurs homélies.  Après Homère, venaient Hésiode et les tragiques Hérodote et Thucydide, Démosthène, Isocrate, et Lysias.  Ainsi poètes, historiens, orateurs, formaient l’esprit, dirigeaient le cœur, élevaient l’âme des enfants.  Mais ces auteurs étaient les coryphées du paganisme, et plus d’une passage de leur livres blessait la morale sévère du christianisme.  Nul doute qu’un maitre religieux, un saint, comme le père de Basile, á propos des dieux d’Homére,…dût plus d’une fois déplorer l’aveuglement d’un si beau génie.…Jusqu’ici, les études de Basile repondent à peu près á notre instruction secondaire.  Alors, comme aujourd’hui ces première études n’etaient qu’un acheminement à des travaux plus serieux.  Muni de ce premier bagage littéraire, un jeune homme rich, et que voulait briller dans le monde, allait dans les grands centres, à Antioche, à Alexandrie, à Constantinople, et surtout à Athènes, ètudier l’éloquence et la philosophie.”


cf. C. Ullman, Life of Gregory of Naz. chap. ii., and Greg. Naz., Or. xliii. 21.  βλαβεραὶ μὲν τοῖς ἄλλοις Αθῆναι ατ εἰς ψυχήν.

Next: Life at Cæsarea; Baptism; and Adoption of Monastic Life.

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